How Life on Mars lost its way with a misguided series finale

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Americans love the BBC. We love them so much that we keep taking their shows and remaking them. Opinions vary, though, about how much we mess them up—as with the American remake of the BBC show Life on Mars, which just wrapped up on April Fools Day.

After a full season of staying relatively close to the source material, the ending seemed to come out of left field. Producer Josh Rosenberg had previously addressed the difficulties of delivering a big surprise ending for a series based on a well-respected BBC show that already had its own, different twist ending. "Anybody with Wikipedia could go look up Life on Mars BBC and find out what the ending is," he said. "So we always said from the beginning that we had to do something different."

If you didn't watch, here's the gist of what you missed Wednesday night.

[Beware: Spoilers ahead!]

• A mysterious caller gives Sam a series of three tasks that will finally take him home. First he has to save himself. (Child Sam has been kidnapped by Vic.) Second task? Duck. (Someone is shooting him. Hardly a task worthy of a quest to go home.) And last ... well, Sam doesn't care what that is.

• Then he gets dizzy and wakes up with a tiny robot (aha!) running all over his face. A pod opens over his head and ...

• The whole thing has been a computer-induced dream.

• Sam, and everyone else he knows in 1973, are astronauts. They are on a mission to Mars in 2035 that has taken two years.

• The computer, who is Windy (Tanya Fischer), by the way, has programmed them to dream a scenario during the trip.

• Sam had asked to be a cop in 2008, but because of some glitch, he ended up in 1973. As he wakes up in the spaceship, he looks around and sees everyone he knows.

Is anyone else hearing Wizard of Oz quotes in their head right now? "And you were there, and you were ..." No surprise. They make references to that throughout the episode. All the names, numbers (Hyde is on his jacket, and it's the name of the mission) are from 2035.

• Annie is there in a godawful brown wig, and so is Ray without the facial hair. He, of course, got himself programmed to dream about being on a desert island with two women, where none of the other men had penises.

• They are told that President Obama wanted to be there with him for this historic occasion, but her father was sick (ah, the twists and turns), and she wishes them well.

• And when Gene (Major Tom) wakes up, we realize that this is Sam's real dad, and they make up.

It's almost as if someone heard about the BBC and the basic premise. Guy gets shot in modern times and wakes up in 1973. Is he in a coma? Is he dead? Did he actually travel back? Hmmm ... It's called Life on Mars. You know what would be really cool? If they really were on Mars. Yeah, that's the ticket. It was all a dream.

After the 17 hours we've invested in these characters, this all we get? There was never any conspiracy? No one was really corrupt? There was never any redemption? Annie was never finally promoted to detective after all her work to be accepted?

The BBC version was so much more satisfying because we actually got to see what happened to everyone. The stories were resolved. Sam waking from a coma, taking a leap off the hospital roof when he realizes that he doesn't belong in the modern world and ending up back in 1973, open to interpretation as that might have been, at least gives us an idea of where everyone was. But really? They're actually on Mars?

While that revelation could be considered somewhat clever as a shock ending, it's a shock of entirely the wrong kind. Because with this series finale, the writers basically told us that the entire season had been a complete waste of our time and none of it mattered.

The prevailing opinion around the net is that the creators should have stuck with what worked the first time. Brad Trechak from TV Squad wrote, "the ending of the British series was hands-down better." Alan Sepinwall from the Star Ledger was even more blunt. "I wasn't expecting a rehash of the original finale (though, based on the reaction this morning of several disgruntled Life on Mars USA fans whom I told about the old ending, they might have been better off copying it wholesale). But I also wasn't expecting anything as dumb and/or as insulting to the viewer as the ending we got."

As SF writer Paul Levinson points out, "the 'everything was just a dream' resolution, even when Sam is dreaming on a mission to Mars way in the future, is one of the tritest gambits in fiction and science fiction."

It had to be a huge challenge to wrap up such a nuanced show in a single episode, but after all we invested in these characters throughout a season of really good storytelling, to wrap it up in a happy little package that erases all that happened before makes us wonder why we even bothered.