After a discussion amongst friends from across the pond who hadn’t seen it, I decided to revisit Mars. Life on Mars; and if you want to learn how to write and direct TV, I suggest you do too…
I am, of course, talking about the original BBC version, from 2006, not the awful American remake.
Pilot episodes are more than litmus tests to show to test audiences, a pilot must do more than set character, tone and lay out the plot points – they must also serve as mini versions of the series as a whole – a one-hour speed date so you know what kind of girl you’re getting yourself involved with.
There may be exceptions, but I think all great series start out with ruthlessly efficient pilot episodes.
Today, I’m going to be concentrating on the first twelve minutes of the pilot and, by the end of this short article, you’ll hopefully agree that Life on Mars belongs on the list of great pilots alongside Buffy, Lost and Breaking Bad.
IS THERE LIFE ON MARS?
We open with a convoy of police cars travelling at high speed to an unknown destination, making us ask two immediate, urgent questions – ‘Where are they heading?’ and ‘Who are they after?’
So, within the opening ten seconds, we know Life on Mars is a cop show, we know we’re in Britain and we know it’s present day.
The police convoy is intercut with the lead actor’s names – white on black no actual opening titles yet – and within forty seconds, we’re presented with our most telling imagery yet; a title card.
No sooner have our eyes have registered the words and that this is the north of England, than the convoy’s lead car hurtles into shot vanquishing the title card. This is real. This is now. Well, it’s ten years ago, but you know what I mean!
Police ca®s pull up outside a house. Nothing has happened yet and yet – a mere 42 seconds in – the pilot has achieved so much. These red-bricked houses, these grey high-rises, these trash-lined, inner-city streets will serve as the entire backdrop for Life on Mars…
The girl we’re getting ourselves involved with on this speed date is a potty-mouthed, working-class Mancunian lass – and she doesn’t mince her words!
ENTER THE HERO
Remember by this point, we are only one minute in. From the way our protagonist organises his team with a point of a finger, we can tell Sam Tyler is clearly in charge and most likely a detective. The police break down a door and a suspect; Colin flees over a wall. Sam pursues in a mini-Point Break foot-chase through Coronation Street’s bin-laden back alleys. Sam tackles Colin to the floor and, after using the overly strong arm of the law, arrests Colin. Okay, the controlled-chaos camera work and editing are awful, but who cares, they get their job done.
One minute fifty. We cut to an establishing shot of Sam’s car pulling up at the police station. Cut to an E/CU of a tape being inserted into a recorder leads to a conversation in a police interrogation room. Three minutes in and Sam has Colin bang to rights for a string of murders.
Three minutes thirty: Colin is released on a formality.
Within four minutes, we have established our protagonist, his rank, authority, no-nonsense methods (whilst remaining within the rules) seen the excitement of a foot-chase and set up the story of a murderer and revealed the 30-hour ticking clock window before he kills again. Perhaps more importantly, we discover Sam’s relationship with his girlfriend, Maya who reveals WHAT SAM NEEDS (not what he wants) that Sam is hampered by the red-tape that hampers modern policing methods while he used to rely on gut feeling.
In short, Sam needs to learn to rely on his feelings once again to become the detective he wants to be. From whom, where and when could he possibly learn all that?
Four minutes forty: Sam gets a call from Maya who has gone to find Colin the murderer. While on the phone, Maya is attacked.
Six minutes in and Sam and his team find Maya’s bloodied jacket in a park. Colin has abducted her.
Sam drives, listens to the greatest song ever recorded – the inspiration for the title of the series – David Bowie’s Life on Mars? (with a question mark) and punches his steering wheel, clearly demonstrating he blames himself (self-blame is a vital storytelling technique. What better tool than self-blame to act as your protagonist’s motivation to propel the story forward?)
Sam pulls over beneath an underpass, exits his vehicle and is struck by a car, sending him flying into the air (well, actually sending my mate, stunt performer Derek Lea flying into the air.)
After a few moments, Sam awakes in…
THE MAGICAL WORLD
Dazed and concussed, Sam finds he has crossed the threshold into an unfamiliar wasteland. A bobby in a moustache and looking like something outta Jamie and the Magic Torch arrives to deliver some deftly-written exposition from Matthew Graham, under the stewardship of criminally underrated veteran Eastenders scribe and co-creator, Tony Jordan. Namely that Sam has been transferred from another world. It slowly dawns on us, the audience, that Sam has awoken in the 1970s.
Not the disco-fuelled, groove-tastic world of disco and Studio 54 but rather Salford during the times of Ted Heath, football hooligans, Magpie and three-day working weeks leading to corpses being piled in parks and every street in England being lined with tumults of white dog poo.
So we know when Sam is, but where is he?
THIS AIN’T KANSAS
Well, via some delicious reveal-ery, Sam looks up to see a giant billboard showing he is at the exact same geographical location he just left – the underpass just hasn’t been built yet. This is a perfect example of show, don’t tell. When writing your scripts, learn that any and all information that can be revealed visually, rather than via dialogue, should be conveyed visually.
Stumbling through the decade’s shit Ford Cortinas, sexism and steak and kidney pies, Sam can’t quite believe his mince pies (eyes) until he sees he’s wearing flared bell bottoms and a shirt collar with the wingspan of a South American condor reflected in the back of a VW Beetle’s mirror.
Checking his wallet, Sam must accept, for the meantime, anyroad, that he is still Detective Sam Tyler but that he is in the employ of Her Majesty’s police force, circa 1973.
All this takes place within twelve short minutes of orgasmic screen time set to Bowie’s greatest song – and this is before Sam even stumbles into his backwater office to be greeted by his delectable gruff mentor, Detective Inspector Gene Hunt.
The Meeting the Mentor stage of Sam’s Hero’s Journey doesn’t arrive in the form of some bearded old swordsman offering Eastern spirituality – Gene Hunt is a relentless, corrupt, old-school misogynist bully offering rule-breaking methods, testosterone, fists and profanity-laced put-downs like “Tits in a jumper” inspired by classic English cop shows like The Sweeney.
Sama and Gene’s relationship provides the series with a hell of a thematic question – who’s policing methods are correct? 21st Century Boy, Sam’s modern, by-the-book techniques or The Gene Genie’s policy of beating up the wrong guy and asking questions later?
There’s a deep, rich and thought-provoking science fiction storyline but I don’t want to give away too much about the rules of Life on Mars’ Magical World, suffice to say that within this possibly illusory world, (an illusory world that the Hindus have called“Maya” for thousands of years) Sam must endure trials, learn old-school policing skills, question his very existence and take massive leaps of faith if he wants to get back to The Ordinary World to save Maya.
Though you wouldn’t think it, this time-travelling cop show is classic Hero’s Journey brought to you via some of the finest, most ruthlessly efficient televisual storytelling you can wish for.
Watch, learn and imitate!
Full seasons of Life on Mars are available to stream here but steer well clear of the risible U.S. remake.
Update: Episode two is a bland, generic crime story – a string of badly directed scenes with illogical decision-making that largely forget the show’s raison d’être – the sci-fi story at its heart… but I assure you the series is worth sticking with.