Life on Mars tells the story of DCI Sam Tyler of the Greater Manchester Police (played by John Simm), who, after being hit by a car in 2006, finds himself in the year 1973. There, he works for Manchester and Salford Police CID as a DI under DCI Gene Hunt (played by Philip Glenister). Over the course of the series, Tyler faces various culture clashes, most frequently regarding the differences between his modern approach to policing and the more traditional methods of his colleagues. Mixing the genres of science fiction and police procedural, the series centres on the ambiguity concerning Tyler's predicament: it is unclear whether he is insane, in a coma, or if he really has traveled back in time, as Sam himself acknowledges in the opening. The series won a BAFTA Audience Award in 2006.
A sequel to the series, Ashes to Ashes, began transmission on BBC One in February 2008, and concluded in 2011 after three series. Also, a US remake of the show was commissioned by ABC, and the first episode of that series was transmitted on 9 October, 2008.
Life on mars is also now an A-level media text, following on from it being a GCSE media text, which students must research and understand audience contexts of.
The programme was originally conceived in 1998, when writers Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah were sent on a break to the seaside resort of Blackpool by Kudos Film & Television, later best known as the makers of Spooks and Hustle, to come up with new programme ideas. Originally titled Ford Granada, after the popular car of the 1970s, the series was rejected by the BBC. "Back then, broadcasters just weren't comfortable with something like that, something that wasn't set in the real world and that had a fantasy element to it," Graham later told SFX Magazine. The initial idea at this time was for a more humorous, pre-watershed series that overtly mocked the styles and attitudes of the early 1970s in England, with comic actor Neil Morrissey envisaged as the central character.
Later, Channel 4 drama executive John Yorke picked up the script and it was substantially redeveloped, with the emergence of the double act between the two main characters, Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt. However, senior management eventually decided not to pursue the idea. "[Channel 4] people just said 'It's going to be silly'," Graham later told the Radio Times. However, the series eventually attracted the attention of the BBC Wales Head of Drama, Julie Gardner, who in turn persuaded the overall Head of Drama at the BBC, Jane Tranter, to commission the programme for BBC One. John Yorke left Channel 4 to rejoin the BBC, and together he and Julie Gardner acted as joint commissioning editors on the show for its entire run.
The programme's central character was originally to have been called "Sam Williams", but Kudos felt that this was not striking enough and asked Graham to come up with an alternative surname (This would later be referenced in the final episode of series two.) Asking his young daughter for her opinion, she suggested "Sam Tyler", which became the character's name. Graham subsequently discovered that his daughter had named him after Rose Tyler from Doctor Who (another BBC Wales programme, for which he would later write the episode "Fear Her"). The initial geographical setting was to be London; this was then changed to Leeds, and finally to Manchester, as part of a BBC initiative to make more programmes in that city.
Production and transmission
The eight one-hour episodes of the first series were broadcast on BBC One on Monday nights at 9:00 pm. The series was mostly written by its creators, Jordan, Graham and Pharoah. The fourth writer on the first series was Chris Chibnall. For the second series, Graham, Pharoah and Chibnall returned to write episodes, joined by Julie Rutterford, Guy Jenkin and Mark Greig. The second series transmission day was moved to Tuesday night rather than Monday.
Filming for a second series for BBC One started in April 2006. According to Jane Featherstone, the show's executive producer, speaking in February 2006, a film version of the show was also a possibility: "Life on Mars was a very high concept idea and there was no doubt it would work on the big screen.", although as of 2014 this has not been pursued.
On 9 October 2006, it was confirmed that the second series of Life on Mars would also be the last. Matthew Graham stated, "We decided that Sam's journey should have a finite life span and a clear-cut ending and we feel that we have now reached that point after two series." Graham's claim that two separate endings had been filmed was later revealed to be a ruse.
The second series had a distinctive style of introduction on BBC One: after a brief collage of momentary images, such as several test cards and the late comedy writer/broadcaster Barry Took, a mock-up version of BBC1's 1970s blue-on-black rotating globe ident (with a blue 'BBC1 Colour' caption underneath) was used, although the design had to be modified to fit widescreen sets. This was accompanied by a bass-voiced continuity announcer in the style of that era. Viewers in Wales saw an original 'BBC Cymru Wales' mechanical globe with introductions provided by former BBC Wales announcers. Trailers for the show also used the 1970s style, including the rhombus-style BBC logo.
The first season of Life on Mars was broadcast in the US on BBC America, to favourable critical reviews, from July 2006 to August 2007. The second season aired from December 2007 to January 2008. It also aired in Canada on BBC Canada from September 2006 to April 2007, on Télé-Québec from 8 January 2008 to 23 April 2008 (French version), and on Showcase. Both North American transmissions were slightly edited for commercials and the US version also omits some nudity and language from the programme.
In New Zealand the series was shown from February 2007 on TV ONE, and was described by stuff.co.nz as "sensationally well-made." Series Two was shown in New Zealand from June 2008, with the final screening on TV One on 4 August 2008. In Australia the first series began on 20 May 2007, and the second on 14 February 2008, both on ABC Telivision. In Ireland, RTÉ Two began broadcasting the series in June 2007 in a late-evening slot, following RTÉ News on Two.
The show has also been transmitted in Sweden (a cut version on SVT 2), Netherlands (Nederland 3), in Germany (Kabel 1), France (13ème rue), Spain (Antena.neox) and Israel (Hot). Sub began broadcasting Life on Mars in Finland in April 2008, and ATV World started broadcasting the show in Hong Kong on 13 July 2008.
In February 2007, The Guardian's media site reported that producer David E Kelley was to develop an American version of the series for the ABC network. Spanish Television network Antena.neox bought the rights from the BBC, and will remake the show and base the first series 4 years later than the U.K version, in 1977 post-Franco Spain. 
The programme's soundtrack features many early 1970s songs, as well as an original score composed by Edmund Butt. The show's title is taken from the David Bowie song "Life on Mars?", which features prominently; it is playing on the iPod in Sam's Jeep Grand Cherokee when his accident occurs and on an 8-track tape in a Rover P6 when he awakes in 1973. "Life on Mars?" also features in the final episodes of each series, and is played over the end credits of the last installment. Matthew Graham admitted that initially there were some worries over whether the production team would be able to license the song, which, had they been denied it, would have necessitated retitling the series. Another Bowie song, "Space Oddity", is used in BBC trailers for the series. In several episodes, DCI Gene Hunt adopts the name "the Gene Genie", referencing another famous David Bowie song, "The Jean Genie".
The show's creators were initially refused permission to use "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney and Wings but, according to Graham in the Radio Times, "We sent the episode direct to Paul McCartney. Almost immediately, his assistant phoned back and said, 'Paul loves it. You can go ahead and use it.'"
Life on Mars revolves around the experiences of Sam Tyler, a Detective Chief Inspector of Manchester police in 2006 who, after being hit by a car, wakes to find himself in 1973. Unsure whether he is mad, in a coma, or if he has actually gone back in time, he finds he is a Detective Inspector in the contemporary police force, and has just been transferred from 'Hyde' to the Manchester and Salford Police CID to serve under his new DCI, Gene Hunt. The surreal situation Sam finds himself in causes him immense stress, but he remains a committed, decent police officer who rigorously follows (twenty-first century) police procedure.
Sam's strait-laced and modern manner, however, brings him into constant conflict with Gene and his team, who prefer old-fashioned methods of policing. Gene is an old style cop, not scared of throwing a few punches to get a result. He is also happy to frame people regardless of whether the evidence points to them or not, to manufacture or destroy evidence in pursuit of a result and, at least initially, to accept bribes. Sam describes him as "overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding" (Gene's reply: "You make that sound like a bad thing.") Gene is supported by the team of DS Ray Carling and DC Chris Skelton. Ray, although loyal to the force, is portrayed as a misogynistic bully and serves as an antagonist towards Sam throughout the series. Chris, in contrast, is a cheeky but likable character, who finds himself torn between the modern (Sam) and the old-fashioned (Gene).
Due to Sam's conflicts with Gene, Ray and Chris, the only person in 1973 who he can truly confide in is WPC Annie Cartwright. Annie serves as a romantic interest for Sam, though she is frustrated by his confusion about his situation. According to Liz White, "She gets very tired of his constant talk about how this situation is not real, that they are all figments of his imagination — she can only explain it as psychological trauma from his car crash.". The character's presence and eventual promotion provide a way for the show to explore the extent to which female officers of the time were undermined, underused, and harassed.
Themes and storyline
Each episode begins with a monologue from Sam, in which he says "My name is Sam Tyler, I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home." Subsequent events convince Sam he is in a coma, and as he continues to try to understand his situation, he begins to look more for what he has to do to get home.
Sam's uncertainty is reinforced by frequent encounters with seemingly paranormal phenomena. He regularly hears, on radios, television sets and telephones, "voices from the future" discussing his medical condition, apparently from people and machines around his hospital bed, leading him to believe that he is in a coma. But other elements suggest that he is, in fact, insane, such as his frequent — and unexpected — encounters with the Test Card Girl (a manifestation of the young girl — Carole Hersee — from Test Card F), who speaks to him directly: "Do you not like me with my clown? I can see I make you frown. When on Earth will all this end? I'm your friend, your only friend." Annie Cartwright, on the other hand, strives to convince Sam that the remarkable amount of detail and tangibility in the world in which he finds himself is evidence that he is, in fact, really in 1973.
A recurring motif throughout the series is the overlapping of past and present. In episode six, for example, Sam hears the voice of his mother (in 2006) saying his life-support machine will be switched off at 2:00 pm. He is immediately called to investigate a hostage-taking where the perpetrator will start killing his victims at precisely the same hour. Sam also occasionally encounters people in 1973 whom he knows in the "real world" of 2006 including suspects, friends and his own parents.
Another major theme in the series is Sam's conflict with the attitudes of the 1970s, in particular, his "time-warped, good cop/bad cop, odd couple" relationship with DCI Gene Hunt. Sam is from a more politically correct era, where suspects' rights and the preservation of forensic evidence are more stringently observed. This frequently leads to clashes with his counterparts in 1973, when sexism, racism, police brutality and institutionalised minor corruption are casually regarded as routine parts of the job.
The series frequently uses dramatic irony, in the form of jokes about a future the audience already knows, but which the historical characters do not. For example, Gene Hunt declares, "There will never be a woman prime minister as long as I have a hole in my arse."
The final episode depicts Sam waking from his coma, only to find the modern world devoid of feeling compared to his life in 1973. He ultimately takes a joyful leap from the top of the police station, returning to the past. Writer Matthew Graham wrote the scene to indicate that Sam is now in the afterlife, but acknowledged that the ending is ambiguous and open to other interpretations, such as lead actor John Simm's belief that Sam may not have returned to the present at all. The first episode of sequel series Ashes to Ashes shows Sam's personnel file, which is stamped "SUICIDE".
In the final shot, the team drives off, with Sam and Gene bickering as usual. Children run past, including the girl from Test Card F. She looks directly into the camera before reaching out and "switching off" (from her side) the television the viewer is watching, signifying that the story has come to an end.
Depiction of 1973
In an interview John Stalker, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester in the early 1980s, and himself a Detective Inspector in 1973, has stated that the depiction of the police "has got nothing to do with real policing in the 1970s. It could not be more inaccurate in terms of procedure, the way they talk or the way they dress. In all the time I was in the CID in the 1970s I never saw a copper in a leather bomber jacket and I never heard an officer call anyone 'guv'. ... Actually, there were a few police officers in London who started to behave like Regan and Carter in The Sweeney, but that was a case of life following art, not the other way round." Journalist Ray King, who interviewed Stalker, notes that this depiction of the police can be defended if we assume that Sam is indeed in a coma, and that we are seeing his imaginary idea of 1973, filtered through 1970s cop shows.
When Sam Tyler first finds himself in 1973 he awakes on a building site, beneath a large advertising hoarding, proclaiming the construction of a new motorway, the Mancunian Way. In reality, this motorway was completed in 1967. According to Matthew Graham, writing in the Radio Times, the error was deliberate. "We knew that this road was built in the 1960s, but we took a bit of artistic license." Minor historical anachronisms such as this are apparent throughout Life on Mars. Some, as above, were made out of artistic license whilst others were deliberately inserted to confuse the issue of whether Sam Tyler was in a dream or had gone back in time. Many anachronistic slips however, such as visible modern street furniture (e.g. cable television cabinets, satellite television dishes, CCTV cameras, and double-glazed uPVC window frames), were unintentional. In the DVD commentaries for the series the programme makers acknowledge these as errors but also point out they are in fact perfectly feasible, given Sam's situation. As the popularity of the series grew, the hunting of such anachronisms became a favourite pastime among Life on Mars fans.
There are many references to the 1939 MGM production of The Wizard of Oz. In the first episode, Sam tells Annie he intends to, "follow the yellow brick road," to escape his situation. When Sam tentatively asks if Gene Hunt is able to send Sam back home, he is mockingly told "The Wizard'll sort it out. It's because of the wonderful things he does". Gene also occasionally refers to Sam as "Dorothy", ostensibly as a reference to what Gene perceives as Sam's effeminacy (the term Friend of Dorothy is a euphemism for a gay man), but also as a nod to Sam's belief that he is living some kind of Oz-like fantasy. The pivotal character Frank Morgan (played by Ralph Brown) is both Gene's nemesis in 1973 and Sam's surgeon in 2006, echoing the similar dual roles played by actors in the Oz and Kansas sequences of the 1939 Judy Garland film, The Wizard of Oz; principally, actor Frank Morgan who portrayed Professor Marvel in the Kansas sequences and the Wizard (and other minor characters) in the Oz sequences. In the final episode of the series, the song "Over the Rainbow" features prominently upon Sam's return to 2006 and later, when Sam and Annie kiss, a rainbow can be seen in the distant sky. The East Manchester town of Hyde is used as Sam's former police division as a clue that his 1973 self is an alter ego, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Critical reaction to the first series of Life on Mars was extremely positive. Steve O'Brien, writing for SFX, declared, "It looks like BBC One has... a monster hit on its hands... It's funny... and dramatic and exciting, and we're really not getting paid for saying this." Alison Graham, television editor for the Radio Times, described the series as "a genuinely innovative and imaginative take on an old genre." James Walton of The Daily Telegraph commented, "Theoretically, this should add up to a right old mess. In practice, it makes for a thumpingly enjoyable piece of television — not least because everybody involved was obviously having such a great time." Sam Wollaston of The Guardian wrote: "Life on Mars was more than just a jolly, tongue-in-cheek romp into the past... Once there, in 1973, we find ourselves immersed in a reasonably gripping police drama — yes, The Sweeney, perhaps, with better production values... Or put another — undeniably laboured — way, as poor Sam Tyler walks through his sunken dream, I'm hooked to the silver screen." Although Peter Paterson of the Daily Mail reflected the views of many other commentators on the first episode when he wondered, "Can its intriguing conceit be sustained over eight one-hour episodes?", critical reaction remained generally positive throughout the programme's run. Of the second series, Alison Graham believed that "Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt are shaping up nicely as one of the great TV detective partnerships... It's vastly enjoyable and manages to stay just about believable thanks to some strong writing and, of course, the two marvellous central performances." Although Nancy Banks-Smith, in The Guardian, felt that the time-paradox aspect of the programme had become somewhat confusing.
Banks-Smith summed up the programme's success as "an inspired take on the usual formula of Gruff Copper of the old school, who solves cases by examining the entrails of a chicken, and Sensitive Sidekick, who has a degree in detection."
Two days after the final episode's transmission, Life on Mars was attacked in the British press by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, who claimed that Gene Hunt's use of homophobic insults in the programme could encourage copycat bullying in schools. The BBC stated that Life on Mars was targeted at an adult audience, and argued that Hunt's characterisation was "extreme and tongue-in-cheek".
Life on Mars was also a success in terms of viewing figures. The first series achieved an average audience figure of 6.8 million viewers and regularly won its timeslot, despite competition from ITV1's comedy-drama series Northern Lights. The first series' finale gained 7.1 million viewers and a 28% audience share.
Viewing figures for the second series disappointed at first, with the first episode only attracting 5.7 million viewers, slumping to 4.8 million viewers by episode three, despite being heavily trailed and publicised. These figures were blamed by The Stage on "poor scheduling and unfortunate sporting fixtures, possibly combined with high expectation". Audience figures picked up during the second series' run, however, with the final episode gaining an average of seven million viewers (a 28% audience share), despite competition from UEFA Champions League football on ITV1.
In November 2006, the first series of Life on Mars won the International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series. In January 2007 it won the Best New Programme category at the Broadcast Magazine awards.
Series one was nominated for a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) in the Best Drama Series category. John Simm was also nominated as Best Actor for his work on the show. The programme won the audience-voted Pioneer Award.
In October 2007, series two was nominated as the Most Popular Drama at the 2007 National Television Awards.