Tuesday, 30 January 2007

My Picks of 2006, Part 1-"Life on Mars"

For the first in my series of blogs looking back at 2006, i have started with my television picks of 2006, and in particular one of the more unusual mainstream television hits of 2006...

Life on Mars (BBC1, January –March)

Television cop shows in Britain have been incredibly dull for the past 10 years. The template is always as follows. There is usually a murder, and the only person who can solve the case is the genius maverick/alcoholic/depressed with ex wife/generally has issues cop with the straight laced partner.

It seems strange to talk of “Life on Mars” as part of the same genre described above, but it is, and somehow, there’s a lot more to it. The premise is that Sam Tyler (played by the always excellent John Simm) is a CID detective in 2006. His girlfriend has been kidnapped by a serial killer. When things can’t get any worse, he is involved in a road accident, just after David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” single comes on to his car stereo.

When he awakes, he finds himself lying in a street in Manchester, about to start his new job at the local police station. Oh and it is 1973.

Yes it is a bit weird, and yes it has the possibility of turning into the Sunday night nostalga-fest that is Heart-beat (or The Royal) over on ITV. But it doesn’t go there for several reasons. As well as Simm, we also have Phillip Glenster as the unreconstructed dinosaur that is DCI Gene Hunt (great 70’s name there), who we have seen in Clocking Off and State of Play.

The plots are also excellent, as is the characterisation. The scripts are also excellent, especially when Sam says something that to the viewer is a sort of in-joke, wanting to swap his horse for the horse that Gene pulls in the Grand National sweepstake (Gene pulls Red Rum, who we know wins this race)

However there is a narrative which runs through the first series (and presumably on to the next one, due in the next couple of months) which is that we don’t know whether Sam is really in 1973, or whether we are witnessing the figment of his (possibly dying) imagination. There are noises, snippets of doctor’s speech as if examining the 2006 Sam. There is an episode where Sam hears that his life support is to be turned off at 2pm, and then gets called to attend a siege where the kidnapper warns that he will start killing hostages at 2pm. We also meet Sam’s mother and Father as they were in 1973. This is not good (in a Sci Fi sense) as is shown at the conclusion of the first series when we find out why Sams father left his mum when Sam was 5.

The other reason this show works is that it feels like a realistic representation of the time, and not some romantic vision of how it was. Overall it is an excellent and very inventive programme, which I am looking forward to seeing again.

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