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Life on Mars Case Study

Nick Lacey | Friday April 24, 2009

Categories: Key Concepts, Other Topics, Television, Television Crime Drama, Television Drama

Trailer: BBC Extended

On 10 April 2007 Sam Tyler, the protagonist of Life on Mars (Kudos, 2006-07), committed suicide (or returned to 1973 depending on your viewpoint) in front of 7.7m viewers, a record for the serial in its final episode.

Although the first series of the classic police drama Z Cars (1962-78) reached nearly double that when it appeared, the 7.7m is a very respectable figure in the multi-channel environment of contemporary television. This popularity makes Life on Mars immediately interesting to media students as it is obviously striking a chord with its audience.

The programme’s High Concept, contemporary policing methods meet ‘neanderthal’ attitudes in 1973, make it particularly interesting from the point of view of representation; however – as is always the case – we can apply all the key concepts to the programme (all that follows refers to series one).


The dramatic conflict between Sam’s expectations, based on the world of now, and the way things (apparently) were in 1973 is central to Life on Mars’s narrative; it is even more important than solving crime.

This is highlighted particular through Gene Hunt’s, the stereotypical hard cop of the era, attitude toward minority groups, including women and homosexuals:

Gene Hunt: Steven Warren is a bum bandit. Do you understand? A poof! A fairy! A queer! A queen! Fudge packer! Uphill Gardener! Fruit picking sodomite!

Sam Tyler: He’s gay? (series 1, episode 4)

Such an exchange is typical, contrasting Sam’s liberal, tolerant perspective with Hunt’s, and 1973’s, bigotry. The character of Annie, a figure of derision for Hunt’s squad simply because she’s female, also serves to show Sam’s, and 2006’s, enlightened attitude.

The contrast between times is primarily used to highlight how much better things are now: there are no mobile phones, the cars and haircuts are design disasters, pubs close at 10.30pm on a week day and so on....

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