Going back to “Life on Mars,” it hadn’t occurred to me how the “hook” was going to play after not just having seen the series once but also its “way too literal” sequel, “Ashes to Ashes.”
“Mars” is about a modern day—2006 so pre-smartphone and some other things—police detective, John Simm, getting hit by a car and waking up in 1973. He’s still a copper, just not the boss copper anymore, and he soon discovers the murderer he was chasing in the future is active here in the past.
The episode, written by Matthew Graham, plays like a fairly traditional pilot episode. It introduces the cast, it introduces the concept, it even has a big plot element you can just tell they’re going to have to walk back in subsequent episodes. But while there’s the standard TV pilot thing going on, there’s also Bharat Nalluri’s fantastic direction. The episode feels more like a short subject, with Nalluri and cinematographer Adam Suschitzky focusing on the moodiness of the past and how Simm’s experiencing it.
Great performance by Simm. When the episode starts, he’s kind of passive to (pre-“Good Wife”) Archie Panjabi, who’s his estranged girlfriend and subordinate, who has an idea about solving the case and Simm doesn’t want to hear it. Simm even makes not wanting to hear it about Panjabi using their relationship troubles to create a power imbalance in his work place. It’s a really bad, really dated, seemingly completely unawares moment.
But it does not age well.
Luckily, once Panjabi gets kidnapped by the killer Simm didn’t want to hear about, Simm’s reaction is appropriate enough to make him immediately sympathetic. Then boom, a car hits him and he’s back in 1973. So the stakes are Panjabi’s kidnapped and Simm thinks he’s probably in a coma at the hospital but he can’t be sure.
The only person he can trust with the truth is female police officer Liz White. It’s important to mention she’s female because it was back when the ladies were segregated in police work, something Simm didn’t know. The episode’s got big “Back to the Future” type jokes about being in the unknown past (Simm’s character would’ve been four in 1973), then it’s got these little ones where it trips Simm up and into some character development, which Nalluri always makes sure to emphasize.
There’s an excellent arc for Simm and White in the episode, just rock solid character development, great acting from each of them.
But it’s not even the A plot. Well, it’s the initial A plot, but once Simm gets to work in the police station in 1973 there’s the new A plot. And that new A plot is the boss cop played by Philip Glenister. Glenister’s the immediate show-stealer, the break-away star, the whatever. He plays the seventies tough guy cop caricature but in a way to make it reasonable. He’s also the boss, which means he can’t be the rogue cop, which makes “by the numbers” Simm the outsider. “Mars” has a really good understanding of how television narratives work, especially with genre.
Though it does make you wonder if they’re intentionally avoiding “Quantum Leap” references because it comes so close a few times it’d be better if they were making a reference.
Other tough guy male cops of import include Dean Andrews as the dumb, stoic, big one, and Marshall Lancaster as the dumb, amiable, little one. Lancaster gets to be great from go, while Andrews is a lot more reserved. Lancaster becomes Simm’s flunky while Andrews sticks with Glenister.
The other big introduction is the local bartender, Tony Marshall, who seems to have a soulful connection to the world and maybe what’s going on with Simm.
It’s a fantastic hour, fantastic pilot. Graham’s script is compelling for the characters’ sake, not just the gimmick’s, and the three leads are outstanding. Plus the excellent Nalluri direction. It’s great.