The word “ostensibly” is such trouble here, though. Life on Mars is in no way aimed straightforwardly at the normative cult audience. Yes, there’s something vaguely resembling a time travel plot. But it’s not a cult sci-fi show, as evidenced by the appalling ending cooked up by the American remake that postulates that the entire series has been a virtual reality simulation for the crew of the first manned mission to Mars. That this ending was so unsatisfying speaks volumes about how little this premise is actually a sci-fi show. Inasmuch as it is, really we’re in textbook Tzvetan Todorov territory where the suspense is whether there’s actually an element of the fantastic here or whether Sam Tyler is simply a cracked actor, if you will.
But even that struggles to quite account for the show. Yes, it has a straightforwardly Todorovian plot to string things together, but the bread and butter of any given episode is doing a cop show set in 1973. Its clever conceit is to do this in 2006 with a main character who is also from 2006, and who can thus provide self-aware meta-commentary on proceedings. But this is still just a light updating of the basic concept of the period piece. The entire Todorovian framework is really just there to jazz up a 1973 period piece with a hint of magical realism. Mind you, this isn’t a terrible idea. Magical realism makes most things better. But still, Life on Mars is a 1973 period piece first and a genre show second.
It’s actually worth remarking on that phrase briefly, as “1973 period piece” is not entirely obvious as a concept. It was, after all, relatively recent. And its existence points towards a larger trend worth pointing out. The first time that Doctor Who did a story that was both set in the past and set during a period where Doctor Who was transmitting was, of course, Mawdryn Undead. Since then it’s done it in Remembrance of the Daleks, Father’s Day, The Impossible Astronaut, Cold War, and Hide. If we want we can add “stories set in the past within living memory of Doctor Who” and scoop up the pair of 1950s stories (Delta and the Bannermen and The Idiot’s Lantern) and the three World War II ones (The Curse of Fenric, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and Victory of the Daleks) and hammer the point home more clearly – the range of what can be done in period pieces has expanded to include periods whose iconography has never quite left us. (In many ways, in fact, The Idiot’s Lantern is the key text in this argument, but we’ll get there next month.)
The trouble with reaching back to 1973 for a period piece, of course, is that it creates a heritage theme park version of lived experience. Which is unsettling to say the least. Heritage theme park history is a disturbing enough phenomenon as it is, but its application to things that are actually a part of the audience’s life is deeply creepy. Equally, however, Life on Mars has some savvy hedges against this tendency. For one thing, it’s a terribly detailed realization of 1973, done with the attentiveness that we’ve become accustomed to by watching Doctor Who Confidential. It’s not just a matter of slapping an orange tinge on all the lighting and putting everyone in bell bottoms. The 1973 of Life on Mars is built out of an impressive array of minutia and ephemera from the 1970s.
All of this is amplified by the show’s use of period paratexts, right down to its trailers using old BBC logos and its lead-in using an old-fashioned continuity announcer. The result is something that isn’t just a period piece but a thorough exploration of 1970s television and culture that often dismantles the culture and reassembles it into disturbing and haunting visions that plague Sam Tyler and try to undermine his sense of reality.
The problem is that this doesn’t go well with the other show they want to do, in which a modern day detective has to make it in a world where fingerprints take two weeks to turn around, DNA testing is impossible, and basic forensic protocols are ignored. One is a disturbing show about someone’s sanity slipping away, and another is a hymn to the bygone age of detective shows where cops had to be clever instead of just capable of checking their computers.
Except that’s not how detective shows work. A decent detective show is rarely about the particulars of the detective’s process as such, simply because that’s not really particularly engaging. As Edgar Allan Poe noted when inventing the genre, the detective story is not nearly as clever as it appears, as the writer in fact knows the ending and does not have to actually figure it out so much as make something that looks like a satisfying line of thought. Only a tiny subset of detective stories are actually done in the “solve along with the detective” mode, and even those tend to be based more on narrative convention than on careful analysis of the evidence. In practice, lengthy logical deductions are an absolute bore to put on the screen, since they in practice amount to huge infodumps, and only a handful of writers are any good at them. (Though when you have a writer who is good at a lengthy exposition sequences they can make some properly astonishing television with the skill.)
And so for decades the trend in detective shows has been to move away from solve-along-with-the-main-character games and towards character pieces, typically involving the main character’s often troubled psyche. And when this trend really began in earnest with nineties classics like Prime Suspect and Cracker the actual mysteries took three hours to unfold with character pieces wound slowly around them. These days you can do virtually the same thing in a third of the time simply by virtue of having the detective work unfold faster, leaving more time for character bits. The main thing modern technology has facilitated is the velocity and density of narrative, which makes sense given that the major effect of modern communication technology is faster and higher bandwidth communication.
“Yes,” you say, “but all this modern technology business takes all the suspense out of stories.” Well, no more than the thriller died with the invention of cell phones. Yes, we’re all familiar with the deeply entertaining meme of classic plots that would be ruined by cell phones, but all that really means is that the particular narrative contrivance that’s used for the climax there doesn’t work any more. New ones do – recall Steven Moffat’s fantastic episode of Joking Apart in which he constructs a classic farce that’s facilitated by cell phones. Farce, of course, is one of the forms that in theory ought be most endangered by cell phones, since as a structure it depends on failures to communicate, but, of course, it’s perfectly robust and able to handle technology because cell phones, shock of shocks, did not end miscommunication. (Just think of the farce you could build around autocorrect.)
Put another way, modern technology hasn’t changed what does or doesn’t work in a plot. We can return to the old point about the sonic screwdriver, and its newborn cousin psychic paper. These are both useful because they quickly get through often tedious bits of setup and let the story get to the actual plot. In practice they work only when doing so is more interesting than wading through the plot, however. When a contrivance is actually needed to inhibit the Doctor you just need a line about a deadlock and you’re in business. When, on the other hand, you need the Doctor to get into the military facility and start looking for aliens you can cut through the five minutes of guard-charming and lock-picking and get to the good bits. It’s marvelous. Yes, resolving the overall plot of the story with the sonic screwdriver would be awful, but in a well-done episode the point isn’t the mechanics of what resolves the plot, it’s the consequences for the characters of resolving the plot that way.
All of which is to say that there’s not actually anything terribly interesting in the idea of doing a cop show without fingerprinting or DNA technology because in a remotely well-written cop show those aren’t the point of the exercise anyway. Note, for instance, that in the first episode of Life on Mars the plot resolves because of a contrived removal of an obstacle. The plot gets held up until someone finds an old file with a particular name on it. Yes, in a modern cop show this file would be found with twenty seconds of computer searching, but that’s not the point. The point is that all taking technology away does is provide an arbitrary contrivance that prevents the plot from getting resolved too early. But look, no remotely competent television writer has a problem with this. In a contemporary-set show you could do the exact same plot, only you have the delay come from the fact that the person whose name matters has changed names, and so the searches don’t work until they get a key piece of information. Figuring out how to delay your plot resolution is a basic skill of fiction writing.
What is interesting is the contrast between Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt as people. But this opens up its own set of problems. Hunt is an abusive, sexist, racist alpha male with little regard for people’s rights. He’s a nightmare of a cop, and the fact that policing in his style is, while not eliminated, at least no longer normative is unequivocally a good thing. But because Life on Mars is fundamentally a nostalgia piece the audience is invited to luxuriate in Hunt’s over the top nature. It’s not an unabashed hymn to police brutality, but it does ultimately decide that hyper-masculine renegade cops are, on balance, something worth missing.
It’s not clear that the show intends to go down this route. One gets the sense that it wants to have a less straightforwardly credulous relationship with Hunt than it does. It seems more likely that Gene Hunt became the breakout character and the show followed the narrative gravity. But this is a slender excuse. Quite frankly, if Gene Hunt becomes your breakout popular character you did it wrong. Which is the crux of the problem with this series. It’s not that it’s bad TV. It’s that it’s kind of… mediocre TV. This is not a huge problem. Doctor Who, after all, is often mediocre TV. I’m not entirely sure there’s any television show that isn’t medicore a fair amount of the time. Life on Mars succeeds at the basic task of being entertaining. Any theory of television that does not allow for the basic sufficiency of “not awful and reasonably entertaining” is be necessity flawed.
But what is perhaps interesting is the source of its failures – its nostalgia for the 1970s and, more broadly, its genre. The basic idea of rearranging the cultural debris of the 1970s into a surreal and slightly nightmarish dreamscape is, after all, wonderful. The show’s heart seems in the right place, as quite frankly David Bowie is the exact right basic frame to use here, given his repeated transformations across the decade. (Although one cannot help but suspect the title was picked because of one line in “Life on Mars?”) But at the end of the day a cop show is just the wrong genre for this sort of exploration. Life on Mars is at its most interesting when it turns the visual and cultural landscape of the 1970s into a strange and unsettling place, but its genre is fundamentally one about the restoration and maintenance of order, and so no matter how interesting that road is it can never entirely go down it. Todorov’s tightrope between the supernatural and madness is a strange bedfellow for a detective show where the crimes are decidedly non-supernatural.
And sure enough, when the concept reaches its end with Ashes to Ashes, its sequel show, its landing is vaguely unsatisfying. It picks the supernatural, but in a bland and understated way that is oddly anticlimactic, rendering the entire mystery uninteresting in hindsight. Because at the end of the day the premise of a cop show isn’t right for the sort of postmodern nostalgia that the show wants to do. It’s only a small problem – just enough to render the show perpetually “quite good” instead of brilliant or classic – but it is a problem. Thankfully, other shows similar to Life on Mars are, perhaps, better suited to that sort of nostalgia.