Critics’ Picks: The original time-traveling cop

The DVD of the British version of the TV series "Life on Mars" cuts a window into another world

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Critics' Picks: The original time-traveling cop

Season 1 of “Life on Mars,” U.K. version

 Before there was the now-canceled ABC television series “Life on Mars” — which was terrific in its own right — there was the original BBC drama of the same name, which is only just now available on DVD in the United States.

In the course of investigating a serial murder, Manchester detective Sam Tyler (John Simm) is hit by a car. When he picks himself up and dusts himself off, seemingly unharmed, he realizes he’s still in Manchester — only it’s 1973. Not only does he have to deal with ’70s-era police procedures and conventions (which means, among other things, no computers, and colleagues who heedlessly cover evidence with their own greasy fingerprints); he has a crusty, rough-and-tumble boss, Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister), who considers him a bit of a lightweight.

 When I wrote about the American “Life on Mars” earlier this year, I kept hearing the same refrain from readers: “The English one is so much better.” Although I consider the two series different but equal, the British show does have one interesting advantage: The New York of 1973 is very different from the New York of 2009 — but perhaps not as different as the Manchester of 1973 is from that of 2009.

The U.K. series cuts a window into 1970s Britain, a world of modest shopfronts and dimly lit flats with flowery wallpaper, a world in which, even though the swinging ’60s had already happened, plenty of women still went about their day with scarves tied primly under the chin, Queen Elizabeth-style. The U.K. and U.S. “Life on Mars” offer two different kinds of culture shock, divided by a common language.

Check out previous Critics’ Picks:

“Torchwood: Children of Earth” on BBC America and DVD

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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