Manchester Police Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Sam Tyler (John Simm) is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973. By all indications— the papers on him and in a car near where he awakens, his clothing, statements from others, etc.— he’s a denizen of 1973, Detective Inspector (DI) Sam Tyler, recently transferred from Hyde.
For Sam, who finds himself working with DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), Detective Sergeant (DS) Ray Carling (Dean Andrews), Detective Constable (DC) Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) and Woman Police Constable (WPC, later DC) Annie Cartwright (Liz White), 1973 might as well be another planet.
Life on Mars ran for two seasons of eight episodes each; and the creators made a deliberate decision to end it at that point.
“Maybe to go out on a high is not the worst thing in the world,” co-creator Ashley Pharoah said in “The End of Life on Mars” documentary on the DVDs.
Co-creator Matthew Graham added that they knew how the series would end and that he was worried about stretching it out.
John Simm agreed that you should leave the audience wanting more.
In the opening narration, Sam rhetorically asks, “am I mad, in a coma or back in time?” Throughout the series, context clues point in each of those directions.
It would seem unlikely that Sam’s a 1973 resident gone mad, since we first see him in the actual 2006, not that year as someone from 1973 might have imagined it. Plus, he references things that no one in 1973 would have known about, including mobile phones, the theatrical version of The Fugitive and Robocop.
Suggestions that Sam might be in a coma come from his hearing the occasional voice talking to or about him over the radio or his seeing people on TV turn to the camera and speak to him.
The fact that the world of 1973 has more detail— and consistent detail at that— than anyone could dream up suggests that he has, in fact, traveled back in time.
As Sam tries to figure out the reason he’s in 1973 (or appears to be), he continues to function as a police officer, albeit one step down in rank from his 2006 position. He struggles not only to adjust to a department where modern investigative techniques either haven’t been adopted or don’t yet exist, but also to get his co-workers (especially Gene) to embrace things like tape recording interviews with suspects, forensic science and conducting investigations more with one’s mind than with one’s fists.
He butts heads with both Gene and Ray (Gene’s protégé), but he and Gene do come to learn something from the other. Chris and Annie also embrace some of Sam’s ideas regarding police work. Sam also is instrumental in getting Annie promoted, though she still faces a great deal of chauvinism from her fellow officers.
Annie is also the only one to whom Sam tells his tale of being from 2006. She doesn’t believe she’s just a figment of his imagination, of course.
In the opening narration, Sam speculates that if he can work out the reason he’s in 1973, he can get home. In the final episode, he’s reached a conclusion as to whether he’s mad, in a coma or back in time, which leads to his taking certain steps to resolve his dilemma. Steps that could have significant consequences for the others.
That episode had a few surprises, but I suspect a lot of viewers never expected anything like the final scene. In “The End of Life on Mars” documentary, Executive Producer Claire Parker explained that they’d chosen that ending as a nod to the fact that Life on Mars wasn’t an ordinary series.
“Just when you think you know what’s going on, something else will hopefully surprise you and make you smile,” she said. “And that’s hopefully what we did with the end of the series.”
Life on Mars also offers a subtle commentary about our own times.
“Everybody’s in their own insular world, even when [Sam’s] on the bridge and everybody’s on the phone,” director S.J. Clarkson said in the documentary, regarding a particular 2006 scene. “And when he’s sitting down in the courtyard, everybody’s walking past him. Nobody’s paying him any attention. Which is so different from the world we’d created in 1973.”
Her comment doesn’t just apply to the fictional Manchester of a TV series. Look around next time you’re out and about. Chances are you’ll see people paying more attention to a small, rectangular plastic device in their hands than to those around them. In many ways, the world of 1973 might as well be another planet compared to today, but at least back then people interacted with each other face-to-face.
Not only is Life on Mars peppered with David Bowie songs (including that one), but it also contains several references to The Wizard of Oz. These include Gene calling Sam “Dorothy” several times and making a specific reference to the Wizard. There’s also a character called Frank Morgan, the name of the actor who played the Wizard in the 1939 movie.
A 17-episode U.S. version aired in 2008 and was set in New York. It also had a different ending. Which is fine, because it was its own thing and didn’t need to emulate its British counterpart in every way.
Two bits of irony regarding Life on Mars: First, in the fifth episode of the first season Annie asks Sam, “no more funny stuff? You know, the whole time travel, out of body experience thing?” He replies, “I’ve been to see Dr. Who, and he prescribed me some pills.” The irony? John Simm would subsequently be cast as the Master in Doctor Who.
Irony the second? Sam was named for Rose Tyler, companion to the Doctor’s ninth and tenth incarnations. When the original surname of Williams was rejected, Graham asked his daughter for her input regarding a new last name. She suggested “Tyler.” He later learned she’d chosen it because she liked Rose Tyler from Doctor Who.
Life On Mars is a well-written and well-acted series that would make a good addition to anyone’s home DVD library.
Copyright 2014 Patrick Keating