Life on Mars Was the Time-Travel Show of the Future (And the Past)

The UK retro-detective series is hard to find these days but well worth the effort.
  • Philip Glenister and John Simm star in Life on Mars (UK)
    Philip Glenister and John Simm star in Life on Mars (UK)
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    Life on Mars (UK)
    Watch on Britbox
    Watch on DVD: Netflix | Your library

    Time for another installment of what will probably become a regular feature on The Overlooked: Trapped on DVD! Great shows that time has not diminished, shows that would still get done if they were pitched today, yet shows that are very likely not coming to your streaming service anytime soon.

    If you’re currently shelling out money for Britbox, however — or are among the old souls still getting discs-by-mail, then read on.

    Before Frequency, before The Good Place, before television decided to make a million time-travel shows, there was Life on Mars. The premise is simplicity itself. In the present day (which is to say 2006), on the nitty gritty streets of Manchester, UK, detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is run over while investigating a murder. And like your dad promised to do to you in 1974, the speeding car hits him so hard that it knocks him back to 1973.

    When Sam comes to, his wardrobe has changed (to late-Sixties British fashion), his car has changed (David Bowie’s new hit “Life on Mars” is playing on the radio), and when he arrives back at the squad room, he discovers that DNA profiling and the other tools he is accustomed to using to solve crimes have yet to be invented.

    Life on Mars ran for just two seasons but was one of BBC One’s most popular all-time programmes, and went out with one of the great all-time endings. A sequel set in the ’80s, Ashes to Ashes, ran for two more years. Since then the BBC has sold the rights to Life on Mars to producers in Russia, China, Czech Republic, and the United States. Writer-producer David E. Kelley, then at the peak of his powers with three primetime shows on ABC — back when that was an impressive thing — made a vastly inferior carbon copy of Life on Mars starring, God help us, Harvey Keitel. Guess which version you can buy on iTunes now? (Don’t!!!)

    Fortunately, the days of lame Anglo-American adaptations have gone the way of Steptoe and Son. The non-English-speaking world is still Hollywood’s oyster, and we can expect many more foreign adaptations like Jane the Virgin and Seven Seconds that create their own flight plans. But apparently the avionics are still too complex for bringing great foreign shows from the DVD age in for a landing on today’s streaming TV services (as I complained earlier regarding Canadian import Slings & Arrows).

    Anyway, there’s our man Sam Tyler, walking into the grimy, smoke-filled Manchester police station in 1973 and finding he works for Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), an aggressive, hard-drinking inspector of the pre-CSI school. He soon sizes up Sam — with his fascination for examining corpses and adherence to police procedure — as a pantywaist.

    Gene considers forensics a bunch of theoretical rubbish, a waste of time for today's modern detective. He’s constantly overruling Sam with his own harebrained but internally consistent explanations (e.g., the first person to mention the crime is the one who did it).

    When Sam challenges him with logic, Gene huffs, “I trust my instincts,” and socks him in the jaw.

    Most time-travel TV shows can be divided into utopian or dystopian. Either the protagonist goes back in the past to tweak something that will improve the future (fingers crossed), or else discovers that there was precious little good about the good old days (the Doctor Who reboot, according to Jill Lepore, follows the dystopian model).

    Life on Mars is more along the Mr. Peabody or original Doctor Who model. It’s enjoyable for the stylish entertainment it aspires to be — a buddy cop show set in another era, not unlike 2017’s Comrade Detective.

    There isn’t a Back to the Future element on Life on Mars, only a man who desperately wants to get back to the future — and a future that, it seems, desperately wants him back. Sometimes Sam picks up the landline telephone and hears a voice from 2006. Sometimes he hears exhortations through the police radio static. Sometimes he awakens to see the odd little girl who used to appear on the BBC test pattern at signoff, urging him to keep fighting. (Not only do I remember all these phenomena of analog tech, I’ve actually had dreams like these.)

    Meanwhile, there’s work to do. In one episode Sam breaks up a nascent gang by diagnosing an early case of soccer hooliganism. In another he’s gobsmacked when he pulls up to a textile factory and realizes, “I live here.” By 2006, Manchester’s industrial boom will have gone bust and manufacturing centers will have turned into hipster housing. Sam Tyler is literally a man ahead of his time.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star. Sign up to get all his Primetimer reviews at

    TOPICS: BBC, Life on Mars (UK)