Season finale: Life on Mars (US)

Out there

Life On Mars US finale

First there was the shock and outrage. How dare the Yanks remake the beloved British crime show Life on Mars? How could it ever be as good?

Then there was the trailer for the US pilot, which provided the answer: “It couldn’t.”

Then there was the pilot, which provided another answer: “It really, really couldn’t.”

Then there was the near complete recasting, shift in location to New York and new plots, which provided yet another pilot and a new answer: “Oh, it’s not too bad, actually.”

Anywat, after jessying it about in the schedules, doing minimal marketing and forgetting to let newcomers know what had been going on in previous episodes, ABC cancelled it, but gave the new producers the chance to wrap it all up.

Given they didn’t want to use the BBC version’s ending, so fans wouldn’t be able to look it up in advance on the Internet, they decided to give us a brand new one instead. So during the final episode, which aired on Wednesday, we found out just why US Sam Tyler had travelled back in time – and this time, it wasn’t because he was in a coma.

I’ll give them something – I wasn’t expecting what they came up with. Big spoilers ahoy.

The US version of Life on Mars has trodden a slightly different path for itself from the British version. The cartoon-like antagonism of Ray was replaced by something more plausible, even if Ray became slightly sillier; Annie became a far feistier woman with an Angie Dickinson haircut; Sam was a less cerebral everyman who began to enjoy his stay in 1973 and tolerated his partners’ behaviour; and Gene Hunt became a more jovial, fatherly figure – albeit one who seemed to have trouble remembering his lines – instead of the sparring partner of the original.

While it did a poor job after the first episode or so of showing the differences between US policing 1973-style and 2008-style, other than the occasional reference and a beating, it did a very good job of depicting 1973 New York. Sepia-tinted and with a soundtrack culled from any 1973 cop show you care to mention, Life on Mars‘ New York was not a desperately nice place to live in, but a fun one all the same.

Still, blown out to a number of episodes it couldn’t quite sustain, the show did meander somewhat. It had a number of sub-plots that didn’t go anywhere (Gene Hunt’s daughter), a number of mis-directs that ultimately proved silly (the ‘Angels’ that weren’t; the phone calls from Hyde), and was a bit empty, but it had more than a few clever touches and weird fake-outs to compensate.

It wasn’t staggering but it was fun.

Life on Mars US

The ending
But the ending. What to make of that?

Talk about literal. A show called Life on Mars and the finale is all about finding life on Mars, even though it was a cop show. You could, in fact, have taken any number of people with Asperger’s Syndrome and they’d have all come up with an ending that was less literal than that one. In fact, it reminds me of the Natalie Imbruglia/Johan Lippowitz video for ‘Torn‘, with basically every line of David Bowie’s ‘Life on Mars’ converted into a plot point.

Is there life on Mars? Let’s find out, because Sam Tyler’s in a spaceship and he’s been given a dream by the ship’s computer to keep him going until he gets there. Oh look, here’s Ground Control. Where’s Major Tom? Oh, that’s Gene Hunt, because we’re going on a gene hunt. And he’s in capsule 2B and the computer’s called Windy like his neighbour.

And so on.

All the same, despite the fact if the existentialist British version had ever done that, there’d have been rioting in the streets, I kind of enjoyed it. It was so off the wall, that even though it didn’t make the slightest bit of sense – if Sam’s program really did glitch and the year is actually 2035, where did all the 1973 New York info come from for the glitch? – it was still fun and a decent conclusion to the show. Gene Hunt is really Sam’s dad; Annie is really commanding the mission – it explains everything and yet nothing. I’d have hoped for a little more, to show that Sam’s dreamworld had had some bearing on the real world, maybe through a shared dream with the others.

Maybe, given more time, they could have built up the plots, with Sam and Annie’s romance and her promotion to detective producing a slight different reveal carrying more import as a result. All the same, it wasn’t bad and it was well executed with a decent budget.

By no means a classic, Life on Mars did at least demonstrate you can do a remake, make it its own beast and still have a relatively decent show.

One question: where was Lisa Bonet? She was credited as a guest star but never showed up. Did I miss her?


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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