Life on Mars is one BBC One’s most successful series but its mind-boggling ending still leaves fans with questions and needs to be explained.
Life on Mars was an enormous hit when it first arrived on BBC One back in 2006.
So much so that it earned its own sequel series, Ashes to Ashes, and is regularly re-watched by avid fans.
However, even after all these years, the ending of Life on Mars still leaves viewers with plenty of questions and needs to be explored.
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Life on Mars on BBC One
Life on Mars first aired on BBC One in January 2006 and returned a year later for series 2.
The show centres on Sam Tyler (John Simm), a high-flying Manchester police officer who is sent back in time to 1973 after a life-threatening car accident.
In the ‘real’ world, Sam is left in a coma and is fighting for his life while the Sam in 1973 is the new DI in a rag-tag police unit led by the intrepid Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister).
Life on Mars’s ending explained
Throughout Life on Mars, Sam gets flashes of contact from the outside world through TV and radio sets and the series 2 finale kicks off with one such message that reveals that Sam has a tumour of the brain which is keeping him from waking up.
Sam believes that this tumour is embodied in this 1970s reality by Gene Hunt and begins to work with Frank Morgan (a police officer in 1973 but a surgeon in 2006) in order to rid himself of Hunt and wake up.
The episode sees Gene Hunt an co. go on an undercover sting operation to catch a gang of armed robbers but as ever, the operation goes very wrong.
During the botched sting, with the team under heavy fire, Sam wakes up in 2006 as surgeon Frank Morgan has managed to relieve the swelling on his brain.
However, when Sam is left in featureless offices and tiring meetings, he comes to realise that he yearns for his life in 1973 and he throws himself off the roof of the police station to commit suicide.
Sam then emerges back in 1973, helps his squad to survive the botched sting and the series ends with him, Gene and the gang rushing off to fight more crime.
It has long been believed that the world of the past in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes has been a version of purgatory or the afterlife, something which is further explored in the sequel series.
So when Sam Tyler turns off the final radio message, it’s him seemingly closing his connection to the ‘real’ world.
This is further emphasised by the TV test card girl, who has haunted Sam throughout the series, who switches the TV screen to black in the final shot of the episode, effectively showing that he’s dead for good.
Looking ahead to series 3
In April 2020, the show’s creator, Matthew Graham, made the unexpected announcement that Life on Mars would be returning for a third and final series.
The details of the next instalment remain a mystery but it would come as little surprise to see series 3 connect the dots between Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.
In the sequel series, it’s revealed that Sam Tyler died in a mysterious car accident in 1980 while in pursuit of a suspect but his body was never recovered.
It’d be fascinating to see these events unfold and what part Gene Hunt played in Sam’s life after he returned to 1973 which also saw him begin a long-awaited relationship with Annie Cartwright.
Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes are both currently available to stream now on BBC iPlayer and a third series of Life on Mars is in the works.