Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Complex Sci-Fi/Fantasy Is From Mars, Gritty Police Drama Is From Venus

I’ve spent the last week and a half watching the BBC show Life On Mars, the first series DVD box set of which was a gift from friends this Christmas. (We introduced them to Veronica Mars last Christmas, so there was a certain symmetry to this.) My girlfriend and I were sceptical about the show at first. We reasoned that it had never appealed enough to encourage us to watch it when it was on TV, and that we generally find current British drama uninspiring and inferior to US programmes. We also heeded the words of Admiral Neck, who had not watched much of the show but mentioned how much Britain’s rightwing newspaper pundits loved its supposedly joyful evocation of policing in 1970s, largely free from such “politically correct” concerns as sexual equality and citizens’ rights. Meanwhile leftwing groups such as the NASUWT condemned its use of homophobic language. Despite the assurances of the friends who gave it to us (whose recommendations are normally reliable), it didn’t seem an attractive prospect.

It took us a few weeks to get around to it, but when we did crack open series one, it lasted a matter of days, and we immediately bought and consumed the second series too. It is terrific for a number of reasons, but the main one is that it’s a thoughtful slice of complex sci-fi masquerading as a knockabout police show. And its creators got it on BBC1 in prime time. And it was a huge hit. This was an astonishing achievement.

DCI Sam Tyler, the modern Manchester copper who wakes up in 1973 after he is hit by a car, is not the simplistic Connecticut Yankee the premise might suggest. I assumed there would be some ambivalence throughout about whether Tyler was really stranded in the 1970s or imagining it, but it quickly becomes apparent that he is in a coma – he hears the beeping of the life support machine and the voices of doctors and family members imploring him to hold on – and we are left in no doubt that Tyler’s journey is about finding a way “home”, or back to his real life. Whether his comatose fantasies would really take place in traditional hour-long three-act form is beside the point. Creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah have delivered a classic sci-fi/fantasy platform used by everything from The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz to ET: The Extra-Terrestrial to 12 Monkeys to The League Of Gentlemen: the stranger in a strange land, trying to negotiate the unfamiliar and get home safely. They do this to enable the show to perform that other classic function of science fiction, especially when it’s time travel-based: portraying, and satirising, a clash of civilisations.

The conflict in Life On Mars comes mainly, as you’d expect, from the difference between sensitive, educated Tyler’s approach to police work and the instinctive, often brutish methods of his boss Gene Hunt. (Tyler’s presence in the station is explained by a convenient “transfer from Hyde”.) But the aforementioned rightwing columnists were wrong to suggest that the show delights in the, ah, direct methods employed by the 70s cops. Rather, these are employed as blackly comic relief – we’re invited to sympathise with Tyler, even despair along with him, as Hunt or his sidekick DS Ray Carling takes pleasure in kicking in a “nonce”.

Tyler occasionally admits that the 70s way is better in some respects – it gets results and is certainly speedier than the tedious bureaucracy of the 21st century – and, in the series one finale, he’s exposed as a hypocrite: he trusts his instincts and desires rather than the cold facts when his own father, whom he meets as a young man, becomes a suspect. This isn’t a one-way street, either. Hunt may be boorish and sometimes thuggish but he’s not stupid, and he frequently appreciates the logic and clearsightedness that Tyler brings to the job (not that he likes to admit it). It’s usually left to the virtually stone-age Carling to provide the quaint values we associate with the era, such as casual racism and suspicion of anything resembling good sense.

All the while Tyler is struggling to make sense of the world around him, both the apparent reality of Hunt and the hallucinations he suffers – as well as hearing voices, he is visited in dreams by the TV test card girl, offering cryptic advice and scaring the bejesus out of him. Tyler confides in WPC Annie Cartwright, a down-to-earth sort who demonstrates remarkable patience as well as considerable intelligence, leading to her promotion to detective in series two (at Tyler’s instigation and against Carling’s wishes, naturally). He also builds a rapport with young detective Chris Skelton, who is open to “modern” ideas, and Nelson, the black barman of the local pub who covers his Yorkshire accent with a Caribbean lilt that he thinks will comfort his regulars. Each episode starts out with a standard police-drama plot – a dead body, a hostage crisis, a bomb threat – but Life On Mars uses these as a framework for skilfully woven drama that examines the culture clash astutely, again in the best sci-fi tradition.

We are never allowed to forget Tyler’s desire to get home, although Mars slips up with this strand occasionally. Some clunkingly awful dialogue reminds the audience that he is trapped in the “wrong” time: when Skelton refers to someone as being “like David Janssen in The Fugitive”, Tyler says, “You mean Harrison Ford”. This in the tenth episode! When Tyler has been going on about being stuck in 1973 for months! Of course he doesn’t mean Harrison Ford, you idiot! Tyler is also unnecessarily smug at times, even bearing in mind that he has three decades more progress under his belt than the other officers. It takes an intensely charismatic performance from a likeable actor to get you on Tyler’s side, and not surprisingly John Simm delivers. He’s thoroughly convincing as he swings between confusion and terror on one hand and dignified professionalism in adversity on the other. He’s also pretty sexy, something I didn’t believe until I watched this.

It’s Philip Glenister as Hunt who has proved the breakout star of the show, though, and this isn’t surprising either. I expected Life On Mars to be more of an archetypal two-hander, a classical dialogue between the enlightened man and the fool, but it’s Simm’s central turn that carries it. Even so, Glenister casts the longest shadow with a peformance of rare energy and wit. Sometimes the show lacks the courage of its convictions – it tries to address racism in series two and dares to use the term “Paki” but shies away from any stronger insults, which must have been in currency – but Glenister never does. Hunt truly believes in his methods and his motives, and you don’t doubt it for a moment.

Life On Mars isn’t perfect. As well as the aforementioned daft dialogue (the prosaic Hunt improbably refers to himself in the third person as “the Gene Genie” for no other reason than to continue the David Bowie motif) and occasional reticence about the big issues, some episodes are oddly directed and – especially early on – somewhat flabby and overextended. During series one, I often felt it would have benefited from the 45-minute runtime of a Doctor Who rather than a full hour. (I did come to find some of the flaws endearing, particularly the clunky expositionary lines, which reminded me that this was broadcast in primetime on BBC bloody One.)

But the show’s problems are largely corrected in series two, especially by the time it reaches the final three episodes. Episode 2.6 is close to being my favourite, not only because it guest-stars the breathtakingly hot Alex Reid – last seen getting really, really stabbed in the neck during the most horrific caving trip in history (she definitely would not rather be spelunking) – but also because semi-legendary comedy writer Guy Jenkin provides the cracking dialogue.

Skelton: I wonder what killed him?
Hunt: That’ll be the bloody enormous hole in his chest where the bullet went in!

Cartwright: Boss? There’s a viscous yellow liquid in his ear.
Hunt: No, that’s a drip from my fried egg butty, love. Well done, Miss Marple. That’s why we need women detectives.

Tyler: I think we need to explore whether this attempted murder was a hate crime.
Hunt: As opposed to one of those “I really really like you” sort of murders?

Hunt: Now, yesterday’s shooting. The dealers are all so scared we’re more likely to get Helen Keller to talk. The Paki in a coma’s about as lively as Liberace’s dick when he’s looking at a naked woman. All in all, this investigation’s going at the speed of a spastic in a magnet factory.
Tyler: I think you might have missed out the Jews.

But it’s the superb final two episodes that crystallise what Life On Mars is about. In 2.7, Hunt is accused of murder and while he’s banged up, acting DCI Frank Morgan (a splendidly creepy turn from, of all people, Ralph Brown) tells Tyler that the reason Tyler is there is to force Hunt out. Once he does, he can come back to Hyde. Tyler seizes on this, believing it to be his subconscious’s way of telling him how he can wake up, but he finds he can’t help but prove Hunt innocent. This raises all sorts of questions – can Hunt’s means-to-an-end methods be justified? What does Tyler believe in? Where does he belong? Is Morgan the surgeon from the hospital where Tyler is lying comatose? Does Tyler owe his 1973 colleagues loyalty even if they’re figments of his imagination?

Before these are answered, Morgan tells Tyler – in a clear echo of Terry Gilliam’s superlative time-travel fable 12 Monkeys – that everything he thinks is wrong. He is not in a coma in 2006; he has amnesia; his persona is an undercover one they constructed between them using names from gravestones; and that this, 1973, is reality. Tyler has no way of knowing whether this is truth or his mind telling him that he is slipping away, that he has accepted his fate. The questions are still unanswered when he awakes – at the worst possible moment. Episode 2.8 is a thrilling, dizzying, heartbreaking, ferociously intelligent hour of TV that should stand as an exemplar to everyone else making drama in this country.

The review quotes on the DVD boxes say “The best police drama since the 70s” and “A thumpingly enjoyable piece of television”. Neither is wrong, but they don’t even come close to describing the triumph of the show. Obviously I meant the title of this post as a rather convoluted bit of punning whimsy, but it does apply. Just as men and women can learn to live together (despite those oh-so-significant differences!), Life On Mars is a wonderfully harmonious marriage of sci-fi and police drama. So harmonious, in fact, that – at the risk of repeating myself – it drew between five and seven million viewers to BBC1 at 9pm, even when up against the ratings behemoth of Champions League football on ITV. The end of series two was watched by 7.7 million. Such a large mainstream audience must have included a large number of people who never thought they’d watch sci-fi, let alone such complex, thought-provoking sci-fi.

The spin-off/sequel to Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes, starts this Thursday. It’ll be fascinating to see how the show will do without Simm. I’m a fan of his replacement, Keeley Hawes, and making the central character a woman should certainly provide a welcome twist, as will shifting the action to Thatcherite London in 1981. But can it survive the artificial recreation of its original premise with a different character? Possibly. Let’s face it, the concept is artificial enough as it is, and I hear that the writers have got around the problem of why Hawes’s Alex Drake ends up in the same fantasy as Tyler by making her a student of Tyler’s case. But there’s a danger Ashes won’t thrive in its Simmlessness; Hawes, though talented, has never demonstrated comparable warmth and presence, and it remains to be seen whether she can carry off the deranged, dislocated despair that lies at the show’s heart, or whether she’ll even be asked to. I’m hopeful, though, and I’m remembering that I didn’t expect much from Life On Mars.


Masticator said...

Reading over someone's shoulder in this morning's Metro, I noted that the gist of their preview of Ashes To Ashes was, "Who cares if John Simm is gone? It's still got the outrageously politically incorrect DCI Gene Hunt, and that's what this programme is all about!" I suppose such arrant point-missing should make me angry, but if that gets more people watching, more power to it.

Canyon said...

Ashes to Ashes sounds like it might be That 80s Show to Life on Mars' That 70s Show, which could be a scary prospect. You'll have to let us know what it's like.

We didn't watch Mars after the second or third episode, I think, but your post has inspired us to try it again. Not that there's much alternative at the moment, with most shows probably not coming back till September even if the strike does get resolved. ::sobs::

Btw, I've finally realized you can move the post author's name to the top of a post, which doesn't look quite as nice but will at least stop people having to scroll all the way down to the bottom of a post to see who the author is (or assuming that the Admiral is the sole blogger here, ahem). That will be nice if I ever have the time to post again.

Masticator said...

I expect that if I'd watched Mars on TV, I might have done the same thing. It certainly took time to find its feet. Having it on DVD makes it easier to overlook the flaws and press on in the hope that it improves. Which it really, really does.

Ashes To Ashes has gone from being a Keeley Hawes project I'm vaguely aware of to my absolute top eagerly-anticipated new TV thing of 2008. Admittedly that is not saying much. But I will certainly let you know how it fares, particuarly just how big the Simm-shaped hole in the middle of it is.

Admiral Neck said...

We have tried to be fair with shows and have given many a chance to improve before we jettison them from our To Watch list, but for some reason we didn't do that with Life on Mars. It was a combination of laziness, moving stress, and getting hooked on Lost at about the time it started. It's pretty rotten of us not to give it a try. I gave Chuckwit and Bionical Fembot much more of my time, and they were irredeemably terrible from the get-go. Ah well, we can catch up on it eventually.

And yay Canyon for fixing the author problem! Last night I spent hours trying to figure out how to rewrite the template so that the post titles were colour-coded for each contributor, but I've yet to master English, let alone HTML and I ended up slumped on my desk and yelling, "Where is BlogTitleBody? I can't find the style tags!" at everyone in earshot. This solution is much better.

johnilf said...

What a great review, ive been screaming to everybody in ear shot that this has been best thing on British TV in the last twenty years. Excellent review. Cant add anything to it.

Jaredan said...

I still haven't seen the second season due to the big move over the water, but I thoroughly enjoyed the first season.
An excellent review.