Studio: Acorn Media Group
Film Length: app. 466 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 (enhanced for 16:9)
Audio: English DD 2.0, English DD 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH
Package: Box with 4 slimcases
Original Airdates (U.K.): Jan. 9-Feb. 27, 2006
DVD Release Date: July 28, 2009
One of the great achievements of contemporary TV is now available in a U.S. release. If you've
already seen it (on BBC America or otherwise), you don't need me to tell you why it's worth
your time. If you've only seen the now-canceled American remake, you may be wondering
whether its problems were inherent in the source material. Trust me, they weren't. Creative
alchemy like the American retread of The Office is a rare occurrence. With Life on Mars, the
source was so distinctive and the premise so bizarre that any translation was probably doomed
from the start. So whether you watched the American Life on Mars or merely heard about it,
forget what you know (especially the ending, which had zero to do with the original storyline).
The real deal has arrived on our shores.
In the description that follows, I'm going to assume no familiarity with the series. In the
conclusion, I'll offer some thoughts on what the original British series had that the American
Sam Tyler (Jon Simm) is a Detective Chief Inspector (or "DCI"; a rough American equivalent
would be a lieutenant of detectives) in the City of Manchester. It is 2006, and Tyler's unit is
working around the clock tracking a serial killer who abducts his victims and holds them for 30
hours before strangling them. Complicating Sam's life is his rocky romantic involvement with a
member of the unit, Maya, who insists on pursuing her own hunch about the killer. When Maya
becomes the next abductee, Sam is crushed. Leaving the scene where Maya's torn shirt has been
found, he pulls over to the side of a freeway on-ramp and gets out of his car. He's so distraught
he doesn't even see the traffic around him. David Bowie's "Life on Mars" begins playing on his
The next thing Sam knows, he's lying in the field that used to be there before the freeway was
built. "Life on Mars" is still playing, but it's an 8-track tape. His clothes are vintage, and so is his
car. A policeman in an antique uniform is telling him he can't park there. And the building where
Sam's apartment should be is what it was before being converted to residential units: a working
Somehow, Sam has been transported to 1973, where he is no longer a DCI, but a DI (one rank
lower). Recently transferred to Manchester, he has been assigned to the predecessor of his old
squad, currently commanded by DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). There are no computers on
the desks; it takes two weeks to match a fingerprint; forensics are primitive at best; and
investigative technique hasn't progressed much beyond "round up the usual suspects". DCI Hunt
is a brash, hard-drinking bull of man, who runs his unit like a frontier sheriff, kicking ass and
taking names (and often not bothering with the names). For Sam, this might as well be another
Has Sam really traveled back in time? Throughout the eight episodes of Series 1 (each of which
lasts nearly a full hour), Sam thinks he hears messages from 2006. Characters on TV and radio
speak directly to him; calls come from disconnected phones; disembodied voices echo in his
head. They sound like doctors or nurses ministering to him, or sometimes like relatives urging
him to wake up. Then again, there are nightmare figures, like the little girl and her clown who
appear on his nightly TV test pattern, but occasionally exit the screen to appear in Sam's room
and deliver cryptic messages. What's real and what is he imagining?
Sam is forced to play along, because everything around him feels real enough. When Hunt
punches him in the gut (for insubordination), he goes down. When Detective Sergeant Ray
Carling (Dean Andrews), who views Sam as the guy who "stole" his promotion, glowers at him,
Sam can feel the hatred and the threat. When Detective Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster)
makes a fool of himself (a daily occurrence), Sam can't help but be exasperated. When WPC (as
in "Woman Police Constable", a term no longer used) Annie Cartwright (Liz White) takes pity
on him, he's moved by the gesture.
And there are crimes to investigate. On the very day Sam awakes in 1973, he is unnerved to find
that the squad is dealing with a series of killings that exactly match the pattern Sam was tracking
in 2006. Has he gone back in time to save Maya by stopping her abductor 33 years before
anything happened to her?
The brilliance and the originality of Life on Mars is its ability to use an admittedly goofy premise
to tell stories on multiple levels simultaneously. At one level, you have an ordinary police
procedural. At another, you have an ongoing debate about different styles of law enforcement,
embodied in the twin figures of Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt - a debate that becomes deeper,
subtler and less clear cut as the series progresses. These two men take an instant dislike to each
other, but they end up forming an effective partnership when they're not fighting (literally; one
episode features a brawl between them). At yet another level, there's the running mystery of
what exactly has happened to Sam, a mystery recapped in the weekly introduction to each
episode: "Am I mad, in a coma or back in time?" And finally, there is Sam's inadvertent
discovery of his own past as he repeatedly trips over fragments of his early life in the Manchester
where he grew up, meeting his mother, then his father, even catching glimpses of his four-year-old
self. Indeed, one of the questions left hanging at the end of Series 1 is whether the real
purpose of the "trip" (whatever it may be) was for Sam to discover who he really is.
The writing for Life on Mars is uniformly superb, and so is the cast. Many of the faces were
familiar to the British public, though unknown here. Jon Simm could be a major star anywhere,
because he has that rare gift of instant rapport with the camera and the audience. He can show
you what Sam Tyler is thinking without saying a word. Philip Glenister made Gene Hunt so
popular a character that, after Life on Mars concluded with Series 2, the sequel Ashes to Ashes
was created so that Hunt could continue to stomp across Britain's TV screens. It is currently
airing on BBC America. And Liz White created one of the most intriguing and complicated
women in contemporary TV drama: a woman who's smarter than most of the men around her
and knows it, but doesn't seem to mind hiding her intelligence so that she can have a career in a
misogynist profession that doesn't want her. (Gretchen Mol tried vainly to recreate this character
in the American version, but could never get past looking like a former model, which White,
though exceptionally attractive, does not.)
Then there's the comedy, much of which comes from anachronism. Sam's inability to remember
exactly what form of warning to give a suspect in 1973 is a running gag, as is the contrast
between Sam's 2006 formality when dealing with the public and Hunt's blustery gruffness, or the
exasperation on everyone's face whenever Sam starts lecturing them about "proper" investigative
technique or "preserving a crime scene". It frustrates them even more on those occasions when
Hunt grudgingly seems to accept Sam's approach, because it often yields results.
This gets tricky. Like many British TV shows, Life on Mars was shot on 16mm film, as opposed
to the 35mm used for most American TV. While 16mm yields a perfectly good and detailed
image, the look is very different from what we're used to. I think of it as "unglossy" or
"uncommercial". While a talented cinematographer can probably extract glamorous results from
almost any format, in general 16mm photography lends its images a documentary ordinariness
that perfectly suits a show like Life on Mars, where the emphasis is on grittiness and age. So if
you come to this show with your expectations calibrated by the American remake, or American
TV in general, you may find the look somewhat jarring.
Not having seen the show in its U.K. broadcast, I don't have an obvious reference for comparison.
(BBC America's broadcasts are of such poor quality as to be useless.) However, these DVD
images are very detailed and feature excellent color, within the washed-out palette used for the
show. The Manchester of 1973 was still a factory town, even though industry was already
starting to leave, and it had its share of poverty and urban blight. Both the production design and
the cinematography of Life on Mars accentuate the dirt, as well as the wear-and-tear on both
people and objects.
There is occasional aliasing consistent with standard definition formats, and the presence of
occasional video noise tends to confirm that there's been no artificial noise reduction or edge
enhancement. Near the end of episode 8, there is one shot (it's in a forest) that looks unstable, but
since the instability only lasts as long as the shot, this appears to be an issue with the source
The U.K. has had Life on Mars on Blu-ray since late last year, but unless you acquire the U.K. Blu-ray
release (which has been reported not to be region-locked), this is probably the best it's going to look.
There is a choice between a DD 2.0 track and DD 5.1 track. Although I suspect the 2.0 track was
the one most commonly heard in British households, I selected the 5.1 track for its higher bitrate.
It is a front-oriented mix with relatively little in the way of surround activity. Dialogue remains
firmly anchored in the center, and the bass get a nice boost from time to time, particularly in the
score. It's a solid, serviceable track. Those unaccustomed to regional English accents may want
to turn on the subtitles, because the characters' Manchester accents can get quite thick.
ADDENDUM: It has been reported that several songs were replaced in the the region 2 DVD,
and it appears that those replacements are continued in this region 1 edition, as I can
confirm the most notable: a substitution of "I Can't Change It" by Frankie Miller for The Rolling
Stones' "Wild Horses" in episode 3. While I am never a fan of music replacement, in this
instance, the replacements appear to have done with care to maintain the mood and style.
Although I had seen the original version of episode 3, I had to be reminded of the original
choice of music, because the scene itself is so gripping and the new music fits it so well.
Commentaries. Every episode has a commentary, and I did not have time to do more than
sample them. The commentators are listed below:
- Episode 1: by director Bharat Nalluri, co-creator/writer Matthew Graham and
producer Claire Parker
- Episode 2: by director Bharat Nalluri and producer Claire Parker
- Episode 3: by actor Philip Glenister (DCI. Hunt) and director John McKay
- Episode 4: by actors John Simm (Sam Tyler) and Philip Glenister, co-creator/writer
Ashley Pharoah, director John McKay and producer Claire Parker
- Episode 5: by co-creator/writer Tony Jordan, director S.J. Clarkson and producer
- Episode 6: by co-creators/writers Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah and
director John Alexander
- Episode 7: by actors Dean Andrews and Marshall Lancaster, writer Chris
Chibnail, director S.J. Clarkson and producer Claire Parker
- Episode 8: by actor John Simm, director John Alexander and producer Claire
"Take a Look at the Lawman", pts. 1 and 2 (32:44, 31:10). An in-depth documentary tracing
the show's development from conception to airdate, a process that took years. It includes
interviews with all the principal cast members, producers and writers (with the notable exception
of co-creator Tony Jordan, who, as one of the most prolific and successful writers in British TV,
was no doubt off somewhere writing yet another show).
Interview with director Bharat Nalluri (2:51). These are obviously outtakes from the interview
footage for "Take a Look at the Lawman". As the director of the series pilot, Nalluri is
responsible for establishing much of the show's look and style, and almost everything he has to
say is of interest.
"The Music of Life on Mars" featurette with composer Ed Butt (14:04). Interview with the
show's composer on his approach to the score, with emphasis on the title song and its distinctive
retro (but not too retro) sound.
"Get Sykes" featurette with production designer Brian Sykes (7:59). The series' production
designer offers interesting observations on the contrast between contemporary and older
approaches to the design of such things as police stations. He also cites an important source for
Life on Mars that is stressed by several key personnel in other extras: the film Get Carter.
Outtakes reel (5:55). Cheerfully uncensored. This is the only extra with video that is not
enhanced for 16:9.
Previews. Disc 1 opens with a general trailer for Acorn Media features, followed by trailers for
the series Rebus and George Gently. These can be skipped via the menu button.
Life on Mars was created by people who didn't want to do yet another cop show unless they
could create one like the 1970s shows they grew up with. If that meant using a time travel
gimmick, so much the better. There is a moment in the pilot episode that perfectly exemplifies
their sensibility. Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt simultaneously reach the same conclusion about the
serial killer case, look at each other, and, without a word, spring into action by leaping over the
desk in front of them and bolting for the police station door, as the camera shifts into slow
motion. It's a corny effect straight out of an old-fashioned show - and it's exhilarating. (It also
tells you a lot about the partnership-of-opposites these two will go on to establish.)
The creators of the American remake spent too much time studying the British original and too
little time studying the cop shows they should have been trying to emulate, shows like Kojak,
Starsky and Hutch and The Streets of San Francisco. As a result, they managed to situate their
versions of Tyler and Hunt in a New York City squad room that looked tidier than the one
inhabited by Andy Sipowicz twenty years later on NYPD Blue, and the city the American Tyler
and Hunt policed bore no resemblance to the mean streets captured with such raw authenticity by
films like Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The French Connection or even The Eyes of Laura Mars.
If you're going to send your hero back in time, bell bottoms and pop songs just aren't enough.
Every element of the hero's world has to reflect the past: production design, cinematography,
even genre cliches. That's how the original series of Life on Mars created the essential tension
that Sam Tyler straddles throughout every episode, and that's what makes it truly original and
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
Velodyne HGS-10 sub
Edited by Michael Reuben - 7/29/2009 at 01:18 pm GMT