Life on Mars (2006) s01e04

Different writer than the first three episodes—Ashley Pharoah here—and a somewhat different vibe. It’s centered somewhat differently on John Simm, whose time traveller status doesn’t factor into the main plot here, which has him butting heads against local crime boss Tom Mannion. Everyone else in the department is on Mannion’s payroll to some degree or another—except the ladies, because they’re, you know, ladies and not worth bribing—and Simm finds himself unable to take the bribe to fit in.

Especially not after he tracks down his mum (Joanne Froggatt), who’s probably visiting him in the hospital in the present and talking to him. Simm’s dad is away on business (as usual) and his younger self is upstairs with the mumps, but he’s able to bond with Froggatt even after he weirds her out offering her his payola from Mannion to cover her debt to… Mannion.

In addition to the subplot with Froggatt, Simm and Liz White are seemingly moving forward on their tentative romance—they’re trying to decide whether or not to go see Mean Streets or one of the Carry On movies—but it all gets screwed up after Simm agrees to help out one of Mannion’s nightclub dancers, Kelly Wenham. Wenham wants to get out of town but Mannion won’t let her leave, can’t Simm protect her. Turns out his protecting goes a little wrong—and initially raises the question of whether or not the drugs Simm is on in his comatose state in the future can affect his brain chemistry enough to screw up the lives of the people he’s imagining around him (before being almost immediately discarded).

What makes the episode so interesting—and some of what makes it so good—is how Simm’s moral dilemma about taking the bribes–or helping Mannion keep his staff under control—doesn’t have anything to do with him being from the future. Yes, technically, he might not have been in the same position to take bribes in his experience versus Philip Glenister (who’s got a fantastic scene recounting when he first became a bent copper), but the conflict is about doing the right thing. Especially after it turns out mum Froggatt doesn’t have the “seventies” view of morality everyone else around him exhibits.

After the initial setup, which has Simm running afoul of Mannion and meeting Wenham (which kicks off White’s reasonable but thin jealousy subplot), Glenister and the other cops go into major support mode. There’s some really good quick bits for Dean Andrews throughout the episode; seeds of character development, entirely in how Andrews behaves around Simm. Glenister comes back in the last act to sidekick. Otherwise, it’s Simm’s show.

There is a Back to the Future-esque subplot about sports in pubs, The Shining, and a horse race. It’s sort of aside to all the main activity, but layered in throughout. Writer Pharoah is continuing the show’s strong plotting.

And solid direction from John McKay, who seems more comfortable integrating actual dream sequences versus hints from the future sequences.

Strong performances, obviously, from Simm and Glenister, very nice guest spots from Froggatt and Wenham. Mannion maybe could make more of an impression, but it’s fine. “Mars” is good enough performances can just be fine, though most of the performances are much better than fine. It’s a very good episode.

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