Why the ending of Life on Mars US fails

My previous post on LOM US is here.

1. Life on Mars US finale

[1.1] Several months after the April 1, 2009, finale of the US version of Life on Mars, I have finally gotten around to finishing out the season. Although I am a big fan of the UK version, the US version didn’t really catch me, and after the first midseason story arc wrapped up, I didn’t prioritize watching it—and I became even less concerned when I learned that the show had been canceled.

[1.2] Thus I didn’t watch the finale in a timely manner, and I couldn’t bring myself to care. Yet out of a sense of obligation, coupled with a friend writing and saying, “OMG, what did you think of the LOM US finale?”, I finally sat down to view it, after, perhaps shockingly, remaining totally spoiler-free. And oh my. The ending…sucked. I actually spoke to the screen: “No!” I screamed, rendered incoherent with betrayal. “You…you…you idiots! I cannot believe you did that!”

[1.3] Let me say it again: I cannot believe they did that. It would have been better if the entire team had died in a blaze of glory on Gauda Prime. Now that’s a series ending!

[1.4] After the jump, I’ll tell you exactly why I think the finale for the US version of Life on Mars betrayed the entire setup of the series. Obviously there are major spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

2. A summary of the two series’ endings

Life on Mars cast
Life on Mars cast [1]

[2.1] Let me briefly summarize the facts of the two series, stripped of unimportant details like plot elements and emotional context. First, the stats: LOM UK aired two series of eight episodes each, for a total of sixteen eps. Then, in a move totally unfamiliar to Americans (who will run a series forever if it has good ratings, even if it blows things like closure and narrative structure), the story was over, so they ended the series. In contrast, LOM US aired one series of seventeen episodes. Although the US version lasted only a single season, it aired one more ep than its British original. Early eps of LOM US relied heavily on rewritten scripts from the UK version, but as the show continued, the scripts moved further and further afield.

[2.2] In the original UK version, Sam Tyler gets back to 2006, only to find that he had been in a coma. He goes back to work as a cop but is unhappy. He jumps off a building. This returns him to 1973, where he’s just in time to save his friends. Presumably he will remain there in 1973 and live happily ever after.

[2.3] The ending for the US version is far different: it turns out that Sam Tyler isn’t a cop; he’s an astronaut in 2035. He and his team have finally arrived at their destination, Mars, after 2 years in some kind of suspended animation. A machine had been generating fake immersive worlds to keep their minds active, but Tyler’s experience glitched: he was supposed to be a cop in 2008, but instead, the machine sent him to 1973 with his (fake) 2008 memories intact. In a Wizard of Oz–like moment (“And you were there…and you…and you…”), we discover that his astronaut crewmates were his fellow cops on the force. Most importantly, Gene Hunt isn’t Gene Hunt: he’s Tyler’s father, and wouldn’t you know it—they don’t get along.

3. LOM US ending as literal

[3.1] The LOM US ending fails because it is literal. Tyler is from Hyde? The ship’s name is Hyde 125! Tyler sees inexplicable robots? They have one just like it in their spaceship! Where are they going? Mars! What are they looking for? Life! It’s a “gene hunt”! Get it? Life on Mars? Gene Hunt? Ha ha ha!

[3.2] And then my laughter turns into tears. To discover that the entire thing, all of Tyler’s struggles, were absolutely meaningless…words just fail me. What makes it even worse is the total lack of emotional resonance. I could have handled this bizarre, out-of-nowhere ending that makes literal all the things I’d been furiously interpreting as metaphorical (for example, I was half sure his neighbor, Windy, didn’t actually exist and that she represented…something, I wasn’t sure what) if something had happened that would have transformed the story into an emotional arc for Tyler.

[3.3] Instead, all we get is a sense that Tyler and his dad don’t get along. And that’s pretty much it. I guess I can work with that—lord knows that I’ve filled in bigger gaps when writing fan fiction—but at the end of seventeen long eps, I was presented with a story that had narrative closure that undermined the narrative itself, and that also lacked emotional closure. The story was just that: a story meant to amuse Tyler during transit. We didn’t see Tyler and his colleagues interact enough to know why their recasting in this past world was amusing, or sad, or resonant. We don’t know what they’re really like, so we don’t know how close their “true” selves are to the 1973 bodies. We aren’t provided with enough about Tyler’s relationship with them to assess why this ending might be clever. Tyler himself seems to view the whole thing as one big film, where he was a spectator only, further undermining the emotional distress we saw during the course of the series when he received strange messages from 2008 or saw odd robots about. He merely scoffs at the whole experience. It doesn’t seem to have affected him in his “real” 2035 world. All those odd, distressing happenings were merely glitches in the machine, and they meant…nothing.

[3.4] Admittedly the LOM US writers didn’t have much time to craft something lovely for us to send the show off right: they had to rewrite a season-ending script into a series-ending script while getting ready to shoot the darn thing, but from I can tell from gleanings on the Internet, the big reveal of the ending was known and the writers were salting eps with clues. This means that had the show run more seasons, I would have been even more incoherently angry, because they would have taken beloved characters with whom I would have much more history, instead of characters I was really just getting to know, and then negating their very existence.

[3.5] Regarding the finale’s sense of closure, check out this remark:

[3.6] “We’re not only answering the why of 1973 but more importantly, it’s what this whole journey was about for Sam—why it was these particular characters and this emotional landscape,” [exec producer Scott] Rosenberg says. “It’s his emotional heroes journey that is answered by the end.” [source]

[3.7] I’m not sure what to say about this, other than that the producers really seemed to think that the why of the characters was answered (it wasn’t), or the meaning of the emotional landscape (also a no). But it could be that they’re answering these same questions very literally, just as they do for the show. Why these characters? Because they’re in space together. Why this emotional landscape? Because Tyler is in a spaceship being mentally stimulated by a computer. (Writing this down and rereading it, I just can’t believe the paucity of the thought here. They sold out the entire emotional context of the show for a flip ending, and they don’t even seem to realize why this might be insulting.)

[3.8] I want the answers to be multilayered and metaphorical, rich with character-driven content. Instead, in the finale’s only attempt at emotional engagement, Tyler asks his dad if they could just work harder to get along. I, the viewer, don’t care about this Tyler. I’ve never met him before. I can’t bring myself to care.

[3.9] Interestingly, the title of Charlie Jane Anders’s March 31 interview at io9 with the exec producers, “Life On Mars Ending Will Make Science Fiction Fans Happy,” implies that just because there is a SF element—here, space travel—I, an SF fan, will be happy. Um, not so much. It’s true that I liked the premise of the show, and I even consider it science fictional: the element of time travel makes it so, along with the special-knowledge disconnect between our world (that of Tyler’s 2009 self) and that of 1973. Plus there’s a wacky inner-space component as he sees and hears things that other people do not. But I don’t need a spaceship or a red planet to flag something as SF.

[3.10] What we have here is a high-concept ending that does not grow organically out of the narrative and my understanding of the main character, but instead descends, deus ex machina, to change the whole game. And you know what? I am not amused.

Image credit

1. Nix, “ABC cancels Life on Mars,” March 3, 2009, SciFi Cool, http://www.scificool.com/abc-cancels-life-on-mars/.

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10 thoughts on “Why the ending of Life on Mars US fails

  1. I so agree! I have not seen the REAL version, but I really want to! The us one sucked! Ok it started weak, got better then ended REALLY BADLY!!!!

  2. I strongly disagree with your view, and cringed when you said that the show should have concluded with a shootout resulting in their demise.

    Please don’t ever attempt to write TV sci-fi if you think that would be a fitting end to this fine show.

    I loved the ending. It is sci-fi in the sense of the early Twilight Zone eps. – A mind blowing conclusion that had people talking for days afterwards.

    BTW. What gives with the (3.10) etc.?

  3. @Graham B.

    Mind blowing conclusion? MIND BLOWING CONCLUSION?

    When I was five years old I knew that “and he woke up and it was all a dream” was a crass cop out used when the writer has fumbled things so much that they couldn’t think of an ending. It was unacceptable from my five year old self and to see allegedly professional writers use it is revolting.

  4. “When I was five years old I knew that “and he woke up and it was all a dream” was a crass cop out used when the writer has fumbled things so much that they couldn’t think of an ending. It was unacceptable from my five year old self and to see allegedly professional writers use it is revolting.

    In other words, you’ve been a jerk since you were five.

  5. I think the US ending to LoM was an absoloute joke, totally ridiculous and made only to please morons, which, sadley, the US is full of.
    I too was screaming at the screen “No, No! What are you doing!” I honestly couldnt believe what I was watching, how could profesional writers do this?!

    Ofcourse they were writing for their audience, which was American, and they seem to like this sort of nonesense.

    The British version was utter genius, and Ashes to Ashes made it even better, the US version was an insult and Americans should be banned from copying any more British shows, the only one they ever cloned that was any good was The Office, I feel that was a one off and more down to Steve Carrell than anything else (and Ricky Gervais is still the producer anyway!)

  6. I may be alittle late to this game… But I just wanted to thankyou for helping me get through the ending of this show. After waiting for a good explanation and finding that all I watched, all the questions I wanted answered just didn’t matter… that everything was for nothing. I am just happy that someone felt the way I did.

  7. Why did the US try to remake something that was as close to perfect as possible? It was just cringey all the way through…It just have never happened.

  8. If anyone watched the US version and has not seen the UK version. Get the UK version. So amazing. Actors are brilliant and the ending was FANTASTIC with what I considered a huge payoff. I LOVED it. Some of the best television around.

  9. I forgot to add, watch Ashes to Ashes for the final real ending that explains everything. That was the best ever.
    Totally made sense and was very moving
    Ashes to Ashes was like the UK version of part two of LOM.
    It is very good as well.

  10. Let me put it that why for you, who got cancelled show?
    Yeah, thats right, americans,
    they didnt like the show,
    i mean come on they didnt get the whole thing, the characters, the ending:
    What they need is easy-to-understand shows like
    american idol, or some other dumb-reality shows,
    so stop before saying “i didnt like lom” or “i didnt get inception”.Dont be lazy, fill the gaps , dont let somone to do it for you.
    And at the end ask yourselves:
    Would i be happy if this ends with ” sam waking up at heaven or somethin like that”
    Well, if your answer is yes
    i have some bad news for you,
    You are american…
    (dont try the “who made the show lololololol”, you all know what i mean when i say “americans”)

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