SciFi Weekend: Sam Tyler’s Search For His Present, And For Life on Mars

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While for most television viewers last week marked the finale of ER after fifteen seasons, for science fiction viewers the week was also significant for the series finale of the American version of Life on Mars after only seventeen episodes. (Note there are major spoilers if anyone interested has not yet watched.) During its run some were undecided whether to classify it as a police or science fiction series. The finale made this clear.

The series began with Sam Tyler losing consciousness in 2008 and awaking as a police officer in a similar position in 1973. (Video of the pilot previously posted here). It was never clear if he had really traveled back in time, with many clues suggesting he was really unconscious, or perhaps in a thought-control experiment, still in 2008. In the end it turned out that neither the events in 2008-9 or 1973 were real.

Sam awoke at the end of the episode on a space ship which was actually traveling to Mars in 2035 and we found that everything was simulation played in Sam’s brain to keep it occupied while in hibernation for the trip. Something went wrong with the simulation of Sam as a police officer in 2008, causing him to think he had moved further back to 1973.

Reading the reviews around the blogsophere I think that viewers are undecided as to whether to feel cheated. On the one hand it turned out that nothing was “real” and we had no real way to figure out the ending. On the other hand they managed to insert so many items from the show into the mars mission that in retrospect everything made sense. It also seems easier to accept such an unexpected ending after watching for seventeen episodes. Reactions might have been different after a seven year run unless there was more to lead into it.

The show was really about a search for life on Mars. Sam really was a spaceman, as he was called many times during the series. The machines Sam often saw were replicas of his space ship. Windy was the computer voice. Windy often called Sam 2B after his apartment number, and he awoke in an animation unit labeled 2B. The ship was Hyde-1-2-5 and run was a part of the Aires Project, bringing in both the references to Hyde and Aires in the imaginary 1973. Frank Morgan turned out to be at mission control, really knowing what was going on as Sam suspected in the previous episode.

The show included many references to The Wizard of Oz, including the character Frank Morgan who shared the name of the actor who played the Wizard. Like The Wizard of Oz,  the characters in the imaginary land were based upon real characters. Some of the key characters were fellow astronauts.

At times Gene Hunt seemed to play a fatherly role towards Sam, and it turned out that he was a fellow astronaut as well as Sam’s father. I wonder if the writers considered this relationship when Sam slept with Gene’s daughter in the 1973 imaginary story. In a way Sam dreamt of sleeping with his sister. Another sign of Gene’s importance is that the mission was literally a search for life on Mars or, as a member of the crew put it, a “gene hunt.”

As this is primarily a political blog I should also note we were told that President Obama was unable to speak with the crew when they woke up in 2035 because her father was ill.

While the events in 1973 were not real, in many ways this did not matter because nothing on such dramatic television shows is really real.  St. Elsewhere wasn’t any less entertaining after learning that it all occurred in the imagination of an autistic child in the final episode. (On the other hand, it does not work to go backwards, as in declaring an entire season of Dallas to have been a dream in order to bring back Bobby Ewing). If this was really a simulation to keep the minds of the crew busy it would have been possible to have it end abruptly the midst of the 1973 storyline. The writers treated viewers better than that and did have a satisfactory conclusion to the 1973 events. The storyline with Sam’s imaginary father was resolved. Sam and Annie did get together, and Sam decided he would prefer to remain in 1973 instead of returning to 2008 (or now 2009) when it appeared he had a chance. Annie got her promotion to detective and, in response to the sexism of her co-workers, said she “just thinks of a time far, far in the future when they all work for me.” This turned out to be true as she was really the colonel in charge of the Mars mission.

After the finale aired executive producers Scott Rosenberg and Josh Appelbaum discussed the show with TV Guide and commented on their next project:

TVGuide.com: What’s next for you two?
Appelbaum: We’re doing a [pilot] called Happy Town, for ABC [and revolving around a small town rocked by a horrific crime].
Rosenberg: It’s got a really cool ensemble [including Jay Paulson, Amy Acker, Dean Winters and Robert Wisdom]. We’re all huge fans of Twin Peaks and the Stephen King novels, and hopefully we can create a world worthy of those reference points. There hasn’t been a straight-out scary show on TV in years, and hopefully this will deliver.

Update: Many theories about how Life on Mars would end were raised in the blogoshere. It looks like one of the theories at CliqueClack was quite close.

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