John Simm (Sam Tyler), Philip Glenister (Gene Hunt), Liz White (Annie Cartwright), Dean Andrews (Ray Carling), Marshall Lancaster (Chris Skelton)
Summary: "My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident, and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."
Note: This review concerns the British version, not the short-lived US remake, and contains a great many spoilers. If you haven't seen it, just run to the nearest DVD-dispensing corporation of your choice and partake. Don't wait as long as I did!
See, Keven had been trying to get me to watch it for ages. I don't know how he learned of it, and I don't really remember why I held out so long. But Keven often recommends things I should watch, rather than what he thinks I'll enjoy, and I resist out of protest. See also: The Fog of War.
But the combination of accidentally watching an episode of its sequel series, "Ashes to Ashes," and being fascinated by John Simm from his performances as The Master in "Doctor Who," I decided to give it a go.
Now I'll never live this one down. I loved it. Loved. It. Loved it so hard that I pulled a muscle and chipped a tooth. (I don't know what that meant.)
Frankly, there's less theory and symbolism for me to discuss regarding "Life on Mars" than about "Ashes to Ashes," which I'll review tomorrow. The storyline is straight-forward: Sam got hit by a car, Sam fell into a coma, Sam woke up n 1973. His goal is to fight with his subconscious, which is trapping him amongst a bunch of 1970s thugs and shoot-from-the-hip coppers, until he wakes up. I'm reminded of a line from "Doctor Who": The past is another country. So Sam becomes an explorer of sorts, constantly observing the myriad differences between 2006 and 1973. In the meantime he solves crimes and generally becomes a thorn in DCI Gene Hunt's paw.
Sam comes from an age where police procedure is governed by human rights legislation and a keen awareness of PR and the public trust. Gene Hunt...not so much. Their disagreements generally center over differing opinions regarding how to proceed about a case: Sam wants it by the book and Gene wants to break heads.
What works so brilliantly is how the writers worked with archetypes. Disregarding what we learn in "Ashes to Ashes," the characters are all fragmented elements of Sam's subconscious. There's the clever lizard brain id of Gene Hunt, the misogynist thug of Ray Carling, the sympathetic friend of Annie Cartwright, and the uncertain newbie of Chris Skelton--because everyone has a part of them that still thinks they don't belong in a certain position of authority. It's a credit to the writing and the acting that these archetypes never feel like cardboard. They are living, breathing people, no matter that they almost always responded to situations according to the dictates of their place in Sam's subconscious. Only as he starts to heal do the characters begin to blur.
Sam and Gene, in particular, are two halves of the same coin. Sam is thoughtful, sensitive, orderly, vaguely metrosexual--and yet still hard as nails. He wasn't DCI in his 2006 life for nothing. Scenes in the opening sequence when he takes down a prisoner with a retractable truncheon--while reciting how badly resisting will look on the man's arrest report--are key to demonstrating his potential to be both intellectual and brute-in-a-suit. He is a faultless, powerful beta, doing good through his own goodness.
Gene, by contrast, is Gary Cooper in High Noon. He's crass and mysterious, foul-mouthed and short-tempered, misogynistic and egotistical. Later we learn more why he always seems to be on the wrong side of a hunch, and why Sam knows so much more about policing than he does, but Gene is, at his heart, a good man trying to do good in a shitty world. No wonder his character won so many fans in Britain. (More on that when I talk about A2A.)
But for my money the hero was always Sam, with John Simm as one of my new favorite people. It is by his example that the CID becomes a cohesive unit, more able to police itself as it keeps the streets of 1970s Manchester safe. His relationship with Annie, too, is very heroic. Who can think about the promise he made to her--and the lengths he took to keep that promise--without evoking tragic heroes of old?
The finale saddened the shit out of me. Yes, Sam gets his happy ending of choice, but I couldn't help but dwell on what happened to get him there. The golden glow and the rainbow over his shoulder as he kisses Annie aside, he's still just another statistic. The rather clinical way Alex Drake speaks of his case during the opening moments of A2A shows what the real world remembers of Sam Tyler, even as he rides into the sunset with his girl and his mates, with the Guv behind the wheel of a very cherry Cortina.