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

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


“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.


  • 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.