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Review: Life on Mars novels, part one June 30, 2017

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, TV.
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Life on Mars: Blood, Bullets & Blue Stratos

Why you may want to read this: there are four books that tell what happened to Sam Tyler after the end of the TV series.

Might as well start with the basics: Life on Mars was a British TV series about Sam Tyler, a modern day police officer who’s hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. There were two series of eight episodes each, followed by a sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, in which a police officer who studied the Tyler case is shot and wakes up in 1981, meeting some of the same people Tyler reported meeting. Then there’s the US TV remake, which lasted one episode longer than the UK version, in a single US season, which had the courage to resolve things in a very different fashion. But by then it barely mattered, due to miscasting and frequent changes of tone and direction.

A few years ago, a set of four Life on Mars tie-in novels were released almost surreptitiously. Even people who reviewed things like that in magazines managed to miss the news. Apparently they were originally ebook-only, no doubt part of the problem, and only later released in paperback in the UK. All four were written by Tom Graham, apparently the brother of the show’s co-creator. Whether the creators of the show had any input into or control over the books, I have no idea. (In other words: don’t ask me if these are canon.)

So far I’ve read the first two books. Reread, actually. I read those two books as soon as I knew they existed but for some reason didn’t finish the set at the time. Now, coming off a rewatch of Life on Mars, I decided to get back to them, rereading the first two books because I didn’t remember much about them at all.

Tom Graham sets out to follow up on the TV series. Sam’s made his irrevocable decision to stay in 1973. But Graham’s writing with the knowledge of how Ashes to Ashes ended, which made some big revelations that affect both series.

So… while the plots of the first two novels (Blood, Bullets & Blue Stratos and A Fistful of Knuckles) are pretty similar to regular episodes of the TV series, with Tyler involved in CID investigations in Manchester — with plenty of action, violence, and Gene Hunt dialogue — there are other developments that move the story forward. The test card girl who occasionally appeared to Sam has changed her appearance, becoming more overtly sinister, dressed in black and carrying black balloons. Sam’s seeing her when he’s wide awake, not just dreaming or half awake in his miserable flat. He’s also sleeping badly, having nightmares — and it turns out Annie Cartwright is having nightmares, too, similar to Sam’s. Speaking of Annie, the relationship between Sam and Annie continues its slow progress with significant conversations and occasional kisses but not much more so far.

Anyway, the test card girl tells Sam there’s a devil in the dark coming for him and Annie. He’s having nightmares and visions of something ominous, something that becomes more overtly active in the second book. It looks like it’s going to keep building in the next two books, leading to — well. that remains to be seen, but in Ashes to Ashes, Gene Hunt tells Alex Price that by 1981 Tyler’s dead, and there’s no mention of Annie. Another touch of Ashes to Ashes: there’s the occasional hint that there may be more to Nelson than meets the eye.

The books aren’t perfect. The cop story plots feel a bit familiar. The named CID regulars, Gene, Annie, Ray, and Chris, appear, but all those other guys — the older bearded guy, the Ray Davies lookalike, and the rest — may as well not exist. Sometimes the tension between Sam and the A Division lads feels more like the early first season than later in the show. Some of the objectionable 1973 stuff — the sexism and all that — doesn’t work quite as well without the charisma of the actors making up for it. But the second reading worked better for me than the first.

So… do I recommend them? I think I’m going to have to wait until I’ve read all four. The first two are standalone novels, for the most part, but they’re clearly building to something. I’m curious what that’ll turn out to be.

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