After a discussion amongst friends from across the pond who hadn’t seen it, I decided to revisit Mars. Life on Mars to be exact, 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 version, which launched like a rocket onto BBC One screens in 2006, and 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 great series all 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.
We open with a convoy of police cars travelling at high speed to an unknown destination, posing the questions ‘Where are they heading?’ and ‘Who are they after?’
Within the opening ten seconds we know this is a cop show, we know we’re in Britain and we know it’s present day.
The convoy is intercut with John Simm, Philip Glenister, Liz White et al’s names, white on black (no opening titles yet) but within forty seconds we’re presented with our most telling imagery yet – in the form of 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!
And yet, a mere 42 seconds in and the pilot has achieved so much more than this. 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 is a gritty lass from working class Manchester who speaks her mind and pulls no punches!
A Detective, our protagonist, Sam Tyler organises his team with a point of a finger, knocks on the door of a house and a mini-Point Break foot-chase ensues in which Sam apprehends his suspect after a fight. We cut to a conversation in a police interrogation room, the perp is released on a formality and a New York minute later, Sam’s girlfriend Mia leaves the station to further investigate the released man who she believes is the kidnapper/murderer they’ve been hunting.
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, experienced the red-tape that hampers modern policing methods, revealed his personal relationship with Mia (and that they are experiencing difficulties) and set up the story of a murderer and his 30-hour ticking clock window before he kills.
Minute five: Sam gets a call from Mia who, despite Sam’s better judgment, has taken the law into her own hands and gone to find the murderer. While on the phone, Mia is attacked. Six minutes in and Sam and his team find Mia’s bloodied jacket in a park. The murderer has abducted her.
Sam drives, listens to the greatest song ever recorded – David Bowie’s inspiration for the title of the series – Life on Mars? (with a question mark) and punches his steering wheel clearly demonstrating he blames himself. He pulls over beneath an underpass, exits his vehicle and is struck by another, 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 region, in amongst nonsensical clues like “mobile what?” we, the audience, realise that Sam has awoken in the 1970’s.
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 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, not telling he is at the exact same geographical location he just left – the underpass just hasn’t been built yet.
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 now that he is still Detective Sam Tyler and in the employ of Her Majesty’s police force. In 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 gruff mentor, Detective Inspector Gene Hunt.
Yet mentorship doesn’t come 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” from the world of classic English cop show, The Sweeney.
Their 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 this magical world, suffice to say that within this possibly illusory world, (or “Maya”) Sam must endure trials, learn new, 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 Mia.
Though you wouldn’t think it, this time-travelling cop show is classic Hero’s Journey brought to you via some of the finest, ruthlessly efficient televisual storytelling you can wish for. Watch and learn!
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.