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Lords of Time #7: Doctor Who Vs Life On Mars

Guest contributor Mark McCullough continues the series pitting Doctor Who against other time travel fiction.

doctor-who-life-on-mars

“My name is Sam Tyler, I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home”- Sam Tyler

As time travel shows go, Life on Mars (and its sequel Ashes to Ashes) is one of the stranger offerings. For the purposes of this article I am regarding them as one story and focusing on the British version of the show.

About the Challenger!

Country of Origin: Great Britain

Life on Mars follows the story of DCI Sam Tyler (played by John Simm). Following a car accident in 2006, Sam awakens in 1973. There he meets DCI Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister), whom he has to work under as DI. The series follows Sam’s life and his new unit, focusing heavily on his relationships with his colleagues and his goal to get back home.

Ashes to Ashes continues the story started in Life on Mars. Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) is established as the new lead protagonist. She is a police psychiatrist who met Sam Tyler in 2006. She suffers a similar fate: being shot at point blank range in 2008 only to wake up in London 1981 working under Gene Hunt as his DI, working in an almost identical team as Sam Tyler. This time the stakes are higher as Alex has a young daughter in 2008, this is what drives her desire to return home.

The Lure!

The concept of being involved in a fatal accident: such as a car crash or gunshot wound, which results in a coma is scary enough. Add to the mix that instead of being unconscious you are sent back in time, the concept is rather terrifying. Given that the time travel element is not intentional, this is an example of the stuck in the past trope. As a fan of Doctor Who, it is impossible not to draw comparisons to the fate of those touched by a Weeping Angel.

The real attraction to both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is the characters, and none of them stand out to me more so than Gene Hunt. Hunt is the stereotypical 1970’s DCI: corruption, bribery, brute force and extremely loyal to his team. As far as men go, he is highly opinionated, arrogant and can do no wrong. By his own code there is a “very fine line between a criminal and a copper” and he certainly acts like it, fabricating evidence to suit his own purposes. To put it bluntly, he is someone you should dislike. Yet somehow, it is impossible not to love him. In many ways, Hunt could be classed as an anti-hero, a term which could easily be applied to a certain time traveler.

Sam and Alex are sublime characters. Their ideas on how policing should be done often clashes with Hunt’s ego. Simm’s take on Tyler and his mannerisms are a stark contrast to his version of the Master (a testament perhaps to his ability as an actor). Drake on the other hand, I would go as far as to say she is the strongest female character since Sarah Jane Smith. The supporting characters Ray Carling and Chris Skelton provide some of the comic moments and their contrasting views and actions makes for engaging viewing. The inclusion of Annie Cartwright allows for a friendly face for Tyler in his strange new world allowing an immediate strong bond to be formed. In Ashes to Ashes, Cartwright is replaced by WPC Sharon Granger who shares a similar characterization.

Dynamics and Differences!

lifeonmars-lancasterI’m sure you are aware that Doctor Who utilizes a ‘story of the week’ narrative style, with an underlying story arc. Life on Mars uses a similar format with a crime needing to be solved ever episode, with the stuck in the past plotline playing a minor part in each episode. It is Doctor Who’s variety that let’s Life on Mars get ahead in terms of characters and setting. With Doctor Who, the constant cast is at a maximum two or three (depending on the number of companions). This slightly limits what can be done with the characters, as even they change on a reasonably regular basis. I’m not saying the characters and their development in Doctor Who isn’t fantastic, because it usually is wonderful. A few exceptions however, notably Clara in Series Seven Part Two. Having mainly the same cast for five seasons allows Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes to do a lot more with their characters. Through the course of the show we see relationships grow stronger, characters changing for the better and others being placed in positions that bring out their character traits more than ever.

Doctor Who has used the past as a setting on numerous occasions with varying levels of success. What Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes manages to do though is create a very firm realistic and believable world. This is something that perhaps Doctor Who is not afforded the luxury of (It is hard to set up a world, a story and believable characters yet still have the TARDIS leave it all behind 45 minutes later). How Life on Mars excels is through the use of a constant setting, believable characterization for the line (The lack of so called political correctness is a real highlight.) real world references and the use of period appropriate music. Both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are named after the works of David Bowie, whose music features prominently within the series. This is a stark contrast to Doctor Who, where the scores are specially composed by the wonderful Murray Gold. Both shows are very strong musically, and I don’t think I could pick a favorite.

day of the moon promo pics (7)The old cliché of Doctor Who being ‘hide behind the sofa’ television has never rung particularly true for me, with the only episodes to really scare me are those which make you jump. Blink, The Day of the Moon and Midnight to name a few. Life on Mars offers some of this, with scenes featuring the Test Card Girl. Whereas Ashes to Ashes utilizes a creepy clown based on the design of David Bowie’s costume. For those with Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) this does not make for pleasant viewing (let’s not mention The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Day of the Clown then). So if you like to be scared Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes can offer you that as well. Another shared concept is the ability to alter your own person timeline. In Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes this makes for a few tearjerker moments as the main protagonists interact with their own parents. Both Sam and Alex try to change things for the better leading to interesting outcomes. Don’t worry; there are no Time Reapers here.

Doctor Who has had episodes of multiple genres, while being primarily a science fiction show. Series Seven was a good example of just how varied the show can be. Life on Mars however, is a harder show to classify to a specific genre. It has moments of science fiction in the time travel elements, comedy, drama, but perhaps the most frequent would be to class it as a crime drama. Something both shows have in common is mystery and respecting the intellect of their viewers. Doctor Who (particularly in the Moffat era) has featured long running story arcs which challenge the viewer to understand what is happening. I would guess very few people were able to piece everything together before the airing of The Time of the Doctor. The narrative of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes keeps you guessing from Sam’s opening quote until the dénouement in the final episode. The clues are there through out, and once it is revealed, you will find yourself feeling that this was always the destination they were heading to. It is an excellent conclusion which brings everything to full circle with very little questions remaining.

For me, there can only be one winner. I adore Doctor Who and it has become a huge part of my life: I’ve written articles on it, I talk about it daily and never stop re-watching episodes. It may come as a surprise then that has a serious rival. For me, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes together form perhaps one of the best stories ever told on television. The ideas, the characters and the resolution are all perfect and come together to make a formidable combination.

Score!

  • Plot – 4/5
  • Characters – 4/5
  • Character Development – 5/5
  • Tearjerkers – 5/5
  • Plot Point – 3/5
  • Timey-Wimey ball – 3/5

Based on these criteria, Life on Mars scored 24 out of a possible 30. This means that the rankings look like this now:

  1. Steins;Gate25/30
  2. Back to the Future / Life on Mars24/30
  3. Future Diary 22/30
  4. Quantum Leap -- 20/30
  5. Shadow of Destiny19.5/30
  6. The Time Machine16.5/30

Join us next time when we rake up another challenger. Clue for next article: Cheerleader.

Step back in time...

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45 comments
TriviaMaster
TriviaMaster

I'm honestly just waiting for Homestuck to pop up...of course, it's fairly new and doesn't exactly have the long standing history of, say, Back to the Future, but I think it could be compared to DW pretty well. After all, it's got aliens, time travel, alternate universes, confusing paradoxes that I can't quite wrap my head around...

Teh Doctor
Teh Doctor

Life On Mars/Ashes to Ashes was a brilliant series. I'm not even a big fan of crime drama but I'd highly recommend this to anyone. It even has a couple of references to Doctor Who :)

blueboxgirl
blueboxgirl

Nice article! Loved life on mars, absolutely brilliant. Also, i'm sure i read somewhere that sam tyler was named after rose tyler! Spooky considering john simms leather jacket and his later involvement as the master.....:)

Snoozinboozin
Snoozinboozin

I adored Life On Mars and I liked Ashes to Ashes but while the former was original, challenging, shocking and unconventional. Ashes to Ashes was the complete opposite. The big thing that I loved about Life On Mars and Doctor Who (particularly the Moffat era) is that it constantly challenged you and drew you in, you think you have figured it out but then something comes at you that makes you think WTF? I could never see that with Ashes particularly with series 3, by then the whole thing got so obvious that it lacked any creativity or subtleness that the previous series had in spades. Plus there were so many things dropped; plot lines were just brushed underneath the carpet (see the entire storyline of series 2 and the lack of consequences besides the obvious) a lot of characters were under-developed until the final series where everything was crammed in at the very last minute( Ray, Chris, Shaz and Gene) and you had an antagonist that lacked any sophistication.


Also with Doctor Who when a story arc is started the writer usually sees it through until the very end and is always well connected. I could tell ever since the "Eleventh Hour" that Moffat had a plan of sorts, I could tell that everything was interlinked with one another and I could always tell that every single arc of Smith tenure as the doctor was all leading up to something which constantly challenged me and drew me in at the same time. Life On Mars was able to do this as well but Ashes especially the final  series lacked that type of narrative structuring and thought I am sorry to say. By the time I got halfway through series 3 of Ashes I found my paperwork more entertaining. Doctor Who is always able to draw me in with their complex storylines and their twists and turns which had me spinning. And the ending of Doctor Who and any of the episodes where the companions left (particularly Amy and Rory) always had more emotional punch in them because it was coupled with some powerful scripts and dialogue. Life On Mars was able to match that (particularly the end) but Ashes fell flat. To be honest the ending of Ashes tarnished the ending of Life On Mars.

Polyphase
Polyphase

Life on Mars, Never heard of it I'm afraid :(

GibbyBlogger
GibbyBlogger

I did a funny thing with this series. I watched the first episode of the first series - it was intriguing, but not something I was rushed into watching. Then, I left it, never watched another episode... until the final episode... of the final series... of its spinoff 'Ashes to Ashes'.


I don't understand how that happened, but if there's one thing I can say... this is a very good series (and so is the spinoff). And I can say that from watching one episode... yeah, makes no sense to me either.

OnceTheDoctor
OnceTheDoctor

Personally my favourite out of all of the ones you've done so far! As ever looking forwards to the next one!

OnceTheDoctor
OnceTheDoctor

Loved Life and Mars and the sequel to it Ashes to Ashes! Keeley Hawes and Phillip Glenister were excellent in that!

Nosliw Rennoc
Nosliw Rennoc

The next is Heroes, which, incidentally, is also the name of a David Bowie song

MaraBackman
MaraBackman

Seeing that photo on top makes me wonder what it would have been like if Simm's Master had met Nine. :D

TheRiseOfTheTwelfth
TheRiseOfTheTwelfth

Based on that first photo, how good would a story in which Nine faced off against Simm's Master looking like that be?

Kranitoko
Kranitoko

No doubt Heroes is the next one; glad this is gonna be done =] Was hoping so.

Baker Street is excited for Series 8!
Baker Street is excited for Series 8!

I've always known about Life On Mars but I've never really got what it's about. Reading this article makes me very tempted to give it a watch, and after seeing John Simm and Phillip Glenister together in Mad Dogs this looks like a good programme to watch.

Nightmarish
Nightmarish

Thanks for writing this! As well as being great articles, this series has added a lot to my list of things to watch.

philgreek
philgreek

Thanks for writing a great article! I think I'll have a watch of it some time soon and see if I enjoy it as much as I think I will. Though shouldn't this get 24/30 rather than 25 (4+4+5+5+3+3)? 



Master Michael Moon
Master Michael Moon

After Doctor Who, I regard both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes as the best examples of British TV drama at it's best. I wish they would do another series set in the 1990's...

ahunter8056
ahunter8056

Ah finally, a show that I have watched and love. And if next time is indeed 'Heroes', then that'll make it two.





Ninjauthor
Ninjauthor

Cheerleader is the first clue I think I've got although Time travel was only one of several essential concepts to the show I'm thinking of which only lasted one season

JamesAggas
JamesAggas

Honestly, if any show out there meant as much to me as Doctor Who does, it's Life on Mars. It's the only show I make a habit of annually re-watching every year. Ashes to Ashes is also good, especially from the 2nd season onward (it was definitely still finding its feet in its 1st), but Life on Mars to me is a masterpiece. Very, VERY difficult for me to pick between the two. Great analysis of a great show.

AlessandroArsuffi
AlessandroArsuffi

Beautiful analysis of this show, I think I'm gonna give it a try.

As for the hint to the next show in the series, I think it's too easy to understand.

"Cheerleader" to me invokes essentially only one word: YATTA! And I already know I'm gonna love the next one...

The Finn
The Finn

What a great choice for the main picture XD Great article, too.



Mark McCullough
Mark McCullough

A big thanks to Gustaff for allowing me to be part of this series and write about one of my favourite TV programmes. You've put a lot of effort into this series and have been wonderful when communicating with me. It was a pleasure to work with you. And of course a big thanks to DWTV too for publishing it.

Chronos the Fannibal
Chronos the Fannibal

Another show that sounds interesting yet I will fail to ever get to watch :( (seriously have 9 tv shows currently watching, plus another 5 I want to watch)

GaryKingston
GaryKingston

I love life on mars, Gene Hunt is the coolest character ever

sontaran17
sontaran17

A Great Series, Have seen bothe the US and UK versions, of course the latter is the better, but just a really great concept!

floppy_who
floppy_who

Imagine a Who / Gene Hunt crossover:

"Hello... I'm the Doctor. It's nearly tea time and I'm having hoops...."

The Grey Ghost
The Grey Ghost

Anyone else notice Sam Tyler is an anagram of Masterly?

U_Monkey_U
U_Monkey_U

@GaryKingston  Cool is in the eye of the beholder. Having grown up in this era, I found Hunt to be an irritating exaggeration of many men at the time and a cop who made many policing mistakes that Tyler had to correct. The character of Sam Tyler was the heart and soul of a show that would have been an unremembered, quippy copper show without him. 


















Mark McCullough
Mark McCullough

@ivegotkidneysI really enjoyed The Rebel Flesh / The Almost People, which was a fantastic episode with interesting concepts.

Fear Her, not so much so :P

AlessandroArsuffi
AlessandroArsuffi

@KCi Williams is Moffat I think you don't even need to do that XD I've been waiting for your next work with trepidation, I'd like to know how you value time travel in the show-that-must-not-be-named.

GaryKingston
GaryKingston

I can see your point there but like you said cool is in the eye of the beholder and I do love Sam as well. Sam and Gene are for me the best part of the show

GaryKingston
GaryKingston

My personal top 3:

The Doctor( but mainly 3, 6, 7 and 9 because if the sheer bad asses they are)

Sherlock (the Bendict version/ Mycroft (Gatiss)

Gene Hunt

JamesAggas
JamesAggas

@Mark Mc @ivegotkidneys  Yeah, I was really shocked by how weak Fear Her was after enjoying Life on Mars so much. I think Matthew Graham is an excellent writer, when he's working on his own thing and with a concept as great and set out as the one in LoM. Same goes for Chris Chibnall, who also wrote some awesome LoM eps. And yet for something like Who, it's not quite as good. I enjoyed a lot about The Rebel Flesh eps (especially the cliffhangers), but I still feel it could've been improved in some aspects, and Chibnall's Who eps have been fairly hit and miss. It's left me convinced that writing for a 'family' audience is a far bigger challenge than an adult one, especially those more used to writing for the latter audience.