Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Life On Mars: "Life Is A Rock"

Illustration for article titled iLife On Mars/i: Life Is A Rock
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.

So here we are, ladies and gentlemen—the final reckoning. The closing of the book. The changing of the channel. The ending of the credits. The very last and final and never going to be another one no matter how many crazy people write letters episode of Life On Mars. And while it's too bad that a series that at least tried to be this weird and original wasn't able to get a foothold in the ratings, is anyone truly surprised? Too unconventional to attract a mainstream audience, too heavy-handed and cliched to earn much of a cult following, it's kind of amazing it lasted as long as it did. This was a 17 episode run. That's one more than even got made for Firefly. (Unless you count the movie, in which case it's a tie.)

Fortunately, the fine folks who gave us Mars were given enough advanced warning of the cancellation to try and give us something at least approaching a satisfying conclusion. My sights weren't exactly high settling in for "Life Is A Rock," but the end of the BBC series was just so well done I had some hope that a little of that quality might rub off on this version.

We start promisingly enough, with Sam waking up in his own apartment in the grand old year of 2009. The song that gave this episode its title is playing, and as Sam wanders around turning off the various speakers the sound is coming from, we get a nice reveal of the modern furnishings. Then he finds a seventies style radio, and sees his younger self dancing to the music—with his dad, Vic, sitting to the side, cheering the kid on. It's overplayed (the crazy camera angle thing is too literal here), but it's still a nice reminder that when Mars actually worked, it could be pretty freaky. Just lil Sammy's dancing alone is enough to sell the the scene; he looks like he's having some kind of seizure.

Then Sam wakes up for real, and he's back in '73, and Windy's in bed with him. Of course they didn't have sex; she just fulfilled her free-spirit obligations by sneaking into his bed in the night because she found rat droppings in her apartment. There then ensues a discussion about the "species of feces," before Sam reveals he's been having the dream we just saw quite regularly lately. He thinks it's because he's stuck where he is; she thinks it's because he's closer to home.

The standard plot summary seems sort of useless here, as this episode was less about story then it was about futzing about with various themes and loose ends introduced earlier in the season. Some of these were effective, some of these weren't; we got to see Vic in the "real" world again, Rose Tyler and Sam do their awkward sort-of-not-flirting thing, and Sam gets to bust a few heads in pursuit of his kidnapped younger self. At least this time there's some promise that this will all lead to something, as Sam gets another phone call from Look In The Basement Man, who tells him he has to do three things if he wants to get home.

Sam wanders around, angsting it up here and there, having a few mind trips (during one freak-out, he flashbacks to events he wasn't present for, so I guess we're supposed to assume he's seeing everything?), and I'm twiddling my thumbs, trying to figure out how it's going to wind up. How much are they going to try and explain? Are they going to go for a definitive ending, or is it going to be more suggestive? At some point in the second half, an Elton John song starts playing, "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters," and like so many of the musical choices on this show (clunky scoring aside), it fits the moment nicely. And it's one of the few Elton John hits that I don't know well at all; listening to the lyrics reminds me of this review I read in Entertainment Weekly years and years ago that mentioned the "consistently tedious lyrics of Bernie Taupin," or something like that. It made it impossible for me to listen to John the same way again. But not all of the lyrics are terrible—maybe there's bound to be accidental resonance, if you throw enough randomness out there. Maybe that's what the best of Mars really was—an accident.

Ah shit. I'm stalling. Throwing the standard recap rules out the window here, and I'm sorry for that, you all deserve better. It's just—it's just—that ending. Did you see that? Did you fucking see that shit?

Deep breath: Sam decides he likes 1973 so much he wants to stay there so he hangs up on LITBM before getting the final instruction, because he just made out with Annie and she's hot, and then he goes over and he gives Gene a hug. Because. Y'know. Sweet zombie jesus, it's right there, it's looking at me—

Sam's an astronaut. So are Annie, Ray, Chris, and Gene. When Sam wakes up from suspended animation, he's in a lander circling Mars, and the computer's name is Windy, and the guy talking to them from Earth is Frank Morgan, and Gene is actually Sam's dad, and his name is MAJOR FUCKING TOM, and Sam thinks Annie likes him, and it's all some weird mind trip and they land on Mars and That's. How the writers. Ended things.

I spent the last five minutes of the episode trying to, to justify this colossal goatfuck of a conclusion. Okay, it explains most everything, right? Sort of. And it's got sort of a Philip K. Dick, we-read-Maze-Of-Death-twenty-years-ago-and-want-to-rip-it-off vibe. And there really was no way the ending was going to make everybody happy. They did the best they could with what they had. Hey, it wasn't even that good of a show to begin with!

No. No, I don't think so. I didn't think it was possible, but the Mars people managed to somehow find whatever small speck of investment I had in the series and beat it to death in about ten minutes. While I can appreciate the restrictions they were under, this is just—this is just so bad. It's overly literal—see, the song is "Life On Mars," and that's what they're going to be!—it flat out ignores the tone of everything that preceded it, and the seams are so obvious and so forced that you can't help but feel insulted. Clearly, an attempt was being made to satisfy loyal viewers, but somebody should've realized this was just not the right way to do that. Better to leave us with a thousand unanswered questions than this.

Screw it, I'm gonna go listen to my Bowie albums.

Grade: D

Stray Observations:

  • I noticed at least one character speaking in lyrics, so—ah, y'know what? To hell with this. You saw that ending, right? I've seen college theater end better. It's like the worst kind April Fool's day prank—the kind that's actually serious.
  • You think this was the plan all along? God, I hope not. Although all that space imagery…

Share This Story

Get our newsletter