Review: Life on Mars / Ashes to Ashes (UK)

Life on Mars

Life on Mars was a two-season UK show from 2006. I had seen the US version from 2008, but I wanted to check out the original since I’d heard it was much better. Spoiler, it is. So much better.

It’s a science-fiction premise where a contemporary policeman has an accident and abruptly finds himself living an alternate life back in the 1970s. Definitely a concept that would appeal to me. He struggles with whether he’s gone mad, dreaming while in a coma, or has actually traveled through time, but the mystery is part of the show’s appeal.

So what did I think of the American version? Well, it’s been a lot of years and I don’t plan on re-watching it, but I’ll go by memory.

US: I remember getting a kick out of the costumes, hair and cars. They mixed in a liberal dollop of hippies. I lived through the era, and I’ve certainly seen enough 1970s Hollywood-based police series and movies to know what to expect. And of course the music plays a prominent role in the experience. But I don’t remember taking the show too seriously. It was just entertainment. Not too deep and not too impressive, but fun.

UK: My overwhelming impression comes from the gut-wrenching sorrow our protagonist feels at his predicament. The sounds of people in Intensive Care keep drifting in from the background. But I’m not well-informed about what life in 1970s Britain was like, so there’s no nostalgic element for me. Sure, they have wide collars, but I don’t even recognize the cars or much of the music. I sort of chuckle but I don’t recognize the stereotypes either. Nonetheless, I really prefer the UK version, as others have said. It’s serious and pulls you in. On the other hand, there’s not nearly enough Bowie in the soundtrack…

Sam and Annie

One thing I’ve written before that I have to repeat here. You don’t get to point a gun at someone. It means you’re willing to take a life. It’s not forgiveable. Writers, you have to understand that. It’s not something you can come back from, or forget. Even if you don’t pull the trigger, you destroy a relationship when you do that. Destroyed. The guy on the other end is traumatized, and will never feel the same way about you again. So don’t have one of our protagonists point a gun at another. Ever.

There’s an amazing scene where a disoriented Sam is using his police badge as a symbolic shield to ward off a murderous attempt to run him down. It’s like a priest holding up a crucifix to drive a vampire back. It’s such a dramatic scene.

The scene also involves a device Sam calls a “Stinger.” He gets to use that familiar time-traveler line, “I didn’t invent the thing. Well, maybe I did.”

Then there’s a Sam & Annie scene with “I Hope That I Don’t Fall in Love With You” playing in the background. It’s sublime.


There’s another scene where Sam makes a call to Hyde 2612 and breaks the fourth wall! They tell him he has to finish his mission, and then he can come home! This is just surreal, and it gets even crazier.

Sam: “Gene Hunt is a tumor in my head.”

Is this the explanation? Frank Morgan has a folder for the “operation” that is labeled as follows:

Operation M.A.R.S.


Accountability and



Morgan: “We have to prove to the public that we’re excising the cancer.”

Then Sam opens up to Morgan, looking for confirmation about being in a coma, and the curtains are drawn back. 1973 Police Morgan had sent Sam in on this undercover operation. He’s lost his memory and replaced it with his undercover identity.

Morgan: “This has happened to you before. Your parents died in a car crash.”

“You were in a waking coma. And then you came back stronger than ever.”

Arriving at a cemetary, Morgan shows Sam some headstones. Morgan says his real name is Sam Williams, not Sam Tyler. His real life, and his undercover identity’s parents’ graves, are also here. As well as the grave of the real Sam Tyler, who died long ago.


So, what does Sam believe? What becomes of him? I have to say that I really prefer the British ending to that of the Hollywood version. The wrap-up may be a bit ambigious, I can see interpreting it in different ways, but as a *story* it’s quite satisfying. All on its own.

And then there was the British follow-up series, Ashes to Ashes.

Ashes to Ashes

The show premiered in 2008 and ran for three “seasons” of eight episodes each. It strikes me that British television has always worked this way, while US television has slowly gone from a season of thirty episodes down to six or eight as well. I hate that. It’s not a series, it’s a mini-series. It’s a vanity movie project that you tell in six hours instead of three. What the hell? I want a thirty-hour season, *that’s* a series.

Alice in Wonderland

This show is set in 1981. So we move from 70s culture to 80s culture. I wasn’t a big fan of the 80s.

The first episode is the best series intro ever. It’s all Alice in Wonderland. Very little ambiguity as to where she is in this one, we see she’s written the word “dead” on the whiteboard without realizing it.

Shaz and Chris

Shaz: You see all the mistakes you’ve ever made in those seconds between life and death.

Sadly, we learn that Sam lived seven more years here in this world but finally died. No Sam in this series, and that’s too bad. Rather spoils the end of his story; he was supposed to stay with Annie *forever*. It’s sad.

Who cares what Frankie says?

Alex pretty much tells everyone at least hints about what’s happened to her. It’s strange because we can’t really know how much she’s said to them. But everyone seems to just roll with her comments as she refers to them as “figments” or “constructs,” and talks about waking up and going back “home” after a few more microseconds.

They play Gene Hunt up like a superhero. It’s amazing and funny as hell. Definitely lends credence to this all being in Alex’ head.

Time for a dance

In the beginning Alex is portrayed as a bit flirty, a bit promiscuous. It seems out of character, but since she thinks she’s dwelling in her own mind I guess it doesn’t matter. The weird thing is that the writers are also presenting Alex and Gene as attracted to each other. The two seem to really appreciate each other. So it’s a bit uncomfortable. Why do shows do this so often? Set up two characters as romantically attracted, and then have one or both of them bouncing mattresses with other people? I don’t find that entertaining. If you set them up as love interests for us, don’t play out screwing it up for us. That’s not why I watch television thankyouverymuch.

I’m also going to briefly mention the British series Utopia. That one overwhelmed me with constant obscentities. Meanwhile Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes restricted themselves to the type of “non-offensive to an American” terms like “bloody.” So why was Utopia so hell-bent on the bad language?

OK, I take it back. Ashes managed to hit a few bad words over its run, too.

Bolly’s an Uptown Girl, get it?

The actors are really great. I haven’t said it before but they never have a false note. Never.

Hunt: We are police officers! We are un-bloody-breakable!

And this series is just as edge-of-your-seat as the first one. So very different from the US version of Life on Mars.

Fire up the Quattro

Holy **** the director of photography. Amazing.

And the tragedy is maintained while we still have the over-the-top satire. Brilliant.

Ah, season three. The precinct has lost the camaraderie because Gene and Alex are no longer getting along. That spoils much of my enjoyment of the show. And soon everyone is at odds, while the new bad guy DCI Keats has promised that everyone will leave Gene in the end. It’s definitely a different mood, and without that esprit de corps the show is less fun, there’s less impact.

But the series finale is magnificent. Truly magnificent. Watch these two series, the BBC’s Life on Mars and then Ashes to Ashes. You’ll thank me.



Some of the magic is gone as Alex begins to distrust Gene and even turn against him. But there’s also a sense of impending doom that helps balance that out. They begin to see stars as if they were astronauts at the edge of the universe. Ray sings Danny Boy, about being dead, and the soundtrack swells menacingly. Chris talks about how everything is falling apart and their world is changing beyond recognition. In fact, the sense of the world is that it’s growing smaller and smaller. There are some discordant bits that can be hard to stomach, such as Hunt behaving really badly towards his flock. But counter-balance that with Gene and Alex being drawn together again for their date. Pity it doesn’t work out.

Anyway, back to the finale. The gang rallies in the end. It’s hard to believe that they had ever lost their loyalty to Gene, but at least it comes round right. Bittersweet since it is the end, but it’s good to see. It’s nice to hear Shaz has recovered enough to tell Chris she loves him, one last time. But of course the highlight of the entire series is Alex and Gene’s final dialogue. If you’re not in tears for this part you’re inhuman. Philip Glenister is amazing as he gives us a completely new Gene Hunt personality. Keeley Hawes gives such a consummate performance, she should’ve won all the awards. When she delivers the line about staying with Gene…

And I have to note that while I didn’t like the character of DCI Keats here in season three, his final portrayal including snarls was genuinely creepy.

So if you’re reading the spoilers you’ve already watched the series, right? Comment below and tell me how you agree that this is simply the greatest television series ever.


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