Life on Mars – The End

Oh dear, this is a bit overdue, isn’t it? I know I said I’d leave it for a few days, but the days turned into weeks and I didn’t seem to find the correct tuit. But at least this way, I’m not posting any spoilers for people who didn’t catch the episode immediately.[1] You might want to remind yourself about the previous episode before reading this, as otherwise it’ll make even less sense than normal…

Sam tries to call Hyde 2612 again, but there’s no answer. Just then, the radio starts playing tricks again. The DJ (who sounds remarkably like, and may well actually be, Jimmy Savile) announces that the big news is that they’ve found the cause of Sam’s coma: there is a tumour in his brain. They’d previously thought it was a clot, but “a clot is what it’s not”.

Then his mother’s voice comes on – if he’s strong enough, they can operate and remove the tumour. She mentions that the surgeon is “Mr Morgan”. Could that be Frank Morgan?

Then the phone rings. It’s Frank Morgan – he tells Sam that it’s time to complete “the operation”. Sam has to destroy Gene Hunt and his whole rotten department. Then he can come home.

Back at work, the CID crew arrive at a murder scene – the dead man is Danny Croucher, a miner who had been caught up in planning a wages robbery. Danny had come to Gene to tell all. Gene, instead of providing him protection, set him loose to see if this would flush out the gang.

At the police station, Frank Morgan is just leaving. Sam sees him out, and tells him about the dead miner. Morgan asks for full reports and recordings of what happens. He says that Gene is “like a cancer”.

After Morgan has gone, Sam looks through the window into the CID office – he says to himself

None of you are real, and Gene Hunt is a tumour in my head

Sam surreptitiously records Gene and Ray brutally interrogating Sykes, a suspect. Later, back home, Sam is transcribing the recording when his TV starts showing the trace from a hospital instrument, and he hears voices that sound like an operation is beginning.

Annie pays Sam a visit. When she leaves, he hesitates a moment before going after her, but when he opens the door, Test Card Girl[2] is standing there, accompanied by a strange glow. Sam sees flashes of something bad. He sees Annie, hears shots, sees a man with a balaclava and a shotgun, while Test Card Girl tells him that if none of this is real, then they can’t feel anything. She disappears as quickly as she came.

The next day, Gene tells the team that he now has the name of the man behind the planned job – Leslie Johns, a career criminal and killer. Sam records him as he reveals his plan. He’s going to pose as Sykes and go undercover and infiltrate the job. Rather than call in backup, Gene’s going to arm his team and they will stop the raid. Sam points out that this is a bad idea. Sam and Ray will take the place of the security guards on the train, while Annie and Chris will pose as train crew.

Later, Sam meets Morgan at a cemetery. He tells Morgan about Gene’s plan and demands that he be allowed to go home. Morgan tells him that this is only part of the the job. Once Gene’s department is broken up, it needs to be rebuilt “in our own image”. He shows Sam a file with the Operation’s name on:

Accountability and


It’s about removing corruption “exorcising the cancer”. Sam tells him that there’s more at stake, that he knows why Morgan is really here. He tells him that he’s in a coma, in the future, that now he’s given Morgan the power to remove Gene, he can go home.

Morgan tells him that this explains a lot. It must have been the crash[3]. Sam doesn’t remember his real life back in Hyde because he has amnesia. And this has happened to him before. Morgan takes Sam through the cemetery, telling him that his parents were killed in a coach crash when he was 12. He shows him the grave of his parents: David and Brenda Williams, who died in 1950. Sam can’t accept this: last time he checked, his name was Tyler, not Williams. Morgan tells him that his real identity is DCI Sam Williams. Then he sees two more headstones, bearing the names of Vic and Ruth Tyler: Sam’s parents. But the dates show they died in the 19th century. Morgan explains that this was how they created Sam’s fake identity for the undercover operation. He’s lost his memory and replaced it with his undercover identity. It’s all in his head. He even finds the grave of Sam Tyler.

Back at the station, Sam tries to plead for Gene – “he gets results”. Morgan tells him he must continue the job, then he can come home. Sam agrees that he can’t let Gene put the team in danger. Morgan gives him a radio and tells him he can use it to call in armed backup when he needs it.

In the pub, while the rest of the team are having a drink, Nelson the barman tells Sam he can see a darkness in him. Sam wants to know what’s real, what’s true. Nelson tells him

if you can feel, then you’re alive

Now Sam really doesn’t know what’s going on. Up till now, he’s held himself together by insisting that his 1973 life isn’t real, and that he will return to the present. But now he’s thinking that maybe 1973 really is real, and that it’s his future life that’s the dream. At the station the next day, he confides in Annie. Tells her that he’s been sent in undercover.

When Ray and Chris arrive, he tells them that he’s going to stop the job. But it’s too late – Gene’s already gone in undercover. Sam tells them that he’s working to stop Gene. Ray and Chris storm off to get ready. Annie slaps Sam:

It hurts, doesn’t it? That’s because it’s real

And so the CID crew go aboard the train with the wages. The train stops just outside a tunnel. Armed men rush the train and order the crew to hand over the money. Sam’s radio crackles, dropping everyone in it. As the police officers huddle in the train, the robbers keep firing into it. Sam tries to call for help, but there’s no reply on the radio. Sam runs into the tunnel to seek help, promising Annie that he won’t abandon her. Morgan’s waiting in the tunnel – there’s no backup. He wants to leave Gene’s team to die – what better way of discrediting him?

Sam refuses to leave his colleagues. The rest of the crew are making a run for the tunnel. Chris is shot. Annie drags him to his feet and tries to drag him to the tunnel. Ray is shot. Gene is shot. Annie calls for Sam to help them as Sam is surrounded by bright white light and hears voices calling him to come back.

And Sam wakes up on a hospital bed. Frank Morgan is there. He’s Sam’s surgeon. He’s managed to relieve the swelling, which is why Sam’s awake, but the tumour was too deeply embedded to remove. However, it’s benign, so it shouldn’t be a further problem.

And so Sam leaves the hospital ward. Hyde Ward. Hyde Ward, room 2612, of course. And he returns to work. He records his story and sends the tape to the “psych evaluation” people. Apparently an officer is collecting reports from officers who’ve suffered trauma.

He goes to see his mother, and tells her that back in his dream, or whatever it was, he was alive – in some ways more than he’d ever been before. He tells her what Nelson told him – that you know when you’re alive, because you can feel, and if you can’t feel anything then you’re not alive. And he tells her that he made a promise to someone he cared about. She tells him that it will be fine, as he always keeps his promises.

Later, Sam’s in a meeting. His mind is altogether elsewhere – he can’t concentrate. He cuts his hand, but doesn’t feel a thing. As Bowie’s Life on Mars plays one more time, Sam excuses himself from the meeting and goes to the roof. As the music swells, Sam smiles then runs and leaps from the roof.

And he’s back in the railway tunnel. No time has passed , and he’s just in time to shoot Leslie Johns before he can kill anyone. Nobody’s too badly hurt, and Sam meets Chris and Ray in the pub later before going to find Annie.

He asks Annie what he should do. She tells him he should “stay here, forever”. He says he will, and finally kisses her, at which point Gene drives up and tells everyone to get in the car – there’s another job on.

On the car radio, there’s a voice saying “it’s not good, he’s slipping away from us”. Sam says that he hates that show, and retunes to a music station, which once again plays Life on Mars. They drive off with the usual bickering and bantering between Sam and Gene.

As the car disappears into the distance, a group of kids run past. The last one is Test Card Girl, who looks at the camera in an enigmatic way then reaches out and switches off the screen. Fade to black, roll credits.

Now there were a few endings I’d thought we might get. We could have had Sam safely return to the present. He could have died. He could have just stayed in 1973. But the actual ending turned out to be not only more satisfying than any of those but also more subtle and thought-provoking. Is Sam dead, and is 1973 his “heaven”? Is he just back in a coma, and is his tumour happily providing his dream of 1973? Was his brief return to the present an illusion (he didn’t feel anything, so perhaps he wasn’t alive)? And how did he know what Frank Morgan looked like? :?: :?: His mind might have picked up the name being spoken in the hospital, but how did his dream (if that’s what it was) correctly show what Morgan looked like?

I watched the episode again, with frequent use of the pause and rewind buttons, and I’m sure there are still some clues and details I’ve missed. And I’m sure there are more theories and interpretations around.[4] Personally, I’m happy for it to be both final and moderately enigmatic. Sam’s happy, and that’s all we’ve been really waiting for since the beginning of the story last year. And we’ve had the benefit of one of the best TV dramas ever, which ran for a sensible length and went out while it was still quite brilliant.

If you’ve somehow not seen it due to this, that, the other, or being in another country, you’ve missed something very special indeed. If you like police shows, generally intelligent drama, 1970s popular music, good brain teasing thrillers, or even if you don’t normally watch any of those things, you really should give Life on Mars a try. Buy or borrow the DVDs. Look for repeats on digital channels. Download it if you can’t find a legal copy. Just watch it. Best thing on TV that isn’t actually Doctor Who.

[1] That’s from the “Les Book of Excuses” which I’ll get round to writing one day
[2] If you don’t know what the photon I’m going on about, you need to watch the series.
[3] Right at the start of the first series…
[4] Probably about 31,456 sites discussing it

3 thoughts on “Life on Mars – The End

  1. Pingback: Life on Mars – Final Part : Losing it

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