This week I caught the series premier of ABC’s new show Life on Mars (watch it here). If you were a fan of that short-lived but excellent show Journeyman (my review) or are just hankering for some time travel while you wait for LOST to return, it’s worth checking out. Though I’m not at all sure where they’re gonna go with it, the premier was interesting and entertaining.
In short, the story centers on Sam Tyler, a New York city detective. Early on, his girlfriend (also a cop) is kidnapped by a serial killer but while Sam is trying to save her he suddenly gets hit by a car. When he wakes up, he’s shocked to find himself in 1973, with no idea how he got there. But he hasn’t (just) traveled in time; according to everyone around him he lives in 1973. He’s got a car and a job (still a cop) and an apartment; as far as everyone else is concerned, the only thing strange about him is that he keeps talking about 2008.
His first reaction is to think this is all some kind of dream, and this seems to be confirmed when he occasionally hears the voices of doctors discussing his accident and coma. But as the voices fade he can’t get around the fact that everything seems as real as can be, and his 1973 coworkers are not particularly impressed by his repeated assurances that all this is a delusion. When he then discovers that the case they are working on is eerily similar to the one he was chasing in 2008, he begins to wonder if he might be here for a reason after all.
Without giving away too much more of the plot,* the episode does raise some interesting questions. What you would do if you truly believed your life was just a dream? If you honestly believed that none of the people or situations around you were anything more than a figment of your imagination, how would you act? Would you go on with life as usual, play by the rules, try to be the same person you normally would be? Or would you throw inhibition to the wind, toss your responsibilities aside and live however you want (a possibility raised, perhaps most humorously, in the Stargate SG-1 episode “Window of Opportunity”)?
On the one hand, such questions (to me) highlight a particular misunderstanding of morality that conservative theists sometimes tend toward, wherein right and wrong are deemed to be entirely dependent on eternal consequences, unrelated to the consequences of our actions in this world. If, as I believe, God’s character is the ultimate determiner of right and wrong, that doesn’t mean (as so often assumed) that disbelief in God automatically makes everything permissible. Eternal consequences are not the only ones that matter. Actions do have consequences, and these are real whether there is a God or not, whether the world is real or not. That is to say, even if all this were only a dream with no eternal significance, as long as you are stuck here you’ll have to live with the consequences of your actions. In fact, even if the dream will end shortly, the choices you make in it will reflect and shape your character, and you take that with you through whatever world you live in (virtual or otherwise).
Which brings me to the last interesting question the episode raised: To what lengths would you go to prevent someone from committing a crime you know they will one day commit? Near the end of the episode, Sam finds himself face to face with a younger version of the person who will go on to kidnap his girlfriend. Sam seriously considers killing him, even though he is only a young boy who hasn’t (yet) done anything wrong. Would you? Would it make a difference if it were only a dream?
*For those who have seen it, however (SPOILER WARNING), highlight for some thoughts on the ending: If (as the message over the radio seemed to imply), he really did prevent the kid from becoming a serial killer, thus saving his 2008 girlfriend, why is he still in 1973? Sam himself asks this question, so the writers seem to be aware of it, but really, if the whole reason he got hit by the car in the first place was because he was chasing this killer, shouldn’t the fact that he changed the future also prevent him from ever needing to chase him, and thus from ever getting hit by the car? Does this imply (if he’s not dreaming the whole thing to begin with), that he has created an alternate timeline, or is this just bad writing?