A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Time Traveling Television Taken Too….Soon.

In sci-fi, television on April 8, 2009 at 4:40 am

It’s not that debatable that the past few years has given us some of the greatest science-fiction. With the creation of LOST, the re-imagining of BATTLESTAR: GALACTICA and more recently TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, what used to be considered a niche genre – reserved mostly for nerds and the socially unacceptable – has now become mainstream and in a few cases (LOST, again) become a massive hit. So, with that it is sad that two shows that showed a lot of promise in their first season – or what equated to a whole season for them – was taken off the air before their stories were fully told. And it’s only with the recent cancellation of one that I’ve revisited the other and makes me want to talk about both. 

LIFE ON MARS was a show about Police Detective Sam Tyler, one day while on a case he gets out of his car only to then be hit by another. when he wakes up, not in a hospital – but in 1973 – our adventure begins. Bewildered, Sam goes to his police precinct, where he finds not only a group of police officers that are rough and crass, but they’ve been expecting him – apparently having been transferred from Hyde. His new Lieutenant, Gene Hunt, introduces himself by giving him a knuckle sandwich and his main co-workers, Ray and Chris along with the female police-woman, named Annie – or not-so-lovingly referred to sometimes as “No Nuts Norris”. With this rag-tag group Sam works on cases that lead to him visiting and even protecting his mother and father and even the eight-year old version of himself. Through the whole thing, Sam has strange flashes that allow him to see visions on TV’s of 2008/09 – including the inauguration speech of Barack Obama, and weird appearances of the Mars Rover – showing up in his office, and even crawling out of people’s eyelids. 

So, the question becomes, what is going on, and how can Sam get home? 

The cast on this show is top-notch, starring Harvey Keitel as Gene Hunt, Gretchen Mol as “No nuts”, Michael Imperioli as Ray and Jason O’Mara in his first real starring role in the US – he’s from the UK – and I’m sure he’ll be around for a while, plays Sam Tyler. O’Mara plays Tyler as a very straight and arrow kind of and sympathetic cop. Pretty much from the first scene, he’s likable and someone you want to root for. Of course, his clean-cut demeanor is even more pronounced when compared with his 1973 counter-parts. Not only in the appearance of their messy long hair, over-grown sideburns and clash-y clothing, but also in his approach to police work. Where he is kind of used to having the perks of modern police-life (like DNA tests, internet searches and even cell phones) Hunt and the other detectives prefer to use fists, feet and intimidation to get their suspects. Imperioli and his main cohort, Chris – played by a naive and innocent Jonathan Murphy – are continuously fantastic in their roles and bring the laughs as well as help to solidify the world that Sam finds himself in. Mol, who has been pretty low-profile since her debut in 1996 (GIRL 6) and in interesting roles in THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR and 3:10 TO YUMA, she really shines – especially because of her platinum blonde hair – in her role as Annie Norris. She becomes Sam’s confidante and confessor, revealing to her his secret time-travel misadventure, and for the most part she accepts his idiosyncrasies even possibly starting to believe him eventually. Keitel, as much as I love him, is kind of the weak link of the cast. He just seems mismatched for this role, except when he’s playing the loud, ruffian. There are a few moments where his character becomes more three-dimensional and he’s never not good in the role. Just that sometimes he doesn’t seem to mesh. 

The show was marked for cancellation after its 17th episode. Unlike a lot of shows that get cancelled – without even a full season – it was able to close out the show with a resolution to Sam’s “situation”. The one thing to mention, in case it’s not well known – is that this is an adaptation of a UK show of the same name. In that version, from what I understand – as I’ve not seen the UK version – Sam finds his way back to the present day, and the ending is…well, different from what we get with the US one. 

In the next paragraph, I’m going to delve into spoilers, not only for this series but also for the UK version of the show. 

In the UK version, Sam is revealed to be in a coma – after being hit by the car – and his time in 1973 was some sort of near-death experience. When he wakes up, he finds that he’d rather be in that time so, he goes to a rooftop and jumps, only to again be welcomed to 1973. (If I’m wrong, feel free to correct me…) In the US, 2008 version, the final episode answers what this version of Sam has been going through and how the events of 2008-09, the Mars Rover and even what David Bowie’s songs have to do with him. And in the end, we discover that Sam had chosen to be a detective in 2008, as a sort of programmed dream during his trip to Mars in the year 2035. There’s a meteor shower that somehow sets up a glitch in his program that then transfers him to 1973 – and sort of taps into his subconscious and helps him to work through, I guess some personal issues. Problems with his dad, a secret love and possibly even a small wish of having been a policeman instead of an astronaut (although who would regret that, who knows.) 

I do have to admit that the story’s ending seems kind of weak and underwhelming, considering the abruptness that it’s dealt with, but imagining that this series might have lasted a couple of years and been allowed to expand this story abit, laying more ground on where it was going – as the show-runners have stated that this was their intended ending to begin with – I think that this might have been a great, if still not universally loved, ending. Not knowing the details of the British version of the show, I can’t speak to how the ending deals with the other plot-points that present themselves; but I think that this ending really summed up what this show was building to. Everything is fully explained, and it’s interestingly resolved. But, with some great acting, excellent humor – including a lot of great anachronistic stuff like Sam rapping Ice Ice Baby, before Vanilla Ice was even born (not really..I looked); or moon-walking and doing the Michael Jackson schtick that wouldn’t become known for another ten years – this show was something that would have been great to see grow and expand and naturally come to whatever conclusion it was going to.

Below is sort of a teaser/music video for the show – with the song called Ground Zero, performed by Chris Cornell. (I can’t recommend the album, but I like this song quite a bit.) Enjoy.

The other show is from the 2007/08 season and sadly became a victim of Writer’s strike of that year. JOURNEYMAN was about Dan Vasser, a reporter for the San Francisco Reporter, and one day he gets a headache and the discovers himself 20 years in the past. The show revolved around him sporadically traveling back in time for short bursts to follow a specific person and set things right…Oh wait, that kind of sounds like QUANTUM LEAP. Well, honestly the show does borrow a little from that concept, except it become a little more interesting because Dan travels back and forth with no warning – other than the slight headache he gets right before he travels – and slips back and forth between whatever time he lives in, to when he’s supposed to meet with whoever he’s tracking. So, it has the added bonus, that Sam Beckett didn’t, in that he has to deal with a wife, son and brother that have a hard time believing that he’s time traveling as opposed to doing drugs or picking up his old habit of gambling and drinking. Then there’s the other complication in that it seems Dan’s former fiancee, who has been thought dead for eight years, also seems to travel through time and now Dan has the problem of continually being confronted with the woman he was in love with, but lost; and continually being put in the situation choosing his true love and his current wife.

In the latter half of the series, there is a build-up to what might be behind Dan’s “condition” and even a developing subplot involving his son. Unlike LIFE ON MARS, this show did not get a conclusive – if rushed – ending. So, we’ll forever be left wondering what was behind Dan’s travels, what the larger purpose was behind it and how many people have been involved. Which is a shame, because the cast of this show was all very strong and even the weakest member of the cast is better than a lot of other shows currently on the air. Dan, as played by Kevin McKidd, is continually confused and off balance, not knowing what’s going on. He’s got an edge to him, but always keeps us with him. His (not quite dead) fiancee, Livia as played by Moon Bloodgood, is enigmatic and as always beautiful. She has a sadness to her character – definitely stemming from the fact that she’s been separated not only from Dan, but also from the rest of her family and friends. Reed Diamond, as Jack Vasser – Dan’s brother – is excellent as the hard-nosed cop, who not only has to deal with a brother that continuously disappears and starts getting into trouble because of this new “ability”, but also with the fact that the woman Dan is now married to used to be his lover. The wife, Katie – as played by Gretchen Egolf – has the thankless role of being the “nagging, unsympathetic wife” at the beginning of the series. Her character eventually comes around, and while I think that of all the characters she’s the least interesting, she’s still pretty strong. 

The fun and interesting thing about this show, is that it helps to show the consequences and repercussions of making changes to the past. There’s the repeated theme of Dan making changes that affect people that he knows, and since he’s been taken out of the continuous timeline, he remembers the events that happened before he made the changes. There’s also the fun of dan having to keep traveling in time, still in his hometown, where all of his family and friends are – and were in the past – and his either having to avoid (like when his brother is on the beat and starts chasing Dan for passing counterfeit money – counterfeit in that in 1995, bills from 2007 aren’t considered “legal”, or breaking into his old apartment only to run into his fiancee – that hasn’t revealed to that timeline’s Dan that she travels through time.) or he has to get in touch with, for their contacts. (When he’s not chasing Dan, it is still useful to have a brother on the police force.) In the latter part of the series, Dan discovers a college professor who has done research into time travel and even has managed to call Dan on his cell phone…in the past. 

The show also featured one of my favorite opening credit sequences – which I’m a total nerd about – and I’ve included that below. 

These two shows are available to watch online – either on ABC.com (LIFE ON MARS) and HULU.com for JOURNEYMAN – and I’d recommend both shows. They both gave us a great season’s worth of episodes and looking at it positively, is that the shows were at least taken away before they could be dragged down and made less than what they started out as. There were a couple of episodes that really were peak television and showed how great series can be. Seeing a great majority of the casts for these shows move on to other projects is rewarding but not quite as satisfying as wishing they’d been given more of a chance with these shows.

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