photo courtesy bbc worldwide

Sam Tyler (John Simm) tries to figure out if he’s been sent back to 1973 in Life On Mars.

A FAIR COP: It’s a rare cop show that will grab my attention, but tonight on BBC Canada we’ll be getting the local debut of Life On Mars, a hit British police thriller that manages to stand above both the U.S. network crop (Law & Order, the CSI franchises) and its British peers — shows like Cracker, Prime Suspect and A Touch Of Frost — by incorporating a clever twist.

While I’m not a cop show fan, I have — for personal, probably very telling reasons — a lot of time for time travel stories. The twist at the heart of Life On Mars is simple: Manchester police Det. Sam Tyler (John Simm) is deep in a serial killer investigation when his girlfriend and fellow detective Maya is abducted by the killer. Tyler, a calm, methodical control freak, has pulled to the side of a deserted stretch of road to gather his wits when he’s struck by a car, and wakes up on the same spot, 33 years earlier — still himself, and still a cop, albeit dressed in flares.

Simm, who brings to mind other, somewhat hawk-faced British actors like Ian Hart and David Thewlis, does a beautiful job with Tyler’s first few hours in 1973, questioning his sanity while reflexively looking for his mobile phone, and other technology we’ve come to take for granted, but which was still science fiction in the last year of Richard Nixon’s presidency.

The bravura sequence of the premiere episode is Tyler’s transition from the present to the past, scored to the anthemic David Bowie tune that gives the show its title. It’s playing on the iPod in Tyler’s Jeep Cherokee when he’s hit, and builds to a crescendo as the camera arcs and twirls, settling on Tyler sitting on a patch of dirt next to a Ford Cortina where Bowie’s Hunky Dory album is playing on the dashboard 8-track player.

The first few episodes are aggressively vague about what’s happening to Tyler — has he really travelled back in time, or is he in a coma in 2006, dreaming this elaborate fantasy? It’s also possible he’s mad, but is he mad in 1973, obsessed with some fantasy future version of himself, or mad in 2006, creating the whole fevered story in his mind? The show never lets any possibility get far without jerking Tyler — and the viewer — off in another direction.

Life On Mars creators Matthew Graham, Tony Jordan and Ashley Pharaoh have fun with Tyler’s frustration with stone age ’70s police technology; his lack of access to computers or modern forensics makes the show play like an anti-CSI. They also dig deep into the spectacular shoddiness of Britain in the early ’70s, a nation plagued by strikes and brown-outs, still struggling to rebuild from a war that ended almost 30 years before, the streets full of mean, boxy, Yugo-like little cars. You can practically feel the period wardrobe chafe and bind, and each episode builds a few scenes around period hits like Sweet’s Ballroom Blitz. You almost hope that Tyler is stuck in 1973 long enough to see punk rear its ugly, magnificent head.

• Life On Mars debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on BBC Canada.

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