Until now, “Life on Mars” has been a police procedural with some very flat, very hard sci-if garnish about time travel. But this episode is an action episode, starting with John Simm getting a phone call—on a disconnected phone—from his mum in the future. She’s at his bedside, telling him the doctors want to unplug the life support and she’s finally giving in.
Joanne Froggatt (uncredited) does a nice bit of voice acting with it, though writers Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah err more on it sounding like a phone call than a bedside confession.
Simm’s got until two o’clock.
And just then, dispatcher Noreen Kershaw (who’s always good, even when she’s barely in an episode) comes in to tell him there’s a hostage situation at the local newspaper.
The hostage taker’s going to start killing hostages at two o’clock.
The show doesn’t take any time to explore any causal connection between the two—Simm’s aware there’s the surface connection, but not how he’s subconsciously ginning up the crisis. There’s no analog in the situation, once revealed; the hostage taker, Paul Copley, doesn’t figure into Simm’s time traveling coma situation. It’s a really nice move from the writers, acknowledging there could be a connection, then doing something completely different.
Once Simm gets to the scene, he tries handling it like any modern hostage negotiation, only to have Philip Glenister and sidekicks arrive ready to shoot the place up. Even when Lee Ross gets there—he’s the armed response leader—he wants to shoot the place up too, but Simm can’t let anyone die. Since there aren’t any analogues—not even passed out hostage Margaret Henshaw—who knows whose death would correspond to Simm dying in the present.
Though once there’s real danger from Copley, the future crisis gets forgotten. There’s many more present dangers.
Lots of good acting. Simm, Copley, Liz White (who gets roped into helping and is also the only cop besides Simm who doesn’t want a blood bath), Glenister (who gets to address and confront some of his preconceived notions—he gets the most character work of the cast, Simm and White are too busy in the action thriller).
Excellent guest performances from a couple of the hostages, newspaper publisher Ken Drury and star reporter Ruth Millar. Millar’s got it in for Glenister and has good reasons and Drury’s a wonderful asshat.
There are some excellent jokes—laughs even—and there’s a gentle, nice check-in on Simm and White’s quasi-courtship.
What’s particularly impressive is how well the show is able to pivot away from the procedural stuff into the action thriller. Really good direction from John Alexander.
Like most of “Mars,” it’s simply outstanding television.