Series two starts with S.J. Clarkson directing, which is good, and Matthew Graham writing, which is middling. Graham’s leaning in on the “present affects the past,” with a villain terrorizing comatose John Simm in the hospital and the only way Simm can save himself is confronting the bad guy in the past.
Marc Warren’s actually really good as the bad guy, he’s just not really in the episode very much. He has like three or four scenes—he’s a casino owner who comps the cops, so everyone but Simm loves him—and in the present it’s all voiceover and ominous imagery. Clarkson can make “Mars” work as it skips between locations and tones in the past, but making the ominous present-day imagery work? Nope. No one could.
Because even though Graham’s all-in on the Simm is in a coma in the present… the show itself isn’t, because then there’s no actual drama.
It plays out fairly well in the episode (there’s nothing more frustrating than a script with good scenes but bad, albeit occasionally inspired plotting), even if the whole episode does serve as a lengthy setup to the new series two ground situation.
For instance, there a couple promotions in store for the cast members, which finally brings the team together.
Simm’s got a rougher part than he should this episode, as he continuously harasses Warren’s girlfriend and future wife and victim Yasmin Bannerman, including telling her all about what’s going to happen to her unless she listens to him. Again, Graham’s really lazy about the other characters when Simm’s having one of his outbursts because having them actually address it would entirely change the show.
Though Liz White does warn Simm multiple times he’s on his way to being involuntarily committed this episode, something they must’ve decided one somewhere between series one and series two. Apparently Philip Glenister can get anyone committed at any time.
Again, it’s a solid but problematic (more than actually bumpy, as the procedural stuff is strong) episode in a good show. Even with an iffy arc, Simm’s good, Glenister’s great, and nice support from White, Dean Andrews, and Marshall Lancaster.
Maybe the most galling thing in the episode is Simm being pointlessly cruel to Noreen Kershaw because it’s socially acceptable for him to be pointlessly cruel to women.
The big setup finale, with Starman accompanying the end credits, promises the season’s going to be good. And have an actual season subplot—Simm gets a mysterious call saying he can go home once he finishes his “assignment”—instead of it being shoehorned in….
“Life on Mars” is the odd example of a really good show with a whole bunch of problems. Though maybe that situation’s just the case for any genre mashup.