Posted by: Ken Brown | April 2, 2009

Life on Mars Jumps the Shark in a Spaceship

Well at least now we know how bad the Battlestar Finale could have been. Even after thinking about it for a day, I’m standing by my initial reaction to the final episode of Life on Mars:

40 minutes of hmmm… 10 minutes of yay!… 9.5 minutes of what the?!?… 30 seconds of ooooooh, bleh.

Major spoilers follow, if it matters.

I’ve often found a morbid facination in imagining the most outrageous ways a beloved show could end, with the hero unceremoniously offed by the villain, or the planet suddenly hit by an asteroid, or the main character waking up and realizing it was all a dream. But the fun of such things is that we know that no writer would be stupid enough to actually resort to one. Or, I thought we knew that that… until last night.

Really? The whole thing–the time-traveling, the visions of himself in a coma, the mystical, alien, psychedelic and even drug-induced experiences–all of it was nothing but a dream? All this time neither 1973 or 2008 were real, and Sam was actually hibernating on a space ship headed for Mars in 2035?!? That is their grand explanation for all the mysteries? Pllllllease. And the worst of it is that the idea doesn’t seem to have been thrown together at the last minute, they actually planned this fake-out all along, if the Mars rovers and Ray’s nickname for Sam (“spaceman”) are any indication. Along with Carmen, I’m stunned.

But I’ve come to like these characters too much to let it go, so here’s my attempt to salvage something meaningful out of one of the worst finales I’ve ever seen or imagined: The theory is that while they are all traveling to Mars, Sam is running his simulation as a cop in 2008, and Annie is already running a similar simulation in 1973. Why on earth she would subject herself to such a thing, I can’t hardly imagine (maybe she wanted to join the early days of feminism and teach those barbarians some manners?), but in any case, that was the simulation she choose.

So they are both enjoying (?) their own chosen virtual realities, surrounded by imaginary but realistic automatons (or are they AIs?) provided by the onboard computer, when suddenly a rogue meteor hits the ship, disrupts the simulations, and throws Sam from his own into Annie’s. Since the program was not designed for such a thing, it glitches out and this results in Sam having random visions of his broken 2008 simulation, accompanied by various other anomalies. The onboard AI realizes what has happened an inserts “herself” into the program as a kind of guide, and lets things play out. Thus, Sam settles into a confused but satisfying life in Annie’s simulation and through various adventures, the two fall in love, just in time to wake up in orbit around Mars.

Is that plausible? I don’t know, but the show seemed to hint at something like it by showing those knowing glances between Sam (real name Hyde?) and Annie on the ship, though I don’t know where that leaves Gene and the rest of the crew (Ray, at least, was otherwise occupied with a prolonged sex dream, but we don’t know what simulation(s) the rest were in–perhaps they were all in 1973?). All in all, I think that even if this scenario was intended by the writers–and they were awfully oblique about it, if so–it’s a lousy ending, but not totally implausible. And if nothing else, I like the way it concluded that the real reason Sam was in 1973 was to fall in love with Annie. It’s no secret that I’m an old softy, so I loved the moment when he tells the mysterious man on the phone that he no longer wants to leave, and hangs up on him. In a perfect world, I would have ended the series right then and there: We don’t need to know the answers to life’s mysteries, all we need is love. But since I don’t live in a fantasy world, the show didn’t end there, and the actual ending does raise some interesting questions about human personality that are worth briefly exploring.

First, the fact that Sam and Annie actually believed they were from 2008 and 1973 respectively implies that the simulation not only provided an artificial reality for them, but also artificial memories. If that is so, then the fact that they still had their own personalities in tact suggests a rather interesting, if unlikely, view of the human psyche, one which I’m not sure was borne out by the show. Indeed, one of the more interesting story-lines was in the episode when young Sam and his mom moved next door to a crime boss. Suddenly adult Sam started acting more violent, and did not revert to his old self until he worked up the guts to face his younger self and set him back on the straight and narrow. This clearly implies that things he changed in the past had the power to make him a different person than he would had been, which points to a strong connection between personality and experience (what kind of an unbelievably sophisticated computer system could simulate such an eventuality on the fly is another question, but we’ll leave that aside).

If that is the case, though, it raises its own questions about what we mean by “the real world.” If the reality we have seen for the last 17 episodes truly was only a simulation, does that mean it wasn’t real? Here we’re getting uncomfortably close to a Platonic disdain for the physical world, since the only thing that mattered in the whole series turns out to be the personalities of Sam (and perhaps Annie), but the fact that he (or they) remembered everything that had happened in there means that the experiences were real and important for them. Sam would not have fallen in love Annie if he had not spent that time with her in virtual reality, and that is no trivial point. In fact, it highlights a caution I have urged previously about the virtual realities of today: Who we are inside them impacts who we are in “the real world,” and that is a sobering thought in a world in which many, like Raymond and his 2 year sex-fantasy, seem to think that “what happens in Second Life stays in Second Life.”


  1. thanks for helpful post 😉

  2. So Lisa Bonet re-jump-starting her acting career was also a dream?!

  3. and a short-lived one at that.

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