Living the Martian Dream

It was one of those lucky coincidences: it was 2005, and I was in the process of switching TV providers when I saw three wee column inches of print in a newspaper that happened to mention that BBC Canada was about to premiere a new time travel cop show called Life On Mars.

Cool, I thought, adding BBC Canada to the shiny new cable package. And then, a few weeks later, it was love at first sight.

If you’re lucky, you’ve missed out on the recent attempt to make a watered-down U.S. version of this show. Don’t get me wrong–they tried, they tried hard. But John Simm and Philip Glenister as the original Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt… seriously, they’re the stuff you want. They simply cannot be beat.

John Simm is Sam Tyler. He’s a Manchester Detective Chief Inspector, and he and his team are after a serial killer. Poor Sam is trying to be a hard, evidence-driven dispassionate leader, a maker of airtight cases. He’s all about warrants and video interviews and nicely bagged bits of clue. He’s even breaking up with his girlfriend Maya for being wayyyy too touchy feely.

But deep down, he’s as emo as a scared little boy who totally needs a nap.

Naptime, as it happens, does come, but not until disaster has struck twice in rapid succession. First Maya is grabbed by the killer Sam is hunting. Then Sam himself is struck by a passing car. It’s no light tap, either. In fact, it creams him so hard that he’s knocked all the way back to 1973.

What the hell, right? That’s some car accident.

For much of the two seasons of Life On Mars, Sam’s best guess as to what’s happened to him is that his sojourn into the past is a coma-induced nightmare. But other possibilities abound. Maybe he’s dead. Maybe he really is in the past. All he knows for sure is he’s still a cop, in a time when law enforcement is about as subtle as the polyester shirts that some of his colleagues, unfortunately, are given to wearing. (In public.)

Life On Mars manages to make it a bit cool that the Seventies have somehow become long ago enough to become a valid setting for exotic period drama. Each episode gives us a little bit of culture shock, as Sam clashes with the whole world, fighting the values of an era when beating up suspects is still as viable a policing technique as evidence-gathering, and the thought of a female police detective is universally hooted down by his colleagues.

The show is also damned atmospheric. The color palette of the not-too-distant past is beautifully meshed with the creepy mystery of Sam’s situation: the flashes of lost memories from the Sam’s childhood, and the little girl from the TV test pattern who sometimes appears to scare the pants off him. Even the background noise in this show is imbued with menace. Life support machines beep, more and more slowly, as Sam walks down dimly lit corridors. Radios play his mother’s voice, bringing back a past that’s playing out, in real time, just down the street… and in time, it all draws him home, to his impossibly young parents and a tiny, boy-sized version of himself.

In this show, John Simm is quicksilver magic: We seem him lost and vulnerable and begging his television to take him home, struggling with the question of whether he’s gone mad, and getting spontaneously stoned–are the doctors in 2006 fiddling with his meds, or did hippies slip him some acid? As he gives in to the lunacy of his situation, he rediscovers the emotions he’s locked down so fruitlessly.

And that, my fave friends, is only half of the good. Because there’s also Philip Glenister as Gene Hunt.

Gene is Sam’s boss. He’s also the the big ugly charismatic suspect-bashing id to Sam’s superego. When Sam isn’t yelling at the TV or alienating his fellow officers or getting all wobbly-kneed and freakish over his own situation, he and Gene are solving crimes. Boy, do they have chemistry! They fight, they make up, they pull off amazing feats of deduction. They get drunk, they get dirty, and they get bad guys. They are a sheerly brilliant cop partnership.

Life On Mars is, in fact, so good, that I am only covering two of the twenty or so great things about it. The rest I leave you to discover for yourself. In the meantime, here’s that opening that won my heart:


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Alyx Dellamonica lives in Vancouver, B.C. and makes her living writing science fiction and fantasy. Her first novel, Indigo Springs was released in 2009 to rave reviews. She also reviews books and teaches writing online at the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.

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14 Responses to “Living the Martian Dream”

  1. Melodie says:

    Dawn Marie forced this on me. I in turn forced it on another friend. It is an epidemic. An epidemic of awesome.

  2. Sometimes you have to go for the hard sell.

    • kormantic says:

      Sam looks deadly in 70s clothes, too. He manages to rock the flares and medallion in amazing ways. He’s so little but he’s so cocksure – in his own way, he takes up as much room as Gene. And man, I love Gene. His driving gloves, his white bucks, the easy way he throws a punch.

      Woo, Life on Mars!

  3. He’s smaller, but he’s intense! And the two of them really fill a room with energy.

  4. Laura Shapiro says:

    I love this show. And it was a glorious surprise to find that I love the sequel, Ashes to Ashes, even more!

  5. Penni says:

    I love this show. We decided to name our son Sam after seeing Life on Mars at my husband’s parents house (in Machester, by the way) when I was pregnant.

  6. Penni says:

    Thanks- he’s almost four now, but that’s still pretty new. The city does look like it does on the show. Manchester’s kind of gritty. It has nice areas, but no real flash like London.

    • Four is definitely still shiny and new. My 3 year old niece has only just gone from looking like a baby to looking like a little kid. It’s miraculous!

      I have yet to see either Manchester or London.

  7. Penni says:

    You will, Alyx, you will.

  8. Matt says:

    I really, truly enjoyed this show. Never saw the bastardized American version with Harvey Keitel, But I heard that when they were cancelled, they shot a final episode where everybody wakes up to find that they’ve literally been in suspended animation on a spaceship headed for Mars?

    Oh, American television. Never change.

  9. I gave Keitel and all two weeks’ worth of a chance, but the scripts were nigh-identical, and I’d seen the UK pilot four or five times by then… it may be that it’s hard to love any imitation of exactly the same script!

    I didn’t make it to the spaceship.

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