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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
et’s get an important issue out of the way: If you haven’t seen the first season of the original U.K. version of “Life on Mars,” you’ve no business reading this review. Move along – there’s nothing for you to see here. But do go check out our review of the first season, buy the set, and then come back here if you liked what you saw (and chances are, you will). “Life on Mars” is great television, and the Brits may have a lot to teach Americans about the economy of storytelling, as Series Two is again comprised of eight episodes, which in turn wrap up the entire story; the whole thing is a mere 16 episodes, which makes its two seasons together a whole episode shorter than the one season of the ABC remake from last year.
The first season of “Mars” offered up a fairly even mix of procedural and out of time weirdness. We didn’t learn much more about the “whys” of Sam Tyler’s (John Simm) predicament by the end of the season than we knew at the beginning. Season Two kicks off without showing its hand immediately, and yet from the very first episode, the viewer gets the feeling the stakes have been raised. A series of nasty killings leads Sam and Gene (Philip Glenister) to casino owner Tony Crane (the criminally underrated Marc Warren), whom Sam recognizes as a nemesis from his future (or is it his present?). Gene believes Crane to be clean, but Sam knows better, and throughout the episode a hazy version of Crane threatens Sam’s life in the hospital many years away. Crane’s girlfriend, Eve (Yasmin Bannerman), may be the key to putting him away for good, if only Sam can convince her that forming a lifelong partnership with Crane will lead to her eventual death. It’s a pretty amazing (and complex) kick-start for the season, and Warren makes for an unusually effective boogeyman.
Another particularly compelling installment is Episode Five, in which Sam finds that he’s been prescribed the wrong medication for an illness, and is therefore forced to work a complex case while he’s, for all intents and purposes, speeding his freaking balls off. The episode shifts into a hallucinatory “Rashomon”-like narrative, with different sides of the story that led up to the murder of a teenage girl paving the way. Episode Six is another solid outing involving heroin dealers, a record store, yet another surprising link to Sam’s future, and Elton John’s “Rocket Man,” which provides the soundtrack for the hour.
The season steadily builds toward the final two episodes, and it’s in Episode Seven that we’re introduced to DCI Frank Morgan (Ralph Brown, Danny the drug dealer from “Withnail & I”), who’s called in from Hyde to take over the station and investigate Gene Hunt for murder. We begin to see a very different and desperate Sam Tyler at this point – a man who will do whatever it takes to get back to his proper time, and his mission may very well involve bringing down Hunt for good. The final episode offers up an ending that manages to miraculously be both depressing and joyous at the same time. There’s a moment when you’ll want to throw your remote at the TV, and then another right after it that’ll make you want to go back and watch the show from the start. There were a few minor quibbles I had when all was said and done – most notably about the way certain clues that existed in 1973 were tied to the present – but nothing that dragged the show anywhere near a point of no return. It is, after all, a thoroughly outrageous premise to begin with, and so analyzing “Life on Mars” too closely takes some of the fun out of it, although that isn’t to imply the series should be watched from a distance. No, there’s loads of psychological strangeness to sift through, and I have a feeling that a second viewing would prove that the show is even stronger than it seemed on the first.
The best news, however, aside from the fact that “Life on Mars” ends on a series of high notes, is that this isn’t the last we’ll see of Glenister’s endlessly amusing and engaging macho pig Gene Hunt. After the show wrapped, co-creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah envisioned a new series called “Ashes to Ashes,” which features a new cop travelling into the past, only the new series takes her (yes, her) to 1981. DI Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) has been studying the case files of Sam Tyler when an accident drags her into the past and, much to her astonishment, she meets Hunt, Ray Carling (Dean Andrews) and Chris Skelton (Marshall Lancaster). And yes Dorothy, if it isn’t already obvious, there will be plenty of Bowie to guide the way. Yo, folks at Acorn Media – listen up! We loved “Life on Mars” and we want to see “Ashes to Ashes.” You know what to do.
Special Features: While not nearly as jam-packed as the Series One set, there’s still plenty here to satiate the “Mars” addict. While there are no commentary tracks on this go round, there’s more than enough insight from the cast and creators to be found in two lengthy featurettes titled “The Return of ‘Life of Mars’” and “The End of ‘Life on Mars’.” There are also behind the scenes features on Episodes Three, Five and Seven, as well as tour of the CID set, and an amusing look at Tufty’s cameo.