Life on Mars — Killer TV No.36

BBC, 2006-2007
‘A word in your shell-like… Don’t ever waltz into my kingdom playing king of the jungle.’
– DCI Gene Hunt
‘Who the hell are you?’ – DI Sam Tyler
‘Gene Hunt, your DCI, and it’s 1973, almost dinner time, and I’m having hoops.’ – DCI Gene Hunt
John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews
Identikit: A detective has an accident and is plunged 33 years back in time to an era when policing was more ‘robust’.
HIGH-CONCEPT crime drama – time-travel being the concept – that won a following through its freshness and cheekyness, principally in the character of Gene Hunt, the 1970s cop with unenlightened views on everything from women to coppering. Played with gusto by Philip Glenister, this throwback to 70s shows such as The Sweeney was the show’s star, making a straight man out of John Simm’s Sam Tyler, the contemporary cop pitched back in time. Sam, circa 2006, is distracted when his girlfriend, also a detective with Greater Manchester Police, is abducted by a killer. While David Bowie’s Life on Mars plays on his iPod, he is hit by a car – and wakes up in flares and butterfly collars on his shirt, with Life on Mars again playing, this time on an 8-track tape in his new car, a 1970s Rover P6. ‘I need my mobile,’ he tells the PC who finds him. ‘Mobile what?’ Plod responds. And so Sam finds himself part of Gene Hunt’s team, investigating a killer who may be related to the killer who has abducted his girlfriend in 2006. The first series is great fun, with Sam struggling with voices coming from his telly, apparently from a doctor treating him while he is in a coma in 2006, dealing with Hunt’s instinctual approach to crime solving – ‘Anything you say will be taken down, ripped up and shoved down your scrawny little throat until you’ve choked to death’ – and trying to find his way back to the present day. The culture clash between Sam, used to do everything according to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, and bullying, bigoted, boozing Gene was beautifully written and played. The series – created by Tony Jordan, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharaoh – juggled its crime plots and Sam’s story well, but is best-remembered for the chance it offered to chortle at the good old/bad old days when women were ‘birds’, offices were thick with fag smoke and fingerprints took two weeks to process. Forgotten how we used to booze heavily at work? Gene reminded us – ‘I’ve got to get down the pub and give the papers a statement, and if I don’t get a move on, they’ll all be half cut.’ Two series of Life on Mars were followed by three further series of 80s-set Ashes to Ashes, with the focus on Keeley Hawes’s Alex Drake, but the retro-novelty and humour deflated during this run. Still, inspired mergings of the crime and sci-fi genres are rare, particularly ones with characters as memorable as Gene Hunt – ‘What I call a dream involves Diana Doors and a bottle of chip oil.’ It won an International Emmy for best drama in 2006 and 2008.
Classic episode: The finale of the first series was emotional and clever, with Sam coming across his parents in 1973 and trying to prevent his father, Vic, from running away, which he thinks will enable him to emerge from his coma. Gene reveals that Vic is a ruthless gangster, and Sam’s flashbacks through the series are revealed to be memories of his younger self that he only now remembers.

Watercooler fact: Life on Mars was remade in America, lasting one season; in Spain, where it was called The Girl from Yesterday; and Russia, which gave it the title The Dark Side of the Moon.

More of the Killer 50

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Third degree – Sam Millar

Belfast crime-writing ace Sam Millar is the first novelist to be hauled down to 
crimetimepreview headquarters for questioning. Sam has published six novels, 
including The Redemption and The Darkness of Bones, as well as the 
award-winning memoir On the Brinks. Here he reveals how Sean Penn 
might have portrayed him on the big screen…
 
Your favourite British crime series or thriller on TV?
 
Life on Mars. I was totally hooked from the very first show. One of those 
rare classics that only hits our screen every decade, if we’re lucky.
 
 
Favourite US crime series or thriller on TV?
 
Always loved The Sopranos, but then came the brilliant The Wire, and
knocked them off the top of my list. 


Top TV cop?
 
Columbo. Oh, one more thing...
 
 
Which unfilmed book/character should be made into a TV drama?
 
Er, my Karl Kane series of books, which accidentally, are being considered 
as we speak by Carnival Films. Sorry for such grovelling self-promotion.
 
 
If one of your novels were filmed, who would you cast to be the hero?
 
Liam Neeson, would be the obvious choice, as Karl Kane is a Belfast PI. 
But when Warner Brothers bought the rights to my memoir, On The Brinks
they were looking at Sean Penn to play me, which I found slightly bizarre, 
if highly complimentary.
 
 
What do you watch with a guilty conscience?
 
Mad Men. I hate smoking and sexism, but I’ve become totally addicted 
to the show and all its vices and non-pc jargon.
 
 
Least favourite cop show/thriller?
 
Heartbeat. A paradox title for a show with very few actors’ hearts 
actually beating.
 
 
Do you prefer The Wire or The Sopranos?
 
The Wire (sorry, Big Tony).
 
 
Marple/Poirot or Sherlock Holmes?
 
Poirot.


Wallender – BBC or the original Swedish version?
 
The Swedish version. I find it grittier, even though fellow Belfastian, 
Kenneth Branagh is in the BBC adaptation and doing a fine job.
 
 
Your favourite crime/thriller writers?
 
So many great ones, it’s hard to be selective. Cormac McCarthy, 
Nelson DeMille, Jon Land, Declan Hughes, and two powerful crime 
writers to watch out for in the future: Leigh Russell (Road Closed
and James Thompson (Snow Angels). 
 
 
Favourite non-crime/thriller author?
 
Graham Greene. Timeless writing.
 
 
Favourite crime movie or thriller?
 
 
I have two. No Country for Old Men, even though it wasn’t 
half as good as the book, and The Long Good Friday, arguably 
the best British gangster movie ever made, for my money.
 
 
 
You’ve been framed for murder. Which 
fictional detective do you want to call up?
 
Jim Rockford. He mightn’t get me off, but 
he’s cheap!

Sam Millar’s latest Karl Kane novel is 

‘The Dark Place’
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