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Playing games with time, space

`Life on Mars' and `Eureka' both feature law officers caught in unusual circumstances.

July 21, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Detective stories and science fiction have much in common -- they're both popular, only semi-respectable genres that incline toward mystery, philosophy and matters of identity. (And that old corollary chestnut, reality.) It's only natural, if not super-natural, then, that the two forms have intermingled over the years: "The X-Files" is the most obvious recent example, but there are many, many more -- "Blade Runner" and "Men in Black" and pretty much anything with a superhero in it.

"Life on Mars," premiering Monday on BBC America, is such a series; it takes its name from a song by that most science-fictional pop star, David Bowie, and it is dark fun, a clever twist on the familiar story of going back in time to reclaim the present. Created by writers associated with the flashy con-man comedy "Hustle" (playing here on AMC), it concerns a Manchester police detective, Sam Tyler (John Simm), who is hit by a car in 2006 and wakes up -- or does he? -- in 1973, in a pair of flared trousers and a shirt with a collar wide enough to launch jets from.

It is not, strictly speaking, sci-fi, since everything logically points to Tyler actually being in a coma in 2006, cocooned in "deep REM sleep from which he cannot wake," or so he hears in one of the fragments of present-day reality that burst like feedback into his 1973 head. And there is his otherwise unaccountable foreknowledge. (You could have worked out back then that there'd be mobile phones and personal computers coming, but who could have predicted Gary Numan's song "Cars"?)

But the series uses the usual fish-out-of-water conventions of time travel -- the humorous contrasts between then and now (the bad wallpaper, the dial telephones, the sideburns), the attempts to get home -- and the writers do their best to keep Tyler's state an open question, at least in his mind. The characters in his 1973 world consider themselves real, and so do we, even as we know he might be making them up. What makes such ambiguity easy to accept, of course, is that none of it's real -- it's a TV show, it's all made up.

On one level, "Life on Mars" can be seen as a witty response to the modern police procedural, with its emphasis on cutting-edge forensic science and impossibly good-looking rainbow casts. Here the detectives are all rumpled white men with bad facial hair and bad teeth, working in a dark, messy, smoky room lorded over by genially thuggish DCI Hunt (the mighty Philip Glenister), for whom "evidence" means whatever he can plant on a suspect and the phrase "excessive force" an oxymoron. (Though all in the service of good.) Tyler, who comes from more enlightened times, literally bumps heads with him.

He is also possibly working up to a flirtation with Annie (Liz White), a policewoman from before the days when TV policewomen all looked like underwear models or (for that matter) even got to do police work; making tea seems to be the important thing here. (She is lovely, of course, but in an old-fashioned way.) Just as important, however, is his odd-couple relation to Hunt; we want them to get along, and when they sync up -- as when they jump over a desk in tandem on their way to crack a case, as though they lived in an old episode of "Starsky & Hutch" -- it's almost stupidly exciting.

As mysteries go, these are not brilliantly plotted, and they tend to resolve themselves in moments of sudden inspiration (which is the point, after all -- Tyler's getting back to working on "gut feeling," like they had to in the olden days.) But the show is exceptionally well made from top to bottom and pulls you in and pulls you along, owing not least to a host of terrific performances. Simm (who played Bernard Sumner in "24 Hour Party People" and was also seen alongside Glenister in the BBC series "State of Play") is especially marvelous as a man living in two places at once and not anywhere at all.

In "Eureka," which runs Tuesdays on the Sci Fi Channel, we have another law enforcement professional (Colin Ferguson, from the American version of "Coupling") who finds himself posted against his will to a place that feels like another planet. The Eureka of the title is not the Eureka in Northern California but a kind of perpetual Alamogordo somewhere on the same coast, where big brains labor to make the world safe for America and the government makes sure they have all the comforts and social services they habitually spare the rest of us. The town, we are told by sexy DOD liaison Salli Richardson-Whitfield, was built just after the second World War, when "Einstein realized our future was in the hands of scientists, not soldiers."

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