Wednesday, March 01, 2006

 

Life On Mars

Strange though it may seem, Richard and I don’t watch that much TV. That is, not that much (other than news) as it’s transmitted – a large collection of DVDs and videos means there’s quite enough to fit in. However, in the last couple of years that’s swung back slightly, and we’ve watched much more new TV. Suddenly, television drama is just more interesting again. 2006’s highlight so far by a long shot has been Life On Mars, which finished on Monday after keeping us gripped for two months. The final episode appropriately resolved two mysteries running throughout to reward regular viewers, but left the biggest one dangling so we stay tantalised and tune in when the series returns next year (so if you’ve not watched it yet but are going to, don’t read the final paragraph of this piece or it might spoil a couple of plot twists).

Life On Mars didn’t just come out of nowhere. Richard and I both love interesting TV, and it’s been depressing how dull and formulaic British drama has been for – well, most of the time we’ve been together. Cop show, doc show, soap, cop soap, doc soap, playing it safe. But thank goodness, signs of life are showing. Spooks has been running about four years, and gradually inveigled Richard, as well as drawing me in from time to time. The real breath of fresh air for us was from the same production team, Kudos, when Hustle started up in 2004. I love The Avengers and many of its freewheeling ITC cousins of the ’60s and early ’70s, and Hustle has such entertaining plots and is such purely joyous TV to watch that it could fit right in with them, albeit having a bigger budget and even more stylish direction, neither of which I’m complaining about. Stars like Adrian Lester and Jaime Murray are every bit as talented and charismatic as any you could imagine being cast if it had been made in 1969 as ‘The Hustlers’, and it’s even got Robert Vaughn in it. The same company’s behind Life On Mars, and in twenty years’ time there’ll be twenty- and thirty-somethings saying, ‘Oh, do you remember those programmes Kudos used to make? They were dead exciting,’ in just the same way people remember ITC now.

In case you think I’m on a retainer from Kudos – chance’d be a fine thing – there’s kudos (sorry) due to another organisation for making it happen. It’s such an enormous relief that the BBC has stopped just playing it safe and started making or commissioning drama to surprise and delight the viewer again, and of course that includes their jewel in the crown, the most-watched non-soap last year, Doctor Who. Obviously I love it and am busily trying to avoid all the plot details whizzing around for the new series coming up in about a month or so, but this time I’m talking about some of the impact Doctor Who has had on television rather than the series itself. By being so good and such a big hit, Doctor Who seems to have given the BBC the confidence to do two things: it’s rediscovered family programming – shows complex enough to satisfy children and amusing enough to distract adults, with high hopes soon for a new Robin Hood – and it’s no longer afraid of series that step outside ‘the real world’. Even ITV had a bash, though their recent Eleventh Hour – not trying to cash in on Doctor Who at all, oh no, with a lead named ‘Professor Hood’ – didn’t quite work for me, or the ratings. I suspect it’s because while on paper the mix of charismatic, established sci-fi star (Patrick Stewart) and paranoid Noughties take on the ’70s series Doom Watch (scientists investigating dangerous science) sounded like a winner, the scripts were leaden and the style was like every other dreary ITV cop chow, so failing to enthuse anyone wanting something different. With its possible explanation of time travel, as well as ’70s nostalgia and a number of sly references, Life On Mars has several nods to Doctor Who, a series that surely paved the way for it. Though its first season has just concluded, like Doctor Who it's been successful enough to have already been given the go-ahead not just for a second series but a third. Hurrah!

If you missed it, you’ll have gathered that Life On Mars was something special (and while the DVD’s not due until the end of the year, you can catch a repeat run in the Monday night / Tuesday morning BBC1 ‘Sign Zone’). In it, modern DCI Sam Tyler is transported back to 1973 after a car accident. Or is he? We still don’t know if he’s a genuine time traveller, insane, in a coma – the character’s belief – or in some yet more bizarre alternative. Is he now the number two in a real 1970s Manchester police division, or is everyone he works with just an aspect of his own mind? And what do the sinister sock puppets have to do with it? Well, I suspect there’ll be no answers to any of that for at least a couple of years, but in the meantime it’s an exhilarating Ford Cortina ride.

John Simm gives a great performance as Sam, a sensitive and logical police officer of today in the world of The Sweeney, simultaneously more straightforward and more corrupt (and it’s interesting to see what level of racism, sexism and homophobia the producers think they can get away with without alienating a modern audience. They’re toned down very much in that order). Despite Simm’s superb performance, usually calm and reliable, often vulnerable, sometimes desperate, his 2006-style ‘realistic’ character is regularly blown off the screen by the larger-than-life ’70sness of DCI Gene Hunt. Philip Glenister – strangely enough, brother of Hustle’s immensely dependable Robert – gives in Hunt one of the most scene-stealing performances of the decade, hugely likeable and very funny, but more than solid enough to avoid becoming the comic relief. One of the more off-the-wall possibilities for the series is that Gene may be real and Sam his conscience, which may be intriguing but which I wouldn’t dash down to put a punt on (though nice policewoman Annie could be there just to tempt our hero). In any case, the clash between their personal and policing styles has really made the show, to such an extent that they even kept me interested the week the plot was about football (and I spent my entire childhood being bored sick by City-United arguments). It’s that good.

Last week’s penultimate episode really racked up the tension, with a death in police custody being covered up, but perhaps because I knew it would be back next year – and assumed he wasn’t going to suddenly wake up in the ’80s instead – the season climax didn’t keep up quite the same pressure, because I didn’t expect it all to be resolved, and it wasn’t. That doesn’t mean it was a let-down, with the running storylines of what happened to Sam’s dad and his fragmented memory of a Don’t Look Now-style red dress both finally paying off. Richard and I may have both guessed the ‘Keyser Soze’ twist, but there were the usual entertaining details like the coppers’ bet that made me laugh, and the final confrontation sent shivers up my spine. It might have had that effect anyway from Simm’s stunning, desperate performance, but the reason it spooked me is that the police track Sam’s dad to Woodbank Community Centre and then chase him through the woods next to it; I recognised the name and building and, whether they actually filmed the wooded scenes in the park next to it or not, I used to play in Woodbank Park in Stockport when I was the age of ‘young Sam’, probably just a couple of years later than this is set (I’m only a couple of years younger than he’s meant to be ‘now’). I suspect few readers will get quite the same buzz, but it’s certainly worth a go. And of course the episode was accompanied by a trailer for the new series of Hustle, so TV continues to look bright.

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Comments:
Very much chimes with my views about recent improvements in TV land. Along with a lot of good new sci-fi from the states such as Firefly and Battlestar Gallactica.

The main problem I have is that I struggle to be in on the same evenings each week. I've only managed to see three episodes of Life on Mars. (This Monday I happened to be at a gig - h from Marillion - and at around 9pm he did a cover of 'Life on Mars'. Spooky huh!)

Thank goodness for DVD box sets.
 
I enjoyed Life on Mars less than pretty much everyone else I know. Not sure why.

I found the finale rather unsatisfying, and surely everyone spotted the Kaiser Soze. It's entertaining but quite uneven, and every episode could stand to be 15 minutes shorter - or to have 15 minute more actual plot.
 
Excellent Bowie-related coincidence, Neil; or do you think he'd set up for it at home?

Shame the DVD's not out for ages, though we've been recording them as we go (and will doubtless buy the 'official' ones when they deign to appear).

I found Firefly - and Serenity - very appealing, but I have to admit that what I've seen of the new Battlestar Galactica didn't excite me; too much like 'the US navy in space'. The old one was dreadful tat, but at least it had a touch of mad mythology and a compellingly hammy villain (as well as Patrick Macnee).

I enjoyed Life On Mars much more than I expected - fearing a cop show with a gimmick rather than the intelligent drama it turned out to be - which sounds like the reverse of Will. I agree the final episode was predictable, but it was well-played... I suspect what sold me on the show was the mix of humour and the almost unique moral dilemmas presented to Sam by 'reality'.
 
Whereas I think I wanted it to be a cop show with a small gimmick. But instead it's an uneasy alliance of the two: plots that are too simple to justify a cop show, and sci-fi elements that are too casual to be of any more than passing dramatic value.

None of which should be taken to mean I don't happily watch and enjoy it. And, I discovered this evening, my mum loves it.
 
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