Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Life on Mars: finale thoughts (Spoilers for non-UK, non-illegal downloading readers)

Oh man, that was pretty darn fine.

And in case the blog post title didn't alert you, if you haven't watched the final episode of Life on Mars, and don't care to be spoilered, stop reading now.

There appear to be two trains of thought about Life on Mars: the first focuses on it being excellent drama with well-constructed characters and an incoherantly believable plotline (it makes no sense, but it is so beautifully internally in/consistent that we don't care). The second acknowledges a lot of the first POV, but gets exceedingly nostalgic for the bad old times, usually generating delight, longing and praise for Hunt et al's sexist, racist and homophobic humour (as Tyler pithely winced a couple of episode ago after one of Hunt's tirades, "haven't you forgotten the Jews?")

So what was it by its conclusion, and did the ending make either opinion more convincing? I guess John Harris on Radio 4 this morning said it best when he fretted that it appeared that "...heaven was Manchester in 1973" - and that that didn't seem quite right at all (it's a view which chimes with Robert Hanks in today's Independent who wrote: "Are we really supposed to go along with the notion that heaven is an episode of The Sweeney that never ends?"). Certainly, Nancy Banks-Smith believed "Life On Mars spoke of nostalgia for a time when PC did not mean politically correct and detectives were seldom mistaken, even in a poor light, for social workers." (And there is a similar, if slightly more obliquely phrased sentiment in Andrew Billen's review for The Times.)

Of course, it has to be admitted that chief series writer Matthew Graham has remarked that having a 21st century figure there to roll their eyes "Somehow ... lets us off the hook" for using Sweeney-esque dramatic strokes. But, even so, for me the show was much more nuanced, more subtle and ultimately warmer than that.

And perhaps that is best seen in the show overall and not just last night's crowd-pleasing finale (though as Hanks put it, "Cake has rarely been so completely had and eaten"). I don't believe that it did clearly say that life was better than, more feeling, or more alive in 1973 because you could say and do all manner of things no longer permissable in today's society (and rightly so that we have moved on - any invocation of the phrase 'political correctness' and I'm liable to get very Gene Hunt on them and kick seven shades of shit from their arses*). I think instead what the show allowed us to see, to re-explore, to re-configure, was the whole way in which we mythologise exactly those sort of attitudes and those moments in time. Remember, when Hunt finds himself a murder suspect he does turn to Tyler and his modern sleuthing techniques (even though the resolution comes via a complex combination of Tyler working through both the evidence and his feelings in a highly ambivalent way).

Maybe its core appeal was that it was craftily self-referential: TV about TV. Some really critise this (there's a lot of moaning on the Guardian's 'Organgrinder' blog today), but I liked it, right down to the Test Card girl 'turning off the TV' at the end. I almost don't care about the 'explanation' as to what was 'reality' because I loved the cross-references to then and now (the cultural pleasures that 1973 didn't yet have, and those it did: the outdated and the predictive colliding). And that issue of 'reality' ultimately takes me back to what I wrote last year about the season one finale. Season One saw Sam reviewing memory, the (2006?) present and the (1973?) past as criss-crossing - an idea that spurred recollections of NewWho's Father's Day and La Jetee/Twelve Monkeys and their time-loop paradoxes. His feelings are split between places and times: does he really recall Annie's red dress and 'murder' from his childhood or has a fragmented recollection of his last encounter with his flawed father worked its way into his coma-world, drawing his love for Annie with it? Did he, could he, have changed 2006 by his actions in 1973? The implication in the S1 finale was a qualified 'possibly' (well, for me at least). Here though, at the end of season 2, we supposedly had clear resolution: 1973 was all a dream, albeit a complex one with his mind keenly employing all the best loved fantasy/sci-fi tropes of double-bluff herrings (Tyler being not 'Tyler' but rather Williams, for whom Tyler was an all-too well constructed 'character' to allow him to bring about change in the police-force - one he had adopted after a crash as his 'real' identity. Yes, it made my head hurt too.)

But whatever the programme makers may say, is reading 1973 as a dream world the only explanation? And why should we be hung up on one world or the other being 'real' when we've quite happily consumed this confectionary of clashing cultures for two series? Sam never relinquishes his belief and righteousness for positive 21st century attitudes or policing - for all that he finds himself 'unfeeling' at the post-coma 2006 ethics meeting. He goes right back to rolling his eyes, taking to task and generally not forgetting who he is/was once he heads back to 1973. He recognises the contentment he can find there is greater than in 2006 but he doesn't obliterate 2006 from his identity.

So why does he go there? What takes him back and makes it a more 'feeling' place for him to be? Why love of course. To invoke Twelve Monkeys again, of course he goes back for love. Who wouldn't? And for all I loved the ambivalent sci-fi time-travelling, coma-fragmented, identity-crisis realities of Tyler's worlds, what I wanted was resolution for his heart.

My friend watched it with one eye on the clock apparantly, but I couldn't do that last night. I watched it, unblinkingly attentive, with nary a glance to a watch (or even my Tardis Clock - now moved to our living room). So I cheered with a stifled choke of tears when he triumphantly ran off the roof into freedom, his future/past, his suicide (thanks Scott Matthewman who twigged me the Abre les Ojos (Open Your Eyes)/Vanilla Sky reference). And I cheered - and choked - even more when he and Annie kissed afer she'd asked him to stay. Shucks, I'm just a big softy.

Ultimately then, it was all heart, all emotion, all fire and response that took him 'back'. Sam and Annie: be happy.

* BTW on the subject of political correctness, did anyone else listen to the most recent Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation? He had a priceless tirade about the non-existent and/or completely pointless and misguided PC actions so well promoted by the Express and Mail. Nothing radically new - he's been doing this schtick for years - but nicely put all the same.


Anna Lowman (annawaits) said...

Great blog! Like you, I'm glad it had an emotionally satisfying ending :)

JoeinVegas said...

Wow, that was quite a serious one sided discussion.
We saw the first season - my wife really liked it, I didn't but when it came on it gave me good reason to go off and do computer work in the other room.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Jeremy Hardy link! Made me laugh a *lot* :-)

Anonymous said...

Fantastic piece of comment. Although some of the plotting was quite threadbare in series 2 (did infiltrating that swingers party help solve a crime any more than dumb luck did?), LOM had depth, loads of it, and I was so grateful for some brain fodder in my drama. Also thought there was a fair bit of topical comment in there about criminal justice, people riding roughshod over human rights, going beyond the evidence etc. Guantanamo, dodgy dossiers, etc, anyone?