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Life on Mars is a Britishmarker science fiction/police procedural drama television series. It was first broadcast on BBC One between January 2006 and April 2007, lasting for two series in total.

A sequel to the series, Ashes to Ashes, began transmission on BBC One in February 2008. Also, a US remake of the show was produced, running from October 2008 to April 2009.


Life on Mars tells the fictional story of DCI Sam Tyler (John Simm), a police officer in service with the Greater Manchester Police. After being hit by a car in 2006, Tyler awakens in 1973, 33 years in the past. There, he finds himself working for the predecessor of his police force in 2006, the Manchester and Salford Police as a Detective Inspector one rank lower than his 2006 rank of Detective Chief Inspector. While under the command of Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), the character faces various culture clashes, most frequently regarding his modern approach to policing and the traditional un-scientific methods of his colleagues.

Mixing the genres of both science fiction and police procedural, the series' central plot centres on the ambiguity concerning Tyler's predicament of it being unclear to both the audience and character whether he has gone mad, is in a coma or has actually travelled back in time.


The programme was originally conceived in 1998, when screenwriters Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah were sent on a break to the English seaside resort of Blackpoolmarker by Kudos Film & Television to think-up programme ideas. Originally titled Ford Granada after the 1970s car, the series was rejected by the BBC. In response, Graham stated: "Back then, broadcasters just weren't comfortable with something like that, something that wasn't set in the real world and that had a fantasy element to it." According to Graham, the initial idea was for a humorous, pre-watershed programme that overtly mocked the styles and attitudes of the 1970s, with the comic actor Neil Morrissey envisaged as the central character.

Later, Channel 4 drama executive John Yorke substantially redeveloped the original script, focusing on a double act between both Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt. However, senior management eventually decided not to pursue the idea, with Graham stating that the reaction to the idea was: "It's going to be silly", as later told to Radio Times. However, the series eventually attracted the attention of BBC Wales' Julie Gardner, who persuaded the Head of Drama for the BBC, Jane Tranter, to commission the programme from BBC Wales for BBC One. John Yorke left Channel 4 to rejoin the BBC and together with Julie Gardner, he acted as joint commissioning editor on the show for its entire run.

The programme's central character was originally to have been named "Sam Williams", but Kudos Television felt this to not be striking enough and requested Graham devise an alternative surname. Graham asked his young daughter for her opinion and she suggested "Sam Tyler", which became the character's name. Graham subsequently discovered that his daughter had named him after the Doctor Who character Rose Tyler. The initial geographical setting was to be Londonmarker; this was then changed to Leedsmarker and finally to Manchestermarker, as part of a BBC initiative to make more programmes in the city.

Production and transmission

Eight one-hour episodes of Life on Mars were broadcast weekly on Monday nights at 9 P.M. by the BBC. The series was mostly written by its creators Jordan, Graham and Pharoah. The fourth writer on the first series was Chris Chibnall. For the second series, Graham, Pharoah and Chibnall returned to write episodes, joined by Julie Rutterford, Guy Jenkin and Mark Greig.

The second series was broadcast weekly at the same time as the first, the only exception being was that the transmission day was changed from Monday to Tuesday. According to Jane Featherstone, the show's executive producer, speaking in February 2006, a film version of the show was also a possibility: "Life on Mars was a very high concept idea and there was no doubt it would work on the big screen."

On 9 October 2006, it was confirmed that the second series of Life on Mars would be its last. Matthew Graham stated, "We decided that Sam's journey should have a finite life span and a clear-cut ending and we feel that we have now reached that point after two series." Graham's claim that two separate endings had been filmed was later revealed to be a ruse.

The second series had a distinctive style of introduction on BBC One: after a brief collage of momentary images, such as several test cards and the late comedy writer and broadcaster Barry Took, a mock-up version of BBC1's 1970s blue-on-black rotating globe ident was used, although the design had to be modified to fit widescreen sets. This was accompanied by a bass-voiced continuity announcer in the style of that era. Viewers in Walesmarker saw an original 'BBC Cymru Wales' mechanical globe with introductions provided by former BBC Wales announcers. Trailers for the show also used the 1970s style, including the rhombus-style BBC logo.

Overseas sales

The first series of Life on Mars was broadcast in the United Statesmarker on BBC America from July 2006 to August 2007, receiving both favourable and critical reviews . The second series was later broadcast from December 2007 to January 2008. to favourable critical reviews, It also aired in Canadamarker, running from September 2006 to April 2007 on BBC Canada, and from 8 January 2008 to 23 April 2008 on Télé-Québecmarker and on Showcase. Both Canadian and American transmissions were edited to omit some scenes of nudity and bad language.

In New Zealandmarker the series was broadcast from February 2007 on TV ONE, and was described as "sensationally well-made." by an NZ website. Series two was broadcast from June 2008, with the final screening on 4 August 2008.

In Australia the original British version was broadcast from 20 May 2007, with the second series from February 2008 on ABC1. The US version began on 5 February 2009 on Network Ten.

In the Republic of Irelandmarker, RTÉ Two broadcast the series from June 2007 in a late evening slot, following following RTÉ News on Two.

The show was broadcast in Swedenmarker as a cut version on SVT 2,

The show has also been transmitted in Swedenmarker (a cut version on SVT 2), Netherlandsmarker (Nederland 3), in Germanymarker (Kabel 1), Francemarker (13ème Rue), Spain (Antena.neox) , Israelmarker (Hot), Italymarker (Rai Due) in June 2009, Japan, Serbiamarker (B92) and Norwaymarker (started 8. Jan 2009 on TV2). Sub began broadcasting Life on Mars in Finlandmarker in April 2008, and ATV World started broadcasting the show in Hong Kongmarker on 13 July 2008.

In February 2007, The Guardian's media site reported that producer David E Kelley was to develop an American version of the series for the ABC network. Spanish Television network Antena 3 bought the rights from the BBC, and has remade the show as La Chica de Ayer basing the first series 4 years later than the U.K version, in 1977 post-Franco Spain, not 1978 as originally reported.


The programme's soundtrack features many early 1970s songs which were played as part of Life on Mars, as well as an original score of the theme music composed by Edmund Butt. The show's title is in reference to the David Bowie song "Life on Mars?", which plays on the iPod in Sam's car during his accident, and on an 8-track tape in a Rover P6 when he awakes in 1973. Matthew Graham admitted that initially there were some concerns over whether the production team would be able to license the song, which, had they been denied, would have necessitated retitling the series. Another Bowie song, "Space Oddity", is used in BBC trailers advertising the series. In several episodes, Gene Hunt adopts the name "Gene Genie", in reference to yet another Bowie song, "The Jean Genie". Another Bowie track, "Changes" , is played over the end credits of the second series finale.

The show's creators were initially refused permission to use "Live and Let Die" by Paul McCartney and Wings but, according to Graham in the Radio Times, "We sent the episode direct to Paul McCartney. Almost immediately, his assistant phoned back and said, 'Paul loves it. You can go ahead and use it.'"


The methods of modern policing that Sam Tyler employs during Life on Mars brings him into constant conflict with other characters. Gene and his CID team are displayed to favour old-fashioned unscientific methods, whereas Tyler, acting like an 21st century police officer, believes in "following the rules". Sam's superior in Life on Mars, Gene Hunt is often brutal and corrupt when carrying out his duties. Hunt is seen to plant evidence of the guilty if no evidence can be found and often brutalises suspects while they are being held in police custody.

Sam describes Hunt as an: "overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding", to which he replies "You make that sound like a bad thing." Hunt is supported by his fiercely loyal subordinates, Chris Skelton and Ray Carling, with the latter displayed to be a similar character to Hunt. Ray and Sam are often seen to disagree with each other, as well as Sam and Gene's love/hate relationship. Chris, in contrast, becomes friendly with Sam and respects his modern methods, finding his loyalty torn between both Gene and Sam.

Due to Sam's predicament, he fears revealing how he thinks he may have travelled back in time for fear of them thinking him to be insane. The only person in 1973 who Sam fully enlightens his story to is Annie Cartwright, who it is revealed later married him in the time between Life on Mars set in 1973 and Ashes to Ashes in 1981. According to Liz White, the actress who played Cartwright, "She gets very tired of his constant talk about how this situation is not real, that they are all figments of his imagination — she can only explain it as psychological trauma from his car crash.".

Themes and storyline

Each of the sixteen episodes begins with a monologue in which Sam repeats, as part of the moving imagery of the title sequence:

My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.

This questioning is the central plot throughout the series, displaying both the character's and the audience's uncertainty about what has happened.

Throughout the course of Life on Mars, Sam's uncertainty is reinforced by frequent paranormal phenomena, such as hearing voices and seeing images from 2006 on radios, telephones, and televisions. The voices discuss his medical condition, leading him to partially believe that he is in a coma. Other elements suggest to him that he is insane, such as his frequent and unexpected encounters with the Test Card Girl from Test Card F, who speaks directly to him. Annie Cartwright partially persuades Sam that he is actually in 1973, explaining to him that his mind would struggle to fabricate the amount of detail and tangibility in the world in which he finds himself, evidence that he is in fact really in 1973.

Sam's uncertain situation is not the focal point for the majority of episode plots, but is rather a "sub-plot". In most episodes, the main plot centres upon a particular crime or case relating to the police, such as drug trafficking, a hostage situation, murders and robberies. Due to this, most episodes follow a conventional police drama setting. As the series progresses, Sam focuses on how he will get home almost every episode.

A recurring motif throughout the series is the overlapping of both the past and present. For example, during episode six Sam hears the voice of his mother in 2006 saying his life-support machine will be switched off at 2:00 pm. At the same time he is called to a hostage-taking, where the perpetrator has stated that he will kill his victims at the same time. Sam also encounters people he knows in the future as their younger self, including suspects, friends, Sam's younger self and his own parents.

Sam is from a politically correct and scientifically advanced era, where suspects' rights and preservation of forensic evidence are stringently observed. This leads Sam into conflict, as other characters are displayed to be openly sexist, homophobic, disablist and racist and often indulge in all of them while carrying out their duties.

The series frequently makes use of Gene Hunt's comical rudeness and in the form of jokes about a future the audience already knows, but which the characters in the specific time period do not. For example, Hunt declares that "There will never be a woman prime minister as long as I have a hole in my arse."


It is revealed in the final episode that Sam's coma had lasted so long because he had a tumour of the brain. Tyler believes the tumour to be embodied by Hunt, and begins to think that by bringing Hunt down, his own body can recover. To this end, Tyler collaborates with Frank Morgan to bring Hunt down. While Tyler and the team are engaged in a firefight with armed robbers, Sam returns to 2006. He eventually comes to realise that he has become used to, and enjoys, the 1970s, seeing it as his "real world". In an attempt to get back to 1973 to save Annie and the rest of the team from death, Sam leaps off of the roof of the police station, arriving back in 1973 and saving the team, promising never to leave them again. Writer Matthew Graham wrote the scene to indicate that Sam is now in the afterlife, but acknowledged that the ending is ambiguous and open to other interpretations, such as lead actor John Simm's belief that Sam may not have returned to the present. In the final scene, the team drive off, with Sam and Gene bickering as usual. Children run past, including the girl from Test Card F. She looks directly into the camera before reaching out and "switching off" the television the viewer is watching, signifying that the story has come to an end.

The first episode of sequel series Ashes to Ashes shows that DI Alex Drake of the Metropolitan Police has been studying Tyler's notes and 2006-era personnel file, in which his photograph is overstamped with the word "SUICIDE". Ashes to Ashes, which implies that Gene Hunt's world is in some sense real, states that Sam lived another seven years in that world, during which time he married Annie but had no children. Drake speculates that this happened while, in reality, he was in his dying moments, and fears that the same may be happening to her. As far as Hunt and his colleagues are concerned, Tyler apparently died in a car chase in 1980.

Depiction of 1973

During an interview John Stalker, Deputy Chief Constable of Greater Manchester in the early 1980s and himself a Detective Inspector in 1973, has stated that the depiction of the police "has got nothing to do with real policing in the 1970s. It could not be more inaccurate in terms of procedure, the way they talk or the way they dress. In all the time I was in the CID in the 1970s I never saw a copper in a leather bomber jacket and I never heard an officer call anyone 'guv'. ... Actually, there were a few police officers in London who started to behave like Regan and Carter in The Sweeney, but that was a case of life following art, not the other way round." The journalist who interviewed Stalker, Ray King, remarks that the depiction of the police can be defended if we assume that Sam is indeed in a coma and that we are seeing his imaginary idea of 1973, filtered through 1970s cop shows.

Upon Sam Tyler awaking in 1973, he finds himself on a building site, beneath a large advertising board, proclaiming the construction of a new motorway, the Mancunian Waymarker. In reality, construction of Mancunian Way was completed in 1967. According to Matthew Graham, writing in the Radio Times, the error was deliberate. "We knew that this road was built in the 1960s, but we took a bit of artistic licence." Minor historical anachronisms such as this are present throughout Life on Mars. Some, as above, were made out of artistic licence whilst others were deliberately inserted to confuse the issue of whether Sam Tyler was in a coma, mad or really back in time. Many inaccuracies were visible such as modern street furniture, cable television cabinets, satellite television dishes, CCTV cameras, and double-glazed uPVC window frames which were all unintentional. During DVD commentaries for the series, the programme makers acknowledge these as errors but also point out they are in fact perfectly feasible, given Sam's situation. As the popularity of the series grew, the hunting of such anachronisms became a favourite pastime among Life on Mars fans.

Cultural references

Throughout Life on Mars, many references to the 1939 MGM production of The Wizard of Oz exist. Such as, when Sam Tyler tentatively asks if Gene Hunt is able to send Sam back home, he is mockingly told "The Wizard'll sort it out. It's because of the wonderful things he does". Gene also occasionally refers to Sam as "Dorothy", ostensibly as a reference to what Gene perceives as Sam's effeminacy ("Friend of Dorothy"), but also as a nod to Sam's belief that he is living some kind of Oz-like fantasy. The pivotal character, Frank Morgan (Ralph Brown) is both Gene's nemesis in 1973 and Sam's surgeon in 2006. This echos the similar dual roles played by actors in the Oz and Kansas sequences of the 1939 Judy Garland film, The Wizard of Oz; principally, actor Frank Morgan who portrayed Professor Marvel in the Kansas sequences and the Wizard in the Oz sequences.

In the final episode of the series, the song "Over the Rainbow" features prominently upon Sam's return to 2006 and later, when Sam and Annie kiss, a rainbow can be seen in the distant sky.

The East Manchester town of Hydemarker is used as Sam's former police division as a clue that his 1973 self is an alter ego, as in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.


Critical reaction

Critical reaction to the first series of Life on Mars was extremely positive. Steve O'Brien, writing for SFX, declared, "It looks like BBC One has... a monster hit on its hands... It's funny... and dramatic and exciting, and we're really not getting paid for saying this." Alison Graham, television editor for the Radio Times, described the series as "a genuinely innovative and imaginative take on an old genre." James Walton of The Daily Telegraph commented, "Theoretically, this should add up to a right old mess. In practice, it makes for a thumpingly enjoyable piece of television — not least because everybody involved was obviously having such a great time." Sam Wollaston of The Guardian wrote: "Life on Mars was more than just a jolly, tongue-in-cheek romp into the past... Once there, in 1973, we find ourselves immersed in a reasonably gripping police drama — yes, The Sweeney, perhaps, with better production values... Or put another — undeniably laboured — way, as poor Sam Tyler walks through his sunken dream, I'm hooked to the silver screen." Although Peter Paterson of the Daily Mail reflected the views of many other commentators on the first episode when he wondered, "Can its intriguing conceit be sustained over eight one-hour episodes?", Critical reaction remained generally positive throughout the programme's run. Of the second series, Alison Graham believed that "Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt are shaping up nicely as one of the great TV detective partnerships... It's vastly enjoyable and manages to stay just about believable thanks to some strong writing and, of course, the two marvellous central performances."

Nancy Banks-Smith, in The Guardian, felt that the time-paradox aspect of the programme had become somewhat confusing. Banks-Smith summed up the programme's success as "an inspired take on the usual formula of Gruff Copper of the old school, who solves cases by examining the entrails of a chicken, and Sensitive Sidekick, who has a degree in detection."

Two days after the final episode's transmission, Life on Mars was attacked in the British press by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, who claimed that Gene Hunt's use of homophobic insults in the programme could encourage copycat bullying in schools. The BBC stated that Life on Mars was targeted at an adult audience, and argued that Hunt's characterisation was "extreme and tongue-in-cheek".

Viewing figures

Life on Mars was also a success in terms of viewing figures. The first series achieved an average audience figure of 6.8 million viewers and regularly won its timeslot, despite competition from ITV1's comedy-drama series Northern Lights. The first series' finale gained 7.1 million viewers and a 28% audience share.

Viewing figures for the second series were initially low, with the first episode only attracting 5.7 million viewers, slumping to 4.8 million viewers by episode three, despite being heavily trailed and publicised. These figures were blamed by The Stage on "poor scheduling and unfortunate sporting fixtures, possibly combined with high expectation". Audience figures picked up during the second series' run, however, with the final episode gaining an average of seven million viewers (a 28% audience share), despite competition from UEFA Champions League football on ITV1.

Episode Order Viewers

8 7.10
9 5.70
11 4.80
16 7.15


During November 2006, the first series of Life on Mars won the International Emmy Award for Best Drama Series. The same award also went to the second series of the programme in the 2008 Emmy Awards, which was held in November. In January 2007, it won the Best New Programme category as part of the Broadcast Magazine awards. In March 2007 it won two categories, Best Drama Series and the Writers' Award, at the Broadcasting Press Guild Awards.

The first series was nominated for a British Academy Television Award (BAFTA) in the Best Drama Series category. John Simm was also nominated as Best Actor for his work on the show. The programme won the audience-voted Pioneer Award.

In October 2007, series two was nominated as the Most Popular Drama at the 2007 National Television Awards.

DVD and Blu-ray

Series 1 received a DVD (region 2) release on 15 May 2006 in the UK; series 2 was released on 16 April 2007.

Due to the popularity of the show, Blu-ray editions of both series were released on 27 October 2008. However since the show's various effects were originally edited and mastered in standard definition, a true HD version would require a near-total overhaul. The Blu-ray editions therefore contained studio-upscaled footage of the original SD content, providing some improvement. This pseudo-HD version is not known to have been broadcast on television.

Series 1 was released in the United States on 28 July 2009.


  1. Each episode begins with a monologue from Tyler reflecting this uncertainty. This is reproduced on the
  2. Kjell Häglund. " Brittiska saxar lurar svensk tv-publik", Dagens Nyheter 26 August 2008, received 28 August 2008.
  3. Life on Mars: The Complete Series One – DVD commentary
  4. Lambert, David, "Life on Mars – USA Series Canceled, but the Original UK Program Comes to DVD in July", 3 March 2009

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