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Is there really no ‘Life on Mars’?

Last night, Life on Mars—a series about a police detective who is hit by a car and is inexplicably thrown back in time from 2008 to the same New York precinct in 1973—concluded its run. Up until last night, at least, it was a solid series with such great story that explored what it means to love, sacrifice and make your way in this world of ours. A series that asked deeper questions and didn’t always come up with pat answers—like life. A series that brought God-talk into these open spaces.

(Caution: major spoilers—and rant—ahead!)

And now, well, I really don’t know what to say. Um. Seriously?! It ends like that? It’s all a dream? You see, it turns out that Sam is actually one of several astronauts on an Earth mission to Mars in 2035. To kill the time during the two-year journey, the space-ship’s computer runs virtual-reality-like dreams for the astronauts, but Sam’s has a glitch caused by a minor run-in with a meteorite. He wakes up okay, and it turns out the people in his dream are just virtual reality versions of his fellow astronauts.

Oh, man. I feel really cheated.

We were warned to expect something different from the Brits, who created the original series on which the American version was based. While the Brit version had a (much) more ambiguous ending, at least that series left the characters intact with some thought-provoking questions about what makes life worth living.

Maybe I'll get a hold of the Brit version and forget this one existed.

Except I can’t. I really loved these characters. They were real and flawed and yet beautiful. They got angry, made bad choices, but tried to figure out what it means to love. Their stories encouraged us to examine our own stories and lives. To simply erase them all as a figment of a computer’s simulation? Oh, Lord have mercy.

I find that the reflections of The Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall come closest to expressing my frustration:
Words fail me.

It's one thing to say that 1973 wasn't real, or even that the present-day material wasn't real (as the UK finale briefly suggested in a head-fake to the audience), but to say that neither was real?

That none of what the viewer watched for these 17 episodes mattered? That it was all a very literal joke on the series' title?

Well, if I was someone who had actually ridden this particular train from beginning to end, sad that the ratings weren't strong enough to keep the show around, I would be furious about this. As it was, I was pretty mad that I stayed up after "Lost" just to watch it.
Maybe I should just relax, consider that at least the writers had a chance to wrap up the cancelled series, laugh at the irony of it all, or chalk it up to something like an April Fool's joke. But honestly, I'm simply disappointed and flabbergasted. And now, while I actually come to a different conclusion on it, I think I can understand a bit more how Barbara Nicolosi felt about Battlestar Galactica’s finale.

(Image: ABC) miscctgy


Ken Brown said…
Seriously. They would have been far better just ending it with him telling the guy on the phone that he no longer wants to leave. I'd much rather have unanswered questions than a ridiculous "It was all a dream!" reveal... sigh.

The only thing that makes me feel better about it is that they did sort of leave open the door that Sam wasn't the only one in that dream--that Annie was as well, and perhaps even Gene. If that is the case, then it isn't quite the case that it was only a dream, more like a shared virtual reality, which would give it more significance, though not nearly as much as real time travel.

I've tried to rationalize it to myself by thinking that Annie actually was running a simulation of herself as a detective in 1973 (and perhaps Gene was in the same simulation?), while Sam was running a simulation of himself as a detective in 2008. When the meteor hit, it crossed some wires and imperfectly transferred him into her simulation, so even though the rest of the characters were fake (or at least, Ray was), Sam and Annie were really themselves, just with artificial memories. In that case, the relationship they developed really was real, even if the situations that fostered it were not--just like any other relationship we build online....

Perhaps I'm giving the writers too much credit here, but if that were their intention, it would bother me a lot less than a simple "it was all a dream" ending, especially since Sam, Annie and Gene were really the only characters to have significant personality arcs.

I still feel cheated though.
Jason said…
I have only been able to see the first series of the British version, but it is great! I can't imagine even trying the American version. Please try the British one.
Carmen Andres said…
ken, you are much more generous than i am, heh. i see by your tweets that you've posted about this some more on your own blog, so i'm going to head over read more about your thoughts. maybe you can convince me.

jason, i'm seriously considering it. especially if the characters are good as they were on this verision.