2005 was a relatively stale time for UK television. Ratings were dominated by the staple soap operas like Coronation Street & Eastenders, while American imports dominated the rest of the schedule. Lost, 24, Sex In The City along with endless reruns of The Simpsons & Friends.
Doctor Who had ended it's return season but the next big programme hadn't yet been discovered, one aimed more for the adult audience.
A seemingly random trailer suddenly appeared in August of that year, showing what appeared to be a new 70's set cop show, in the vein of a UK Starsky and Hutch. John Simm was a recognizable actor to many, having appeared on series for the past 5 years or so and it was with curiosity that many sat just over 10 years ago to watch the first episode of Life On Mars.
We were introduced to Sam Tyler (Simm), an erudite and earnest "copper" who used his brain and the law over his heart and muscle. We meet his colleauge and recently ex-girlfriend, Mya, and we meet a suspect who Sam is sure knows something, but is released due to being elsewhere. Mya, seemingly keen to impress Sam by following his hunch follows the suspect and is kidnapped.
Here was the first glimpse of Sam as a man underneath the seemingly cold exterior, scared and heartbroken for someone he clearly still cares for, he has to stop the car, and is promptly run over and left for dead as the titular track from David Bowie plays.
When he awakes he is in the same place seemingly, but not as he knows it and a beat copper ominously asks "Did you not see the signs?". From that moment, like Sam, we were down the rabbit hole. Instead of the 2005 he knows, it's 1973, he's demoted down a rank, transferring in to his department and totally out of his depth.
We meet his new colleauges, the old school and potential threat in Ray Carling, the eager but naive Chris Skelton and Annie Cartwright, a WPC who is seemingly there to make tea and patch up bruises.
We are also introduced to "King Of The Jungle" DCI Gene Hunt, played by Phillip Glenister who immediately is established as not only the Sheriff of Manchester (in his own mind at least) but the antithesis of everything Sam is as a lawman, violent, brutal, willing to bend on methods that to Sam are absolute. By the end of the first episode, the team have cracked the case from 30 years in the future and an uneasy alliance forms.
So far, so time travel/procedural right? Wrong... Interspersed throughout are clues to what Sam is actually there for, he can hear people talking to him, Doctors from his own time trying coax him out of his 'coma', but then there are signs he really is from 1973 and suffering amnesia in telephone calls from Hyde, where he 'transferred' from AND Flashbacks to some long buried childhood trauma... He's a mess and sometimes lashes out, other times is the voice of sanity in what he sees as a backward, crazy version of the world.
A big part of what made the show work was the dynamic between each member of the team and Sam and that instead of the traditional 'Rip Van Winkle' trope Sam is actually ahead of his time by 30 years and his knowledge covers everything from how to process a murder scene, rights of a prisoner and who won the Grand National.
While there is humor in others reactions to his using modern arrest jargon when "you're nicked" is enough, there is also admiration from Chris and Annie in particular that Sam thinks to record an interview or knows techniques that while basic in 2005 make him almost a Jedi in 1973.
Chris looks up to Sam, wants to emulate him and for Sam (and thus Gene) to think he is a good copper rather than the 'div' he is labelled.
Ray both fears and distrusts him, so acts as a bully in many ways but when it all comes down to it, he knows Tyler is a guy who does the right thing first and will fight for that. Annie sees someone she could love, but also someone who could be batsh** crazy as well and Hunt sees a principled officer who wants to make him extinct, and he isn't going quietly!
Over the course of the show, these dynamics change, characters grow. Sam becomes more like Gene and vice versa.
A theme of the show is consequences, even in the first and second episodes, Sam's 2005 by the book attitude leads to someone the team know getting hurt and decisions whether to "bend the rules" have to be made and he is made to feel those consequences. Later in the season, another team member makes a fatal mistake that pushes them to their limits, again there are severe consequences that affect them all. The writing gets those dilemmas over brilliantly, along with the performances.
The other aspect that set Life On Mars apart is the work done to make the show look and sound exactly like 1973 Manchester.
This show was the equivalent of a Scorcese film in terms of music and camera work fitting not only the period, but also the action onscreen. For many, the first episodes centrepiece was a highly impressive 360 tracking shot scene where we see life as it genuinely was in Manchester in 1973, cars, shops, clothing and get the first inkling Sam might have actually time traveled.
This is all set in perfect sync to The Who's Baba O' Reilly. As the series progressed iconic British TV memories like Camberwick Green, the old BBC Test Card Girl and Open University Maths are all turned on their head to creepy effect.
When Episode 2 started with Live & Let Die and one of the funniest scenes opening scenes on UK TV in a long time (Paul McCartney famously only agreed let them use it cos he thought it hilarious), the British Public were hooked to the escapades of Sam, Gene and the rest of their team.
Life On Mars regularly achieved stellar ratings for the BBC in the timeslot. It became water-cooler TV and must see.
Each episode had a theme, a crime of the week AND gave more clues and red herrings to Sam's real predicament.
One of the running gags but equally a mindbending aspect was Sam being able to influence the future he knows quite directly or thinking he can.
A highlight was meeting his hero Marc Bolan and telling him to "Drive Safe, Especially In Mini's" (Bolan of course died in a crash, in a Mini, but was driven by his girlfriend) and even meeting and trying to help his own parents, he even seems to invent that 'oh so 70's' concoction Chicken In A Basket while undercover on a case.
The first season of 8 episodes came and went far too quick and the public clamored for more, the second started slightly less impressively but gained momentum when it was made clear the show would end after two series.
The pace quickened & more details slowly emerged about Sam before a final episode that frankly stunned many. Many shows offer twists and turns for the sake of them, this one made every one not only work, but made you almost slap your head for not working it out, as the policeman said in that first episode... did you NOT SEE THE SIGNS????
In many ways the 2 seasons are perfect, but I for one feel it so sad at at least a 3rd wasn't made or even a Christmas Special. There were more tales to tell for Sam and the gang before the truth was revealed.
The main reason the show ended was John Simm. He did not want to become typecast, seemingly taking his cue from Christopher Ecclestone's leaving as the Ninth Doctor and he was quickly offered another BBC role as The Master in Doctor Who, which excited fans of Mars enough to forgive him killing their favorite series.
The BBC kept the core cast, sans Sam & Annie whose story was seemingly "done" and moved the show on 8 years to 1981 and to London with Ashes To Ashes, which ran for 3 seasons before finally revealing the entire mystery around both shows. Ashes featured a female lead, introduced in the final scenes of Life On Mars so everything was nice and neat.
Ashes also did fantastic ratings, but it was never the same show without Sam Tyler. The phrase "Fire Up The Quattro" took over the show and at times it seemed a parody of everything from Miami Vice to the A-Team, yet still kept much of the creepiness and mystery going.
The chemistry between Simm and Glennister was so strong, they worked on Sky's Mad Dogs together as 2 of the 4 leads of that show and Mars itself was remade (sadly shockingly badly) as a US show (as was Mad Dogs last year) that lasted a season and wasted the potential of Harvey Keitel as Hunt.
If I had to pick a favorite episode of the show, it would be the football themed one. We see the team undercover for the first time, spend some time with Sam's mum and a cracking scene that alludes to a young Sam Tyler being involved in the Hillsborough tragedy as a young copper, it's very clever stuff.
Could Life On Mars EVER come back?
I'd like to think there is room for more even now and the subscription TV model could make it work.
I always felt that they could have told the tale of the years in between Life and Ashes, for example 1977, Punk & The Jubilee was a ripe period for Mars to tell stories in. Gene hating the Sex Pistols while Sam is fanboying over meeting/arresting Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious or seeing The Clash in their formative period. Even if we know (or think we know) the truth now, it'd still be fun to have one more adventure with the team in that setting.
Another possibility is a 90's set follow up series (probably named after an Oasis tune this time rather than Bowie as he was less relevant at that time), perhaps around 1996 with Gene Hunt as an aging or retired copper and a much younger Sam Tyler as a recurring character, the mindbending could continue with young Sam having knowledge he couldn't have about Gene for example. I could imagine a scene where he finally finds Gene Hunt, older, embittered and is met with "I wondered when you'd show up here!".
With the popularity of Shane Meadows' This Is England '90 there is a definite market for 90's nostalgia right now and Gene Hunt became somewhat of an iconic character who'd definitely be welcome back, even if Simm decided not to reprise the role, if they could get a Taron Edgerton type to play young PC Tyler, it can work.
Hey Netflix/BBC - get on it... Call it Don't Look Back In Anger... I'll waive the creation fee!