Ground Control to Major Tom

The US version of Life On Mars aired last night, and for once in the show, I’m incredibly disappointed with how they decided to end the show, especially after how this version was generally quite good. While much of the episode was quite solid and helped to wrap up much of the story, the last couple of minutes almost completely ruin the rest of the series.

Overall, the US version of Life on Mars was fairly well done. There was a bit more in the way of a coherent storyline throughout, and it had me guessing as to what was really going on with Sam Tyler throughout – it was somewhat clear that unlike in the original show, where John Simm’s Sam Tyler was in a coma from pretty early on, that wasn’t necessarily the case here, and there were a number of theories that Sam himself came up with shortly after the pilot, as well as a number of things along the way (usually explained away by the end of the episode, such as drugs, helicopters and other plausible explanations).

What is most memorable about the original ending of the show was the sheer conflict that Sam’s character had to go through – this was a significant leap in characterization, one that really would have been incredibly hard to imagine being in his position. In the original, Sam is forced to choose between 1973 and 2004, finding escape during a robbery, where he can return home at the expense of his friends. As it turns out, he returns home to the present, but disillusioned with how everything is done (and this is a brilliant commentary on modern policing), he jumps off of a building and returns to the 1970s.

In this modern version of the show, Sam has come across his father after his younger self is kidnapped, and everything winds up in Hyde, where his father is shot trying to kill him, and Sam finally is comfortable in the 1970s, when he wakes up. Not in 2008, where the show started, but in 2035, where he’s on a space ship, about to land on Mars. The entire show was essentially a trippy dream on the part of the character, in a very odd sort of Wizard of Oz type of dream. The members of the 1-2-5 are his fellow crew members, and because they were cryogenically frozen for the trip, his mind went elsewhere.

This ending really bothers me, probably more than it should. It’s an incredible letdown. I don’t know whether this is because the show was ended early, or what, but there are three specific things that just didn’t work.

Once Sam wakes up, we learn that he is really going to Mars. Like the original, the past and future have been blended – Sam was in a coma, and picked up things, such as Hyde, the doctors, and some other things and incorporated them into his fantasy while in a coma. US Sam did the same thing this time around, but went further – he picked up his fellow crew members and supplanted them and their personalities as his fellow police officers. While this is similar to the UK version, it falls far short – essentially, it was all a dream – every element of it, from car crash to his experiences in 1973. The original found Sam recovered and returning to work, where the viewers were faced with a stark difference between the way that police work was conducted, and even society, between 2004 and 1973. Sam found that modern times were far too sterile, grey and emotionless, whereas the 1970s were vibrant, colorful and overemotional, and that there were some important aspects to life during that time. This was something that was completely lacking in the modern version, throughout the show. Another, minor couple of points was that Gene was now ‘Major Tom‘, and the entire space scene just seemed really, really fake.

Once the 1-2-5 wakes up, we learn that Gene is really Sam’s father (which is really just too cute to be taken seriously) and that their relationship in real life was probably similar to what we saw in the show. Gene’s advice to Sam, which seems to have been the entire underlying theme of this is to “Make your home where ever you are.” This to me seemed to also be a major cop-out after all the experiences that he’s undergone. The entire show should be building to the finale, and help support the final conclusions – this really didn’t happen. From early on, US Sam has always seemed to fit right in to the 1970s, whereas UK Sam was constantly trying to find a way back home, because he was constantly running into problems with how he felt that police-work and society should work, and this was a constant issue throughout the show, which made Sam’s return to the 1970s all the more meaningful. Here, this was a simple realization that Sam came up with after a trippy dream.

Essentially, The Wizard of Oz has already done this sort of storyline, and has done it better. While this in and of itself isn’t a problem, it needs to be recognized within the show a bit. The UK version had some interesting references, but this show falls far more towards Oz than the original, and I don’t remember coming across any references within the show. The UK version did a fantastic set of scenes with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s wonderful version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow at the end, which added a bit of weight and meaning to the finale of that show, where as this one had nothing that really added to the show at all.

There are some redeeming factors for this finale, which actually worked really well up until the Mars ending. Annie Norton was finally made into a full detective, but even then, this seemed like it was an afterthought. (In the UK version, Annie was made a DI in the second series.) There was ample resolution with Sam’s trip to the 1970s, but it was largely cheapened by the fact that he never really went there, even in his dreams.

Everything that made the UK show such a good one was noticeably absent in this version. This didn’t necessarily ruin the US version for me, but they are impossible to really compare. Taken in and of itself, the US show worked quite well, and I was happy to see that it was as good as it was – the characters were decently done, the stories were interesting, and it was interesting. But, I’ll always return to the original UK version.

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4 thoughts on “Ground Control to Major Tom

  1. Wait, did you say they where not any references to OZ in the US version or the UK?

    In the US version there are several.

    • There were a number in the UK version – I thought that there weren’t any in the US version, but when I went back, I did catch a couple – someone’s referred to as Scarecrow – but these small references don’t really add up to anything substantial.

  2. I have much more respect for the way they wrapped up the UK version. In the US version they made everything that had happened over the previous 16 episodes meaningless.

    • I somewhat agree, but looking back over the series, they have planned this out to end like this, which I do appreciate. That being said, the UK’s ending had far more meaning to it.

      Although, I do like the last shot of the US version.

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