Life on Mars, Series 1 (BBC One, 2005)

Fictional DCI Sam Tyler opens each episode of the BBC award-winning series Life on Mars with the same voiceover: "My name is Sam Tyler. I had an accident and I woke up in 1973. Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time? Whatever's happened, it's like I've landed on a different planet. Now, maybe if I can work out the reason, I can get home."

Against the backdrop of airplane-wing collars, fat polyester seventies ties, and numerous David Bowie songs, Life on Mars unfolds as the story of a modern-day Manchester police officer (Tyler, played by the achingly adorable John Simm) who finds himself zapped back to 1973 in the wake of a serious car accident. He steps into what is apparently an alternate version of his life already in progress, finding himself (in stylish retro attire) working under Officer Gene Hunt (played by achingly unhandsome and yet mesmerizingly charismatic Philip Glenister). Thrust into a time and place where police brutality is merely an effective interview method and evidence is what a cop plants to justify an arrest, Tyler is forced to negotiate his modern sensibilities concerning suspects' rights, forensic science, equal rights, and plain old common decency in an effort to do his job. Add to this Tyler's agony of not knowing how he has come to this place -- time? -- and how he can get back to his "real" life, and you've got one fantastic ride.

This series could have gone for cheap hilarity. Bell bottoms, total lack of political correctness, no understanding of or respect for scientific approach -- good compost for a caricature of a barely-bygone era, an era close enough to generate a little nostalgia, but far enough in the past not to raise the hackles of the show's target audience by painting an unflattering portrait. The brilliance of the series, and its success, comes from using the time warp to present a culture clash of eras -- self against self -- with a gritty, humane sincerity. The raw urgency and complete unselfconsciousness of Officer Hunt and his world make our time -- Tyler's time -- simultaneously more comfortable and yet strangely watered-down, pale and anemic by comparison.

Good writing, great directing, inspired casting. One of the best police dramas to come out in recent years. Don't settle for the American version.

Repeat: DO NOT settle for the American version. It just ain't the same.

[Camille Alexa]