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Life on Mars: Episode 1

I have been anticipating the arrival of this show for a while now—a chance to watch one of my favorite mystical, mystery crime shows redone in K-dramaland? With a side order of time-travel shenanigans? Yes please. The first episode does not disappoint, as our hero goes through the looking glass and must figure out which way is up in an alarmingly unfamiliar time.

The pilot was a rollicking ride at breakneck pace throughout, with a heavy mystery overlaid. There will be a lot of threads to untangle as the show goes on, and it can be confusing on a first watch—but that’s half the fun isn’t it?

 
EPISODE 1 RECAP

We open on a young boy running along a railroad track. As he makes his way through a deserted industrial site and dank sewers, flashes of a woman writhing in pain and her limp hand dangling cut through the unsettling scene. The noises of a train crescendo as the boy runs towards the mouth of the tunnel.

Our hero, HAN TAE-JOO (Jung Kyung-ho) wakes from the nightmare to his phone ringing.

It’s his mother, calling to tell Tae-joo that he doesn’t need to come all the way home for the anniversary of his father’s death. Although his mom reassures Tae-joo that his father would understand, she is relieved to hear Tae-joo confirm he will come. Tae-joo doesn’t look very happy though, as he stares down at a picture of him as the young boy, with his mother and father.

At the police station, Tae-joo is stopped from going into work by a bloodied man who is flailing a weapon about and trying to escape the other officers’ clutches. As if the desperate man is merely an inconvenience, Tae-joo looks bored as he effortlessly tosses him to the ground.

As Tae-joo makes his way up the stairs, blistering whispers of “whistleblower” from the other officers follow Tae-joo’s ascent. This may be the reason Tae-joo pauses wistfully at an active case, but moves on to forensic drudgery instead. An irate yell interrupts his work.

Prosecutor JUNG SEO-HYUN (Jeon Hye-bin) looks to be popular at the station, as she is warmly greeted by a senior police officer.

Tae-joo’s assailant angrily accuses Tae-joo of ruining his life, and stabbing another police officer in the back by reporting him for internal investigation. Unrepentant, Tae-joo answers that the officer got off lightly considering an innocent man had been locked behind bars for three years because of the old-fashioned methods (testimony) that were used in the case.

Furious, the officer yells that Tae-joo isn’t a hotshot officer any more, and advises him, “Stay quiet and lay low if you betrayed your own family. Who do you think you are, acting like a real detective?”

The man’s words hit their mark, and Tae-joo walks silently away.

In the parking garage, Seo-hyun follows Tae-joo and lightly comments, “You’re still the same. You get the same hate wherever you go.”

Tae-joo doesn’t even bat an eye at her words, and gets inside his car. Out of earshot, Seo-hyun adds, “You still ignore people when they talk to you.”

Not one to be ignored for long, Seo-hyun hops into the car as well and breezily informs Tae-joo that she has something to say to him. When Tae-joo tries to hurry her, Seo-hyun insists that they go to a nice restaurant together, since they haven’t seen each other in a year. Tae-joo mutters, “You’re still self-centred.”

Seo-hyun smirks, “Isn’t that why we dated in the first place?” Tae-joo wryly replies, “That’s why we broke up.”

Aaand the “nice restaurant” is a crime scene (ha), though Tae-joo looks unsurprised at Seo-hyun’s trickery. Seo-hyun explains that this is the home of 22-year-old Lee Seung-hee who was murdered by a serial killer in the “Manicure Murder” cases. The killer managed to kill seven girls in total before he was captured, and in all the cases he gave the girls a manicure before murdering them.

Seo-hyun assures Tae-joo that they caught the right guy, but he is a perfectionist and left no hard evidence behind—he even went so far as biting off his own fingertips to remove fingerprint evidence.

Seo-hyun asks Tae-joo if he knows why she liked him. Tae-joo quips, “Because I was handsome, smart, and talented?”

Smiling, Seo-hyun admits that the handsome part is right—but he was also arrogant, self-righteous, and caused trouble wherever he went. Despite all that, Seo-hyun adds, she was attracted to him because he was so competent. Tae-joo astutely points out that Seo-hyun makes it sound as if he isn’t competent any longer.

While Tae-joo investigates the room, Seo-hyun holds out the case file and states that if he does well at this he can go back to his old team, and get back to doing field work again. Tae-joo looks tempted, but he refuses to take the file. Seo-hyun sighs and agrees that if he doesn’t feel confident, he shouldn’t take the case—even if the old Tae-joo could have handled it, the current one clearly can’t.

Tae-joo briefly looks animated, but he schools his features and says nothing.

Outside, Seo-hyun playfully flirts with Tae-joo, “Do you want to have something to drink before you go?” Although Tae-joo refuses, he’s smiling.

Seo-hyun holds out a paper bag and tells Tae-joo she found this while cleaning. Clearly affected by the tin of childhood mementos, Tae-joo carefully takes out the signed baseball (the same one from his visions as a child). Seo-hyun impishly says she would have sold the box if she knew it was valuable, and Tae-joo admits this baseball was really difficult to obtain. His father gave it to him in 1988 after clinging on to the tour bus.

Seo-hyun asks why they never went to a baseball game when they were dating, and Tae-joo’s face falls as he says, “After that day, I started hating baseball.”

Later that evening, Tae-joo thoughtfully goes through the “Manicure Murder” case file, and something about the women’s hands grabs his attention—a train squeals in his head and he flashes to the woman he saw as a young boy. Shaken, Tae-joo rings Seo-hyun and agrees to work the case, even though the trial is coming up quickly.

On the day of the trial, Seo-hyun smiles as she considers Tae-joo in his suited glory and announces, “You finally seem sexy now.” Tae-joo doesn’t try hard to hide his pleased look as he allows Seo-hyun to adjust his tie.

The forensic analysis finally comes through, moments before Tae-joo enters the trial room. Whatever it says, Tae-joo doesn’t look happy about it.

As Tae-joo takes center stage at the trial, he explains the timeline of the murder—at 7:37, prime suspect Kim Min-seok saw Lee Seung-hee for the first time as she was walking home. He followed her into a store, and freaked her out so much when he creepily smiled at her that she ran all the way home.

But Min-seok stalked her back to her apartment and forced his way in. Min-seok painted Seung-hee’s nails while she was drugged, and stuffed her underwear into her mouth until she suffocated.

At Seung-hee’s apartment and the convenience store, Tae-joo explains that he found dust from the incinerator Min-seok works at. The defense attorney scoffs that this isn’t enough evidence to convict Min-seok, and points out the lack of DNA, blood, or fingerprint evidence. To make things extra creepy, Min-seok waggles his fingertips at Tae-joo—bitten raw and shiny.

Like a boss, Tae-joo says that he didn’t find any of this but, “I never said there wasn’t anything else.”

The murmur of the crowd gets more excited as Tae-joo explains that Min-seok left bodily fluids behind at the crime scene that prove he was there. Seo-hyun looks triumphant, but Tae-joo hesitates before he reveals that he suspects contamination of the crime scene. Evidences 2, 4, and 5 came back with the DNA of multiple criminals… all of whom who are already dead.

In the aftermath, Seo-hyun demands to know how long ago Tae-joo found out. With a one-track mind, Tae-joo can only focus on the false evidence, but Seo-hyun’s disappointment shines through as she accuses Tae-joo of having no faith in her.

The judges in the case have no choice but to let Kim Min-seok walk free. Disconcertingly, Min-seok greets Seo-hyun warmly in the corridor and taunts her that she would look wonderful with a red manicure. Eyes tightening, Seo-hyun warns Min-seok that one more word will see him facing sexual harassment charges, before she stalks away.

Min-seok isn’t finished though, as he thanks Tae-joo for setting him free. Min-seok studies Tae-joo and asks, “Have we met before? You look familiar.”

Hours later, a disconsolate Tae-joo is woken from his drunken state to his phone ringing, where he has three missed calls from Seo-hyun, and an urgent banging at his door… Because Seo-hyun has gone missing.

Her car was abandoned in the middle of the road, and an officer frantically tells Tae-joo that Min-seok was seen on this road around the same time. No trace can be found of Min-seok at any of his previous addresses.

Tae-joo finally listens to the voicemail Seo-hyun left, and it isn’t good news—Seo-hyun was following Tae-joo’s hunch that something was off about the case and discovered there was someone else behind Min-seok.

Sightings of Min-seok send the police careening off in search of the killer, his recently vacated car showing signs that he is still in the area. Focused, Tae-joo leads the hunt, and is about to investigate a suspicious house when shouts from afar tip Tae-joo off to Min-seok’s whereabouts.

The chase is on, as Tae-joo pounds after Min-seok, through the narrow streets and over fences. As Tae-joo tackles Min-seok to the ground, he demands to know where Seo-hyun is, but Min-seok isn’t cowed and refuses to answer.

A mad look on his face, Min-seok tells Tae-joo where he remembers him from now—he remembers the crying, scared boy Han Tae-joo from years ago, and mocks Tae-joo for forgetting who Min-seok is. Frenzied, Tae-joo throttles Min-seok, only stopping when a gun is suddenly thrust to his head.

A shadowy figure looms behind Tae-joo, as Min-seok runs gleefully off into the night. Tae-joo asks who the person is and starts to turn… and is shot right in the head. Tae-joo collapses.

His hand twitches.

Blood streaming from his head, Tae-joo stumbles back to the empty police cars, noting that the radio station is set to 198.8… and a car slams into him. For the second time that night, Tae-joo collapses.

Eyes blank as he lies on the road, the train clamors through Tae-joo’s head again, as we see young Tae-joo running with tears down his face away from a man calling his name.

Tae-joo wakes up to a man screaming at him to get out of the road. Curiously, it’s the middle of the day, Tae-joo is wearing some spiffy new threads, and the radio tells him that it’s the year 1988.

Despite the man demanding that Tae-joo pay for damages to his car, Tae-joo walks away unconcerned, too confused by his new surroundings to pay attention.

A jaunty new soundtrack accompanies Tae-joo as he flounders down the street, all signs pointing to it really being 1988—from the natty clothes to the 1988 Olympics banner to the war drill blaring out across the street.

Shocked, Tae-joo can only stare as he comes face to face with a real army truck in the road.

Two police officers, LEE YONG-KI (Oh Dae-hwan) and JO NAM-SHIK (Noh Jong-hyun), warn Tae-joo to get out of the road, and ask to see his ID.

But at that moment, Tae-joo spots murder suspect Kim Min-seok (how did he get here?!) and without pause runs after him. The two cops operate on instinct and chase after Tae-joo as well… which is how we end up in the middle of a caper, with all four men trying to run through a crowded market and clambering inelegantly over fishing boats.

Tae-joo finally grabs hold of Min-seok and throws him to the ground. Gasping for breath, the two cops handcuff the now-still Tae-joo and whine that he shouldn’t have run so fast. Poor young Nam-shik even vomits from the unexpected exercise.

But when Tae-joo rips off the man’s mask, it isn’t Min-seok at all, and Tae-joo has just been chasing an innocent man all over town… or maybe not so innocent, as the two cops realize this is one of the criminals they have been hunting.

Back at the police station (where there are worrying posters on how to spot a North Korean spy), Yong-ki and Nam-shik warn Tae-joo that he won’t like it if their captain has to get his ID from him.

Sure enough, when their captain KANG DONG-CHUL (Park Sung-woong) strolls in, he takes one look at Tae-joo cuffed to his seat and kicks him to the ground. Grinning, Dong-chul says this is the only way to make punks listen.

Unfortunately for Tae-joo, Dong-chul recognizes him and seems to think that Tae-joo is someone else entirely—someone who apparently urinated excessively where he shouldn’t have.

Tae-joo asks in disbelief, “Are you a cop too?”

Grandstanding, Dong-chul boasts, “Let me tell you about myself. I’m the great captain Kang Dong-chul who serves justice! People who can’t control their lower abdomens should get theirs cut off.”

Before Dong-chul has a chance to use the scissors he is now wielding, his two police buddies step up and point out that Tae-joo isn’t the man they were looking for—that’s the person being held in the cell.

Dong-chul blusters that Tae-joo shouldn’t have wasted their time then, and asks who he is.

Tae-joo deadpans, “I’m a cop.”

All three men visibly take a step back. Ha!

Tae-joo informs them he’s a police officer in the Seoul Metropolitan police department under the forensic science division.

Just when it looks like Dong-chul is repentant for roughing up a fellow police officer, he starts laughing in Tae-joo’s face. Dong-chul sneers that if Tae-joo wanted to lie, he should have done a better job of it than getting the police station’s name wrong and making up divisions to go with it!

Growing increasingly irate, Tae-joo insists that he IS a cop, which is Dong-chul’s cue to take off his watch and swing a punch at the infuriating lunatic cluttering up his station.

As we knew he would, Tae-joo effortlessly stops the punch and the two men are suspended for a moment in a standoff. Tae-joo warns Dong-chul that he won’t keep still if he throws another.

Like a flag to a bull, Dong-chul puffs up and orders his men to take the cuffs off Tae-joo, because he wants to fight. Dong-chul brags that he won an Olympic medal in 1966, so Tae-joo had better watch out.

Reluctantly, Nam-shik does as he says. Dong-chul lands a few good punches and kicks on Tae-joo (and hilariously pauses to celebrate), pushing him across the room. Tae-joo retaliates, simply by grabbing Dong-chul’s leg and walking him backwards across the room, which may be even more humiliating than getting punched.

Meanwhile, Nam-shik retrieves a fallen letter, his eyes widening as he realizes what it is—and braves the testosterone-laden fight to show it to Dong-chul.

Remarkably, it’s a letter from the police director to approve Tae-joo’s transfer to Dong-chul’s precinct. Astonished (and still slightly suspicious) that Tae-joo was telling the truth, Dong-chul complains that someone should have told him they were sending someone over. Shaking off the fight, he advises the equally surprised Tae-joo to forget what just happened.

Dong-chul offers introductions (of a sort) of his team—brave Yong-ki and useless Nam-shik. Yong-ki looks disgruntled that Tae-joo is younger and a higher rank than he is, while Nam-shik is just sorry for the mess they put Tae-joo in.

With matters somewhat settled, Tae-joo finally has time to contemplate this strange turn of events. He narrates, “Is this a dream? Have I gone crazy? If not, why am I here right now?”

The entrance of female police officer YOON NA-YOUNG (Go Ah-sung) interrupts his train of thought. Yong-ki immediately greets her as Ms. Yoon and asks for a coffee—a request echoed by Dong-chul and a clearly smitten Nam-shik. Dong-chul carelessly asks her to wash his mug for him (it’s definitely the ’80s, guys). As an afterthought, Dong-chul introduces her to Tae-joo, who watches Ms. Yoon with interest.

But his moment of peace is ruined as Tae-joo starts to hear hospital bleeps and blood trickles from his ear—clutching his head, Tae-joo runs past a concerned Ms. Yoon and out the door. Disembodied voices race through Tae-joo’s head, giving instructions to call for a doctor.

Panicked, Tae-joo lurches outside and into the middle of the road, where he is rescued by Ms. Yoon. Distraught, Tae-joo demands to know whether it is really 1988, mouth twisting at Ms. Yoon’s confirmation.

Wandering aimlessly, Tae-joo finds himself standing outside a bar, faint music enticing him inside the luxuriously decorated establishment. Tae-joo asks to use the bar’s telephone, getting more desperate as all the numbers he dials are out of service. The barman comes back with a drink and comments, “You have no idea what’s going on, do you?”

Tae-joo looks up sharply, and the barman continues, speaking as if he knows more than he should—such as that Tae-joo is a detective, and that he feels out of place. But Tae-joo dispels his suspicions as the barman clarifies that Insung can be confusing at first, and warns Tae-joo that there is really only one detective with a nasty temper he should avoid—Kang Dong-chul.

Speak of the devil and he will appear; Dong-chul struts in. Getting down to business, Dong-chul asks Tae-joo why he was even sent here to a dump like this. Prickled by Dong-chul’s brash attitude (and the number of Tae-joo’s drinks he pinched), Tae-joo spits, “I’m more interested in that answer than you are!”

Surprised, Dong-chul recommends that Tae-joo just go home for today, and come back rested tomorrow. There’s a home for Tae-joo here?

There is indeed, as Ms. Yoon shows him around the spotless apartment. Before she leaves, Tae-joo asks how he should address her, but isn’t satisfied with her answer of “Ms. Yoon, Yoon, or ‘hey.’”

A sweet moment passes between the two when Tae-joo instead says, “Goodbye, Officer Yoon Na-young.”

Outside, Na-young smiles shyly at the respectful name, and repeats it proudly to herself. Aww.

Irritated at the Olympics coverage, Tae-joo fiddles with the TV knob, but it breaks off in his hand and white noise fills the room.

An older man fills the screen in black and white, and muses, “Detective Han Tae-joo is the problem. Will he be able to wake up?”

His attention grabbed, Tae-joo moves closer to the TV as the man continues, “They say that critical damage has been done to the brain but the soul doesn’t stay with the body forever. You can’t give up! Wake up! Han Tae-joo, can you hear me?”

Tae-joo desperately tries to connect with the man, and screams that he is here, but the man can’t hear him and walks away. Tae-joo falls into a restless sleep.

In his dreams, Seo-hyun gently wakes him and laughingly asks if he forgot he’s going to testify in trial today. Although desperate to believe this is real, Tae-joo finds the TV knob hidden within his suit, and when he turns around Seo-hyun has vanished and the walls are closing in.

Back in 1988, Dong-chul wakes Tae-joo up much less gently, bellowing that he’s late for work and they have a job to do. Irked, Tae-joo follows, the TV knob lying in the sore spot beneath his shoulder.

At the scene, Yong-ki informs Dong-chul that the victim is the missing woman from the coffee shop, and to Dong-chul’s disgust, he confirms that “that reporter” has already arrived at the scene. Knocking brusquely on the window, Dong-chul orders Tae-joo out to investigate.

A crowd is already pressing around the alley, and Tae-joo stops in shock as he takes in what he’s seeing.

It’s the body of a young woman, blood pooling around her head—and a perfect red manicure adorning her hands.

 
COMMENTS

Phew, well that was a cracker of a first episode!

First things first, this isn’t a light show—it is thematically dark, and from a practical sense demands your attention to keep up. But it’s rewarding as well, with a great story, moments of levity, and fascinating characters. And even though I knew most of the action would take place in the past, the present timeline was interesting enough that I was disappointed when we left it. I think that was largely due to Jeon Hye-bin’s delightful performance as the whip-smart prosecutor who can turn icy or flirty on a dime—and was the only one who could needle Tae-joo out of his funk. In addition to the story element, visually this is a beautiful show—lingering shots, saturated colors, fun action scenes.

The title of this show comes from the David Bowie song “Life on Mars” with the appropriate lyrics: “Take a look at the law man, beating on the wrong guy,” which Dong-chul quite literally epitomizes as he mistakenly beats up Tae-joo, since Dong-chul is firmly a cop of the ’80s, with quick fists and a swagger to match. He is the complete antithesis of our hero Tae-joo, who is rigid to the point of repressed, completely clinical and has an unbending ethical code which got him into trouble even in the present timeline. Dong-chul, the would-be king of his own unit, is going to challenge Tae-joo and I’m not sure who is going to come out on top.

What I do know is that both actors are bringing it in terms of characterization—Jung Kyung-ho plays Tae-joo as so self-righteous and cold that he is almost unlikable, a brave choice for a lead character. In the hands of another actor, Tae-joo might even be boring, but Jung Kyung-ho imbues Tae-joo with a world weariness and defeat that undercuts the monotony and hints at deeper secrets in his past. Likewise, the corrupt Dong-chul is a dinosaur but he’s a charismatic one, because Park Sung-woong plays him with a surprising amount of joyful exuberance. The subverted buddy cop relationship is off to a good start with these two.

The song “Life on Mars” works on two levels as well, because Bowie’s music is an iconic symbol of the ’70s, the era in which the BBC drama takes place. The new series has updated to the more recent 1988 (and I really loved that touch of the radio showing station 198.8 before Tae-joo woke in the past), but it doesn’t feel modern at all to my eyes. I was especially affected by the constant references to tension with North Korea throughout the episode, which heighten the danger to Tae-joo in more than one way, as a displaced person. There is an undercurrent of violence permeating this timeline, one which the citizens have to live with to a degree not felt in the present time. It is deliberately unsettling, and the dreamy, hazy shot of the tank in the street was striking in how surreal it felt for Tae-joo and for the viewer.

On top of everything, it comes back to the central question—is Tae-joo dead, in a coma, or really back in time? Where did his clothes come from if he traveled back in time, and where did the director’s letter come from? Does the mysterious barman actually know anything? So many questions have been raised, and the audience is just as much in the dark as Tae-joo is right now.

I have seen the original BBC drama Life on Mars, and I absolutely adore it, so I am anticipating good things just from the first episode here. It will be interesting to see if this version follows the story faithfully (which it very well could, given that there are only 16 episodes across two seasons in the original) or if it will forge its own path. I promise to come to this show with as clean a slate as I can (no spoilers!) and if anyone has seen it before, please do the same! The mystery is baked in to the story here, and it is best enjoyed with no spoilers.

I really do love the premise of Life on Mars, which is so much more than a crime show—it’s a dark, twisty, slice into the ambiguous past with a strong cast of characters to root for and to hate. The story is an interesting one, but it really depends on the execution, so I can only hope the show stays as good as this throughout.

 
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