A Journal of the Plague Year 2021–chapter 216

Glam rock 1970s guitar hero Marc Bolan of T. Rex.

Wednesday, June 9

We’ve become regular watchers of an old British television crime series, Life on Mars. (First shown in the U.S. on BBC America, it’s now available on streaming service BritBox.) This would be a no-more-than average crime show but for the possibilities allowed by its premise: Liverpool policeman Sam Tyler is struck by a car in 2006 and somehow when he awakens he finds himself still a cop but mysteriously transported back to 1973.

Yes, it’s a bit Back to the Future, Doctor Who, Groundhog Day, Peggy Sue Got Married, and countless other time-travel and stuck-in-time flicks. All the same, the time-warp gimmick allows the show some subtleties that otherwise wouldn’t show up in a BBC policier. Repeatedly, for example, Sam is seen busting a perp and reflexively delivering what Americans call a Miranda warning: “You have the right to remain silent” etc. Only in this case, the perps regularly interrupt him—“hey, that’s not how it goes,” they’ll say. Sam will be reciting the 2006 version, which offers greater information about the arrested person’s rights–for example acknowledging that anything they say can be taken down and used against them in court. The 1973 statement said little more than “you have the right to remain silent.”

So in small ways, Life on Mars offers views of how things have improved over the recent past.

Yes, there are bell-bottomed trousers, gas-guzzler muscle cars, wonderful late ‘60s rock (and some repellent Brit-pop schmaltz, too),  and a general lack of enlightenment about the rights and respect that should be afforded to women and gays. More subtlely, there are cultural touchstones that we now take for granted and which are unknown to most of the characters: Sam at one point refers to boxer Mike Tyson—already a near has-been in 2006 but unknown in 1973. He also meets a young and unknown Marc Bolan, who attained a fleeting measure of notoriety in the mid-1970s as the guitar hero of glam-rock group T. Rex but who died in a car crash in 1977. So in this instance, the star-struck Sam is simultaneously ahead-of-the-times and living in the past.

Sam desperately wants to get back to the way things used to be—which would ordinarily mean going back to the past but in this case means soaring ahead to the future of 2006.  

But just what were things like in 2006? Adding to the viewers’ possible confusion is the fact that actor John Simm who plays Sam Tyler has subsequently appeared in at least two other police-procedural shows. There’s Prey from 2014, in which he plays a hotly pursued detective wrongly suspected of committing a murder. And there’s the 2021 mini-series Grace, in which he plays a senior detective caught up in a deceptively complex missing-persons case. Are all these cop characters somehow linked or even the same person, a viewer may briefly wonder?

Then there’s the “who is that?” game which Emily and I play repeatedly: An actor will wander onto the screen and we nudge each other in silent recognition. Life on Mars is absolutely stuffed with such walk-ons. Of course, there is co-lead Philip Glenister (familiar from State of Play) playing cop Gene Hunt, “an overweight, over-the-hill, nicotine-stained, borderline-alcoholic homophobe with a superiority complex and an unhealthy obsession with male bonding” in Sam’s words. And, playing Sam’s youthful mom is Joanne Froggatt, familiar as lady’s maid Anna Bates from Downton Abbey. Then there’s Paul Copley, the British character actor who has over 100 appearances to his credit including roles in Coronation Street and Last Tango in Halifax. He shows up here as an angry hostage-taker. 

Does today’s blog post make you think that maybe, just maybe, Hardy watches too much TV? Never mind. We’ve decided to go back to New York City next Tuesday for a few doctor’s appointments and other things. Perhaps there will be other distractions in Gotham.

Dinner: spaghetti with drop meatballs and an avocado and lettuce salad.

Entertainment: predictably, more episodes of Life on Mars.