Of the many things about the 1970's that I really disliked living through, cop shows and movies that glorified police violence and disrespect for the law were pretty high up on the list. Starskey & Hutch, Dirty Harry, and Serpico all depicted police officers who worked on the premise that the ends justified the means.
Who cares if you had to beat the crap out of a suspect, lie to, or threaten them in order to obtain a conviction; as long as you got the bad guy in the end that made it all right. I couldn't help wondering then, and now, what kind of example those shows were giving when their message was it was okay to break the law as long as you were doing it for the right reasons.
Needless to say I don't share any of the nostalgia for the 1970's or early 1980's that has fuelled movie versions of Starsky & Hutch or Miami Vice. All of which might make it seem odd that I would have been interested in checking out a police procedural that was set back in those dark days. However, all you have to do is watch the first of eight episodes in the four DVD pack Life On Mars: Series One put out by Acorn Media earlier this year, to know this is going to be a completely different take on 1970's policing.
The premise of the show might sound a bit far fetched, a modern day British cop falls into a coma in 2005 and wakes up to find himself having been transported back to the mean streets of Manchester England in 1973, but the result is some of the most brilliant television that I've seen. Not only does it depict the tension you would expect between cops of the two eras, it does a credible job of having them conduct investigations into crimes, all the while sustaining the question as to what the hell is going on with the central character.
Is Sam Tyler (John Simm), the cop from the future, lying in a coma thirty odd years in the future and all this is a figment of his imagination? Or maybe he has somehow fallen through some chink in time that has allowed him to travel into the past? On the other hand he could be an officer from the 1970's who has suffered a head injury which has left him delusional. For although episode one opens in modern day Manchester with him going about his duties as a Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) in the Criminal Investigation Division (CID), by the time it ends his new reality as a Detective Inspector (DI) thirty years back in time, is every bit as convincing as the former.
Part of what makes 1973 so believable are the people populating it. Chief among them are Tyler's new boss DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). On the surface Gene appears to be your stereotypical 1970's copper, leading with his fists and filled with every racial and gender bias in the book. Gene isn't above planting evidence on somebody in order to get a collar -"Anybody I stitch up deserves it". Needless to say twenty-first century, scientific, and very clean Sam Tyler doesn't see exactly see eye to eye with Gene about his methodology which leads to quite a bit of yelling and the occasional punch up.
However, while Gene's bluff exterior isn't hiding a sensitive soul underneath, we soon discover appearances are not only deceiving, there's a bloody good reason for them. First of all Gene doesn't have any of the technology at his disposal that Sam or today's cops have. Forensic science that we take for granted like lifting finger prints from skin don't exist. Gene and his cops have to rely on what their "snouts" (informers) can tell them, their instincts honed from years working among the criminal classes of Manchester, and catching the guilty party either red handed or getting them to confess.
While both Sam and us are appalled by some of Gene's methodology, we gradually begin to understand him more with each episode and see what drives him so relentlessly. He takes any crime committed upon his streets personally and desperately wants to clean them up. Although he gets royally pissed off with Sam, he appreciates what he stands for and his abilities as a cop. There's one brilliant scene between the two of them where Gene talks about how he came to start accepting "backhanders" (bribes). When Sam asks him how it makes it feel inside he replies "like there's a creature inside eating away at me", and is happy to kill the creature when Sam gives him the opportunity by bringing down a local gangster.
While Sam and Gene are the leads, the supporting cast, Police woman Anne Cartwright (Liz White) Detective Sergeant Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Detective Constable Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster) are equally important to the series. Carling thinks he knows what his "guvnor" DCI Hunt is all about, but only sees the rough and tumble exterior and not the brain and heart at work underneath, which leads him into making a horrible mistake. Skelton is torn between being interested in the new ideas Sam is suggesting about police work and not wanting to risk alienating his mates by chumming up to the new boss and doing anything that might look different from the way everyone else acts.
Anne Cartwright could be a love interest, but more importantly she's a friend and acts as Sam's conscience by forcing him to consider what's more important to him - his procedures and "how things should be done" or his friends and the consequences of his actions. However, unlike the rest of the men she works with, Sam doesn't treat her walking into the room as an excuse for making dirty jokes, and doesn't think her gender makes her less intelligent then the rest of them. So although she treads carefully, over the course of the first series we begin to see her come out of her shell and taking a more active role in investigations.
As he's conducting investigations into murders and robberies Sam Tyler is also continually dealing with coming face to face with his "past". In various episodes over this first season he meets his mom, hears the voice of his younger self once or twice, and, finally, his father is a suspect in the final episode of the year. Sam "remembers" his dad mysteriously vanishing when he was young, and as the episode unfolds he realizes that he is not only going to be solving a crime but is about to discover what happened to his father all those years ago. Near the beginning of the case he latches on to the hope that maybe this is the reason he's been sent back into the past - to prevent his dad from leaving - and perhaps if he can do that he'll be able to go home. Back to the present.
Each of the fours discs are in widescreen format and come with optional cast and crew commentary. There are also various special features scattered throughout the four disc set including a very good two part documentary about the making of the series that includes interviews with the writers, producers, and cast members. I'd advise not watching it until after you've watched the series so as not to ruin any of the surprises in store during the show.
Life On Mars does an amazing job of weaving together the three story lines; the clash of police techniques, the actual investigations themselves, and Sam's quest to understand just what the hell is going on with him. A combination of great writing, even better acting, and a refusal to either glamourize the violence of the 1970's coppers or make Sam's character a saint, make it not only a great police procedural show that's surprisingly funny, but also amazingly credible. With the action being so believable, it becomes even more difficult to understand what Sam is actually going through and by the end of Series One we aren't that much the wiser. Life On Mars: Series One is as marvellously produced piece of television as you're going to see in a long time and leaves you definitely wanting more.
(Originally posted October 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.