DCI Sam Tyler is pursuing a murder case and has just lost his chief suspect. His partner (and girlfriend) Maya Roy goes off on a hunch, and is abducted. Sam, after visiting the scene of the abduction, drives off in an emotional state and nearly has an accident. While recovering form the incident, he decides to step outside his car, where he is promptly run down. When Sam awakes he finds himself lying in the mud, by another car, dazed and confused, and in 1973. Is someone playing an elaborate trick on him? Is he dreaming of a Manchester from when he was only four? And why is he suddenly involved in a case eerily similar to the one he was working on – down to the very fibers under the fingernails of the victim?
Life on Mars is definitely like your typical crime drama, but it has a strange psychological twist to it. As Sam tries to not only work on the crime, he has to come to terms with being where he is, what the world of 1973 is like, and how can he get out of it and back to 2006. He distrusts the world around him, and considers everything in it an illusion dreamt up by his sub-conscious (maybe he’s been watching to many reruns of The Sweeny.) Meanwhile all his co-workers think he’s nuts, except WPC Annie Cartright (well, she thinks he’s nuts too, but at least she is willing to help him.)
There are strange clues that Sam’s mind feeds him, and odd admissions by others that feed his belief that he can return home. Even the jovial Nelson – the barman at the local pub – weighs in his advice on the situation with a quote reminiscent of Buckaroo Bansai: “You’re not lost pal – you’re where you are. And you have to make the best of it. That’s all you can do.” Even an Open University telecourse on maths talks to him. Is he really hearing voices from his own time, or has he really gone nuts (I’ve been told that you’re only really crazy if you talk back to the voices, and Sam does.)
Eventually Sam manages to get by without his mobile (“Mobile what, sir?”) and the fact that it takes a fortnight to get fingerprint matching from Scotland Yard. He pieces together the clues from the case in an almost serendipitous manner, and saves the day. Only in the end does he realize that in putting away the murderer today, that he’ll be released in time to strike again in 2006. Will Sam change the way he works within the law – protecting the rights of even the suspect and the preservation of evidence – or will he adopt the same methods of his early-seventies counterparts.
Life on Mars airs on BBC 1, Monday nights at 9:00 pm.