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Lazarus and Life on Mars

Updated: Mar 30

Illustration by author of Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt from Life on Mars

Last weekend I went to the script reading at the BFI of the pilot for Lazarus, the proposed sequel series to Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes from the co-creators and head writers of those those series, Ashley Pharoah and Matthew Graham. Lazarus was first revealed as being in the works in 2020, but in 2023 it was accounced that the project had failed to obtain a TV commission and so wouldn't be going ahead. The BFI event then was to share with fans what might have been.

I wanted to get down some notes for the sake of fellow fans who weren't themselves able to be there. But also - being comfortable in the knowledge that others will share these facts too - I wanted to take a little longer and take the oppurtunity to write some broader thoughts about a show which I love.

To start with an account of the event:

Co-creator and co-head-writer of all three series Ashley Pharoah was in attendance, and the script was read by a full cast. Though it wasn't totally clear I think these were BFI employees, though there seemed to be some experienced actors among them whether or not they were from within the BFI ranks. This cast did a great job of bringing the script to life, with the guy playing Sam giving an eerily spot-on John-Simm-esque read of Sam Tyler’s lines, and Gene Hunt’s actor being less like the character’s originator but carrying off the sometimes tricky humour of the character with panache. The effect was aided by the real music cues being played as prompted.

Before I get into description of, or response to, the script it's important I stress what we're talking about when we talk about this script.

This was not a prospective first episode script per se - for one thing it would be too long - but more a pitch document: it's written to set up the story and is founded largely on the material that would become a first epsiode script, but it adds in as many of the coming attractions of the proposed series as it can. It is less concerned with the mechanics of episode plot than a shooting script would be. When a writer pens a script for broadcast they are speaking to a hypothetical audience of millions of TV-viewers who they hope to intrigue and satisfy with their work en masse. When a writer pens a pitch script, the script has to act more or less like it's audience facing, but it is of course built to appeal to its real audience, the comissioning parties who decide whether to fund and greenlight the proposed project before it can get to that stage. So it's important not to judge this kind of script against a script written for actual broadcast without serious caveats, much less against a finished, produced epsiode of TV.

I'm not saying all this to cushion a coming disaster of a script, by the way. Just to place it in the right context.

With that in mind, let’s summarise the story the script told:

The story

We join the action mid car chase, 2023. Driving the pursuing vehicle is Sam Tyler, accompanied by a 20-something officer called Yasmin.

Sam forces the fleeing car off the road, then pursues the driver on foot and arrests the man with somewhat Hunt-esque excessive force. He finds himself being filmed by disapproving young people.

Over the next several scenes we find out further details of the case in progress, while we fill in details of Sam’s position and world. The suspect (called Hoyle, I think?) is in fact a police officer himself; Sam now works in internal affairs and his collar is an officer accused of coercing sex acts from witnesses and victims of crime.

Sam is as passionate and single minded as ever in his pursuit of justice, and making himself as popular as ever with his colleagues.

All the while the scene-setting emphasises how woke and modern everything is in the 2023 police force and wider world. Sam has his pronouns on his card, eats vegan meals, drives an electric car etc. But he’s increasingly out of step with this modern world, trying to be right-on but, for instance, flummoxed when Yasmin explains her sexuality etc.

As for the events of Life on Mars Sam clearly has no memory of them. His boozer (now a ‘Waterspoons’) is manned by Nelson, but Sam only has a faint sense of connection with the bartender and Nelson is as enigmatic as ever. But Sam is having the odd surreal 'pigs-in-space' moment, the most overt being when he witnesses an unmanned space hopper bounce down the street and away into the night.

As for his emotional wellbeing, one particularly significant moment early on is that Sam cuts his hand on a Venetian blind and doesn’t notice. The previous show set out what this means of course - that Sam is not really living in the fullest sense in this time and place.

Filling in that picture further, we learn that Sam is married, but on a trial separation from his wife - Annie Cartwright.

Presently Sam’s collar turns up dead - hanged. And surveillance footage shows a mysterious visitor to his house beforehand, someone driving a 1984 car (not a Quatro I think? I missed that line). With so few of these still on the road, they are able to find a second call that the car made - to a care home where one resident came out to ward it off by way of throwing a paperweight at its windscreen.

Sam follows this lead to meet the resident in question. It's an aged Gene Hunt. Though a care home resident, he's living disgracefully, mainlining fags, whiskey and mini pork pies. There’s no apparent recognition on either side and Gene is unhelpful with the case, though funny.

Discussing Gene with his Commander back at the station Sam learns that Gene Hunt had an impressive record as a DCI but was forcibly retired early due to his heavy-handed approach. The Commander notes that Hunt and his type might be where things went wrong.

But as Sam is driven to more desperate measures with his case (spurred by the usual cop drama mechanisms of the powers-that-be acting like they’re trying to cover something up, and a really compelling victim turning up), he ends up returning to Gene and bending his arm to accompany him to… somewhere, sorry, I forget this point. It doesn’t matter because it’s just to get them on the road together. Soon Gene is demanding Sam pull over, that he wants to ‘go back’. And wouldn’t you know it, they’re on a very familiar bit of road under a flyover and a certain song has just come on the radio. This time they’re both struck by the oncoming car. And this car is the very 1984 car that visited Hoyle's house.

As Sam’s consciousness fades the driver steps out of the car that struck them, and Sam takes in the driver’s femaleness, her white boots and jacket… and fade to white.

And we fade up on Gene and Sam in the Cortina, speeding.

Gene, younger, is mid-Geneism as if he’s been here all along, showing no consciousness of having been anywhere else or anything having happened. Sam clearly is aware; he’s behaving just as he always did in LOM, confused but just about playing along with reality as it presents itself. And while he previously had no memory of the 1970s stuff in 2023, it’s clearly all come back to him instantly. No sooner do they arrive at the station than they find out that Gene’s CID is being shut down and the team already redeployed, with Litton taking over. There’s mention of an officer Hoyle having ‘committed suicide’ in this reality too, where he was a young officer.

And Sam goes home to Annie. She's also his wife in this reality and much more happily, though when Sam tries to talk to her about what’s happened Annie is distressed, saying they agreed to put Sam’s period of ‘unwellness’ behind them.

But as the ‘episode’ draws to a close Annie herself experiences a pigs-in-space moment with the TV. She knows all at once that everything Sam ever said was true.

And that’s more or less what I remember which is I think about 95% of the content.

Further info given on the proposed series

After the script was read, Ashley Pharoah answered some host and audience questions, and thus filled us in further as to where all this would be going.

He said that for Lazarus he and Matthew Graham had envisaged about sixteen episodes over two series, where the overall answers that unfolded would be something along the lines of this:

As we learned in Ashes to Ashes Gene Hunt is a kind of policeman’s angel of death, transitioning cops who have died violently into the next life I guess.

Only (and Pharoah mentioned that creating further story meant unpicking some stitches from that which had already been asserted in A2A and LOM) Gene has gone rogue in this role. From what I gather/remember this is why Sam and Alex are still knocking about in some version of Earth reality.

With Gene neglecting his duties, bad… cop spirits? (I’m not being snarky, I just forget the details) have been free to trouble the real world and are spreading evil from within the force, resulting in the increasingly bad relationship between the police and the public. That's the mystery that Sam has to work out, and then the siutation that he and Gene (and perhaps Alex) must resolve.


My pre-existing position going into this event was that of being quite glad that it looks like Lazarus isn't going to be made.

This wasn't based on any thing in particular about the specific proposal of Lazarus because prior to this event no information had been released, other than the fact John Simm and Philip Glennister would be reprising their roles in some capacity.

My feelings then were based purely on my belief that there’s no further entry into this canon of material that can add more than it subtracts.

For me Life on Mars is about as perfectly realised a TV show as you get. Its sixteen epsiodes are exactly the right dosage, the perfect number of installments played out over the right two-series structure to realise every bit of the material's potential in a wholly satisfying story without ever feeling stretched or played out, or the series needing to start unpacking aspects that were best left packed.

There are plenty of examples in the world of shows that were curtailed before they got to fulfill all the potential fans feel they had, but for myself I almost find it more frustrating when shows that could have been a great one-season or two-season show go on longer than that.

And I think it can be easy to mistake there being more mileage in something than there is.

It's easy to look at a great show and think that of course this big story universe can generate more content; just see how vast the setting feels; how mysterious much of the detail remains; how rich in imagined possibility; how many side-questions are suggested by the original premise that could be interestingly answered; how much longer we’d like to spend with this cast of characters…

And sometimes, of course, you really can expand and expound to great success.

But sometimes an extension or sequel feels like someone convincing themselves that because not every box has been ticked and every mystery comprehensively explained away that means there’s enough for a new show, or film or whatever. Sometimes going on longer, or creating a sequel, is an exercise in mistaking the painted scenery hung at the back of the stage for real landscape that one can really explore. Of course it feels like you can step into that scenery and find more adventures, that’s because it’s been painted to give that exact impression. But it is only an impression. Really, it exists to support a story you’ve already told.

So how do you know when there really are further stories worth telling, and when you’re just trying to make there be more of something great – where there’s no more to be had?

Well, as the question applies to Life on Mars all I can do is tell you why I think it was great, why I think it's definitely done, and why there's no room for Lazarus.

Life on Mars

One of the things I so admire about Life on Mars is what a clear and pure expression the finished product feels of its original inspiration.

By the creators’ account, the idea that would become Life on Mars was first born when a brainstorming-for-new-show-ideas session devolved into booziness and bemoaning that while detective shows were almost surefire successes, the thought of engaging in the genre as it then stood filled them with boredom.

And that the only detective shows they could think of with any joy and excitement at that point were those of their early youth – The Sweeney, The Professionals et al. However, if that thought raised the idea that they try their hand at a revival of this 70s cop genre, there was a glaring problem. A good reason no one had done that as yet.

That being: you can’t present the attitudes core to those shows in an unreconstructed fashion in the 2000s. Somehow you’d need to have a modern sensibility included into the show.

This is where it gets impressive for me because introducing as unwieldy and out-of-genre a convenience as time travel didn’t derail the developing idea from that core inspiration. It’s pretty hard to prevent a show which includes time travel from becoming about time travel, and then you don't have a 70s cop revivial show, you've got a science fiction show. Or, going the other way, in avoiding the time travel taking over, for that element to instead feel clumsily bolted on to an unrelated show, a huge unaddressed white elephant in the worldbuilding of an otherwise mundane setting, too obviously and transparently a plot convenience for us ever to truly accept and move past.

So it should have been a completely derailing or at least extremely weakening element in the evolving show idea staying true to that original incepting emotional urge to create something with the joy and excitement with which the writers regarded The Sweeney.

But in the finished Life on Mars we did indeed see a marriage of this very high-concept device to a camp, populist pastichey cop drama managed pretty perfectly.

The time travel element doesn't swamp the cop stuff by bringing in the demands of science fiction. Nor is it awkwardly ignored once it has played its part in conveniencing the plot. Instead, Life on Mars finds a way to make the time travel element into a part of the show that in fact only bolsters that original vision into the most vivid expression of itself it could be, and elevates the whole show into something really emotionally compelling.

And the key to that lies in the recognition on the writers' part - consciously or otherwise - that the fact is that while science fiction is the genre with which we most readily associate the idea of time travel, time travel as a device is not actually native to science fiction nor yet does that genre have sole ownership of it.

A Brief History of Time Travel

The use of time travel in fiction, as we currently recognise it at least, is interestingly a relatively modern trend. Folklore has plenty of tales of humans who step into fairyland for an hour only to find on their return that a hundred years have passed in the human world, and that idea was encoded into literature most famously by Washington Irving's 1819 short story Rip Van Winkle, though here the fae as a plot catalyst were swapped out for Dutch sailors and mysterious liquour.

But as for travelling backwards in time it seems not to have been an idea that preoccupied people's imagination until relatively recently. It seems likely that it was a fantasy that grew up alongside the change in how we think about history in popular culture and academia. Whereas classically history had been about facts and major events, the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries evolved a sociological, psychological, anthropological attitude towards the past - what was life actually like for people in the past? For ordinary people in those eras? That question easily becomes, what might it be like to live in that time? What would it be like for me if I somehow found myself in that time?

The first major literary example of that idea comes with Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in 1889. As well as really creating the narrative genre of time travel, it is a very directly comparible text to Life on Mars. For one thing, its intent is in large part sheer fun. For another it's interesting to note that the 'past' the Yankee visits is in fact a fictional construction thereof, since King Arthur and his court are of course mythical figures. Twain sent his character to a deliberate burlesque of the past just as Life on Mars sends Sam back to a burlesque of the early 70s, both using existing culturally recognised mythologies - King Arthur and The Sweeney respectively - to distill a sense of what we're talking about when we talk about an era.

But several decades before Twain's story, came another text which is less obviously remembered as a time travel story but which nonetheless establishes its own tradition of what a story does with time travel.

That is Charles Dickens' 1843 A Christmas Carol, which of course sends its protagonist to witness his own possible future, and to re-witness his past. Scrooge cannot directly interact with or affect these visions, but his whole story is about righting the sins of his past to rewrite his future. It's time travel as psychodrama.

It wasn't until 1895 that H. G. Wells science-fiction-ised the time travel trope with his novel The Time Machine. Like the folk tales and Rip Van Winkle this tale sends its protagonist forwards. That's part of what makes it science fiction, as well as the means of time travel in the story being attributed to scientic principals. Science fiction time travel is most concerned with sending its characters into futures of the authors' invention more than an already established past.

Wells' tale obviously established a kind of time travel story that has come to be our first point of reference when the idea of time travel is mentioned. But the earlier approaches established by A Connecticut Yankee and A Christmas Carol established their own tradition too, just one operating in less mainstream strands of media.

Interestingly, the deeply psychologically and morally instospective character-led version of time travel arguably established by A Christmas Carol continued (and continues) most strongly as a strand within adolescent fiction.

The late mid-20th-century century produced a particular strain of such books. To name a few: Toms Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer, The Root Cellar by Janet Lunn, The Chimneys of Green Knowe by Lucy Boston, A Stitch in Time and The House in Norham Gardens amongst others by Penelope Lively, When Marnie Was There by Joan G. Robinson, Children of Winter by Berlie Doherty, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, Moondial by Helen Cresswell.

(And yes it is notable that most examples are by woman authors. Men do write children's timeslip (e.g. Terry Pratchett's Johnny and The Bomb, Robert Peck's Ghosts I Have Been) but it seems to be much more of a preoccupation for female authors of the 20th century, even though the authorship gender of straightforward historical fiction is fairly evenly split).

This is a tradition of stories whose time travel is given no science fiction explanation. The mechanics could not even be said to be magic as such. In fact the mechanism of time travel is necessarily practical-explanation-free, because to explain it even by the hand-wave cover-all word 'magic' would be to damage the real meaning of the time travel which is always an emotional-psychological one. Like A Christmas Carol these are psychodramas.

Meanwhile, the science fiction variety of time travel story kicked off by H. G. Well's novel grew to be the more prominant use of time travel across 20th century fiction and into the 21st century. That's partly because it's a kind of story which just works more readily in the storytelling form that came to dominate these centuries - film. Stories with concrete mechanics, and with plots and stakes that aren't mostly inside a protagonist's head, just tend to work rather better for screen.

But I shouldn't imply that the 'psychodrama time travel' and the 'science fiction time travel' strands exist in total isolation from each other. For example, the most famous time travel franchise of all, Back to The Future, is science fiction in its surface mechanics but entirely tied up with personal stakes and familial relationships.

The point I'm getting at though is that Life on Mars belongs pretty firmly to the non-science-fiction end of the scale; it's a timeslip psychodrama. Given that, as we've seen, this is tradition mostly otherwise only seen in adolescent, female-centric novels it's impressive that the writers recognised the approach as the one to pair with their initial testosterone-fuelled, Gen-X-bloke-centric retro throwback sausage-fest inspiration.

It's such an unexpected link that I wouldn't have supposed they tapped into this lineage consciously, but found this territory through sheer the sure-footed instincts of a skilled and experienced writer struck by inspiration. However, around Christmas time Matthew Graham tweeted Penelope Farmer with a message that suggested to readers that he had been developing a project based on her work, which had sadly not come to fruition. The only reasonable guess then is that Graham had been developing, probably as a passion project rather than on commission judging by its failure to work out, an adaptation of Farmer's most famous novel: Charlotte Sometimes.

It's a bit of a tangent on a tangent but I can't help but note that you do get this unexpected but charming pocket of Gen X bloke fandom for late mid-century feminine adolescent litersture. For instance the only time that irrascable comedy writer and music journalist David Quantick is being anything other than grumpy and cynical on Twitter is when he's stanning Penelope Farmer or Joan Aiken. The pipeline is this: in 1981 The Cure released a song called Charlotte Sometimes inspired by Farmer's book, and you know what Cure fans are like.

Still, on the face of it pairing 'dreamy girly introspective psychodrama' with '70s revivial cop show with lines like 'You are surrounded by armed bastards' looks like it would be at least as awkward a fit as science fiction would have been. But in fact it connects in, only enhancing the basic tensions the show demands.

Let's consider again the incepting idea of the show: wanting to revive the 70s cop show for all the thrill and size and humour it had in their child's-eye-view, yet recognising that to do so would need a counterbalancing perspective to take the curse off all the regressive attitudes and politics.

So you stick in a modern character via the mechanism of time travel. But in a version of that idea where the time travel is more mechanical and/or merely swiftly-discarded convenience, what have you really got? You've delivered a mouthpiece for modern attitudes onto the scene but have you actually enabled them to be persuasive in their side of the argument? Assuming we're thinking of a straight white male protagonist for the story which - let's check, yep - you're going to have a chararacter for whom all those progressive values don't exactly come with personal stakes. He's just going to be a worthy nag.

But the show instead follows the timeslip traditon in characterising the time travel as something fundamentally mysterious and uncontrolled and therefore psychologically haunting. Sam is both at odds with the culture he's landed within and profoundly disturbed by the fact of his being here.

So Sam's time displacement became a character story and that character story became the heart of the show. The utterly mysterious nature of this apparent time travel experience positions Sam as lost, emotional, struggling with isolation, in psychic crisis. It puts him in a position that makes he himself vulnerable to the attitudes of the culture that it's his job in the story to challenge. It allies him with the traditional victims of those behaviours.

And that also opens up the way for Gene Hunt and co to become more that cartoonish exponants of those attitudes. The conflict between the retro and the modern is played as human drama. Banging opposing philosophies off each other is much more interesting where you care about how their exponants feel about one other.

This choice to make the time travel element the central psychodrama of the show meant it became more than an indulgent romp that could only appeal to men of a certain age. Because the emotional story created by playing Sam's time travel this way is one that becomes a very relatable metaphor for a lot of people.

Sam has big existential questions, questions that make engaging in the day-to-day a struggle. He is a man who knows a truth about himself that no one else knows, that maybe no one else can hear or understand.

Sam's arrival from the future is a cataclysmic, paradigm-shifting event in his psyche which is invisible or as best impossible to really fully 'get' for the people around him. It’s a literalising of loneliness and disjointedness. Of a person being alienated from the culture in which they find themselves, specifically of a man being alienated by the culture of masculinity in which he finds himself. Of how one’s own real self and real truth is the same thing that distances one from some, but also has the power to truly connect one with others, makes one feel both superior and inferior to those around one.

There’s a compelling queer reading of the story. A compelling trans reading. A compelling disabled reading. It could be a metaphor for how it feels to continue living in grief, or depression, or other mental illness, most obviously of course those involving delusion.

I'm not saying one has to come up with some worthy answer to what the fantasy of the story is 'really' about. I'm largely with Susan Sontag on being 'against interpretation': "To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world — in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings.""

I'm saying that when your fantasy plays off real things that real people feel, that's when you have a truly compelling show. We get to vicariously explore the idea of what it might feel like to wake up in another time because we recognise the authenticity of Sam's feelings from our own less exotic, but equally intense-feeling, life experiences. We get to feel recognised in those feelings because a story encodes them.

So the mystery around even the basics of what the heckins is going on re. the apparent time displacement is central to the character story, which is central to the show. Wondering about it, and at it, is Sam Tyler's core character engine. And that of course matches our own curiosity.

But the show never mistakes that curiosity for a question that benefits from an answer.

In the first epsiode of Life on Mars, only about five minutes of screen time pass between Sam waking up in 1973 and his first meeting Gene Hunt. That first few minutes in 1973 is of course spent showing Sam's first reaction, the reaction we would all have to this insane turn of events, of sheer bewilderment and growing panic. All Sam can do is what has happened and seek to make it stop. Then Gene Hunt enters and literally manhandles the Sam's escalating emotional energy into being directed differently. He frames Sam's meltdown, which is of course confusion and fear, rather as conflict; conflict between Sam and him, between Sam and the world around him.

It's not exactly the easiest thing to kick off your story with as big a swing as time travel and get to 'solving weekly crimes' as the business and stakes of the show, at least while maintaining any kind of emotional reality. The easiest thing would be for some mystical guide to outright hand us the point, and tell Sam that he's got to put right what once went wrong, in order to steer the character out of the realistic territory of melting the fuck down, and into what the show wants him to do, which is detective work. But Life on Mars takes the harder option and gets Sam there by sheer character work. Gene Hunt's first scene is one of the most quotable parts of the whole show as he establishes the huge outrageous Hunt presence in a few short, OTT, hilarious lines:

They reckon you've got concussion. Now I couldn't give a tart's furry cup if half your brains are falling out, don't - ever - waltz into my kingdom, acting King of the Jungle.

It's easy to miss that it's not just a character being established, but the course of the show, as Hunt sets out how you take all the outsized mystery and feelings coming off time travel and pour them into a crime-of-the-week story. This is where Sam's story stops being reaction and hinges into conflict. His huge feelings and questions become his side in a fight. This is a story where Sam's police work and specifically his kicking against the prevailing culture and dominant personality to force his better ways and better ideas, are fuelled by his huge loopy emotional story.

And I dunno, I just feel like that's such a creative and compelling way to give your detective character a drive in what he does. More interesting than fridging a wife, anyway.

So yes, Sam's existential mystery is fundmamentally important to the series but saying it's a mystery is not quite the same as suggesting it's a question that the series promises to answer. In fact just like I said of those 20th century adolescent novels, the mystery of what has really happened, or how it has happened, is the kind of important narrative questions that equally importantly precludes an answer because to answer on that point would be to shut down the more central question: of what the character does in the face of mystery. Sam of course longs to know what's really going on and how he might reset to normality, but with no leads offered to that quest, the energy of the show is always redirected into engaging with the reality at hand.

One great choice made was to give Sam only contradictory clues as to the true nature of his experience. Another was to give him no way back home, no way out, no promised endpoint. Another is that once he's in 1973, he’s in 1973; no cutting to the modern day or seeing anything outside the reality of 1973. No flashbacks, no seeing what his 2006 cohorts are up to in 2006. Only some audio bleeds through from the ‘reality’ of 2006 and it’s almost all family and doctors speaking rather than anything distinctly, pointedly modern. Another great choice was to made the show fully subjective, with no scenes existing without Sam in them because whatever the 'answer' to the mystery, the story depends on our perceiving things as Sam does (though by all accounts this creative choice placed a work burden on John Simm that very nearly gave him a nervous breakdown).

These choices and others make the most central and pressing question raised by the timeslip not ‘how has this happened’ or ‘how does he escape’, but rather ‘how does he deal with the reality with which he finds himself presented, all while haunted by questions and doubts’.

Just as in real life there are no answers as to the point of it all to be had, and the most desperate places that Sam's existential questions pushes him to are met with only the same counter that meets us in real life: is it worth giving up on yourself and the people and things you care about in the face of these doubts? That's a brave point to include at the heart of the show because it relies on the audience really caring about Sam and the people he in turn is written to care about.

In short, rather than time travel being written in as a random event which happens and then has to be forgotten, or a science fiction mechanic that then requires further science fiction to bear its weight, the time travel is written into the show as a central psychological emotional mystery.

And what is so particularly pleasing about that is that it turns out including time travel into the mix wasn't so much bolting on something from another genre to the original inspiration, but identitfying something that was always part of the original inspiration. Time travel is inherent to the first thought-feeling that started all this, when Pharoah and Graham reminisced about their childhood watching of The Sweeney.

An adult remembering being thrilled as a kid - not just remembering, but recalling, refeeling the same thrill as an adult - is time travel. Is timeslip. It's an instant bypass from now to then, evading the inbetween stuff that we went through the first time we made the journey, coming the other way along the slow path between childhood and adulthood. It's a direct transportation back past the years of learning sophistication, developing literacy, growing in cynicism, and once again being the same you in the same moment of experience that lies on the other side of all that.

In the finished show, Sam is so damn emotional. He spends more time openly crying that any other male drama hero I can easily think of. But he also smiles in a way and to a degree which is even more unusual. Where male heroes do smile and laugh it is most often only allowed as an expression of a kind of propriatorial 'softer side' as they gaze upon wives and children (especially ones who are destined to be fridged in the plot). Laughter from male heroes is often tied up with expressions of hierarcy and status; being funny as a socially dominant act. It's really unusual to see a character who frequently smiles out of simple enjoyment of a moment.

That makes for the show being an interesting study in masculinity as I've noted, but it stems I think from that inception. This is a story founded on what it's like to be a man and a little kid at the same time. Sam's open emotion is the open emotion of a child. Sam was a little kid in 1973, so being in 1973 makes him a little kid again.

Pharoah and Graham were writers starting from a totally personal, very particular, even very self-indulgent first thought. But they had all the skill - as well no doubt as luck, which always factors in - to develop that in a way which continued to enshrine that earnest personal passionate feeling while building around it a prism that would allow a much wider audience to see something compelling and meaningful in the emergent tale.

And as the show same to an end its conclusion was handled with just as much clarity as carried them through the development process. It's still remembered as one of the great TV endings. It doesn’t falter from that understanding of what kinds of mysteries are at the centre of the show, and how they should be answered. It doesn't falter, finally, and mistakenly think that the ambivalent clues about the nature of Sam's experience need settling once and for all. In its closing it asserts rather than resolves the ambivalence. In answer to the question ‘am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?’ the show finally answers, 'Yes'.

Sam wakes up from a coma into ‘reality’. Sam commits suicide in ‘reality’ and wakes up in 1973. To resolve the ’question’ of what was really going on would be to mistake, and let down, what the story here was. The eternal ambivalence of the situation is essential to concluding the real story: what matters is what's real to Sam. What choice he will make.

The end.

And then...

Ashes to Ashes

With all that stuff I've just said about Life on Mars and its ending being perfect, coming to Ashes to Ashes it probably won’t surprise anyone when I say it’s not really my show.

I do think it’s a great show on its own terms, and I enjoyed it fine when it was broadcast. But I divorce it mentally from Life on Mars because in relation to that show it can only weaken and undermine what I think was beautifully and, here's the key word, completely achieved.

And since Ashes to Ashes repeated the same formula of story it could only ever play as a bit of a needless, diluted retread. The original series had already covered all the best avenues thrown up by the premise, and so much of Ashes to Ashes felt like slightly vaguer, shakier versions of what had already been done, the thinnish veneer of difference in the form of gender-swapping and era-swapping not enough to open up much genuinely new territory.

And, again predictably, I don’t have much time for its eventual conclusion for the LOM/A2A story universe.

Ashes to Ashes, by existing, promised a conclusion beyond what Life on Mars had given us. To justify itself as a sequel, especially one that followed the same basic premise as the original, it needed to come up with an answer beyond the concluding ambivalence of the prior show.

As explanations go its one of spiritual mythology was perfectly fine.

At Sunday's event, Ashley Pharoah referenced the American Life on Mars remake which infamously ends with the revelation that both the 'modern' and '70s' realities we saw are fake and really the characters are astronauts who have been on their way to actual Mars, the whole 70s cop thing being a virtual reality construction that the ship computer created, tasked with keeping the humans' brains stimulated during hypersleep. Pharoah spoke dismissively of the ending, and its mere mention got a good laugh from the crowd (which was of course made up of LOM/A2A fans). But honestly I don't find the Ashes to Ashes conclusion particularly less silly or off-base to the original show.

As I say, speaking for myself and for the reasons I've set out above, introducing any firm explanation to the Life on Mars canon could only made the whole thing feel smaller, less meaningful, and faintly comical (I mean, copper heaven?). I think that all the contradictions and tensions that held so beautifully as mystery become a bit silly and tawdry forced to occupy one particular shape concretely.

However it doesn't super bother me. Life on Mars and Ashes to Asheares separate shows and a viewer is not a passive participant in the storytelling; I am free to disregard anything Ashes to Ashes added when rewatching Life on Mars. I am free to rewatch Ashes to Ashes without taking seriously its canonical connection to Life on Mars.

Anyway, all the copper heaven business is fine as final episode stuff. Ashes to Ashes is not the first genre-crossing show which tangles moral character journey stuff into fantastical mechanics that when finally forced to offer a single explanation for all the weirdness have to go with, 'basically God did it' (see also Quantum Leap and Lost here).

But Lazarus...


Lazarus proposes to bring forth a new story out of this last-minute mythology. It sees potential story in the cosmos it revealed in that last hour.

If Gene Hunt is a kind of Guardian Angel / Chiron figure what happens if he neglects his duties? If there's a copper devil in the form of Keats are there other copper devils?

And... sorry, I don't seek to be harsh but to speak plainly, that is just empty nonsense, isn't it?

Where Ashes to Ashes got away with all this stuff as an ending reveal it was on the strength of it being an ending. We could forgive the silliness, because we didn't have to actually live with it as an ongoing story, and it felt big and grand and spiritual enough to match our feelings of love for the characters and intrigue for the central mysteries.

I feel it's a big misapprehension to think that because this arguably worked as an ending, you can make a continuing story out of it.

I don't care about Gene Hunt Police Angel as a character to watch. I can't invest in a landscape that looks like the 70s but has now been confirmed to be just a fantasy purgatory construct for dead police officers. I’m not interested in a show about celestial agents chasing down celestial baddies in a pretend version of the world. That's what Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes were retrospectively revealed as if one chooses to accept the ending but it's not what this show/these shows ever materially were.

Telling a story that starts from the basis of all that heaven/virtual reality purgatory stuff is just going to be fantasy nonsence built upon fantasy nonsence; plot relating to nothing but it's own internal mythology. Internal mythology that didn't even meaningfully exist in the original shows.

Maybe when Pharoah talked about needing to ‘unpick’ some of the canon of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes to make room for a new story he was thinking of this, because I truly don't see how one could have a show operate in a setting which is canonically not reality and for us to care at all about what happens there.

But the script would need to assert that reversal on the point immediately and clearly, and it didn't.

For better or worse, the mystery that powered Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes has been resolved in the canon and thus the canon can admit no more compelling or meaningful stories that reuse any of the devices or settings or characters of the originals. Those have had their mystery and their stakes concluded irrevocably.

Any new mystery attached – like why has Sam been sent back into the past this time, why doesn't he remember the 70s stuff when he's in 2023 – are just going to feel small, tired and inconsequential. Because we know the broad answer to these even if we don't know the specifics, now that we know the grand truth behind all the mysterious goings-on in the LOM/A2A-verse. It'll be some copper heaven spiritual fantasy thing, with the limited stakes and meaning that implies.

What undermines it all further is that the 'unpicking' Pharoah mentioned must involve unpicking the arcs and endings of Sam, Gene and Alex. It's not just a shame to undo such satisfying stories, it also makes for pretty impossible-to-follow characters. Who is this Sam who is the protagonist of Lazarus? We've got the contradictory evidence of what the show gives us - an ordinary copper in 2023 - and what we know from prior canon. Is he Sam as we met him in 2006, since the events of Life on Mars appear not have happened? A Sam still somehow on the other side of that show's character arc despite not remembering it? This is not the good kind of mystery. This is the kind of thing that makes it impossible to connect with, or follow the emotions and thinking of, our protagonist.

Of course with the mythology of the Ashes to Ashes finale to pull from, you've got an in-universe source of explanation for all mystery and weirdness:

The fact that in 2023 Sam shows no memory of the events of Life on Mars till he's back in the 70s is easily explained in-universe as part of the machinations of whatever agency is running all this celestial police business. But really the explanation is that it happens because it's intriguing for the viewer to see Sam incongruously in the modern day given how Life on Mars ended, and it creates a sense of momentum for him not to remember the stuff that we do. We're waiting for it to click, for the story to bring it back to him. It gives the impression of a real mysery. But there's no answer besides a purely mechanical one - he doesn't remember because of something-something-supernatural-stuff, and the something-something-supernatural-stuff did that because - well, ultimitely because it would create an intiguing situation in the show.

With that as your engine you're going to have a very empty show, under whose facade of apparently compelling questions lie very empty answers that have no resonance beyond fitting an in-universe mythology which I don't think anyone was ever interested in as ongoing narrative, even those who loved it as an ending reveal.

The police

That brings me in a roundabout way to the other, connected, perhaps more glaring issues.

Because actually it's not really fair to say Pharoah and Graham are trying to create a story about the meaningless trappings of their earlier series absent the central stories those trappings existed to support.

The spiritual fantasy plot Pharoah descibed is construced to hang off a genuinely important real-world issue.

I mentioned in my account of the Lazarus script that there’s a lot of play on the wokeness of modern life in the 2023 scenes. In fact this was pretty constant. The opening chase for instance takes us into Manchester University where, of course, we interrupt a lecture about something-heteronormative-something-ideology-something. Yasmin claims she sexually identifies (perhaps jokingly) by some made-up terminology which mixes in all the boogeymen of 'modern' sexual identity (loves more than one gender, is polyamorous, and is immediately on her high horse when Sam doesn't totally get it). Our attention is drawn to an anti-bullying poster in the police station. And so on and so on.

Now I think it’s important to stress as I have already mentioned that this isn’t a shooting script we’re dealing with. It’s a pitch document. It’s going to hit its points harder and more bluntly than any shooting script, let alone any final filmed episode.

And it's equally important to note that there are a lot more key creatives than just the writers in the production of an actual show who help define the intent of a line or a scene besides the writers.

For example the bit discussing Yasmin's personal life could be played with different actors and different directors in different ways. It could be done as a completely po-faced and earnest conversation. But it could also play as Yasmin winding Sam up. Each way of playing it would totally change the point being made - it could either be 'look how silly, frightening and alienating the demands of modernity are', or it could be something that mocks that very attitude.

Listening to the Lazarus pilot, I was reminded of how the original scipt for ep 1 of Life on Mars apparently also had a much longer pre-car-accident section that spent more time establishing the modern trapping on 2006 in order that we should really feel the contrast of 1973. We saw Sam's flat and noted all the modern trappings; the flat screen TV, the coffee machine etc. It was in the edit that the writers and director realised that was superfluous, because 'people already know what 2006 looks like.’.

So while a point might be made bluntly and repeatedly in this Lazarus script it's worth bearing in mind that it's something of a raw version of anything that would actually appear. And also worth remembering who the script is speaking to - commissioners and their sensibilities, not yet directly to an audience.

With all that said, I don't think it's unfair to say that to me Lazarus' 'modern day' material honestly felt as it could be that very material cut from 2006's Life on Mars, swept up and recycled here, with only a bit of hacky pronouns stuff sprinkled in to freshen it up at all.

The real problem is not that the material is objectionable or unoriginal, those issues feel more like symptoms. The real problem is that the material feels less like it has a particular point to make, or a particular target to skewer, and more like incoherent grumblings. Alongside the references to pronouns and therapy, the ‘modern life is rubbish’ stuff includes gags about Wetherspoons replacing all the real pubs, menus being too big, and parodic references to Inspector Morse, a show last aired in 2000.

It’s all about as observationally fresh as the content of Grumpy Old Men, which was a show last on the air around the time the original LOM went out and even then founded on the premise that surely only the out-of-touch find this stuff baffling and annoying. You might as well chuck in an observation about airline food being bad.

(I mean you could at least update the menu stuff to be about pubs that make you scan a QR code.)

On the evidence of the pilot script Pharoah and Graham simply have nothing much of interest to say about the modern world. They have nothing to add to the picture they painted of modernity for the purposes of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes whose own 'modernities' are now a past era themselves. And those observations went about as deep as ‘isn’t it kind of crazy a murder suspect has a social worker to coddle him’.

I think it was a very good thing that the creatives opted to cut the bulk of the 2006-set stuff in the Life on Mars pilot, and I don’t mean that at all snarkily. Being a good artist is being a good editor. I also think successful storytelling knows when an area is better left to audience imagination than directly filled in. It really works that in LOM the modern day to which we’re invited to compare the 1973 setting is left open enough to be in the audience imaginations our own personal versions of that idea.

We get a very specific vision of 1973, and therefore it's useful that 2006 is left as a bit of a conceptually blank space. It suits the fact that the show isn't really concerned principally with societal or cultural commentary but it using particular constructions of 'modernity' and '1973' in order to tell a specific, character-focused story.

Anyway, Pharaoh and Graham didn't necessarily have anything much to say about a contrast between 2006 and 1973 beyond 'the received wisdom condemns and/or laughs at this period but actually though I'm a modern person who understands why things are better now, I actually think my childhood era is worth celebrating'.

And they didn't need to say much. In 2006, we were in a time where popuar culture could actually treat the material of Life on Mars as pretty politically neutral. There was that long-90s sense that we'd moved past all that sexism and racism and police brutality stuff and were therefore free to be light hearted about it. Inherent to Life on Mars is the assumption that of course we're all on the same liberal page really, so we're free to acknowledge that the bad old days were also kind of fun and cool too.

At the same time I wouldn't like to dismiss Life on Mars or Ashes to Ashes as totally unengaged with or abdicating responsibility for the serious side of the conflicts they flace their story into. Life on Mars could get very dark and very critical.

For example, the penultimate episode of series one of Life on Mars which takes its inpsitration from a real period documentary about a death of a suspect in police custody is really good and pulls few punches. (Chris Chibnall who wrote this one is great at writing powerfully about bereaved people, as he would go on to do with Broadchurch, and bad at running Doctor Who, which he would go on to to do with Doctor Who.)

And moreover, the ambivalence that I feel is so central to the storytelling of the show is a moral ambivalence too.

I'm using 'ambivalence' here, I should point out, less in its definition as a synonym for ambiguousness, and more in its older sense of 'being pulled strongly in contradictory directions'.

The show emerged as a time travel cop drama, rather than a straightforward 70s revival cop drama, because of the immediate recognition on the creators' part that any presentation of these retro attitudes would need to be countered by an in-text voice of the modern, progressive viewpoint. I talked about how Sam's emotional journey was centred and that in turn made the viewpoint he represented more compelling.

And when Sam's personal story arrives at a resolution, the show is deliberate, I think, in not letting us quite mistake that for being a resolution to the moral conflict he represented. It problemetises Sam's resolution: you just can't ignore the fact that there's great big suicide in the middle of this protagonist's happy ending. It feels like a final assertion that the show isn't actually quite coming down on an answer of what is 'right' here. As does the final seconds of the show, which distances us from the retreating action of the show, and leaves us with a final image of the Test Card Girl, looking out at the audience critically, before 'shutting off' the broadcast. That could read as a reminder to us of our position as audience, and TV's position as not necessarily innocent entertainer (if we can read the Test Card Girl as an avatar of TV).


The point is that I think Life on Mars was somewhat politically/morally engaged with its territory but not really led by a political interest. And that a major difference between 2006 and 2023 is that while in 2006 it was possible for a show to spend its time dealing in police brutality, racism, sexism, toxic masculinity and so on and yet somehow not be a very political show, that time has passed.

We're at a place culturally now that all this stuff does play as highly political, and comes to conclusions with it that no one on my side of the political spectrum would really agree with.

And that's all fine. Cultural products are the products of, well, culture. Some things age like milk; others like whiskey. More often the passage of time leaves things somewhere more mixed. No longer speaking to a cultural conversation very directly as culture has moved on from them. But still great to those able to enter in on the terms needed. We're not babies or blank slates; we can engage with older things by shifting ourselves mentally into different paradigms.

But to resurrect this older material into a new outing is different. Any new cultural product is in conversation with the new culture.

So that's what Pharoah and Graham are trying to do. They've recognised that the material of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes sits right on a hot button topic on the 2020s and clearly have no desire to repeat what would now play as political copoganda. They feel that it is instead possible to use this material to say something else in 2023, something more left-leaning and more critical of the police...

Based on the evidence of the script I just don't think they're right. Both because I disagree that the basic materials of Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes really does have that capacity (at least without destroying what has gone before) and because I don't believe they're writers with anything useful or apposite to say on this topic.

As a reult of these factors I think Lazarus as proposed offers a far more objectionable position than the writers realise.

I've mentioned both that Life on Mars's principal territory is not really broad societal commentary, but also that to its credit it does touch upon that from time to time and does so with a certain amount of sharpness and absence of easy reassurance.

But there are also moments in Life on Mars that made me raise my eyebrows even at the time. For example, Sam’s speech about football in episode five is so good… apart from the bit where he kind of indirectly blames the Hillsborough disaster on the fans, with police action there downplayed a result of ‘overreaction’. You just can't always reconcile the fantasy version of policing that Life on Mars presents with the real life truth every time.

In the Lazarus script there was a comparable reference to a real-life example of abysmal police action police action. Here it's a reference to the vigil of Sarah Everard, that event getting a shout-out as an example of bad policing where ‘police officers arrested grieving women’.

But in a script intending to be overtly about the current societal police conversation, this reference feels more than a janky moment. It feels like it's missing the point in a really embleamtic way.

For a big emotive example of the current policing problem the writers reach for the Sarah Everard case, a case we all regard with horror, but do we all see the same thing at the centre of that horror? When it's hitting its most passionate beat in the expression of the 'problem with the police' Lazarus holds up ‘police officers arrested grieving women’, as if the worst excess the police could be held responsible for in this series of events was getting a bit heavy-handed in the execution of their jobs by manhandling nice middle-class white girls who just wanted to be sad and light candles.

To bring up a case where someone was abducted, raped and murdered by an active police officer, an officer who was enabled and empowered to these acts both directly and indirectly by his police role and by police functioning and by police culture, and not find a bigger problem in the police stuff to point to than officers sometimes getting too heavy handed in otherwise quite reaonable functioning is - well, look, it’s really crap.

I say this example is symbolic of a wider picture because the evidence of Pharoah and Abraham’s writing across all three shows leads me to believe that their idea of the problem of the ‘breakdown’ of trust between the public and the police amounts to the old ‘bad apples spoiling things for the majority good police’ and ‘blame on both sides’.

The proposed Lazarus series would do worse than tell a ‘bad apples’ story. It would introduce a supernatural element that replaces with empty fantasy the actual systems that empower police corruption and abuse, and unhelpfully position badness within that system at a remove from any human responsibility.

I don't presume to know these writers' own personally held ethics and politics. The fact is that this kind of centrist liberal non-criticism is a path that would be forced in any case by operating within the framework of a Life-on-Mars-derived story. In 2006 playing out a story of good cops and justified extremity would only occassionally grate weirdly against real life, like in the Hillsborough mention. In 2023, that grating noise will be the whole show.

How do you make the kind of points that really need to be made on this topic in today's world without blowing up the foundations on which Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes stand?

The moral universe of Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is simply incompatible with today's conversation about the police, unless one is willing to completely renounce and reframe every value the shows were founded on. I don't want them to do that either. So the only option left is to leave the shows alone.

I think I understand why the channels passed on commissioning Lazarus. The systems and attitudes of that process are no doubt flawed, but one value they tend to adhere to at the moment, even to a fault, is asking the questions of why a proposed story merits being made now, and why these are the people to tell it. I think that's a qustion that demands a good answer with regards to the Lazarus proposal, andI don't think the pitch contains anything like a satisfactory answer.

I sympathise with the disappointment of the writers and also the majority of fans who would like to have seen it materialise. But I can't help feeling glad that in an age when almost any recognisable once-popular IP gets money throne at it to attempt a resurrection into lacklustre sequels, for the moment Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes get to stay untarnished by failed later installments.

(But I really am sad Matthew Graham's Charlotte Sometimes adaptation didn't work out, that would have been incredible).


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