Life on Mars is a British television series broadcast on BBC One between January 2006 and April 2007. The series combines elements of science fiction and police procedural, featuring an officer from the Greater Manchester Police (played by John Simm) who travels back in time after being involved in a road accident. The title is a reference to David Bowie's 1973 single "Life on Mars?"
An American adaptation of the series was produced by ABC and ran for one season from October 2008 to April 2009. A Spanish adaptation of the series was broadcast from April to June 2009. A Russian adaptation of the series The Dark Side of the Moon was broadcast in November 2012. A sequel to the series, Ashes to Ashes, also referencing a David Bowie song, began airing on BBC One in February 2008, followed by a second series in 2009 and a third and final series in 2010.
Life on Mars tells the fictional story of Sam Tyler (John Simm), a policeman in service with the Greater Manchester Police. After being hit by a car in 2006, Tyler awakens in 1973 to find himself working for the predecessor of the GMP, the Manchester and Salford Police at the same station and location as in 2006. "My name is Sam Tyler, I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home..." Early on in the series, it becomes apparent to Tyler that he awakes as a Detective Inspector, one rank lower than his 2006 rank of Detective Chief Inspector. As part of the Criminal Investigation Department, Tyler finds himself working under the command of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).
Throughout the two series, the plot centres on the ambiguity concerning Tyler's predicament of it being unclear to both the audience and the character whether he has died, gone mad or into a coma, or has actually travelled back in time.
It is revealed in the final episode that Sam's coma had lasted so long because he had a tumour of the brain. Tyler comes to believe the tumour is embodied by Hunt, and begins to think that by bringing Hunt down, his own body can recover. To this end, Tyler begins to collaborate with Frank Morgan (Ralph Brown) to bring Hunt down. While Tyler and the team are engaged in a firefight with armed robbers, Sam returns to 2008. He eventually comes to realise that he has become used to, and enjoys, the 1970s, seeing it as his "real world". In an attempt to get back to 1973 to save Annie and the rest of the team from death, Sam leaps off of the roof of the police station, arriving back in 1973 and saving the team, promising never to leave them again. Writer Matthew Graham wrote the scene to indicate that Sam is now in the afterlife, but acknowledged that the ending is ambiguous and open to other interpretations, such as lead actor John Simm's belief that Sam may not have returned to the present. In the final scene, the team drive off, with Sam and Gene bickering as usual. Children run past, including the girl from Test Card F who symbolizes the death that has been stalking Sam since the beginning. She looks directly into the camera before reaching out and "switching off" the television the viewer is watching, signifying that Sam's life has come to an end.
The first episode of sequel series Ashes to Ashes shows that DI Alex Drake of the Metropolitan Police has been studying Tyler's notes and 2008-era personnel file, in which his photograph is overstamped with the word "SUICIDE", which is consistent with what happened in the finale ... However, Ashes to Ashes, which implies that Gene Hunt's world is in some sense real, states that Sam lived another seven years in that world, during which time he married Annie but had no children. Drake speculates that this happened while, in reality, he was in his dying moments, and fears that the same may be happening to her. As far as Hunt and his colleagues are concerned, Tyler apparently died in a car chase in 1980.
In the final episode of Ashes to Ashes it is revealed that the world of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes is in fact a Purgatory for dead police officers and that, though he too is a dead police officer, Gene Hunt's role in Purgatory is that of a Guardian, helping the dead to Heaven, i.e. The Railway Arms pub seen throughout Life on Mars. Hunt explains how he only sent Sam into the pub once he was ready, i.e. at the end of the seven years that Sam "lived" in Purgatory.
Critical reaction to the first series of Life on Mars was extremely positive. Steve O'Brien, writing for SFX, declared, "It looks like BBC One has ... a monster hit on its hands ... It's funny ... and dramatic and exciting, and we're really not getting paid for saying this". Alison Graham, television editor for the Radio Times, described the series as "a genuinely innovative and imaginative take on an old genre".
James Walton of The Daily Telegraph commented, "Theoretically, this should add up to a right old mess. In practice, it makes for a thumpingly enjoyable piece of television — not least because everybody involved was obviously having such a great time". Sam Wollaston of The Guardian wrote: "Life on Mars was more than just a jolly, tongue-in-cheek romp into the past ... Once there, in 1973, we find ourselves immersed in a reasonably gripping police drama — yes, The Sweeney, perhaps, with better production values ... Or put another — undeniably laboured — way, as poor Sam Tyler walks through his sunken dream, I'm hooked to the silver screen".
Although Peter Paterson of the Daily Mail reflected the views of many other commentators on the first episode when he wondered, "Can its intriguing conceit be sustained over eight one-hour episodes?", Critical reaction remained generally positive throughout the programme's run. Of the second series, Alison Graham believed that "Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt are shaping up nicely as one of the great TV detective partnerships ... It's vastly enjoyable and manages to stay just about believable thanks to some strong writing and, of course, the two marvellous central performances".
Nancy Banks-Smith, in The Guardian, felt that the time-paradox aspect of the programme had become somewhat confusing. Banks-Smith summed up the programme's success as "an inspired take on the usual formula of Gruff Copper of the old school, who solves cases by examining the entrails of a chicken, and Sensitive Sidekick, who has a degree in detection.".
Two days after the final episode's transmission, Life on Mars was attacked in the British press by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, who claimed that Gene Hunt's use of homophobic insults in the programme could encourage copycat bullying in schools. The BBC stated that Life on Mars was targeted at an adult audience, and argued that Hunt's characterisation was "extreme and tongue-in-cheek".
Life on Mars was a ratings success. The first series achieved an average audience figure of 6.8 million viewers and regularly won its timeslot, despite competition from ITV1's popular comedy-drama series Northern Lights. The first series' finale gained 7.1 million viewers and a 28% audience share.
Viewing figures for the second series were initially low, with the first episode only attracting 5.7 million viewers, slumping to 4.8 million viewers by episode three, despite being heavily trailed and publicised. These figures were blamed by The Stage on "poor scheduling and unfortunate sporting fixtures, possibly combined with high expectation". Audience figures picked up during the second series' run, however, with the final episode gaining an average of seven million viewers (a 28% audience share), despite competition from UEFA Champions League football on ITV1.