TV on DVD: “Life on Mars” (The Original BBC Series)

Written by Television, TV on DVD

Last year, both seasons of the original BBC series, Life on Mars, were released in the U.S. to little press, despite the fact that the show is considered one of the finest of the last decade. Acorn Media has done a splendid job with these two DVD sets, maintaining the integrity of the show by presenting them uncut and keeping the original music from the series. Fans of the show who only saw it when it aired on BBC America (with commercial interruptions) will be thrilled to see the show with a crisp video quality.

The premise of the show is as follows: Sam Tyler is a modern day Manchester detective who gets struck by a passing car and wakes up in the year 1973. Is he in a coma, time traveling, or just plain crazy? Tyler quickly realizes that in order to solve the mystery of his new surroundings he’ll have to fit in. This means taking up residence in the police squad  run by DCI Gene Hunt, a bullying, bad ass, take-no-prisoners cop who’ll do anything to solve a case, even if it means beating the crap out of a suspect or planting evidence. Tyler also meets the lovely Annie Cartwright (Liz White), a sympathetic policewoman he trusts and for whom he develops feeling.

Life on Mars was remade in the States last year by ABC and it failed to capture the viewers it needed to stay on the air. While the ABC version of Life on Mars maintained some of the mystery and intrigue of the original show, it was hurt in the casting. No matter what actors were placed in the roles of Sam Tyler and DCI Gene Hunt, no one would ever be able to capture the essence of the characters like John Simm (Tyler) and the brilliant Philip Glenister (Hunt), who originated the roles. These two actors so embodied their roles that it would seem that the characters were written for them.

Such is not the case. In fact, Life on Mars was kicked around for about 7 years before it found a home on the BBC. The series creators, Matthew Graham, Tony Jordon and Ashley Pharaoh, had wanted to produce a show that paid tribute to classic British cop shows, like The Sweeney, and American action series like Starsky and Hutch. Combined with the sci-fi element of Life on Mars’s premise, the creators had a unique and risky venture on their hands. Fortunately the BBC allowed them to make their show they way they wanted, with the music and look of the 1970’s intact.

Simm is a wonderfully expressive actor whose ability to go from super pissed to emotionally shattered in a matter of seconds is remarkable. The show hinges on the fact that we have to believe this man fell out of his time and into 1973. If you don’t believe what Tyler is going through; in other words, if Simm doesn’t make you feel his exasperation, his anxiety, and his anger, then everything else about Life on Mars fails. Simm played Sam so superbly that it was nearly impossible for Jason O’Mara (a fine actor in his own right) of the ABC series to succeed.

Likewise, no one else could have played Hunt. No one.  Simply watch the first episode and you’ll understand why. It’s not just that Glenister carries himself like an old school, bad ass cop from the 70’s. No, it’s that he commands every scene he is in, which says a lot since Simm is so good. Glenister does not make Hunt one dimensional, though. While the other supporting characters in the squad room veer toward stock character roles, Hunt is as important to Life on Mars as Tyler. That’’ where the influence of shows like Starsky and Hutch and Streets of San Francisco can be felt. A bond develops between Hunt and Tyler that begins with respect and eventually evolves into brotherly love. When the series draws to a close (with a definitive end), Tyler’s ultimate decision is partly based on his feelings about Hunt.

Technically, Life On Mars really captures the feel of those classic 70’s shows it is trying to emulate. Having grown up watching the American cop shows the creators were inspired by (I would throw Baretta into that mix, as well), the look of Life on Mars, from the camera angles to the car chases to the manner in which the actors carried themselves are pitch perfect.

Both DVD sets come with plenty of bonus features that make purchasing or renting these collections well worth your wile. Series 1 includes: audio commentary with the cast and crew on every episode; an excellent hour long documentary that details the history of the show; a feature on the music of the show; and outtakes. Series 2 features include a documentary on the return of Life on Mars and a featurettes on the end of the series. All episodes are presented in 16:9 widescreen, 2.0 Stereo/5.1 surround.

Life on Mars: Series 1 (2009, Acorn Media) purchase from Amazon: DVD; rent from Netflix: DVD

Life on Mars: Series 2 (2009, Acorn Media) purchase from Amazon: DVD; rent from Netflix: DVD