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Time travel has long been a key theme in science fiction, from the classic H. G. Wells tale The Time Machine and through cinematic outings such as Planet of the Apes to cult television shows like Doctor Who and Quantum Leap. In some of those stories, the future can be altered by meddling with the past, either with malicious intentions (The Terminator) or purely by accident (Back to the Future), while others feature a fixed timeline in which fate cannot be changed.
A man-made device is often used to assist with the journey through time, a vessel of some kind such as a car or a pod, but in those instances when science is not a factor in the fiction, sometimes a character will awake stranded in another time with no memory of how they arrived there.
In BBC’s Life on Mars, which aired over two series through 2006 and 2007, the man in question was Sam Tyler, a modern day cop who is hit by a car and wakes up to find himself in 1973, where his own values and knowledge of police investigation immediately conflict with the world around him. Unsure on whether he has really travelled in time or if he is really lying in a hospital bed and creating this reality in his comatose state, Sam is convinced that if he fights the corruption around him then this symbolic act of survival will assist in his struggle back to the real world. In Life on Mars, there is no science, no time machine and no plausible way for him to return home. Instead, he is haunted by voices and images from the future, in which voices appear to be guiding him through his recovery, but the longer he remains in 1973 the harder he finds it to decide which reality to believe in.
At its essence, Life on Mars was a police procedural drama, with the central concept being a twenty-first century police detective using his modern day policing to influence his fellow officers in the 1970s. Each episode focused on a particular case, in which Sam and his new boss, then angry and misogynistic Gene Hunt, would investigate and often argue over the facts surrounding a new crime. But the continuing story arc that ran through both series was Sam’s continued mission to return to 2006, while also encountering family members from his childhood, such as his parents and the family of his future girlfriend, who are unaware of his true identity. The main theme in Life on Mars was the conflict between modern day and nostalgia, as well as the masculinity of Gene Hunt and the sensitivity and intelligence of Sam Tyler, and how despite his reluctance to embrace this alternative reality, in truth he has never felt more alive.
Life on Mars first began in Blackpool during the late 1990s, when three young writers were sent away for a weekend to develop ideas for a long-running television series. Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah had all started their writing career in the early 1990s on the popular soap opera EastEnders, before making a name for themselves on various different projects; Graham on This Life and Jordan with Boon, while Pharoah was the co-creator on Where the Heart Is, which ran for almost a decade until its conclusion in 2006.
Having grown tired with being writers-for-hire, the threesome were desperate to create their own show and soon came to the attention of Kudos Film and Television, then still in its infancy but destined to become one of the most successful production companies in the country. The company’s founders, Jane Featherstone and Claire Parker, were eager to develop new ideas and so agreed to send Graham, Jordan and Pharaoh away for three days, all expenses paid, to have brainstorming sessions in the hope of creating something unique and exciting.
During their time in Blackpool, the three writers spent their time in the bars and arcades before retiring to their hotel room to mull over ideas that they were to pitch upon their return. Most of the evening would be based around discussing their mutual love of ’70s cop shows, specifically The Sweeney, a gritty drama which featured John Thaw and Dennis Waterman as no-nonsense members of London’s Flying Squad, who indulged in car chases, shoot-outs and fist fights as they fought against crime and corruption.
Taking its cue from Z-Cars, a long-running police drama that first aired in the early 1960s, The Sweeney was broadcast during the same time as its American, counterpart, Starsky and Hutch, and was heavily influenced by movies such as Get Carter, Dirty Harry and Bullitt. Using this as a springboard, Graham, Jordan and Pharaoh developed an idea about a detective who travels back in time following a car crash and finds himself in the 1970s, which they pitched under the name Ford Granada. Kudos seemed a little underwhelmed by the concept of a science fiction cop show and the idea was subsequently shelved, although the three writers refused to lay it to rest.
After unsuccessfully pitching the story to the BBC, Ford Granada looked set to become a future production for Channel 4, with Graham constantly rewriting the script as the premise was fleshed out even further. Tom Page, the cop sent back through time, soon became Sam Williams, his Christian name taking from Graham’s young son, who was born around the time that they had visited Blackpool, but after asking for suggestion from his daughter, Williams soon became Sam Tyler. Another surname considered was Hunt, although this was eventually used for the other principal character Gene, who during development was originally known as Burrows.After several years of their story languishing in development hell, they finally decided to return to the BBC, approaching Julie Gardner of BBC Wales, who at that time was working on resurrecting the long-dormant Doctor Who. Despite its unusual premise and retro feel, Gardner was impressed by their concept, which now bore the name Life on Mars, and immediately set about finding the right cast and crew to bring the show to life.
Sam Tyler, a Detective Chief Inspector in the Greater Manchester Police, is the lead investigator in a series of brutal murders of two young woman, Lauren Chester and Bettina Mitchell, which leads to the arrest of Colin Raimes. But due to insufficient evidence he is released back onto the street when the suspect is able to provide an alibi for one of the nights in question, but Tyler’s detective and girlfriend, Maya Roy, is unwilling to let the case rest and pursues Raimes, only to disappear.
After almost causing a collision, Sam steps out of his car to calm himself but is suddenly hit by a speeding vehicle and left for dead by the side of the road. He wakes some time later to find that he is wearing different clothes and the world around him has changed. Checking his wallet, he discovers a police badge which identifies him as Detective Inspector Sam Tyler. Heading back to the station, he walks in to find a smoke-filled room full of aggressive, arrogant cops ruled over by the no-nonsense DCI Gene Hunt. Under his command are his loyal sidekicks, the arrogant Detective Sergeant Ray Carling and the naïve Detective Constable Chris Skelton.
Although at once he finds himself coming to blows with Hunt and Carling, Tyler, who is believed to be a transfer from the Hyde division, finds an immediate connection with one of the young officers, Annie Cartwright. Despite her reluctance to believe his claims to be from the future, Annie takes Sam under her wing and, fearing for his sanity, tries to help him come to terms with his recent accident. The character of Annie started life as Michelle Standing, a psychiatrist who tries to uncover the truth behind Sam’s condition, but during the rewrites she was adapted into Annie, a sweet-natured but under-appreciated officer who is often mocked and ridiculed by her male superiors.
But during the progression of the show, Graham decided that the only way to justify her constant presence in the stories was to promote the character to the CID. The growing relationship between Sam and Annie becomes one of the show’s main subplots, as well as the strained friendship he has with Gene, whose ‘old school’ techniques and misogynistic and racist attitude often conflicts with Sam’s more logical and sympathetic approach.
The casting of Sam Tyler would be one of the most important elements during the pre-production, with the character being the main aspect of each plot point and every scene, and so a specific kind of actor was required to take on the role. John Simm, who was born just three years before Life on Mars was set, was best known for the cult movies Human Traffic and and the Manchester-set 24 Hour Party People, in which he portrayed Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and New Order fame. Graham had envisioned Simm when he had first begun to flesh out Sam Tyler, and Simm was no stranger to television, having appeared in such varied shows as Clocking Off, Spaced and State of Play. Philip Glenister, who would become a favourite among fans for his crude humour and lack of subtlety as Gene Hunt, was another veteran of the small screen, starting out with small roles in Minder and The Detectives, while his other credits would include Hornblower and Calendar Girls.
Throughout the sixteen episodes of Life on Mars, the relationship between Tyler and Hunt was a focal point, often varying between close friends and bitter enemies as their loyalties between each other are repeatedly tested, by either Tyler’s resentment of his superior’s methods or Hunt’s disinterest in his young DI’s suggestions for change. The only member of CI who seems open to Tyler’s somewhat radical investigative techniques is Skelton, the kind-hearted younger member of the team who often feels under pressure to emulate the behaviour of both Hunt and his friend Carling. Tyler senses the potential of Skelton, but Hunt refuses to allow changes to be made to his department and often responds with hostility and anger. Despite the tension, even up to the final moments, Tyler is finally allowed to show his loyalty to his colleagues when it matters the most, sacrificing his freedom in order to return and save their lives.
While there is a constant ambiguity regarding how Tyler had travelled back to 1973 and what was his reality, it is revealed in the final episode that since his accident he had been lying in a coma in hospital, while doctors attempting to remove a tumour from inside his head. This cancer-like growth is compared to Hunt, who is represented as a disease within the police department that threatens to spread corruption around the force. Frank Morgan, who is introduced as a replacement DCI while Hunt is being investigated for murder, at first claims to also be from Hyde, but it is later revealed that he is in fact the surgeon in the hospital who has been trying to return Tyler back to the real world.
After returning to 2006, Tyler struggles to deal with reality and, wanting to honour his promise to Annie that he would not leave him, jumps from the roof of the police headquarters and finds himself moments later back in 1973. The truth behind this alternative world would not be fully explored until the final series of the sequel Ashes to Ashes, in which Detective Inspector Alex Drake, who has been investigating the events surrounding Tyler’s mysterious suicide, finds herself launched back to 1983 and the world of Gene Hunt.Life on Mars made its debut on Monday 9 January 2006, airing on BBC 1 at 9pm, over seven years after Graham, Jordan and Pharaoh had first conceived the idea back in a small hotel in Blackpool. The show became an unexpected success, scoring surprisingly high figures for a new show and gaining acclaim from magazine and newspaper critics. While the BBC had been willing to renew the programme for a third series, the creators feared that the story and characters would outstay their welcome and wanted to bring everything to a conclusion while it still felt fresh.
Mixing elements of the police procedural, supernatural and even western genres, with the vast abandoned and crime-ridden landscape echoing the Wild West, Life on Mars felt original and unpredictable, despite starting life as a carbon copy of The Sweeney. Its success would soon result in an American remake produced by ABC, in which Simm and Glenister were replaced with Jason O’Mara and Harvey Keitel. Its original pilot had been a failure, resulting in an overhaul of cast and crew, but when the series was finally aired it failed to make the same kind of impact as its predecessor and left many fans feeling under-whelmed. As Gene Hunt once said, ‘The public don’t care what we do, just that we get the job done!’