Take a Look at the Lawman Beating Up the Wrong Guy: An Analysis of Life on Mars [Part Two]
You can’t have a good television show without a good central character, and at the heart of Life on Mars we’ve got two of them: Sam Tyler and Gene Hunt.
In last Thursday’s class, when my tutor wasn’t criticising one of the best shows to have ever existed, one of the things we were learning about was character, and the different formulae that exist for creating them. We began with character squares, and charts that list loves and fears, before moving on to something a little more complicated, a character map that looks something like this:
Attempting to use my iPad as a tablet and not quite succeeding. The idea of this character map was developed by Laurie Hustler.
I’m not quite sure why it needs to be a diamond, but anyway… each of the numbered traits can be found by asking certain questions of the character. When the character is able to overcome their fears, they reveal their true selves. If they succumb, then they reveal their dark side.
Both Sam and Gene have strong and relatable fears. They both fear injustice, and neither can stand being wrong. Sam likes structure and procedure, and is thrown by uncertainty. Waking up in 1973, with no idea what has happened to him, of why he is there, causes him many problems. Sam looks for reasons and explanations, rather than simply accepting his new surroundings.
Gene, on the other hand, needs control. He needs the hero worship that he receives from Ray and Chris. Much of the tension that arises between Gene and Sam comes from the fact that Sam doesn’t see Gene as his superior. He’s not afraid to stand up to him and tell him that he’s wrong.
Both characters’ dark sides are revealed throughout the series. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not Gene’s alcoholism that we most dread, but his temptation to cross the line. Throughout both seasons of the show, Gene’s morality is questioned, and he’s given multiple opportunities to become a rather corrupt police officer. While one could argue that he’s not the most squeaky-clean cop to begin with, he still has a very strong moral core, and can clearly distinguish between [his own definitions] of right and wrong.
Consider, for example, Gene’s former mentor Detective Superintendent Harry Woolf, who we meet in the first episode of the second season. When Gene discovers Harry to be corrupt, he could have easily gone along with the plan, and followed in his superior’s footsteps. This is Gene’s potential dark side. Thankfully, however, in that particular episode, Gene’s strengths [his morality and sense of justice] triumph over his fears, and he does the right thing.
Sam Tyler’s dark side in 1973 is quite suicidal. We see it at the end of episode one, when he decides to jump off the roof of Manchester CID. It’s also quite destructive towards others. The best example of DI Tyler ‘succumbing to his fears’ [or however you’d like to put it] is when he puts himself before his colleagues in the final episode of season two. Sam is not a selfish man, but when he believes that he can get back to 2006/7, he’s willing to put Chris and Annie [and Gene] – people that he really cares about – in danger. That is Sam’s dark side.
Now, while these elements have ensured that the characters of Sam and Gene do indeed have complexity, they don’t quite explain why we care so much about them. According to Eric Edson, in order for a hero to earn our sympathy, they must have nine specific traits. Let’s see how well DI Tyler and the Gene Genie fit the bill.
Characters must be:
ST: I think it’s fair to say that Sam is courageous purely in the fact that he continues to exist in 1973. He thought of the easy way out at the end of episode one – jumping – but he didn’t do it. Sam’s courage is also seen in his work within the police force.
GH: It’s hard to believe that Gene Hunt could ever be scared of anything. Gene is fiercely brave, and he won’t let anything get in the way of justice.
02. Faced with unfair injury or injustice.
ST: It’s not Sam’s fault that he’s ended up in this foreign world. It just kind of happened.
GH: Working with the likes of Chris and Ray [lovely blokes, but not the brightest], Gene seems to be the only one who actually does any work. That is, until Sam comes along. But, of course, the main injustice that both these men face, is criminals getting away with murder, robbery, or whatever other crime they choose to commit, and a lack of evidence to convict them.
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.
– Sam Tyler
ST: It is shown from the very beginning that Sam is an excellent police officer. He may favour procedure over gut instinct, but he certainly knows what he’s doing.
GH: Gene, too is an unorthodox yet highly skilled detective. His methods are often questionable, but we almost always see him put away the bad guy in the end.
ST: Sam doesn’t quite bring the one-liners like Gene does, but he has his moments [both intentionally and not].
GH: Do I really need to explain why Gene Hunt is funny? No, I didn’t think so.
My friend is going to ask you some questions. Personally I hope you don’t answer them because I want you to die in here and end up inside a pork pie.
– Gene Hunt [S01E04]
ST: Although he may seem a little crazy to most of the folks at CID, Sam Tyler is still perceived as a nice person. He treats women with respect, and more often than not plays the part of ‘good cop’ during interviews. Another example of Sam’s niceness is the mentor role that he begins to play with Chris. Seeing that DC Skelton has potential, Sam makes an effort to give him a little bit more responsibility, and teach him things. How very nice.
GH: I’m not quite sure that you could ever describe Gene Hunt as ‘nice’, but at the same time, I don’t quite agree that characters need to be nice in order for the audience to like them. In fact, I can think of many characters that I absolutely adore, who would never be described as ‘nice’ [the obvious example here being Lynda Day from Press Gang]. Still, Gene’s character is by no way cold or callous. He’s not mean to people unless he feels that they deserve it. He’s just not overly nice to them either.
06. In danger.
ST: Well, there’s the obvious danger: Sam is in a coma [or is he?] and he might die. Then, of course, there’s also the occupational hazard of working in law enforcement. And the occupational hazard of working with DCI Hunt and not always agreeing with everything he says…
GH: Working as a police officer can be quite dangerous, but it’s not the only danger that faces the Gene Genie. There’s also the danger that Sam might expose him as a bent cop; or the danger that he may endanger himself through drinking or other reckless behaviour. We care about Gene, and don’t want him getting hurt.
07. Loved by friends and family.
ST: Although Annie is the only person to really warm to Sam in episode one, it doesn’t take much for him to win Chris over. And Gene. But Sam is also shown to be loved by his family back [?] in 2006 – on a couple of occasions we hear his mother speak to her comatose son, telling him to hold on.
GH: Although either of them would be the last to admit it, it doesn’t take long before even Sam cares about Gene. He’s clearly loved and admired by both Chris and Ray, both of whom see him as more than just a boss – which is why it is unsurprising that they would follow him to London [in the time between Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes].
08. Hard working.
ST: The Sam Tyler that we meet in 2006 is immediately shown as a hard-working police officer who cares about his job, and this is carried with him in 1973. Sam believes in justice, and is willing to devote pretty much all of his time to his job. This may also be because he doesn’t really have the opportunity for a social life, as his only real friend outside of the force is Nelson [from the pub].
GH: I’m sure that I don’t even need to try to convince you that Gene Hunt knows how to work hard. Yes, he may sometimes seem to care a little more about going to the pub than working, but we all know exactly how much he cares about his job. Gene is often seen going above and beyond the call of duty.
A villain farts in this city, our snouts should be able to name the arse responsible.
– Gene Hunt [S02E02]
ST: Sam cares so much about his job that it’s pretty much his whole world – even before the accident. This is shown in his dedication to the job [see “Hard working” above for another couple of sentences about this].
GH: Like Sam, Gene’s work as a police officer is everything. We learn this especially at the end of Ashes to Ashes – CID is Gene’s construct; literally his entire world. If that’s not evidence of obsession, then I don’t know what is.
Coming up in part three: I attempt to explain why the structure of the series is particularly effective.