What would you get if you crossed the sci-fi elements of Doctor Who with a gritty 70s cop drama and added just a sprinkling of LOST's intriguing mysteries? That's what the creators of Life on Mars must've asked themselves back in 2006, before the BBC commissioned their bizarre idea. The series pulled a healthy viewership in with its fantastical elements, but it was its devotion to its period setting of 1973, exceptional soundtrack, and small cast of impactful characters that made Life on Mars one of the tightest British dramas of the 2000s.
Sam Tyler (played by John Simm) is Detective Chief Inspector of Greater Manchester Police in 2006. His world is turned upside down after a car accident seemingly puts him in a coma, kills him, or sends him back in time; even he isn't sure which is true. What he does know is that he has woken up in 1973 wearing a classic leather jacket and an ID badge that tells him he's an Detective Inspector on secondment from Hyde.
His progressive, modern attitude to policing (and the world in general) puts him at immediate odds with his new DCI, Gene Hunt (played to perfection by Philip Glenister); a rough, streetwise copper embodying every toxically masculine trait of the stereotypical 1970s “tough guy.”
While the overarching story revolves around Sam receiving brief visions of his world, each episode follows a self-contained case, often revolving around issues pertinent to Manchester in the 70s: from union strikes to football riots. Sam's future knowledge and modern demeanour positions him as the ultimate audience avatar. We feel just as alien as he is, making the red bricked walls of Manchester as foreign as the red planet itself.
Yet, despite showing how isolating trying to live amongst the values, technology, and culture of just thirty years earlier can be, the use of some of the best music the period has to offer always keeps Life on Mars cocooned in a layer of familiar warmness. Though things may seem strange and different for Sam and the viewer, there's always the iconic tunes of Bowie, T Rex, Pink Floyd and so many more to make us feel at home.
The show's premise is both creative and enticing, blending British nostalgia with a healthy dose of the odd. Whether an episode ends in a jubilant victory or crushing defeat, it's almost always undercut by a reminder that Sam doesn't belong. This is frequently personified by a ghostly apparition of the “test card” girl and her horribly creepy clown doll; an image familiar to anyone who grew up with the strict broadcasting timetables of early British broadcasters.
These scenes are particularly effective for keeping the viewer on their toes as they inject a touch of horror into this cocktail of genres, catching both Sam and the audience off guard when both are at their most invested in the case of the week. The filmmakers have licence to throw caution to the wind in terms of the mise-en-scene in such scenes, and distorted sound, unnerving lighting, and Edmund Butt's mysterious orchestral score all fire on all cylinders.
Yet, despite Life on Mars' fresh episode structure and culturally interesting cases of the week, it would be nothing without a cast of exceptional characters. While Dean Andrews' Ray Carling and Marshall Lancaster's supporting plods, Chris and Ray, would be developed in the sequel series Ashes to Ashes, they're a tad undercooked here. Fortunately, all is forgiven thanks to the trifecta of excellence: Sam, Gene, and Annie Cartwright (played by Liz White). Simm's Sam is the perfect everyman; flawed, dry, and with that most relatable mission of wanting to go home. While he's far from humorous, his utter contempt for his situation (and Hunt) leads to numerous comedic moments that add to the series' mixing bowl of dissonant ingredients that somehow make something tasty.
Meanwhile, Gene is introduced as Sam's most ardent antagonist, and Glenister's performance is initially defined by sweaty brawls and bulldog facial expressions. Yet, as the first series moves through its eight episodes, his dark past, biting wit, and humanity start to emerge. What is ultimately revealed is a character who ends Life on Mars as so much a cultural icon he was promoted to the lead in the sequel series. Annie is similarly deceptively deep. She begins the series as little more than a love interest to Sam. Yet, she gradually evolves into not only Sam's conscience, but a stark reminder of the sexism endured by women in the workplace not only then but to this very day.
All in all, Life on Mars starts off with a bang. Its surprisingly honest look back at a turbulent time in British history is supported by a compelling sci-fi hook, cracking one-liners, and three lead characters that you can't take your eyes off.