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Life on Mars: Series Review

Gene: "I think you've forgotten who you're talking to."
Sam: "An overweight, over the hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding."
Gene: "You make that sound like a bad thing."

This series is a gem. When I first rented it, I was expecting a procedural cop show with a science fiction twist. And it is. But it's so much more than that.

John Simm gives a brilliant, multi-layered performance as Sam Tyler, an unhappy detective chief inspector in 2006, who is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. He's still Sam Tyler and still working at the same police station – but things are much, much different. What has happened to Sam? Is he insane, in a coma, or is he truly stuck in the past? Life on Mars is especially intriguing because of the way Sam's old life in the future seems to be connected to his current life in the past. Did God toss him back to 1973 in a sort of homage to Quantum Leap so that Sam could fix what was wrong in 2006, really really early?

Sam Tyler is a professional, by-the-book, science-and-procedure sort of cop. His new boss Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister) is a sloppy seat-of-your-pants go-with-your-gut cop who flirts with corruption to get the job done. Like Simm, Philip Glenister gives a brilliant, multi-layered performance, with one addition: he is exceptionally funny. I think I fell in love with Gene Hunt in the pilot episode when he told three kids in the street that if they didn't watch his car and make certain nothing happened to it while he was gone, he would go to their house and stamp on all of their toys. Sam's continuing conflict with Gene as the two of them try to work together is the heart of the series.

Utterly confused about what has happened to him, Sam confides in a police constable named Annie (Liz White), who, unsurprisingly in the 1970s, is treated as a brainless twit because she's a woman. Sam's relationship with Annie is satisfying because he naturally treats her like an equal, and she begins to respond like one.

So we have mystery, drama, comedy, and intriguing fantasy elements, as well as some subtle romance. We have really cool music from the 1970s (the title of the series is a line from a David Bowie song). And we have a truly poignant story. As I watched the series, I began to care deeply about Sam and what was happening to him. I couldn't wait for the series finale, and dreaded it at the same time.

I'm sure all you British fans who read reviews on my site have already seen Life on Mars and are going, well, duh, of course it's brilliant, Billie, where have you been? So I guess I'm speaking mostly to my American readers who never caught this series on BBC America. If you like intelligent, well-written, well-acted fantasy with heart, I highly recommend this show. It's not a huge commitment, either, since the entire run consists of only sixteen episodes.

Actually, that's the only thing wrong with Life on Mars. It was over way too soon for me.

There's a spinoff series called Ashes to Ashes which is not yet available on Netflix. I've nearly decided I don't want to try it; I sort of want to leave my love for Life on Mars as it is, unsullied by any other stories in the same 'verse. There's also an American version of Life on Mars that lasted only one season, too. I have no desire to try it at all. Should I try either, or both? I'd be interested in hearing your opinions, so please – comments welcome. (As always. I love your comments. Even when you tell me I'm being pissy.)
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.


  1. All hail the Gene Genie!!!!

    Absolutely love Life on Mars. Without a doubt one of the best shows of the last decade. Great characters, great stories, great music, great car!

    Ashes to Ashes is certainly worth a try, Billie. The first season is a little weak but it gets much better by the second with Gene on top form ("He shot my car! You shot my car you twat!" :). The third and final series is due to start soon over here. Hopefully the ending will be as good as Mars.

    Don’t bother with the American version. It’s mostly just remakes of the British episodes and Harvey Keitel is too old, too short and too wrong for Gene Hunt. The final twist at the end is truly laughable as the producers took the title a little too literally.

  2. I love Life on Mars but you really have to check out Ashes to Ashes. I know a lot of people who never enjoyed it because John Simm isn't in it, but personally I thought it was fantastic.

    The way they wrap up the entire first season (haven't caught up on the second yet) is incredible and way beyond what they accomplished in Life on Mars.

    Also Gene Hunt is even funnier, if that's even possible

  3. I would also recommend Ashes to Ashes. The first season takes some time to get used to, especially because it's the 80s, which are not so appealing, but the fact that it's London instead of Manchester is a good change too. And it won't be a big commitment either, it will last only 3 seasons of 8 episodes

  4. I think i'm gonna agree with the other posters, Billie. I loved Life on Mars and while Ashes to Ashes is very different i would definately give it a go. For me personally, as a child of the 80's, Ashes to Ashes has more familiar points of reference but the real reason to watch is Philip Glenister. He's just phenomenal.

    As a UK viewer i chose to avoid the American version of Life on Mars because i was convinced that it couldn't work. And foreign remakes really annoy me, particularly when the original is brilliant. From what i can tell i made the right choice.

  5. Gotta agree with everyone else. The only negative thing I have to say about Ashes to Ashes is that it removes some of the ambiguity from the last episode of Life on Mars. Apart from that, it's superb.

    There's a great on-screen chemistry between Alex Drake (AKA Bolly Knickers) and the Gene Genie. Plus, they ramp up Gene's un-PC personality to pants splitting proportions as the series goes on. He gets better with every episode. You know when you've been Quattroed!

  6. I personally love Ashes to Ashes, even though I was iffy about it the first time of watching. You have to keep in mind that they are two completely different shows and Life on Mars is always going to be better. But it's pretty entertaining and the Alex/Gene will-they-won't-they aspect is fun.

    As for the US version of Life on Mars...I watched half of the pilot and switched off, and have tried several episodes since, with the same effect. It plays it too safe; Gene is not Gene; Sam is far too bland and cliched. My opinion is they tried to improve on perfection and failed. America should stop trying to remake great English shows and focus on making original American shows, which is what Americans are good at anyway! Most of the time :)

  7. Hey Billie,

    THANK you so much for recommending this :DDD I just finished the first ep and I am so in love with it. It has weird but lovable characters+ an intriguing mistery plot. Without ur review I possibly never would have watched it, cuz I remember reading about it a few times but somehow I filed it under "just another cop show" and thats definatly wrong.

    Once again Im happy I found your blog a few years ago, it really opened up the world of great television for me :D Who knows if I would have ever gotten into anything else but Buffy otherwise, hehe. A big hug from overseas, I do love u ;D


  8. Thank you all so much for all the positive recommendations of Ashes to Ashes. I've put it in my Netflix queue and will definitely give it a try when it becomes available. And I'll skip the American version. I was fairly sure I would, anyway.

    Mona, thank you so much for your lovely comment. I started writing reviews like these because of my love of the shows, but comments like yours are a big reason why I keep on writing.

  9. Ashes To Ashes is a great series and does get better in it's second season. Plus Gene is more fleshed out as well.

    Billie, best not bother with the American version of LOM. It's just naff. I tried it with an open mind and even I couldn't stick with it.


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