Life on Mars has an intriguing premise as Sam Tyler (John Simm), a Detective Chief Inspector from Manchester, England circa 2006, finds himself in the year 1973 after being hit by a car. He works at the same police station, reduced in rank to Detective Inspector, under the blustery, rule-bending DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).
Or does he? After "Episode 1," Sam states during the opening credits he isn’t sure if “he’s mad, in a coma, or back in time,” and for good reason. When he tries to explain his situation to people in 1973, most find him to be a little mad and aren’t shy about telling him. That doesn’t seem to be the most viable option from all the viewer gets to witness over the eight episodes of Series 1.
As far as being back in time, the world Sam is in seems very realistic and complete and he makes many modern-day references like Mike Tyson and Guantanamo Bay that confuse his co-workers. At times, he is committed to the notion that he’s gone back to right a wrong or make a correction. In "Episode 1," he discovers the serial killer he had been pursuing on 2006, and in "Episode 8" he works very hard to keep his dad from leaving when he was four years old. The coma is the most plausible explanation because the audience hears voices along with Sam of doctors and his mother that would lead the viewer to believe he was in a hospital. Unfortunately, only clues and some likely misdirection are provided so fans will have to wait until the conclusion of Series 2, coming on DVD in November, or a quick search online to learn the answer. [Those who already know, please don’t spoil it here.]
However, Life on Mars isn’t so much about solving Sam’s predicament. It is more of a straightforward police procedural with Sam in the role of a fish-out-of-water character as his modern-day ways of police work clash with Hunt’s, and in a great decision by the writers, which may be some subtle commentary, Sam’s way isn’t always the right way. In "Episode 2," Sam has a robbery suspect released because there’s no evidence to keep him, but soon learns the error of that decision.
Fans of the '70s will enjoy the well-done job the series does immersing viewers in the era, from the production design team to the soundtrack choices.
Acorn Media does a fantastic job with the bonus features. Each episode contains commentary by at least two members of the cast and crew. There’s an hour-long documentary about the show, “Take a Look at the Lawmen,” that is divided into two parts. There are clips with director Bharat Nalluri, composer Edmund Buttan, and production designer Brian Sykes. There is also a brief outtakes clip.
If you are a fan of police dramas, I recommend the U.K. version of Life on Mars. You'll find yourself hooked to the screen much like “the girl with the mousey hair” from David Bowie’s song of the same name.