Screensavors: Past Perfect Detective

"Life on Mars" is a police show with a twist, and definitely worth investigating.

Somewhere in a closet there's a pair of circa 1973 bell-bottom pants with our name on it. We shudder to think what made us ever want to put them on, even more to realize they're almost back in style. But while we can deal with occasional flashbacks to the 1970s, what if a trap door opened up and we found ourselves there permanently? That's exactly what happens to Sam Tyler (John Simm of The Lakes and Clocking Off), the hero of the brilliant new BBC series "Life on Mars", airing Sunday nights at 22:00 on Xtra HOT and should not be missed. Created by the same folks who brought us Hustle and Spooks, including producer Claire Parker and veteran scriptwriter Tony Jordan - who also penned many Eastenders episodes - the series has Manchester cop Sam chasing down a serial killer who's now got his partner, Maya, likely captured as well. Stepping out of his car for a moment to consider his next move just after noticing David Bowie's song "Life on Mars" is playing on his stereo, he's struck by a car... and wakes up 33 years earlier. From the moment the dazed Sam is quizzed by a passing bobby, the script is simply brilliant, playing on the time differences with humor and pathos. "I was driving a jeep," explains Sam, whose SUV has been replaced by a Ford Cortina with an 8-track player. "You were driving a military vehicle?" asks the incredulous bobby. Stepping away from his car, he notes a billboard showing the motorway he'd been looking at just prior to his accident... proclaiming that it's "Coming soon." And when he casts an eye down his body, he notes he's wearing bellbottoms and a 1970s-era leather jacket. But all's not lost. He can make his way back to his office, or what he remembers of it. His computer terminal's gone, as this is pre-PCs. And he's no longer the boss. Now he works for DCI Gene Hunt, played by the uproarious Philip Glenister (Clocking Off), who'll stop at nothing to nail a suspect, even if it means bending the rules or kneeing his subordinates, including Sam, in the groin along the way. Gene trusts no one and acts like an unleashed bulldog. Pulling up his police car on a side street where some little kids are playing ball, Gene glowers at them and warns: "Anything happens to this motor, I might come over to your auntie's and stamp on all your toys, get it?" Desperate to find out what's going on, Sam picks up the phone, telling the operator, "I need to connect to a Virgin number, a Virgin mobile." "Don't you try that sex business with me, young man - I can trace this call," comes the reply. Trapped in the past, Sam suddenly finds important parallels - Gene and his low-tech squad are also chasing a serial killer of young women. He's desperate to help them with the clues he's got from the future. But meanwhile, he keeps hearing conversations from the future, which turn up on TV, in his mind, or during discussions with individuals from the world he's now in, some of whom seem to be trying to help him emerge from what is apparently a deep coma. For now, though, he's stuck in the past, and when he enters a bar with Gene and asks for a Diet Coke, the bartender hasn't got a clue. Sure, the scene's a bit lifted from Back to the Future, but it works beautifully. Meanwhile, Sam is befriended by woman cop, Annie (Liz White), who's hardpressed to believe his story, even when he offers her a list of upcoming wars and hit records. "Don't tell me," says Annie. "Atom bombs over Moscow!" Besides the script, the delight is in the details: the awful wallpaper in Sam's apartment; the cars, the clothes, The Who and other period bands in the soundtrack, all of which are critiqued by visitors to the BBC's Web page for the show, which is a hoot in itself. There are also the obvious differences between crime-fighting circa '73 and today: there is no CSI-type forensic magic, and Gene and his team instead use legwork and occasional pure brute force. But when his knowledge from the future gives him a chance to change the past and save Maya, Sam realizes he's on to something. As Annie suggests after rescuing Sam from a suicide attempt, "Maybe you're here to for a reason - to make a difference." While time-traveling TV characters aren't new - "Quantum Leap", "Sliders", "The Time Tunnel", and other shows have made use of the premise - this one makes smart, entertaining use of the conceit. With a crackling script and an eye for period detail, "Life on Mars" is a police show with a twist, and definitely worth investigating.