It’s only a coma

So, Life on Mars. Much more than what I expected, which was the “vulgar device of putting Hamlet on Main Street”, as Borges definitely did not put it exactly – I have misremembered it badly – in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In other words, lame jokes about how there are no mobiles in 1973, which was what the ABC ads promised. Embarrasingly, the Bowie reference in the title slipped past me until it came on the soundtrack in the first episode, but then “Heroes” was always my favourite, and I did better than the friend who assumed it was a documentary about space probes and didn’t bother tuning in at all.

We’re only up to episode three in Australia. So far the high points have been the scene in which the hero is transported back in time, and the near-suicide at the end of the first episode: these gave me chills, whereas the next two episodes have settled into humour, shot through with moments of eeriness which remind me of Iain Banks’ The Bridge, another blackly comic coma narrative.

There are moments where my disbelief almost slips. Would a detective have quipped “Trouble at mill” on finding a dead man in a textile mill in 1973? It turns out that the man was actually killed in an industrial accident: this doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone, even though one of the mill operators knows exactly how the looms can kill people if not properly maintained. Would a single fatal accident have shut down a factory in 1973?

But then, would our hero know any of this? What a lovely cop-out for the writers. It’s his fantasy world, after all. It’s also ours – the world he has been cast into is built from pop music and repeats of The Sweeney. (The one thing that would convince Sam Tyler that he really is dreaming it all: the Flying Squad are brought in on a case and Denis Waterman walks in the door.)

Perhaps subsequent episodes will complicate the framework device, but for now I’m finding the way the show is sliding between the solitary dream of a man in his hospital bed, and our collective dream of history as mediated by television, to be remarkably entertaining, and at moments quite moving. Bowie on the sountrack and John Simm’s performance help that along, of course.

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