blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Life on Mars (2006) s02e02

Thank goodness for S.J. Clarkson. There’s also a bunch of good acting in this episode, but Clarkson’s direction is what holds it all together because Chris Chibnall’s script certainly isn’t doing the trick.

Chibnall has two emphases this episode—first, lengthy exposition sequences with John Simm and Philip Glenister recapping information the viewer has seen play out on screen with Simm and sometimes even Glenister, but we have to hear it again to set up Glenister for a joke. It’s like a sitcom. Glenister can get through most of them, with a solid result in the joke section, but even he can’t maintain through the entire episode, getting very tired in the last few of expository dump sequences.

The other emphases is guest star Ray Emmet Brown, a Black copper in 1973 Manchester who’ll grow up to be Simm’s mentor in the apparently post-racial present. There are two to three scenes of Simm telling Brown not to be an Uncle Tom, though only one time literally calling him an Uncle Tom and telling him to stop it. Brown does get to tell Simm his feelings, but Simm ignores them and tells Brown how it’s got to be.

Not so Brown can make things better for other Black officers, but so he’s in a position to help white boy Simm twenty years in the future.

There seems to be a potential juxtaposition between Simm mentoring his own mentor with Glenister’s mentor Kevin McNally hanging around for the episode. McNally’s dying and wants to just his arch nemesis (Stephen Bent) before he goes, but he doesn’t want Glenister knowing he’s dying. The juxtapose doesn’t work because Chibnall’s not really good enough at it. Especially not with the twists and reveals, though the grand finale is pretty good and finally gives Brown a solid scene where he’s not scene fodder for Simm.

The episode’s got some decent set pieces, including an all-hands-on-deck undercover sequence—including Noreen Kershaw, who rarely gets to leave the station—and the sequence is well-executed until it turns out to be dramatically pointless and just something Chibnall’s got in there so not everything is talking heads exposition. Most of the episode is Simm talking to someone or someone talking to Simm about the main plot. All the action is in the first act, something composer Edmund Butt seems to understand more than anyone else because he’s got very dramatic, very ominous music in the rest of the episode even when it’s just people talking without there being any danger.

One of those scenes is Liz White, who should have a much bigger part this episode given it’s her first case as Detective Constable (DC). She gets some good material but once it turns into Glenister and Simm’s team-up—someone calls them “Laurel and Hardy” at one point and it’s way too clearly Chibnall’s take on the characters and show—she’s just vaguely around. She’s Simm’s sounding board for work ideas, which is probably better than being his emotional laborer regarding being trapped in the past.

At least he doesn’t tell her what it’s like to be a woman copper in 1973.

It’s an okay episode, but with some big whiffs in the Chibnall script; the production design, soundtrack, direction, and acting (like Dean Andrews finally getting to do some character development) all help compensate for most of the problem’s in Chibnall’s script.

Though nothing makes up for the pointless, single scene transphobic “gag,” or Brown getting the lectures.

“Mars” really needs to temper its ambitions and leverage its strengths more.

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