Greatest TV Pilots: Life on Mars

Life on Mars one

Life on Mars, “Episode 1”
Written by Matthew Graham
Directed by Bharat Nalluri
Originally aired January 9, 2006 on BBC One

“I had an accident and I woke up 33 years in the past. Now that either makes me a time traveler or a lunatic or I’m lying in a hospital bed in 2006 and none of this is real.”

Nothing about Life on Mars should have worked. Its premise sounded ridiculous- an English cop gets hit by a car and ends up in the 1970s trying to figure out if he’s crazy or if he really did travel through time. But with “Episode 1”, its pilot, the series hit the ground running, with immediate well-defined characters, an enthralling plot, witty dialogue, and an intriguing mix of sci-fi and character study.

“Episode 1” starts in 2006 and finds detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) hunting for a serial killer. After his girlfriend, a fellow cop, is kidnapped, he is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. He’s still a detective, still stationed in the same building, but he’s been demoted and is the new man on the squad led by detective chief inspector Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Gene, a brutal, crude, and uncompromising cop, isn’t above using physical force to get what he needs. He’s outrageously offensive, and hates Sam almost instantly. Sam spends the majority of the episode, and the series for that matter, trying to figure out if he’s crazy, in a coma, dead, or has truly been sent back in time.

Life on Mars two

The pilot moves quickly, laying out all the facts and immediately pulling the viewer into this strange world. One of the finest accomplishments in “Episode 1” is its perfectly constructed environment and characters. You instantly know everything you need to know about these people and the places they exist in.  The viewer is as confused as Sam and we’re allowed to move along with him as he stumbles through all the questions and fear that plague him.  Life on Mars is not an outrageously funny show, but its humor works mostly because of Simm and Glenister. Simm’s humor comes in the form of dry, sarcastic comebacks, while Glenister’s is loud and over the top.

“Episode 1” has some of the best writing of the entire series, taking conventional, somewhat cliché cop genre images, like a politically incorrect hard drinking cop who threatens children, and flipping them upside down. As he interrogates the grandmother of a suspect, Gene is a completely different person. In the span of just one episode, we’re given countless opportunities to see Gene and the rest of the characters in various ways.

The performances are a big part of that accomplishment. Simm, already known for his incredible work in the State of Play miniseries when the show began, shines in particular, playing Sam perfectly. He is confused, belligerent, and sometimes quite unlikable, and Sam’s situation is never underplayed. He becomes the person that we as the audience cling to, to help us understand the sometimes confusing plot. Liz White as Annie Cartwright is also a great addition to the show. As the only major female character, she has the mixed job of being the voice of reason and future love interest. What the writers do with Annie’s character, and the way White plays her, is brilliant.

In addition to being both of those things, Annie is also the one who stands behind Sam. She doesn’t always believe his time traveling story but she never calls him crazy, and by the end of the episode she is saving his life. That rooftop scene, where Annie implores Sam not to kill himself, is one of the episode’s finest moments.

“Episode 1” is an exceptional introduction to Life on Mars. The show would go onto become one the most unique and confident shows on television, and its pilot demonstrates why it worked so well; it’s full of well-defined characters, humor, and a perfectly-paced and one-of-a-kind story.

Tressa Eckermann


This article is part of our month long theme dedicated to the greatest TV pilots.

Scroll to Top