‘I had an accident, and I woke up thirty-three years in the past. Now that either makes me a time-traveller, or a lunatic, or I’m lying in a hospital bed in 2006 and none of this is real.‘
In the vastly populated genre of police procedurals, this intriguing premise helps set Life On Mars apart from the competition. Like fellow British drama Luther, Life On Mars strength lies in its fusion of the genres. Its police procedural element provides each episode with structure, while the use of science fiction and psychological drama shapes the content, and the series overall arc.
‘Episode 1’ introduces us to the unusual predicament of DCI Sam Tyler (John Simm), the modern day cop displaced thirty-three years into the past. The leader of a Manchester Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 2006, following his accident Sam wakes to find himself in 1973 with the title of Detective Inspector. As he tries to comprehend his situation, Sam must contend with the alien world of 1973 and its very different standards of policing. Pedantic and driven, he believes in by-the-letter policing, the accumulation of evidence and the use of modern methods (including forensics) to solve a case.
Sam’s work ethic widely contrasts against that of his new boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Gene finds Sam’s modern methods strange, at odds with his own intuitive ones, which rely more on gut instinct then strategy or procedure. Life On Mars original press release describes Gene as ‘arrogant, sexist, insensitive, brutal, lazy, boozy, impatient and corrupt’. Yet despite all these attributes, most of which are on display in his ‘Episode 1’ introduction, Gene is a likable character who genuinely wants to do his job (albeit in a 9-to-5 style capacity, accomodating his ‘beer o’clock’ schedule). His corrupt behaviour is generally in service of the law, his use of threats and excessive force all a part of his brand of policing.
Gene’s views are shared by his loyal colleague, DS Ray Carling (Dean Andrews). A sexist and narrow-minded officer, Ray believes Sam’s presence is disruptive to the balance of the department. His dislike for Sam begins early in their association. In comparison, Ray’s partner, DC Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster), is intrigued by Sam’s modern way of thinking. ‘Episode 1’ shows the beginning of his and Sam’s protégée/mentor relationship, as Sam enlists Chris’s help in cross-referencing suspect’s names. Cheeky and clumsy, Chris often provides light-hearted relief to the more serious situations of the series, a role displayed several times in the pilot.
Sam’s potential love interest comes in the form of WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White). Intelligent and amiable, Annie quickly develops a rapport with Sam, who shows her a respect lacking from her other colleagues. ‘Episode 1’ depicts the beginning of their relationship, as Sam tells Annie the truth of his predicament. She believes his accident has left him with psychological trauma.
The level of sexism in the 70s police force is one of several aspects of Life On Mars which attracted criticism upon the programs original broadcast. Detractors also commented on cruder methods of the force, including the absence of fingerprinting technology and forensic evidence. Yet it is these aspects that help create the contrast between Sam’s two worlds, the past and the present, and his feelings of being on another planet. They also play into the concept of Life On Mars – is Sam really in the past or is it all in his mind?
‘Episode 1’ launches this conundrum and establishes the general formula of the series, the overlap of past and present. Before his accident Sam was hunting for a murderer. Back in 1973 he finds himself investigating a case with eerie similarities to his present day one, and realises the murderer has ‘killed before’. Using his knowledge of the future crime Sam sets about tracking down the killer.
At the same time, he begins experiencing strange phenomena which connects him with his life in the present. This includes a character on television discussing his medical condition and the sounds of medical apparatus. We also see the beginning of Sam and Gene’s love/hate relationship, as the two find that despite themselves, their methods complement each other. The beginning of their working relationship is wonderfully depicted in ‘Episode 1’s’ final act. When a witness gives conclusive evidence of the killer’s identity, Sam and Gene share a look of recognition before leaping over a desk blocking their exit from the room. This, and the slightly slow-motion, low angle shot gloriously illustrates the beginning of their partnership as the two react in sync with each. The shot is one of many excellently filmed sequences.
Our introduction to the alien world of 1973 is slightly after Sam’s own discovery. A close-up shot reveals his reaction first, the camera pulling out as he rises and the volume of David Bowie’s ‘Life On Mars’ increases. The camera pans around, following Sam as he surveys his surroundings, and reveals a very different world to the one before the accident.
As an introduction to Life On Mars, ‘Episode 1’ works brilliantly, establishing the situation and the character dynamics, and introducing the storytelling devices that will populate the series. The overlap of cases in the past and present provides the episode with a unique draw, beyond that of standard police procedurals, and crafts an interesting tale. Despite one plot thread involving a character called Neal, the high concept really works, fashioning a captivating and original story. Naturally, the ambiguous nature of Sam’s situation is the biggest draw of series and ‘Episode 1’doesn’t disappoint in this regard, providing an engaging story that will leave you formulating your own theories.