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A view on Blu-ray and DVD video by Leonard Norwitz

Life on Mars [Blu-ray]


(Created by Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan & Ashley Pharoah, 2006)




Review by Leonard Norwitz



Television: Kudos Film & Television

Blu-ray: Contender Home Entertainment



Region: FREE! (as verified by the Momitsu region FREE Blu-ray player)

Episode Runtime: 1:01:38.736

Disc One Size: 46,748,589,004 bytes

Average Episode Size: 10,962,929,664 bytes

Video Bitrate: 18.97 Mbps

Chapters: 8 per episode

Case: Two thicker (UK) Blu-ray cases w/ flip-page

Release date: October 27th, 2008



Aspect ratio: 1.78:1

Resolution: 1080p / 23.976 fps

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC Video






Dolby TrueHD Audio English 1345 kbps 5.1 / 48 kHz / 1345 kbps
/ 16-bit (AC3 Core: 5.1 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps)
Dolby Digital Audio English 640 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 640 kbps
Dolby Digital Audio English 192 kbps 2.0 / 48 kHz / 192 kbps



English, none



• Audio Commentaries for All Series One Episodes, with Cast and Filmmakers

• Take a Look at the Lawman: Documentary with Cast & Filmmakers (63:30)

• Get Sykes, with Production Designer, Brian Sykes (7:45)

• The Music of Life on Mars, with Composer Edmund Butt (13:50)

• Outtakes of Series One (5:55)

• Behind the Scenes of 5 Episodes in Series Two (ca. 47:30)

• Series Two: The Return of Life on Mars (45:10)

• Series Two: The End of Life on Mars (27:30)



The Film: 8~9
Tension in the "workplace" has long been used to set a spark to a drama or comedy. How often have we seen a line level newspaper investigator or detective butting heads with their by-the-book bosses. We've seen it in one form or another in It Happened One Night, The Maltese Falcon, Roman Holiday, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, Beverly Hills Cop, The Office, Prime Suspect, Boston Legal - The idea is in danger of becoming a cliché. I take that back: It is a cliché. But it's what you do with it that counts.

It would seem that the creators of Life on Mars (the title, by the way, taken from the David Bowie song) have come up with a unique and risky solution that combines the notion of a renegade crusader vs. his hard-as-nails boss on the one hand with another tried and true device: time travel. Whether in Star Trek, The Time Machine, or Time After Time the issue is not only how to get from here to there and back again, but to offer a look at our own time by contrasting it with another.

The usual template is for the renegade investigator to be seen striking out on his or her own, developing promising leads, returning to their respective bosses and getting chewed out for stepping over the line. In Life on Mars, protagonist and antagonist work together as often as not, thanks to lines of authority that exist in England, but not in the U.S. In this case, detective and supervisor work so close together, they are as likely to come to blows as agree about a suspect's guilt or innocence.

As Series One opens we find DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Sam Tyler (John Simm) foiled in his attempts to nail a killer. Much to his chagrin, evidence comes to light that places the prime suspect elsewhere at the time of the murder. (The DCI, by the way is a senior investigative officer, the one who heads up major investigations.) Tyler's girlfriend, Maya, is junior to him and her hunches and feelings are becoming increasingly difficult for him to accommodate to. In this case, it's not a gender thing, but a procedural matter, something that has major consequences presently, so to speak, and for the duration of the series.


Maya goes off to follow one of her hunches only to get kidnapped by the "real" killer, which drives Tyler more than a little bonkers. As he stands next to his car feeling torn this way and that, he is hit by a passing car and lies unconscious in the road. When he comes to, it's 33 years earlier, he's still in Manchester, about the same age, wearing clothes appropriate to the time, still on the force, but "demoted" to a mere DI (Detective Inspector) and reassigned to some backwater precinct run by one DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister). Hunt is like Maya's by-the-gut feelings writ large, full of testosterone, with all the authority a DCI can have. His hunches are rarely wrong but his procedural methods, largely a consequence of the time and place, are, from Tyler's point of view, prehistoric.

Now, about Tyler's point of view: He is quite certain he is dreaming all this or, worse, that he is insane. What he is experiencing is simply not possible. His best guess is that his mind is creating all these details out of whole cloth and bits of historical memory. You might think it would be tempting for him to solve old crimes simply by dint of his already knowing the solutions – famous cases, and all that – but the writers don't really have much of a go in that direction.

Like all time travel dramas, however, there is the question of how to get back – and in this case, this is Tyler's overriding concern. At one moment he seriously considers jumping off a roof in hopes that this, like the proverbial slap in the face, will wake him from his coma. Coma - well, that's the magic word, isn't it? And early on, Tyler begins to hear voices and see persons from those attending his body in Intensive Care back in 2006, remarking about his prognosis and the state of his consciousness. It's a one-way street. He hears them; they don't hear him.

So, we know where Tyler is, if not how he got there. The dilemma he faces is how to get back while managing his new day job, a job which is now three times as difficult as the one he had 30 years later: He is still a stickler for proper procedure and rules of evidence, but no one else is, to say nothing of the presumed proper place for ladies in the force (a WDC – Woman Detective Constable - is good enough to drive the men about an cleanup the stench of a holding cell.). Tyler must fit in or he will soon be out of a job with a one-way ticket to the loony bin. And there are perpetrators to apprehend: one of them has a strikingly similar M.O. to the one he was just working on thirty years into the future. (The writers have a good time with that one.)

None of these shenanigans would amount to much dramatically if were not for the dynamic chemistry between its stars: Simm looks the part of an educated man, but still comfortable on the business end of a bar stool. He's tough when he needs to be, whether out of desperation or conviction. Tyler is respectful of others, regardless of the class or gender, he's no wuss either, but he has no sense of humor or proportion about his work. Perspective, yes. Proportion, no.

It is on this front that Philip Glenister shines: Hunt is a hard, tough man, and he's used to having things his way. But somewhere in the back of his head he has an innate understanding and respect for what Tyler is trying to get across, though he makes certain he is never to be seen as wrong or giving in, or he would risk losing what grip he has on his crew – who, no surprise, are 100% behind their boss when it comes to procedure, evidence, gathering and treatment of suspects.

The contrast between the two men doesn't stop with their attitudes about police work and its goal. Hunt sees himself as the sheriff of a bad town and his job is to put away as many bad men as possible. While Tyler is, initially at least, projected as the "good guy" he is also something of a bore – as righteous people tend to be. Hunt, on the other hand, has all the good lines – certainly he has all the funny lines. His humor is rough and tumble, like it just fell out of a beer mug, but it usually hits its mark with unerring accuracy.

The supporting characters are gradually drawn out over time. While Hunt and Tyler butt heads often enough, the more intense culture clash is between Tyler and Detective Ray Carling (Dean Andrews). Sam's arrival at the precinct put the kibosh on Ray's career boost by taking the job that was lined up for Ray to fill. WDC Annie Cartwright (Liz White) manages to be Tyler's best friend while doing a pretty good job of keeping her attraction to him at arm's length.

The writers do not use Tyler's fish out of water as an opportunity to beat the hell out of a system that has long been out of favor. Quite the contrary, Tyler is seen to question his judgment about progress in policing as the series goes along. The storytellers show what was thirty years ago very matter of factly (the 70's, by the way, are tagged subtly rather than liberally) and they pull away from any sense of outright comedy or, for that matter, horror. When a vulnerable witness is brought in to I/D a suspect out of a lineup, Tyler is dismayed that there is no one-way glass to protect his witness; but he rolls with it, knowing that the television audience will conclude the obvious.

This level of respect for the viewing audience has been a hallmark for British television for decades, Life on Mars is just another example at how that pays off. The middle of the first season, however, was marred just a bit by a tendency to preaching (e.g. Football: Good - Holliganism: Bad), but the tone was dropped shortly thereafter and maintained creative and exciting theatre right to the end of the second (and final) season.



Image: 6/7   NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were taken directly from the Blu-ray disc.
The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray video discs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVD and Blu-ray discs.

The word is both good and less good here: Put simply, given the Super16 mm negative, the result, while obviously upscaled to 1080p, is very agreeable. There is a whiff of edge enhancement from time to time. Dark edges against a bright sky can get a mite dodgy. But contrast is well under control, with strong blacks and plenty of shadow detail. Color is good, with a tendency to cyan filtration (probably intended). Noise is kept at a minimum, enough to make out some grain, though I suspect some selective use of DNR. Movement is not as smooth as it would be for a larger format negative or HD video stock. Even though the 16 mm stock delivers the kind of grit intended, in no way could the result be mistaken for your average Blu-ray presentation of a television series. A higher bit rate might have been helpful, but I shouldn't think it would make a great difference. One note of carelessness: The credits that follow each episode have not, apparently, been touched, refined, or dealt with in any way. On a large screen, they are almost unreadable, all the more so for their moving so quickly.















Audio & Music:7/8
The default audio mix is Dolby TrueHD 5.1, but as for the surround, it is pretty much non-existent most of the time. So much so, that I was able to secure a considerably more dynamic, incisive sound cuing the Dolby Digital Stereo audio mix (the original, I'd wager) by way of Digital Out from my OPPO into a separate Digital-to-Analog converter before passing the signal on to my preamp, 2-channel amplifier and front stereo speakers. There is smart use of 70's music, which the commentators usually identify, even if the credits don't.


Operations: 6
Even though Contender isn't a big player in the home entertainment business (I had never seen a video from them previously), there are no adverts or promos for other releases by these guys (perhaps there aren't any), so we get to the main menu as soon as the Contender logo has had its way. The Audio Commentaries are located under Set-Up, not Extras, and they do not indicate who's on which. While not as thick as some Manchester brogues I have encountered, I was grateful for subtitles from time to time. Ditto that for police slang and codes. And before I forget, I should remind you that Contender's Life on Mars on Blu-ray is coded All Region (or, more responsibly at least, Region A & B for sure). Same for the Extra Features. All with no PAL speed-up. Points off for the unnecessary use of the flip page – twice.



Extras: 8
The Series One set of Life on Mars has extra features that cover aspects of production, casting and development, but if you are hoping for a feature or commentator to explicate British police protocols and hierarchies, you will be disappointed. These guys know their audience – and it isn't me, sadly. I sampled several commentaries by the creators, writers, producers and directors and found them to be sober analyses of production and storyline issues, with occasional comments about direction and performance of character. Almost all of the featurettes are presented in clean anamorphic standard definition (better still on the series two set); the outtakes reel (pointless, no less here than usual) is in 4;3, but looking pretty good considering. All told, there are some three and a half hours of extra features, all but the outtakes will be rewarding to anyone who enjoys the series.



Bottom line: 9
A cleverly conceived, brilliantly acted series, with a beginning, middle and end, complete in sixteen hours over as many episodes on two seasons. The only downside is its having been shot on 16 mm. But don't let that dissuade you. Even projected on a 100 inch screen, there is plenty enough resolution to keep your eye and brain from wandering. The many extra features, especially for Series One, are a plus. At this writing, Amazon/UK is practically giving the two series away for just a little over £20 plus shipping – that's for both series together, which comes to maybe U.S.$2.20 an hour. Compare that to just about anything half as entertaining sitting on your shelf today.

Leonard Norwitz
March 10th, 2010




About the Reviewer: I first noticed that some movies were actually "films" back around 1960 when I saw Seven Samurai (in the then popular truncated version), La Strada and The Third Man for the first time. American classics were a later and happy discovery.

My earliest teacher in Aesthetics was Alexander Sesonske, who encouraged the comparison of unlike objects. He opened my mind to the study of art in a broader sense, rather than of technique or the gratification of instantaneous events. My take on video, or audio for that matter – about which I feel more competent – is not particularly technical. Rather it is aesthetic, perceptual, psychological and strongly influenced by temporal considerations in much the same way as music. I hope you will find my musings entertaining and informative, fun, interactive and very much a work in progress.

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