Life on Mars US (TV, 2008)


The second US attempt at an adaptation of Life on Mars. From Death Ray 16.

Writers: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Scott Rosenberg.

Starring: Jason O’Mara, Harvey Keitel, Jonathan Murphy, Michael Imperioli, Gretchen Moll

 US translation of hit BBC mystery show has second stab at success.

Life on Mars US is a straight enough port of the UK’s beloved show – there’s no danger of anyone asking incredulously if this is, indeed, Life on Mars. Initially at least, the plot follows that of the UK version closely. However, we know that this will change. The most interesting thing about the series will be to see how.

First off, this is the second version of a US Life on Mars. The initial pilot was a subtler affair to that broadcast, New York-located rejig, preserving much of the Beeb’s original’s clever ambiguity. Version two takes great pains to making sure the audience knows what is going on. There’s a lingering shot on Sam Tyler’s iPod, for example, showing us the title of the song Life on Mars as David Bowie belts it out. This, and Sam’s opening monologue, aim to let audiences know exactly why the show is called what it is. Tweaks to dialogue make the concept further explicit in version two. Many of the changes are those that make it an easier sell; bigger name actors, a shorter present-day segment among them. There’s more humour in the second version, though nowhere near the amount found in the UK series, and overall the series whiffs a little of American earnestness. The first handled the police procedural better, seeming tauter and more engaging, the second is more concerned with Sam’s dilemma. There is, in the main, a lot less drinking than in the original in both.

Maybe it’s just because we have seen it all before, but neither Life of Mars US is as engaging as the UK version, though of course it’s the ongoing one that we’re more interested in. Keitel, at 69, is too old for Gene Hunt, he lacks the fire and anger of Phillip Glennister’s original reading, although he’s a better fit than Colm Meaney. Similarly, Jason O’ Mara’s Sam is more caught up in his own predicament, whereas John Simm’s Sam exhibited a greater sense of outrage at the way his new colleagues conducted police business. The chemistry between the two leads is, however, strong. A benefit to the show being a remake is that the roles of Chris Skelton and Ray Carling are closer to what they are in the UK’s Ashes to Ashes than in the initial run of LoM. They’re less comedic, and play a larger part in the show from the off. Michael Imperioli’s Ray Carling in particular presents a formidable foil to Tyler, sometimes friendly, at other times utterly hostile for being passed over for promotion in favour of Sam. Imperioli, massively ‘tached and with a leonine mane of hair, has awesome screen presence, his Ray a million miles from the cuddly, occasionally vicious meathead we know and love from the BBC’s series.

This different weighting of characters carries on right across the board. Though the focus is still on Sam and Gene, this is more of an ensemble show than its forebear, Annie has more time, and there’s a new character, Sam’s hippy neighbour.

Will Life on Mars be a successful as it has been in the UK? It’s hard to tell. On the whole, it is less of a cartoon than the UK version, but is correspondingly less entertaining. The concept is perhaps not robust enough to sustain 22 episodes over several seasons. How long audiences can hang on without some kind of definitive answer is hard to guess. If the simplified nature of the second version of the show is anything to go by, ABC probably think “not long”. As yet, we’ve seen none of the “political issue of the week” that the original exhibited, either. We’ll give it time, but, with a  three million viewer drop-off between week one and two, will the audience?

And a review of the finale to the same series, from Death Ray #19. This was combined with a brief review of the opening of series two of Ashes to Ashes.

TWO AND A HALF STARS

The US version on Life on Mars, cancelled, takes a rather literal turn. SPOILER ALERT! We really blow the whole thing here. Meanwhile, back in 1982 DI Drake has a new set of problems to tackle.

Either the finale of the US Life on Mars is a stunningly daring piece of television, or it’s bollocks. Jury’s out. If you plan to watch it, turn away now, because there is a gargantuan spoiler on its way…

…now. Okay, so the final episode has Sam under pressure. His younger self has been kidnapped by his criminal dad Vic. Meanwhile, the mysterious phone voice that has been bugging him throughout the series gives Sam three tasks to complete if he wants to go home. Vic is confronted and shot dead as he’s about to kill Sam, after revealing that he knows Sam is his son. Annie ‘No Nuts’ is promoted to detective, she and Sam kiss. Sam tells the phone voice to get stuffed, because he likes 1973. This transpires to be the final task, and Sam is returned home… to 2035! He’s been on board a spaceship to Mars all along. What?!

We’ll be honest here and say we did not see that coming.

Sam’s been in a VR dream for the trip to Mars. He chose to be a cop in 2008, but the ship was rocked by a meteor storm, so Windy (who is actually the ship’s computer) had to tinker with his adventure, er, by sending him to 1973. The space probe that Sam kept seeing is a ship-board minibot. The ‘gene hunt’ is that for Martian ‘genetic DNA ‘ (um, is there another kind?). Annie is in command of the mission, and Keitel turns out to be Major Tom(!), Sam’s dad.

No doubt the writers will one day come clean as to whether or not they planned this from the beginning. For now, in favour of this being the intended denouement is the regular appearance of the space probe, Ray calling Sam ‘spaceman’ consistently throughout and young Sam being fascinated by space. On the other hand, if the references to hospitals and inference of angels are red herrings, they are members of a suspiciously coherent shoal. The cast make the most unlikely band of astronauts ever, while NASA would never put a warring father and son on board a long-term mission together (Sam’s time in the ’70s is sold to us as a big metaphor for filial/ paternal conflict). It makes very little sense, especially with all the scenes where Sam is not present (who’s experiencing them, eh?). The tasks are weak. There’s a flashforward to 2010, out of place alongside the ultimate denouement, and lots of silly justifications for the slang used throughout. Most egregious is the feeble “I was supposed to be in 2008” explanation for why Sam’s so au fait with the period, and that nearly breaks the concept. Wry Bowie quotes are shoehorned in quick succession to foreshadow the ending, only for Elton John to sing us out. As you’d expect, most of the plot points from earlier episodes are left guttering, like, well, candles in the wind.

It’s a brittle resolution, but to say they had to wrap it up all of a sudden, it does the job. A decidedly odd end to a mostly inferior remake.

Back in blighty, Ashes to Ashes restarts, reminding us all how much better the original franchise is. Everything about it: the dialogue, chemistry, pacing, time travel and police procedural aspects are superior. It’s better not only than the pale US shadow of Life on Mars, but also, actually, than the first season of Ashes, better balanced and less prone to self-parody, the first season’s great weakness.

Alex is still in 1982, though it looks like her bullet-riddled future self has finally been discovered, offering her hope, but a tough vice case sets up an almost Red Riding level of corruption in the Met for her to deal with (looks like an ongoing subplot to us). Most worrying of all, it appears she is perhaps not the sole visitor from the future (hey, we said there could be some kind of Quantum Leap style evil leaper, didn’t we, didn’t we? Hah!). There’ll be no spaceship in this one, that’s for sure, the real Gene Genie is back.

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