Life On Mars (16 episodes, 2006-07)
Detective Chief Inspector Sam Tyler (John Simm) is run over by a car in 2006 and wakes up in 1973 as a Detective Inspector for Manchester CID reporting to a boss, DCI Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who represents everything he abhors about old-fashioned policing. Disoriented and feeling like a fish out of water, Sam tries to work out if he is mad, in a coma or has somehow travelled back in time.
From its opening frame, there is no let-up with Life On Mars‘ title sequence, as it provides us with a brief three-second replay of Tyler’s accident in 2006 before launching into a summary of his opening scenes after he wakes up in 1973, with Simm providing the following narration:
My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever’s happened, it’s like I’ve landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home.
In five simple sentences comprising just 48 words, that’s all you need to know to understand the show’s high-concept premise.
The main body of the intro which introduces us to the show’s cast uses the clever device of zooming slowly out from what appears to be a video wall consisting of a bank of interlaced screens, allowing us to view snippets which place the show firmly in the 1970s by means of obvious visual cues such as the characters’ clothes and Gene Hunt’s iconic Ford Cortina, while repeatedly focussing in on multiple, slightly time-shifted images of Tyler waking up in 1973.
The sequence is underscored by Edmund Butt‘s (Ashes To Ashes, Mistresses, Survivors) simple but haunting melody, accompanied by a repeating five-note riff which lends a sense of drama and urgency to proceedings.
It is a brilliant intro, firmly establishing the series’ timeframe and complex concept with an original and distinctive visual style which was later replicated in the spin-off series Ashes To Ashes.
Here is the pre-credits teaser and intro from episode 1.02 – the titles start at 3:22:
The show’s creators, Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah, originally pitched the series to the BBC in 1998, but it was rejected. Channel Four also considered it but turned it down. The show was finally produced by the BBC eight years after the original script had been written.
Sam Tyler was originally named Sam Williams, but when asked to come up with an alternative name Matthew Graham asked his daughter for a suggestion and she came up with the name ‘Tyler’, after the Doctor Who character Rose Tyler.
The Wizard of Oz is frequently referenced. In the first episode, Sam leaves the police station, telling Annie that he is going to “follow the yellow brick road”. In the following episode, he asks Gene to transfer him back to the division he came from, to which Hunt responds by saying the Wizard will sort it out “because of the wonderful things he does”. Throughout the series, Gene repeatedly calls Sam ‘Dorothy’. The song Over The Rainbow is used in the final episode, and when Sam and Annie kiss, a rainbow can be seen on the skyline.
The character of Superintendent Frank Morgan was a tribute to both the 1970s police series The Sweeney (Garfield Morgan played Superintendent Frank Haskins), and to The Wizard of Oz (in which Frank Morgan played the wizard).
At one stage the series also had the alternative working title Ford Granada. Hunt drives a brown 1974 Ford Cortina in the show. It was eventually auctioned off on eBay, raising £12,800 for Comic Relief.
A US version of the series starring Jason O’Mara and Harvey Keitel as Sam and Gene ran for 17 episodes during the 2008-09 season. (It wasn’t very good.)
Spin-off series Ashes To Ashes saw Alex Drake (Keeley Hawes) replace the Sam Tyler character, with Hunt’s Cortina replaced by a red Audi Quattro. It ran for 24 episodes between 2008-10.
Do you think the intro for this show deserves the status ‘classic’? And do you have a favourite of your own? Watch out for more ‘Classic TV intros’ posts coming soon.