Just when you thought it was safe to turn off the telly, along comes Life On Mars. It was always thus. On the eve of destruction cometh the series.

Who in their right minds would go for the pitch?

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"There's this copper in Manchester. Well, he's a detective, plain clothes, had a bust up with his girlfriend - ex-girlfriend - no matter, when he's hit by a van in the street and ends up in a coma in hospital. You don't see this, you hear it, occasionally, like sound flashbacks, while the guy, this by-the-book policeman, finds himself in 1973 in the local cop shop, having to deal with life then, especially the misogynistic, violent, boozy, totally non-PC attitudes of the CID, when falsifying evidence, manipulating confessions and beating up prisoners is right bloody on, mate."

OK, it's a Western. Justice and procedure is what the sheriff decides and the sheriff in this town is DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), a hard drinking, heavy smoking, foul mouthed, autocratic, rule breaking bully. The Shane figure, the stranger who arrives out of nowhere with a conscience and a weird belief in evidence, is DI Sam Tyler (John Simm) and the girl who knows her place and becomes his friend, despite having to listen to delusional outbursts about coming from the future, is WPC Annie Cartwright (Liz White), whose advise is never lacking common sense ("You're not lost. You are where you are. Make the most of it"), nor short on sympathy.

At first, the exaggerated otherness and chaotic work methods at the police station appear as realistic as an alien invasion. The title may relate to a David Bowie song, but could just as well describe Sam's eye view of his hometown 33 years earlier. Slowly, as he is thrown into cases of murder, kidnapping, armed robbery and corruption, he learns to adjust. "Can't change the world, Sam," Hunt tells him. "Only learn how to survive within it."

Unlike the cop shows of the period, such as The Sweeney, in which rule bending was an acceptable weapon in the CID's armoury, this is not a buddy-buddy, male bonding, sexist exercise in laddish extremism, because Sam's relationship with Hunt has a fierce competitive tension that tends to deteriorate into fisticuffs and verbal accusation, when Sam's methodical methods come in conflict with Hunt's instinctive gut feelings. Also, there is the knowledge, never far away, of the hit-and-run victim somewhere in the now of Sam's unconscious, ready to snuff it, or bring him back home.

The writing is inspired and the performances sublime. It is dangerous to think such a thing, let alone say it out loud, but no one could be better suited to their roles than Simm and Glenister. If there is one hint of frailty in an almost perfect first series, it is Sam's involvement with his real family, especially in the last episode when he attempts to persuade his father to stay and not do a runner at a time when his son (Sam) is four-years-old, while his grown self assumes the persona of a caring policeman, who just happens to share a surname.

Break the law if necessary to obtain a copy of Life On Mars. It's worth getting nicked for.

Reviewed on: 17 May 2006
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A police detective in 2006 finds himself in Manchester in 1973.
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Stephen Carty *****

Director: Bharat Nalluri, John McKay, S J Clarkson, John Alexander

Writer: Matthew Graham, Ashley Pharoah, Chris Chibnail

Starring: John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster

Year: 2006

Runtime: 472 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


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