Six Degrees of Who: Life on Mars

Life on MarsWhen I turned 16, I took a job at a local video store… you know, back when VHS was still a thing?  Anyway, I landed the job because of a connection I had with the owner of the shop: we were both Doctor Who fans.  I used to record episodes and bring them to him, so when I needed a job, Doctor Who played a part in helping me land one.  It’s amazing how fans will help one another, huh?  While working for him, he once told me, “Don’t recommend what you like.  Recommend what they like!”  This was counter-intuitive to me, but I learned the secret.  Now, when people ask me for TV show recommendations, I know how to advise them, and one show that turns up over and over again is the UK version of Life on Mars.  Back in 2006, I stumbled on an article about it in Entertainment Weekly and they gave the show an A rating, so it was no surprise that I tracked it down.  At least back then, that kind of praise from EW was a sterling endorsement.   Since this upcoming week we will be completing the run of Martha Jones episodes, I felt the time was ripe for a 6 Degrees article!

As many of you probably know, 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a game people play where any actor can be linked back to Kevin Bacon by no more than 6 movies.  Well 6 Degrees of Doctor Who takes that same principle and applies it to our favorite show.  And in this case, we don’t have to go more than one “degree” to find connections.  Of the main cast, Marshall Lancaster played Chris Skelton in Life on Mars and a member of the flesh in Doctor Who’s The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People.   But more importantly, there’s John Simm, aka the Master, as lead character Sam Tyler.  I wonder if he ever knew, he’d be in the bestselling show just a year later!

Life on Mars is a god-awful small affair of 16 episodes broken out over two seasons of eight episodes each.  It’s the story of a cop, Sam Tyler, in 2006, who is working on a missing person’s case, when his girlfriend and fellow law enforcement officer is abducted.  Stressed, he steps form his car and into the path of another.  He wakes to find himself in 1973.  Is it a sunken dream?  Was 2006 the dream?  Is Sam in a coma or has he truly transported back in time to 1973?  If so, why?

What he encounters… it’s the freakiest show in law enforcement where procedures are out of bounds.  Sam reports to Gene Hunt, played amazingly by Philip Glennister.  Together, the pair make up one of the best cop duos in history.  Gene is a no-nonsense kind of guy who could spit in the eyes of fools and has no issue beating up the wrong guy.  Sam tries to reel him in with procedures that he learned from a more enlightened era, but between the criminals and his peers, the mice in their million hordes, they might have something to teach Sam too.  The cast is rounded out by Lancaster’s Chris Skelton, Dean Andrews as Ray and Liz White as Annie.  It’s an outstanding cast and I’m certain you’ll be looking for the clearest view as you’re hooked to the silver screen!

But the real essence of the Six Degrees is the premise of the show.  You’ve got the lawman traveling through time fighting crime.  The rest of the force make up his “companions”.  If this doesn’t sound familiar, it should.  We’ve lived it ten times or more through each incarnation of the Doctor.  From the first episode of Doctor Who when we watched those cavemen go, he’s been fighting injustice, just as Sam and Gene do.  Just a bit more politely…

The ending wraps things up beautifully and leaves us just enough to speculate over.  I won’t spoil it here, because it’s absolutely worth the 16 hours.  The soundtrack is fantastic too, and asks us to focus on some of the best of 1970’s music.

It was clearly on America’s tortured brow so Life on Mars was writ again for the American audiences, but it had an ending that was so “left field” that it ruined an otherwise solid piece of storytelling.  Where it succeeded was having veteran actors Harvey Keitel and The Soprano’s star Michael Imperioli, actors struck for fame, but even they could not compare to Glenister and Simm.  Beyond watching Keitel and Imperioli, it was a saddened bore by comparison to its UK counterpart.  But the US version took a page out of the Doctor’s future by trying to answer its own “oldest question, hidden in plain sight”.  It just lacked something that the UK version had!

Unlike Doctor Who, Life on Mars could not tell a different type of story each week.  What it did do well was take us on a fantastic journey with very memorable cast of characters to an interesting time from our past, and that alone made it a magnificent trip.   ML

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1 Response to Six Degrees of Who: Life on Mars

  1. Mike Basil says:

    I watched Continuum for a time with its similar SF mystery/dramas. Such a premise about a law enforcer who’s adventurously displaced in time, with all the ensuing issues and without the great wisdom of Dr. Who or Sapphire & Steel, is more exciting when we see the SF hero adapt to new and extraordinary circumstances. Because the SF adventure you don’t actually ask for earns all natural realism in the same way a non-SF adventure or thriller does. My mother enjoyed Life On Mars and John Simm in the role. So thank you for this review.

    Liked by 1 person

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