ABC - 13th November 2008 - 10.00pm

Have you noticed that the word 'dead' has been popping up in the episode titles with increasing frequency? Are the producers trying to tell us something? Anyway, this is another story that borrows heavily from the UK series. Namely, Episode 6 of the first series. In the original, the hostage situation takes place in a newspaper office but in a bit of cleverness by the U.S production team, the action is switched to a hospital and its psychiatric wing. Why clever? Narratively and thematically, it works some wonders. It opens up the debate about whether Sam is mad or dead, concentrating on the schizophrenic aspects of his character and the real/unreal zone of his existence in 1973. There's also a riff on two major films of the period, the hostage situation is straight out of Dog Day Afternoon, and the treatment of the mentally ill has some of the disturbing echoes of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.

...the contrived ways of getting Lisa Bonet into an episode were starting to grate

This still carries the major plot point that has future Sam's life support switching off at the same time as the hostage's deadline of 2.00pm and suggests that somehow they are connected. What I also quite liked was the way that future Sam's dilemma is framed within one of the many cheesy soap-operas of the time. Sam observes Maya through the frame of television and there is a sense of closure to their relationship when she decides that the pressure of waiting for Sam to come back from his coma is too much for her. In a way, it's a relief, as the contrived ways of getting Lisa Bonet into an episode are starting to grate. The male gaze (Sam's) shifts back and forth from the prophecy of television to the reality of Annie standing in a bar and consequently raises doubts in his mind about what is real and what isn't...

As another exercise in reformatting the UK series it does throw up very sharply the differences in tone between the two versions. In the UK series Sam is a paranoid, vulnerable hero who is desperate to get back to the future. That doesn't chime in the US series. Sam seems to oscillate between thoroughly enjoying himself in 1973 and not exactly busting a gut to get back to 2008. Whereas the UK series slots brilliantly into the themes of paranoia and alienation that constitute much of British science fiction, here there's a distinct lack of concern from Sam. There have been attempts to reflect the American political milieu with Vietnam, racial unrest and the emergence of gay identities but these are bits of window dressing that don't reflect on how Sam is a character embedded in the alienation and psychosis of 2008, which is a key element to what the UK series is about. And Gene Hunt represents the unfettered ego, the freedom that Sam desires. Here, he's just a slightly grumpy, old cop.
In the UK version, Gene's working methods are central to the plots. In this episode, Gene barely registers at all.

It's almost as if the US producers are quite afraid to risk making Sam unappealing and have their hands tied over Gene's penchant for shock tactics. Much as Jason O'Mara and Harvey Keitel struggle to make their characters psychologically relevant, the writers can only go so far. It may also be down to the lack of time too. They're running 45 minute episodes as opposed to hour long versions. This means that sub-plots and running gags get curtailed or resolved ineffectually at the last minute. It all gets a bit toothless when it tries to establish both Gene and Sam as authority figures, pussy foots around with the relationship between Annie and Sam and ditches the 'Greek chorus' of Nelson, which they briefly had in the form of Windy for a few episodes but have now seemingly forgotten what to do with her. In the UK version, Gene's working methods are central to the plots. In this episode, Gene barely registers at all.

I suspect that this the difficulty in attempting to remake the original scripts. The sooner they run out of the original plots the better, in my opinion. They can then refashion the series to their own whims and we might get somewhere with character development and exploring pertinent themes. At the moment we have a slightly frothy, entertaining drama, occasionally touching base with the psychological tropes of the original but then holding back from doing anything mildly provocative.

ABC Life On Mars site

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