If ever there was a show I wanted to like, it would be Life On Mars. This English import and precursor to the Harvey Keitel-starring American version offers a gritty British crime drama with a twist. The twist is that a police procedural is combined with science fiction to produce a program about a detective chief inspector who, as a result of a traffic accident, awakes in 1973 as a detective inspector.
The pivotal point is a question: Has he gone mad, is he in a coma, or has he actually time traveled back to 1973? Since no one in any state of mind would want to revisit 1973, viewers can rest assured that the inspector is not daydreaming.
Accompanied by decent '70s music (I’d forgotten there was any), the stories take us to a variety of crime scenes and the inevitable confrontation between protagonist Sam Tyler (John Simm), who wants to apply 21st century forensic techniques, and the 1970s crew of inspectors who are pretty much convinced he’s barmy. Here is the main problem with the series—the inevitable confrontation. Each week he does something modern, the others do something in keeping with the time period, they all clash and eventually display a grudging respect for the other camp’s methods. Then, in the following episode, it starts all over again.
Sets and costumes remarkably catch the flavor of the period, and writers have done well with the dialogue. At times, it is easy to forget that this show was not made in 1973. Just as technology has changed, so have social attitudes, and the 1973 cops are overtly racist and sexist, as well as brutal. Most of the suspects they terrorize turn out to be innocent, so their behavior seems all the more heinous. Discomfort is often the viewer’s reaction to the antics of these vintage police officers.
One female police officer with an interest in psychology sides with Tyler, but she’s little more than a meter maid due to societal attitudes. Although themes pitting modern detection against more primitive techniques are interesting, the two-dimensional characters and repetitious stories are tiresome. Threaded throughout the entire series are reminders that the years 2006 and 1973 are happening concurrently; a little girl haunts Tyler, seeming to want him to relax into death, with scenes then switching to modern day Tyler flat-lining in a hospital.
Many of the cases Tyler works involve people and locations that are part of his life in 2006. Is this the working of a broken brain, comatose and dreaming in a modern hospital, or the adventures of a time traveler lost in a decade he can’t escape? By the third or fourth episode, I found that I just didn’t care.
Life On Mars special features include: commentaries for series one episodes; two documentaries, “Take a Look at the Lawman” and “The Return of Life on Mars”; interview clips with director Bharat Nalluri; three featurettes, "The Music of Life on Mars,” “Get Sykes” production design, and “The End of Life on Mars”; outtakes; and a behind-the-scenes look at series two including a set tour.