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Life on Mars: Series 2

Acorn Media // Unrated // November 24, 2009
List Price: $59.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted November 17, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Series:
Brilliant!  That's my review in a nutshell.  The second season of the British show Life on Mars is one of those programs where everything comes together perfectly to create some great television.  I was a little worried about watching this final season after seeing the American remake which was good but had an incredibly horrible ending.  Would the UK version manage to tie things up in a satisfactory way, and would the quality of the first season carry over to the second?  The answer to both questions is 'yes'.  Not only are this season's episodes just as good as the first season's, but the final episode wraps up the series perfectly and is one of the best hours of television that I've seen in a long time.
Series Background:
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 from the town of Hyde to the local police station.  The same one he had been working in up in 2006.  Once there he finds that things were quite different back in the 70's.  It takes weeks to get a finger print report back, and most of the common place investigative techniques that he was used to haven't been invented yet.  Not only are the 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 are met with resistance. 
To make matters worse, Sam is 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.  He's sure if he can only figure out why he's in 1973, he can get back to his own world.
This season:
The season starts off with another clue, or red herring, to Sam's real condition when he gets a call from Hyde.  He gets a few enigmatic calls where someone will tell him to 'hang in there' and that he's doing a good job and that he'll be able to come home soon, but he's not sure what concrete action he should take.  He has the number traced, and when he rings it the voice on the other end tells him not to call anymore, that's not the way the system works.
While he's trying to figure out just how to get back home, Sam is also being useful in 1973.  In one case an Indian who owns a record shop was found shot in his store.  Gene Hunt, Sam's boss, and the other detectives write it off as a drug killing since there was a small amount of Heroin found in his pocket.  Sam isn't so sure.  He thinks it's a hate crime since the man who was shot had been beaten by local skin-heads in the past.  The two constantly butt heads over the path the investigation should take, especially over whether or not to allow a competing drug dealer torture and kill the shot man's brother in order to find out where the drugs are coming from.
Another good episode has Sam trying to figure out what happened in an old case.  A man's wife and child are kidnapped in broad daylight.  He receives a ransom note stating that the man who was arrested and confessed to a murder over a year ago is actually innocent and that if he isn't set free by a certain time, the woman and her daughter would be killed.   Sam wants to go over the old case and see what they missed, while DCI Hunt wants to go out and crack heads in search of the missing innocents. 
The great thing about this program is that not everything is black and white.  Sam isn't always correct in his assumptions and Gene isn't always wrong.  The thing that neither of them realizes is that together they're able to solve crimes that would have eluded each man separately.  It's this dynamic between Gene and Sam that keeps the show interesting and engaging. 
The show really starts to pick up in the last few episodes of the season, building towards a great climax.  In the penultimate episode Sam hears a radio broadcast telling him that he has a brain tumor and that Dr. Morgan is going to operate, though he's not sure if Sam is strong enough.  That same morning Sam gets a call from Hunt.  After a night of drinking after loosing a criminal case, Gene woke up in the home of the released defendant, who has been shot dead with Gene's gun.  The officer has no recollection of what happened, and he asks Sam to lead the investigation.  To add to Sam's problems a new Chief Inspector has been assigned to replace Hunt during the investigation, DCI Morgan.
Spoiler Warning:  The rest of this review will talk about the final episodes and give away some plot points.
While the final episode of the US version was hackneyed and stupid, the UK version gets everything right.  Still hearing radio and TV broadcasts from Dr. Morgan telling him that he has to be strong in order to get back to his own time, DCI Morgan calls him and says that for the operation to be a success, Sam has to take down Hunt and his renegade department.  Then he can go back to Hyde. 
After growing close to Hunt and the other detectives over the past two years, does he have the strength to betray them?  But if they aren't real people, just figments of his tumor-riddled mind, betraying them wouldn't be wrong, would it?  Sam goes about getting the evidence he needs to pass to DCI Morgan while the rest of the department investigates a tip-off they have that a payroll train will be robbed. 
After Hunt lets the tipster get killed and beats his coworkers to find out who is behind the robbery, Sam has a good amount of evidence and passes it to Morgan.  He lets the other officer know that he's really a doctor in 2006, and that he's looking forward to getting back, when Morgan tells him that he's suffering from amnesia.  The car accident at the beginning of the series caused him to forget his past and hear voices, something that happened to him as a child.  He's taken to a cemetery where he sees his parent's graves and across from them the graves of the Tyler's, a name he stole while going under cover. 
But, if this is the real world, and he is just mad, then he'll really be betraying Gene and the rest of his friends.  The stress of not knowing what to believe is almost too much for him, and then things get worse.  
End of Spoilers
This is just a great series that I totally enjoyed.  As I mentioned in my review of the first season, the juxtaposition between the hard-bitten street cop and the modern day officer makes for a great show.  The push and pull between Gene and Sam made for great drama, especially since viewers could relate to both characters.  That's because 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 closer to the truth than Sam.  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.
One of the fantastic things about it was that they did wrap up the ending when they could have easily gone on for a few more seasons.  As the creators mentioned in one of the extras, the prospect of milking the show for several more years was very appealing.  After all steady work in the field is hard to come by.  They decided to side with their craft rather than going for the money however.  They figured it would be better to go out while they were on top instead of waiting until the show lost it's quality and they were cancelled.  They made the right decision. 
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.
Like season one, this set includes a fair number of extras.  One thing I really, really, liked about the bonuses is that Acorn included a spoiler warning in front of the ones that gave away significant plot developments.  I wish other studios would do that too.
Disc one has the longest featurette, The Return of Life on Mars.  This 45 minute documentary talks with the cast and crew and looks at the second season including the problems associated with having to following up a hit first season.
The most enjoyable bonus item though was The End of Life on Mars a nearly half-hour long look at the last episodes.  The writers/creators, director, and cast and more talk about the genesis of the episode, when various people knew how it would end, and discuss some of the ideas that were discarded. 
In addition to that there are three episodes have behind-the-scenes reels (episodes 3, 5, and 7) and there's also a tour of the sets on disc three. 
Final Thoughts:
This is one of those shows that are just flawless.  With all of the drama of a good detective show and the mystery of just what's happened to Sam Tyler, there's never a dull moment.  The first seven episodes in this season are all excellent, but the final episode achieves greatness.  With a deep internal conflict for Sam to wrestle with and everything explained in a very satisfactory way, the final episode is just fantastic television.  This season is actually better than season one.  Add to that the great bonus materials and solid presentation and this must-buy set earns the DVD Talk Collector Series rating.
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