In retrospect, it could be argued that the noughties were a “golden age” for terrestrial television drama, particularly on the BBC. Doctor Who, Merlin and Torchwood are titles that could spring to mind if a survey asked viewers what were the most memorable dramas of the decade. However, in the background was the omnipresent cop drama that still held retinas to the screen.
Every once and a while this format will need shaking up. This is where Life on Mars comes in. A concept knocked around by co-creators Mathew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh since the late 1990’s, where a modern policeman found himself as a fish out of water in the1970’s. Whilst also contending with different attitudes to policing. The general reaction was that the idea looked propitious. Eventually, the project found a sympathiser with Doctor Who co-executive producer Julie Gardener, then eventually the BBC head of drama.
The characters in Life on Mars
While the ambiguity of protagonist Sam Tyler’s mortal status is one of the main tentpoles of the show. The other is the dynamic between Tyler’s moral character (played by John Simm), and the swashbuckling sheriff of the parish, Gene Hunt (played by Phillip Glenister).
The chemistry between the 2 leads is insatiable from the off. This is never more perfectly articulated than when attitudes from the differing era’s collide, as every time Glenister’s character goes off on an offence ridden rant Simm’s character is able to immediately bat back with dismay to excellent effect. Not many cop shows can one liner’s , but in one scene where a hate crime is described the indignant response of “As a pose to one of those, I really like you sort of murders” doesn’t fail to deliver to smirk upon re-watches.
The programmes title is derived from the titular David Bowie song (played at the beginning and at the climactic finale of the series), the soundtrack itself does not disappoint. As it is littered with the glam rock hits of the time, thankfully still intact in its current streaming form. The incidental music produced by composer Edmund Butt is also beautifully woven into the background. Establishing shots of terraced Manchester are orchestrated by a melancholic series of piano notes, but not to distract the viewer from the action at hand.
The episodes themselves pop with a zest for life absent from the shady lighting of modern cop drama. Episodes warranting high praise are the first series fourth and fifth episodes. The fourth sets out to test the already fragile relationship between the lead protagonists by exploring the ethical implications of Hunt and the team being “on the take” with a local crime boss. The fifth is set around the impact of football tribalism in Manchester. The monologue Sam Tyler makes to an arrested hooligan should be mandatory viewing for those wishing to rekindle footballs hooligan past. Unfortunately, the show consists of only 2 series’. A third series would have given greater opportunity to build upon the malevolent supernatural strands that were beginning to emerge, as well as giving us more time with Sam and the Gene Genie.
In conclusion, Life on Mars is a fantastic television drama. It is a testament to its quality that the phrase “rip-off Life on Mars” is not in circulation when discussing other programmes. The only bone of contention is that there isn’t more.
Target Audience: Ages 15+
Content: Infrequent strong language, mild violence
Overall Rating: 8.5/10
For more information visit: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0478942/