Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Life on Mars isn't so hunky dory

The BBC time travel cop show Life on Mars returns to our screens tonight. I loved the first series and I'm really looking forward to this one - in fact, I can't remember the last time I looked forward to the start of a new series so much.

I am a fan of the show, but there is one thing about it that really annoys me - well, two things actually. The second thing is more of a complaint about the consequence of the show than a complaint about the show itself.

My main gripe is that the cop, Sam Tyler, who finds himself transported from the 21st century back to 1973 is always portrayed as the one who makes the breakthrough and cracks the investigation through his "superior" knowledge of policing while the 70's cops are generally portrayed as the ignorant heavies whose knowledge of policing extends to being able to use their fists effectively.

The trouble is, this is not how it would be. The police in the seventies did not have access to the forensic science and computer technology they have today and had to rely almost entirely on solid detective work rather than scientific evidence or a search on the Internet. Each individual detective built up a network of informants to provide intelligence and managed them themselves (it's done by committee these days). Without that network and without the grounding in the methods of detection that each detective had in those days, Sam Tyler would literally not have a clue. Instead of being the one teaching the seventies police, he would be the one learning - and benefiting - from the experience of his colleagues.

The simple fact is that detection rates for crimes today are considerably lower than they were in the seventies. Despite all the advances in technology and science the "Sam Tylers" of the modern police are considerably less effective than their seventies counterparts.

I'm sure there will be some cynics who dismiss this and put it down to the fact that police used to "fit up" criminals for crimes they did not commit. I don't think, personally, that would make much difference. For a start, when they did "fit up" someone it would always be someone thoroughly deserving of being "fitted up" - a known criminal who had escaped justice for years and finally got their comeuppance. The other point is, as anyone who follows the adventures of PC Copperfield knows, the modern police use equally underhand methods to distort detection rates.

My other gripe relates to the cars in the show. I'm a lover of classic cars and especially early seventies cars which mark the last breed of human designed vehicles before computers took over completely and turned them into look-a-like blandmobiles. In particular I love the Mk 3 Cortina which came out at a time when a young Stan was just really starting to like cars. The distinctive "coke-bottle" shape, the blend of curves and angles and the US influenced interior really had an impact on me and I've wanted to own one ever since.

For the last 5-6 years I've been trying to find a good, usable Mk3 2000 GXL that I can run without much effort and is reasonably priced. Mk3 Cortinas are probably the most unloved of Cortinas and, although they are usually cheap, finding good ones is not easy.

Just before the start of the first series of Life on Mars I thought I'd finally tracked one down. An almost mint 1972 Mk3 2000 GXL with the early dash and finished in bronze with a vinyl roof. The owner was expecting to sell in the next few months to fund a purchase of a Lotus Cortina, was asking a very reasonable price and said I could have first refusal. When he finally came to sell, Life on Mars had been and gone and the price has risen by £2000.

I had to decline and it's all thanks to that bloody 2000E in the show.


youdontknowme said...

I want to watch it too but battlestat galactica is on at the same time so I can't decide which to watch yet.

I will probably watch life on mars because I think skyone show repeats at the weekend. I just hope I remember.

Anonymous said...

Pooh, I had a Mark 3 in the mid 80's and it was a death trap. Wasn't even ten years old at the time. Might have been a one off, but judging from the availabilty of spares from the scrappy at the time I don't think so.

Stan said...


I'm well aware of the Mk3 failings, but it's never put me off. I've driven a couple - both well restored - and they are great fun. I had a Mk 2 Capri in the mid 80's also barely ten years old and that was also a death trap - as was the early Polo, ancient Beetle (6 volt) and a 2 year old BMW 3 series company car which suffered catastrophic brake failure and damn near killed me in 1995.

Tom Tyler said...

Yes, I also noticed that there seemed to be a subtle undertone of "1973 = bad; cops were racist, sexist thugs, utterly unenlightened about procedures and human rights / 2006 = much better"...It did seem to push that whole "What our fathers knew was all wrong, we are so much more enlightened than they were" idea, which I find is one of the ideas shaping society at the moment. (- Or has every generation always thought of itself in this way? I'm not sure).
This strange philosophy manifests itself in such things as the bans on foxhunting and the forthcoming smoking ban, in a way. It's as if we are meant to disregard or be disdainful of the last 2000 years of human development, as if our forefathers were unfeeling, unthinking brutes, but hey! We have suddenly got it all together!
Perhaps the truth is that previous generations knew something that we have lost sight of?
However, I managed to disregard this aspect of the show and just enjoyed it as entertaining drama. It absolutely should have ended properly at the close of season 1, though. The story seemed to be coming to a natural conclusion, and when Tyler didn't "get back" after all, I was left feeling cheated and thinking "well, where can it go from here?" I shall find out tomorrow!

JohnM said...

For a start, when they did "fit up" someone it would always be someone thoroughly deserving of being "fitted up" - a known criminal who had escaped justice for years and finally got their comeuppance.

I think this kind of romanticism is precisely the cause of the mess you reported in Resistance is futile.

You can't have it both ways. If the state can bend rules to "bring about a good result" in one case then it can and will do it wherever it sees fit, and you've effectively disqualified yourself from criticism. I would much rather the state never bend the rules at all.

Frankly, what you write is perserve. You have totally bought into the left narrative that the police were fundamentally corrupt in the past. Instead of building a case for the fundamentally decency of most policemen in the past, you instead opt to argue that excesses were there but were justified.

Let's consider the real life case of the Birmingham Pub bombing. The police made mistakes and then forced evidence to fit the hypothosis. Innocent people spent a long time in jail and the cry then was that, if not guilty of that offence, they were guilty of something.

There is no contradiction between claiming that most policemen are decent and honest and demanding that those corrupt officers be dealt with.

modern police use equally underhand methods to distort detection rates

With respect, lying about non-existent tractor production does not compare to "fitting people up".

Stan said...

John M,

I don't know where you get the idea that I believe the police were "fundamntally corrupt" in the seventies. I don't. I have no doubt that there were bent coppers then and there are bent coppers now - but this is fundamental human nature and that's not going to change.

Nor am I condoning "fitting up". It was wrong then and wrong now.

The point I was making is that the modern presumption as evidenced by Life On Mars is that the seventies police were clueless neanderthals who spent their entire time trying to frame known blaggers regardless of the evidence while modern policemen are far more skilled, capable and honest than their counterparts.

I don't believe this to be true at all and the evidence to justify my opinion is that modern police detection rates are half what they were before they had the kind of forensic science and computer technology they use now.

What it comes down to, in my opinion, is that the seventies policing was itelligence led. The combination of uniformed police who knew their "beats" and community, detectives who had worked those beats before moving to CID and a sophisticated network of informants provided the police with an effective weapon in dealing with the vast majority of crime.

Incidents like the Birmingham pub bombings caused a problem because they were dealing with crime that was, effectively, a crime imported from outside of their patch. That meant low levels of intelligence and, because of the nature of the IRA, difficulty getting reliable informants and witnesses to testify. At the same time, the pressure to get a result quickly was immense - both from the government and the people - and the police responded to that in the wrong way.

My view is that sort of thing would have been the exception rather than the rule - but Life On Mars propagates the myth that it was the norm.

Modern policing is now technology led - relying on forensic detective work rather than manual detective work. The intelligence network has been replaced with a computer network. Both forensics and computers are an enormous boon to policing and should mean that we are far more successful at detecting crime than we are. We fail because they've lost the connection with the communities that provided the intelligence - which is still required today for the vast majority of crimes - that enabled them to operate.

Finally, although I don't disagree that our police forces are becoming increasingly politicised - I do not agree that the police are the state. As Peel said - the police are the public and the public are the police.

JohnM said...

I don't know where you get the idea that I believe the police were "fundamntally corrupt" in the seventies. I don't. I have no doubt that there were bent coppers then and there are bent coppers now - but this is fundamental human nature and that's not going to change.

Nor am I condoning "fitting up". It was wrong then and wrong now.

I got the idea from the statement I quoted. I read the word always as being pretty universal. How can you reconcile it was wrong then and wrong now with it would always be someone thoroughly deserving of being "fitted up"?

I fully support your idea that "Life of Mars" is dealing with a mythological view of the 1970s. I understand one of the lead actors has said as much in an interview. Another myth from the past is that right-wingers invariably support police with an instinctive knee jerk reaction that excuses all abuses. The statement I originally quoted seems to back up this myth.

The left wing narrative is that the only reason crime detection rates were so high was because the police were fundamentally corrupt. You yourself quote this argument and then counter it with the For a start, when they did "fit up" someone.... In doing so, you acknowledge the validity of the narrative. Making excuses logically means you accept the charge.

You didn't need to defend the 1970s police force with excuses. The fact is you made a strong case for the different method of police detection used in the past - local intelligence and connection with the community, which you totally spoiled by that statement. That one paragraph undermines your whole point.

Stan said...

The suggstion that the person "fitted up" always deserved it does not translate - in my mind, anyway - to the police were always fitting people up (and therefore, fundamentally corrupt).

Nor does the statement condone illegal activity by the police - just accepts that it happened.

I did make it clear - at least I thought so - that it would be "cynics" who would claim that higher detection rates were due to rampant corruption, but that is definitely not my personal opinion. Never has been. I don't think that admitting it happened on occasion "buys" into any narrative either. It happened - it happens now.

I stand by my orignal view that a modern policeman transported back to 1973 would gain far more from the experience than a 1973 policeman transported to the present time.

I guess you're entitled to draw your own conclusions how ever you want to, but it seems to me that you're being a touch pedantic.

JohnM said...

Let me be pendantic one last time

Proposition: All men beat their wives

Counter argument: That's false but when they did, their wives deserved it.

Argument lost.


I detect from your tone that this exchange has departed from a friendly debate. That was never my intention. I apologise for any offence caused.

Stan said...

John, I'm sorry if my comments sounded unfriendly - that wasn't my intention either, but I suppose it's a danger of the medium.

On your final point - regarding wife beating - I think that's an unfair analogy. First of all, I never suggested that ALL policemen were corrupt - just that some were.

Secondly, criminals, by the nature of their lifestyle, are guilty of something while wives, by the nature of their lifestyle, are not.

loiner said...

Yes, of course - it was the police in the 1970's who caight the Yorkshire Ripper so quickly and thus saved so many women's lives. I'd quite forgotten...

Stan said...

Loiner, there are always going to be occasions when determined criminals - particularly those who have no previous form - can evade the police. The benefits of 21st century technology would have been a great asset to the 70's police, but it's questionable whether it would have made any difference to the Ripper case.

Don't forget, also, that they may have caught the Yorkshire Ripper a lot sooner if it hadn't been for some tosser sending out very convincing hoax messages.

Check out this list of unsolved murders on wikipedia.


You'll notice there are considerably more in the 1990's than there were in the 80's and 70's - despite the leap forward in forensic science and technology.

It's not a complete list either - the Ipswich murders are, of course now solved, but there is no of the recent spate of killings in South London.