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life on mars

life on mars

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Published by Julie Thrasher
Article with a media studies slant on the Life On Mars TV Programme - analysing it
Article with a media studies slant on the Life On Mars TV Programme - analysing it

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Published by: Julie Thrasher on Feb 06, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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01/26/2011

 
Life on Mars
Gone but definitely not forgotten, Life on Mars has put a new spin on the TV crime genre – and onrepresentations of the past. And, as Michael Massey explains, it’s not over yet...
SAM: Who do you think you are?GENE: Gene Hunt. Your DCI. And it’s 1973. Almost dinner time. I’m having hoops.About a year ago one of the most interesting and intriguing pieces of TV drama for some time burst onto our screens. After a familiar beginning involving some contemporary police work at a crime scene and back at thestation, the leading DCI, Sam Tyler, distraught by the apparent kidnap of his girlfriend (fellow police officer, Maya)is suddenly and shockingly knocked down by a passing car and wakes up in 1973. As he puts it in theintroduction to each subsequent episode: ‘Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?’Apart from one confused copper on the beat who first discovers him and can make no sense of Sam’s referencesto his ‘Jeep’ (‘a military vehicle?’), his ‘mobile’ (‘mobile what?’), his arrival in 1973 seems to have been expectedby his new colleagues – he is on transfer from Hyde as a detective inspector, and has been allocated to DCIHunt’s section.But this is no ordinary time-travelling caper. The television in Sam’s flat is definitely in on the act. The old 1970stest card with the little girl, the clown and the balloon sometimes talks to him. The scary little girl also appears tohim in his room, carrying her clown and balloon. Other programmes make direct reference to him and presentersspeak directly to him from the screen – the maths lecturer, with his 1970s haircut and clothes, in an OpenUniversity production is one such example. The medium is most definitely part of the message.Sam also hears unusual broadcasts on the police radio system referring to him as being in what seems to bedescribed as a coma. In fact, the ‘coma’ explanation of Sam’s state apparently holds sway for much of the firstseries, and his actual situation is not resolved, leaving the story open for the second and last series. In themeantime Sam joins Gene Hunt and the other detectives in a series of crime-solving storylines, and is frequentlyappalled by the violent, sexist, racist way that Hunt deals with criminals and suspects, not to mention half of hisown force.For Media students Life on Mars is a gift. It features an affectionate and, at times, humorous pastiche of 1970s TVcop series such as The Sweeney, with spectacular car chases, action-adventure sequences, and a central, tight-knit buddy-pairing – for Regan & Carter, read Hunt & Tyler; it also makes more than passing references tocontemporary police and hospital dramas, such as The Bill and Holby City; it is also a taut psychological mysterythriller; it is a love story of sorts about Sam’s relationship with WPC Annie Cartright, as well as with his present-day girlfriend, Maya; it taps into the time-travelling theme from Doctor Who, Back To The Future and CrimeTraveller; and it’s a ‘dislocation’ drama, where the central character is placed deliberately in unfamiliar environments; it could also be seen as a social satire on prevailing attitudes to political correctness, multi-ethniccommunities, and the clash of cultures, then and now. On top of all this, it also finds every opportunity toshowcase classic tracks from the 1970s.Life on Mars provides loads of material for discussions of representation: of gender, class, race, culturalbackground, environments, regionality. Gene Hunt and his cronies are always making what we would now regardas outrageously sexist comments about women in general; women known to them in particular; and especiallyabout their own WPC Annie Cartright. Although she has a degree in psychology, she is still treated withconsiderable scorn and extreme condescension by her fellow male officers. When she is made a plainclothesDetective Constable to work alongside Sam and the others, Hunt’s only comment is to ask her to ‘detect somegaribaldi biscuits’ to go with his tea!But it could be argued that sexism hadn’t been ‘invented’ in 1973, and that our response to their behaviour andattitudes, filtered through Sam’s contemporary observations, is inevitably coloured by what we now know aboutsexism and political correctness. Hunt and co. are merely behaving as many men did in 1973, and Sam’sreactions are seen as strange and incomprehensible to them.All the characters, their settings and locations are deliberately designed to reflect the fashions and environments of 1970s Manchester. Longer hairstyles, flares, wide lapel jackets and fashionable ties for the men all help to createan accurate sense of period. Choice of dialogue, with generous helpings of the slang of the time, firmly roots theaction in a time when casual conversation and contemporary buzzwords were different from those in use today.Every object, from clunky dial phones to the new-fangled cassette recorders, looks as though it has come from therelevant ‘heritage’ museum to dress the set with 1970s’ period atmosphere.Female fashion similarly reflects the extravagant designs and flamboyant colours of the day, although the femalecharacters’ more marginal roles within the drama tend to mirror their marginality within society at the time.Germaine Greer’s feminist work The Female Eunuch may have been published three years before Sam turns up inGene Hunt’s macho world, but male attitudes towards women at this time had changed little as a result of suchpublications – Hunt himself uses the title merely as a further way to insult and belittle Annie Cartright.

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