Is there Life on Mars?

Warning: Major spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Life on Mars (US)

Life on Mars (US)

[1.1] The burning question on everyone’s lips is: is the US version of Life on Mars better than the original UK version? Ah, you ask such difficult questions.

[1.2] Let me be perfectly honest: I think the original version comprises possibly the finest hours of television ever made. I regret that the UK version is not yet available in region 1 DVD, so you can’t rush out and rent it. I think that John Simm is a god and Philip Glenister his handmaiden, although I realize many would reverse these roles. I fail completely when it comes to dispassionately considering this show because I adore it so very, very much. It is two seasons of absolute perfection. (British TV, unlike American TV, knows when to stop. They finished the story arc, and then the show was over. There is, however, a sequel set in 1981: Ashes to Ashes. Lost and Heroes folks, are you taking notes?)

[1.3] Which means I ought to like the new US version, because…the first few episodes are pretty much exactly the same. They shot from the same basic script, with some interesting omissions and changes, more of which below. Let me also say that the aired version is far superior to the unaired US pilot (“painful to watch” [source]; “This Pilot resembles a bad photocopy; faded, soulless, joyless and lacking any chemistry between its actors” [source]—both assessments are correct), which was totally recast save for the leading man, Irish actor Jason O’Mara, and moved from insipid LA to thriving New York City.

[1.4] But let me back up. Here’s the premise of the show: Sam Tyler, a Manchester cop from 2006/a New York City cop from 2008, is struck by a car and is thrown back to 1973. Mysteriously, he comes complete with an identity—a cop recently transferred from Hyde. Is he insane? in a coma? or a time traveler? To add to the mystery, telephones and TVs randomly permit him to access the world he left behind. We hear the high-pitched whine of some kind of electronic medical equipment booting, doctors talking dispassionately about his condition, his girlfriend begging him to wake up, a prof on TV working sums on a blackboard before he stares straight at the camera (at Tyler) and comments on his status—to Tyler and the watcher, an eerie break of the fourth wall. Tyler figures maybe if he can learn out why he’s there, he can work out how to get home. Thus, he accepts the scenario handed him and begins fighting crime—he’s even able to use future information to help solve his first case, and incidentally save his kidnapped girlfriend, Maya (in some inspired casting, in the US version, played by Lisa Bonet), in the bargain. But the procedure-following cop of 2006/2008 doesn’t fit into freewheeling 1973. He feels like he’s on a different planet. Perfection!

[1.5] The iconic image of a recently struck Tyler lying on his side, gazing glassily at the camera, has been borrowed from the UK version. In both versions, when Tyler is hit, David Bowie’s song “Life on Mars” is playing—on an iPod in 2008 and 2006, and in 1973, on an 8-track. The first two US episodes closely parallel the first two UK eps, and it’s not just the words: it’s the tone of the music in the background, the way the shots are set up, the squad room set, the tiny, silly details, like Chris’s adorable water wings in 1.02.

[1.6] The ABC version is particularly striking in comparison not with the UK version but with the unaired pilot, which was indeed really, really bad. The unaired pilot failed because of casting missteps, because the tweaks made to the script undermined the very point of the episodes, and because the sense of place was not central to the program. The latter error in particular has been corrected. Tyler’s reaction when he sees the Twin Towers standing tall over the city is its own kind of iconic moment. Establishing shots show streetscapes complete with vintage cars, vintage hippies, vintage hair, and bustling people of all ethnicities. New York thus becomes a character, just like Manchester was a character in the UK version: ever present, informing reactions. To be true to the sense of place, events therefore cannot just be dropped from one place to another; they must be embedded in the milieu.

[1.7] That’s what I was waiting for, and 1.03, which was based on but did not closely follow a UK script, thus pleased me. I would be completely happy if the US version stopped deriving and adapting UK scripts and struck out on its own. The scenario that’s set up is a rich one, but it’s clear that the producers plan to follow the same basic story arc as the UK version: Tyler’s search for his father. The same bizarre childhood flashbacks of someone running through a woods, little shoes (so we know the runner is a child), the flash of a red skirt, all point inexorably toward the ending story arc of season 1.

[1.8] Yet the psychological confusion has been altered as well. In the UK pilot, just to mess with Tyler’s mind, a man pretends he can’t hear Tyler and that he’s speaking to Tyler from 2006. Tyler is completely fooled and considers jumping from a building. If he kills himself in 1973, he will return to 2006, he theorizes. He’s talked down before he can do it. In the US pilot, this moment of self-destruction is greatly altered. Tyler, confronting a perpetrator with a gun, presses it against his chest and begs the man to shoot him: “Pull the trigger. Get me out of here, Willie.” Death is external now, not internal; Tyler can’t destroy himself but must convince another to do so.

[1.9] These changes are relatively small, mere tweaks. However, they’re capable of so much more. US 1.03 strikes out from its UK original (1.05, about football hooliganism, which hilariously features our boys going undercover as pub workers), although both versions share Tyler’s connection with a boy that makes Tyler think about his own father, who left one day, never to return, thus setting up the question that will inform Tyler’s actions for the rest of the season as he quests for his father. US 1.03 includes a plot surrounding a gay Vietnam vet, thus touching on war and sexual politics simultaneously. I’m pleased at this evidence that they can greatly restructure a story (“Who killed my father”?) to a new audience while keeping the emotional core of the story: the child’s connection with Tyler, who suddenly realizes that he was 4 years old in 1973, and thus is presumably around somewhere. This is just the kind of thing I want to see, although next, I’d like evidence that the US version can fly solo, without cribbing a story from the UK original.

[1.10] What about the cast? O’Mara does fine in Simm’s role, although he’s somehow more…manly, maybe because he’s bigger, so he seems more physical, less cerebral—although that may also be the result of the US version playing down the technological disconnect between 1973 and 2008/2006. (The UK version’s pilot showed how reliant crime fighting was on technology, but this emphasis was downplayed in the US pilot in favor of Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend.) The UK version played with how well the slighter, smaller Simm got along with women, and I’m interested to see if they’ll try that with O’Mara—it will be a hard sell for me, because Simm’s physical presence is far less threatening.

[1.11] Harvey Keitel‘s character is no Gene Hunt (at least, how I conceive of Gene Hunt—Keitel is about 24 years older than Glenister), but as a totally different character who coincidentally happens to be named Gene Hunt, he does great, with an unconcerned brutality perfectly suited to the role and an unfakeable New York attitude. (Keitel is a Brooklyn native.) Similarly, the US version of head-cracking Ray Carling (Michael Imperioli), who sports a similar moustache to and hair even fluffier than his UK original, is just different enough to intrigue: he’s smarter and more articulate than the UK Carling, and he really, really doesn’t like Tyler, whom he perceives as having stolen his promotion. The bumbling, impressionable youth, Chris Skelton (Jonathan Murphy), is a nonentity in the US version; in the UK original, he was there for Tyler to explain things to—to show him how things ought to be done, when all the other characters would just laugh at Tyler’s insane notions (which strike 2006 watchers as perfectly reasonable) and walk away shaking their heads. I haven’t seen any evidence of this sort of role for the character in the US program so far, and for the moment, he mostly trails behind and looks hapless.

[1.12] The pivotal role of Annie Norris, Tyler’s confidante and worried friend, is played in the US version by a confident, superslender blonde, Gretchen Mol, who seems the total opposite of the original skittish, dark-haired Annie Cartwright, heavy only by 2008 standards. Annie, whatever her surname, is there to show how things have changed for women from 1973 to 2006/2008 (Hunt charmlessly calls Norris “No Nuts”). Her character is the one I’m most worried about, partially because it was OMG so bad in the unaired pilot, and I worry that they will attempt to precipitously ramp up sexual tension.

[1.13] The minor characters differ: the UK’s unflappable Rastifarian bartender has been replaced by a random white guy, and the US version has created the character of Tyler’s zany, free-lovin’ hippie neighbor, there to represent the excesses of the era. She’s adorable and rife with possibilities. We all know that she’s going to get busted for pot possession one of these days, and then who is she going to turn to? But right now, neither of these minor characters has all that much to do, other than provide local color.

[1.14] The connections Tyler experiences to the world of 2008 also differ: in US 1.02, Tyler sees a large, bizarre robotlike machine that gives credence not to a coma theory but possibly to a “you’ve been kidnapped by aliens with superior technology” theory, only to have the machine later paralleled in a child’s toy, interestingly calling into question Tyler’s perceptions. Yet the US version reportedly will “[remove] the ambiguity of the character’s predicament”: Josh Appelbaum, executive producer, said: “With this mythological element to it, it’s not just a cop show, and if he was ultimately just in a coma or it was all a dream, it felt a bit unsatisfying. So we made it a deeper mystery” [source].

[1.15] My response to this is basically, WTF? “Deeper mystery”? What does that even mean? The connecting thread between each story-of-the-week ep is the larger arc of what happened to Tyler, and I find the bits that tease us with hints delightful. In the UK version, technology provides the bridge: the Alice with the placard on TV, the telephone calls, the one-way communication over the police radio. In the US version, Tyler sees his 2008 squad room reflected in the glass of his boss’s office, a reflection of something not there. Reality grounded in science, or bizarre hallucination? Guess which will end up being more satisfying? Still, the notion that there’s a deeper mystery intrigues me, because it implies that they have an ending in mind, and it won’t completely parallel the UK version.

[1.16] If they’re just going to redo the BBC version, even with some slightly altered Tyler mythos, and the first few eps indicate that this may be the case, my general thought is…what’s the point? The UK version is such utter perfection—perfectly cast, perfectly paced, perfectly shot, perfectly scored, perfect perfect perfect all around—that any simple copy is automatically going to look bad, like a failure of imagination. The UK version is not unintelligible to a US audience. Therefore, it ought to strike out on its own, find its own path—change the individual episodes to alter it to something fundamentally American but within the established scenario. If they can pull this off—if they can place the show within New York City and use it to articulate contemporary American concerns—then it has real potential.

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3 thoughts on “Is there Life on Mars?

  1. The “deeper mystery” worries me. I fear the American producers may have seen too many episodes of “Lost.”

  2. I am … glad to hear that the US version is not so great. Every time I hear about it, I tell myself that there is no possible way it could be anything but disappointing, if for no other reason than that the UK version was possibly the best TV series I have ever seen (not even to mention the US tending to dumb brilliant things down for its audiences).

  3. I’ve liked the US version. It’s no comparison to the UK version, but it’s not bad.

    The Region I DVD is coming out in July.

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