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Life On Mars: Series 1

Acorn Media // Unrated // July 28, 2009
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted July 21, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man!
Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
                                    -Life on Mars by David Bowie
The Series:
With the success of the CSI franchise police procedurals are spending more and more time on the science behind solving crimes.  The British show Life on Mars takes a different tack however, sending a current day detective back to the year 1973 well before DNA analysis or even computer databases were in widespread use.  Not only are the differences in police procedures great, but the officer isn't convinced that he's really back in time, and suspects that everything he's experiencing is a dream.
Sam Tyler (John Simm) is a detective in Manchester, England.  He's on the track of a serial killer, one who has just abducted his female partner.  Angry, impatient for a breakthrough, and not sure what to do, he pulls his car over to the side of the road, gets out for some fresh air, and is hit by a car.
He wakes up some time later, but not in a hospital, or even on the side of the street.  He's in an empty lot where they're just starting to break ground for a new expressway.  He hasn't moved physically, but the year is now 1973.  Dressed in clothes of the time, he finds papers with his name and rank on them saying that he's been transferred to the local police station where he had been working in 2006.  Once there he finds that things were quite different back in the 70's.  When they find a fingerprint at a murder scene he's told that forensics will have the report back in two weeks... if they can find a match since the database has to be searched by hand.  After that, Sam suggests looking for finger prints on a body that was found, the rest of the detectives laugh at him.  How can you get prints off of flesh? 
Not only are the investigative techniques different, so is standard operating procedure.  When Sam's boss thinks he's found the perpetrator to a crime, he beats him until he confesses and if that doesn't work he has a stash of drugs hidden away that he uses as plants.  Sam is aghast at these methods and fights them every step of the way, which makes him unpopular with his fellow detectives, to say the least.  He wants to do things by the book, circa 2006, but all of his new-fangled ideas like tape recording interrogations are met with resistance.
If that was all there was to the series it would be a very fine show.  But the creators give it another twist that greatly adds to the show's appeal:  Sam's not sure that he is really in the past.  He thinks he's either crazy or in a coma dreaming everything.  To add to his suspicion he hears voices, people like his mother asking if he can hear her or doctors explaining his condition.  At first it happens when he's asleep or drunk, but soon he starts hearing people calling to him in the middle of the day.  He desperately wants to get back to 2006, but he has no idea how.  So Sam follows the voice's vague directions and keeps on fighting, mainly with his superior officer.
The juxtaposition between the hard-bitten street cop and the modern day officer makes for a great show.  In the first episode, before he's hit by a car, Sam decries that police work is too sterile and lacks the use of gut instinct that was so important in the past.  It's ironic that he gets his wish and finds that going by hunches along is extremely limiting, especially if you only want to arrest actual criminals.
The show isn't preachy however.  The police from 1973, while hard drinking and willing, if not eager, to bend the rules more than a little aren't painted as bad guys, just the opposite.  In several episodes it's the traditional cops who are right, and they even end up saving Sam's life at one point by going against his wishes.  It's this even-handedness that makes the show so enjoyable.
The music they use for the show really adds another dimension to the program.  The soundtrack is filled with early 70's Brit-rock and it is excellent.  Not only is the Bowie tune that the show gets its name from used (it's playing on Sam's iPod when he's hit by the car,) but other big name acts have songs in the show, including Wings.  Not cheesy bubble gum rock, but the real thing.  This helps set the tone for the show but also adds a lot of fun to the proceedings.
The DVD:


The 8 episodes that make up the first season come on four DVDs that are housed in four thinpak cases, which in turn are housed in a nice slipcase. 
I was surprised to find both a stereo audio track as well as a DD 5.1 mix.  The show is centers the dialog on the screen thought the 5.1 mix opens up the soundstage a bit more.  The The voices are clean and clear, though there are one or two times when it's hard to understand every word from a rapidly delivered speech due to the accents.  Luckily there are optional subtitles.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image isn't as crisp and tight as I would have liked, though it does pretty good.  Being a recent show I was hoping the colors would have been a bit brighter and the blacks just a tad darker, but these are more nit-picky problems that any real flaw with the picture quality.  There is some digital noise in a couple of scenes where the sky is predominant in the framing, and a little aliasing, but again, these are minor problems.  When all is said and done this is a solid looking TV show on DVD.  Just not reference quality.
This set includes a fair number of extras which came as a pleasant surprise.  Every episode included audio commentaries by various members of the cast and crew, and there was a nice hour-long documentary on the show, "Take a Look at the Lawman."  This had behind the scenes footage, interviews with the cast, and was a good look at the show. 
"The Music of Life on Mars" took a look at composer Ed Butt who composed the theme and background music.  I was disappointed that they didn't discuss the classic rock that was used in the soundtrack though.  In addition there was an amusing outtake reel.
Final Thoughts:
This story of a modern day police officer who may be trapped in 1973, or might possibly just be mad is a joy.  I haven't seen the American version yet, but I'm sure fans of that incarnation would love this original.  A great police show with a wicked twist that adds a lot to the proceedings, this is a must-own for TV detective fans.  Highly Recommended.
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Highly Recommended

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