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70s’ Sci-Fi Cop Drama Remains Formulaic But Fantastic — ‘Life On Mars’ Series 2 (TV Retrospective)

3 min read
Life on Mars season 2

After eight top-class episodes in series 1, returned for its second and final series, rounding out Sam Tyler's journey with a very neat 16 episode run. This series follows much the same pattern as the first, with “case of the week” stories blending in sci-fi elements as Sam struggles to return back to 2006. Though in many ways as impressive as its predecessor with memorable individual episodes, lovable characters, and a brilliant overarching narrative, it was clear Life on Mars was beginning to become formulaic.

Sam Tyler () is still stuck in 1973, working as a detective for the Greater Manchester Police. His relationship with Chief Inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) remains fraught as the pair lock horns over their opposite policing styles. However, it is clear a begrudging mutual respect is also blossoming. As Sam gets closer to Gene and DC Annie Cartwright (Liz White), he finds that his time in the 70s may finally be over, as forces beyond his control are bringing him home.

Following the extremely high bar set by series 1, Life on Mars series 2 features equally compelling individual episodes. Once again leveraging its historical setting, Life on Mars series 2 has stand out episodes that focus on the threat of the IRA as well as highlighting the immense racism faced by Black police officers. The latter episode finds Sam horrified to see how his former mentor was treated in the past; another well-placed piece of social commentary that is timeless in its message of rejecting bigotry.

Gene and Sam series 2

However, the sci-fi elements had begun to run a little thin by this point. While the individual episodes were almost all memorable and unique, the framing device of Sam being stuck in the past was not; there were only so many times the test card girl could be scary, after all.

Both series 1 and 2 have the added benefit of featuring some of the best music of the period. From The Who's “Baba O'Riley” to Wings' “Live and Let Die” to Elton John's “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Life on Mars takes full advantage of the vast quantities of absolute bangers churned out by one of the UK's best decades for rock and pop music. Of course, this is capped off with more than a few tunes by Bowie, and “Life on Mars?” itself is used quite brilliantly; all at once a musical gut punch, terrifying vision, and triumphant victory theme.

From a character point of view Life on Mars series 2 moved from strength to strength. The unlikely friendship between Sam and Gene grew stronger as their mutual respect developed despite their antithetical personalities. Sam's romance with Annie also evolved at a slow, organic pace. Both relationships made Sam's inevitable attempt to return home all the more heart-breaking in the stellar final episode; the absolute highlight of the entire series.

Sam and Annie series 2 Life on Mars

Life on Mars is most famous for its final five minutes which must remain unspoiled to fully appreciate their jaw-dropping impact. Indeed, its ending remains one of the most iconic in TV history. However, were it not for a stunningly consistent fifteen preceding episodes investing the viewer in the lives of Annie, Gene, and Sam, it wouldn't have been nearly so effective.

Though Life on Mars series 2 isn't quite as perfect as its predecessor as it began to sink into formulaic territory, no episode is without an interest hook. Life on Mars remains one of those unique pieces of television that achieves everything it sets out to and never overstays its welcome. While its sequel, Ashes to Ashes, quickly became repetitive and lacked uniquely memorable individual cases, taken on its own merit, Life on Mars remains one of the finest pieces of British television ever put to screen. Watch this space for the reported third revival series. Heaven knows how Sam, Gene, and Annie could convincingly return, but with the original production team at the helm you'll certainly want to tune your old box TV set to channel 3 and head back to the past for another nostalgic romp.