Review: Life on Mars

The BBC series Life on Mars debuts on KLRU-Q Saturday, January 22nd. Life on Mars will air at 9 p.m. each Saturday. The show will air on KLRU at 11 p.m. Sundays starting January 23rd.

Manchester Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler is having a bad day. Forced to release his chief suspect in a murder case, fighting with his co-worker/former lover Maya, who then disappears while tailing the suspect, Tyler finds himself standing outside his Grand Cherokee after being nearly run off the road by a careless driver. As he collects himself to the strains of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?,” he’s suddenly hit by a speeding car, and his reality skews off-kilter in a way he couldn’t imagine.

Sam awakens to find himself on the same stretch of road, but in a very different time: 1973. Demoted a rank and tracking the same killer in the ’70s as he was in the ’00s, Sam fights to accept his bizarre new circumstances as he finds direct connections between the case he’s working on now and the one he unwillingly left behind. Assisting Sam in very different ways are Annie, a friendly WPC to whom he confesses his state of mind, and DCI Gene Hunt, his aggressive boss who prefers physical confrontation and coercion to forensics when it comes to solving crimes.

While the circumstances of Sam’s arrival in 1973 are deliberately left vague, major hints get dropped. Sometimes Sam hears the sounds of medical workers and machines trying to save his life. He also watches an educational TV show whose host unexpectedly shifts from talking about math to talking about Sam’s coma and responsiveness. Sam also meets Neil, Annie’s hypnotherapist ex-boyfriend, whose first words to Sam are “Sam, can you hear me?” and who may be a direct link to 2006.

A set-up like this one has to be handled carefully in order to be convincing – too much emphasis on one element and the whole story becomes ludicrous. Fortunately, everyone involved in the show works hard to maintain a sense of balance. There are bits of the expected culture shock humor, but they’re handled with deadpan logic – no sitcom-style zaniness or over-the-top one liners here. The actors have strong handles on their characters’ personalities, giving them the human qualities that raise them above the mere figments of imagination Sam believes them to be. There’s also great attention to detail in the set design and atmosphere – the gritty, faded look to 1973 stands in stark contrast to the clean, blinding whites of 2006, giving the show a real sense of place and time. The vintage early 70s rock tunes on the soundtrack don’t hurt, either, though the thick Mancunian working class accents might prove off-putting to those not used to them.

Ultimately, Sam is torn between doing his job to the best of his ability with his new limitations, and finding his way back to his own time to save Maya. Nelson, the Rasta bartender at his precinct’s local watering hole, tells him, “You’re not lost, pal. You’re where you are now. And you have to make the best of it.” Will Sam take that advice to heart? We’ll have to tune in to every episode to find out, and if they’re all as good as this one, it’ll be a pleasure.

– Michael Toland

About the reviewer: Michael Toland is the archivist and assistant producer for Austin City Limits. He also writes about music for Blurt, The Big Takeover, Sleazegrinder, Trouser Press and The Austinist.