It happens without you noticing it – you go away for a week or so, don’t get to see any television and then when you come back, everything’s gone back to the 1970s.
Of course, going back to the 70s is entirely the point of Life On Mars which shows just what happens when you get the production company who make Spooks and Hustle to work with BBC Wales, who were behind last year’s revival of Doctor Who. Luckily, this is one of those occasions when a production-side marriage seemingly made in TV heaven doesn’t end up with a hybrid mess, borrowing bits from everywhere without coming up with a consistent whole, but instead produces a piece of original drama, well-written and stylishly directed with some fantastic acting thrown into the mix.
Put simply, it’s Back To The Sweeney, with a car accident in 2006 mysteriously throwing Sam Tyler, a police officer from our time back to the same job in 1973, when policing methods were slightly different, 8-track cartridges were the iPods of their day and everything was covered by a vague tinge of brown. It could have been just another cop-out-of-water drama, the clash between moden and 70s methods providing little more than a standard crime drama with a twist, but Life On Mars adds in a Philip K Dick-sized twist by making the nature of reality part of the story. From the start, we’re led to question whether Sam’s 1973 is real, or just a coma-induced hallucination he’s putting himself through to try and solve the case he was working on, with Open University broadcasts turning into his 2006 doctors trying to speak to him and hypnotherapists turning up in police station canteens urging him to commit suicide as a way of getting back. Equally, though, there’s evidence that 1973 might be real and he could either be back there for a reason, or just a man with delusions he comes from the future. All we can hope is that the production team know the answer, and aren’t just putting off deciding what it is until some point when cancellation looms (yes, Lost, I’m looking at you).
Of course, while flipping through the channels in 1973, Sam Tyler could easily have stumbled upon an episode of Doomwatch where a government department investigated the bleeding edge of science and tried to prevent its consequences from affecting the population. And if/when he gets back to 2006, he can tune to ITV and see Eleventh Hour, which features a government scientific adviser investigating the bleeding edge of science et cetera… However, while Doomwatch engaged enough imaginations to cause a quasi-revival 30-odd years later, I doubt that Eleventh Hour will be remembered in a few months’ time, let alone 30 years later. While it deserves praise for using real rather than pseudo-science, the potentially interesting stories that allows are lost beneath clunky dialogue, ponderous direction (which I’m beginning to think is ITV1’s official house style for drama now, after having to watch a seemingly meaningful shot of a doorknob during this), characters who do things with no rhyme and reason purely to advance the plot and the entire story stopping every so often for Patrick Stewart to deliver a quick science lecture.
I feel slightly bad about criticising Eleventh Hour, as it’s not actively bad, but it’s a wasted opportunity – as Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica and others have shown recently, science fiction doesn’t have to be slow, ponderous and stuck in the 70s expositional mode, but this just feels like a dinosaur, reincarnated from an earlier age to lumber around the schedules until someone puts it out of its misery.
Glitzy dramas based around the rich and famous in exotic locations were a staple of the 70s in TV and film, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Hotel Babylon has seemingly also pulled itself out of that decade to appear in 2006 along with its historical cousins. Glitzy, trashy and covered with several buckets of gloss, it’s the televisual equivalent of mainlining sugar – probably incredibly bad for you, but hard to stop doing because it feels so good. It’s froth exemplified, and while the highbrow side of me wants to criticise and dismiss it, the part of me that sometimes likes to just sit in front of the TV and be entertained with my brain off for an hour wants to praise it. There’s no pretensions to high drama in it, and one suspects that the hair and make-up budget could fund several more worthy BBC projects, but it’s harmless fun, and one wishes more programmes would aim for that first before trying anything else more complicated.