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Over the Rainbow: The "Life on Mars" Series Finale

Oh. My. God.

I don't even know where to begin after watching last night's final installment of Brit import Life on Mars, one of the most gripping, thrilling, and jaw-dropping series finales (or series, full stop) around.

While I knew that the writers--Matthew Graham, along with Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharoah--wanted to tie things up in the strange, strange life of Detective Inspector Sam Tyler, I had no idea the lengths Sam would go to in order to return to 2006, who he would betray, and what mechanism by which he'd catapult himself out of his future coma-state.

If the above sentence made any sense to you, you're obviously a Life on Mars fan. If not, you've missed out on a series, which over the course of sixteen episodes, redefined genre television, blending science fiction, cop drama, romance, metaphysical drama into one groovy package and populating it with a cast of characters that proved themselves misogynistic, racist, pigheaded... and yet having a sort of primal dignity that was impossible to look away from. Simply put: this series rocked like vintage Bowie.

It was no surprise that Sam did manage to get home but what a long, strange road it was to that darkened tunnel. Would Sam betray Gene and "A" Division to the ruthless machinations of Frank Morgan, a man hellbent on making an example of Gene Hunt and bringing order to the chaos of the Manchester constabulary? Would he make it back to 2006? Would he be able to say goodbye to Annie?

All of these questions were answered in a fashion with last night's episode, a heart-pounding installment that made the audience question everything we've been told about Sam Tyler since the start and which bookended the series with its first episode in dizzying, brilliant fashion. We learn from Frank Morgan that Sam is in fact an undercover officer from Hyde, sent to
infiltrate Gene's team as part of Operation: MARS (Metropolitan Accountability and Reconciliation Strategy); his real name is Sam Williams. Or is it?

Just as Sam begins to question his true identity and is willing to sell out Gene and his colleagues, he undergoes an operation in the future to remove a tumor that is keeping him in his coma. Is Gene the manifestation of this cancer in his dream state? Sam believes so and gives over evidence to Frank Morgan that would lead to Gene's pensioning and dismissal from the force; Morgan promises him that he can come home to Hyde, a promise made all the more real by what Morgan reveals: that Sam had been in a car accident on the way to Manchester, that he had been in a fugue state before when he was in a bus crash at age 12, and that everything that was happening here was very much real.

Faced with the choice to save the team from their demises at the hands of a psychotic cop-killer (presaged by a telephone call last episode) or the chance to return home, Sam chooses the latter and wakes up in 2006... to discover that Frank Morgan is his surgeon. While Morgan was able to remove the pressure from his brain, the tumor was inoperable but is benign. (Which begs the question then if the tumor was what caused him to time-travel or if it was all a dream.) The hospital room where Sam laying all this time? Hyde Ward, Room 2612, the same combination (Hyde 2612) as the phone number Sam was trying to call earlier in the episode (and from which several of his ominous calls derived).

A brief aside: I'll let you count out the many, many references to The Wizard of Oz that have filled this series, including last night's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," but I will say this: it's no coincidence that Frank Morgan, the surgeon/copper played by Meadowlands' Ralph Brown, is also the name of the actor who played the titular character in The Wizard of Oz...

Returning to work, Sam discovers that he cannot relate to his coworkers nor can he feel anything, such as when he cuts his finger during a meeting (recalling bartender Nelson's words that to feel pain is to know you're alive) and promptly--and to the tune of David Bowie's "Life on Mars"--throws himself off of the building, an echo of the series' first episode in which Sam nearly jumped off a roof in order to free himself from 1973.

Does Sam die? That's a matter of conjecture. But he does suddenly return to 1973 to the precise moment in time when he faced that earlier choice. This time, he chooses to save his dying friends, felling the villain with a few precise gunshots. And later, he finally gets to confess his love for Annie (yay!), telling her that he's staying "forever" and asks her to tell him what to do ("stay here"), before embracing her in a climactic kiss that we've all been waiting sixteen episodes to see and which echoes their conversation from the series' first episode.

Gene, Chris, and Ray have all survived the debacle at the train (engineered by Frank Morgan to lead to their deaths to further discredit the department), and the fivesome climb into the back of the Cortina before driving off into the afterlife, down that yellow brick road, as it were. But not before Sam switches the radio from the sounds of the EMTs trying to save him ("It's no good, he's slipping away from us")... to Bowie's "Life on Mars," a deliberate choice on his part to choose this "dream" over reality, over death, over the end.

Was the psychic pain of his "suicide" enough to propel him back to 1973... or is this Sam's dream state, his own personal Oz, experienced in the moments as his brain shuts down in the back of an ambulance in 2006? The answer is deliberately, deliciously vague and left to the audience to decipher. (Though I did get goosebumps when the little girl in red--the Girl from the Test Card--appeared and turned off the "television," signaling the end of the series.)

As for this jaded writer, I choose to believe that Sam did die in 2006 after coming out of his coma... and lived in 1973, in a state of suspended animation. I want to believe that he did finally find love with the adorable Annie and that in order to survive, both Sam and Gene--two sides of the same coin--need each other, to push each other into changing themselves and the world around them. What better place to bring about real change then, then the front lines of policing in the 1970s? What better ending for a crusading copper than to drive off into the twilight to fight crime?

Of course, some of the truth of Sam's condition must come in the form of Life on Mars' sequel, entitled Ashes to Ashes (again, deriving its title from a Bowie song), which picks up the story of Gene, Chris, and Ray in the 1980s as they come into contact with Alex Drake (MI5/Spooks' Keeley Hawes), a female detective who has traveled back to 1981 after reading Sam's case files. A look at the promo for the series, due later this year on BBC1, can be found below.

But don't expect to find Sam Tyler in Ashes to Ashes; his story has already been told and actor John Simm sadly won't be appearing in the sequel. But from the looks of that gorgeous promo and the fact that I am already experiencing withdrawal pains from Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes can't arrive on these shores quickly enough.


TK said…
I've been reading your posts for quite some time but never commenting because I didn't want to accidentally spoil this episode for you. I got both seasons on DVD last summer in the UK, and so watched last night's episode about six months ago.

Going into the final episode, I was skeptical that what they could put together would match the emotional reaction I had to discovering that Annie was the woman in red at the end of the first season, but Sam throwing himself off the building beat it and then some. The whole thing, really. Just wow. Astounding.
Anonymous said…
By coincidence I caught the trailer for Ashes to Ashes on the BBC last night, not knowing that there was a sequel my first thoughts were "what a rip-off of Life of Mars" - until I saw Gene at the end. Brilliant. Much like the 70s, the 80s are ripe for sending up, can't wait. Don't know what they'll do after that, though, because the 90s all went a bit PC, no? Maybe they are too close, but the 90s as a decade don't have much of a personality do they?
F*%&ing brilliant end to a brilliant series.

I can't stop thinking about Sam jumping off of that building. For a moment, I was worried that it was going to end there but was relieved that he slipped back into 1973 to correct the wrong he did his team and to (finally!) connect with Annie.

I'm only sorry that it's all over but am somewhat consoled by the fact that the sequal looks fantastic. I love Keeley Hawes and can think of no one better to follow in John Simm's footsteps and am very happy that Gene Hunt will again play a pivitol role in this time bending drama.
Anonymous said…
I don't remember being so tense during a final episode ever...I really, really, really wanted the finale to do justice to the show and as it edged closer to the end, I found myself almost mouthing the words 'not...yet'.

When it happened I actually cried. TV hasn't done that for a long time. Well, watching TV hasn't, anyway.
Dani In NC said…
I thoroughly enjoyed this entire series. This is one show that I don't want to see remade into a US version.
Anonymous said…
IT was made into a US Version--a promising show where the finale was the worst ever....
TSMITH9044 said…
The American version started off great but the series finale fell flat. I am soooo jealous after reading the end to your series! Ours wrapped up with him being in outer space as part of a space program... so LAME!

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