There are many viewers who may disagree with me, but I thought the ending to the US version of Life on Mars was great. Of course to understand why it was so good you had to pay attention while watching the series. There were many things that appeared throughout the series that just didn’t make sense, that is until the ending. But after seeing the ending it all ties together with no loose ends.
There are two ways the series could never have ended. One would have been for him to wake from a coma, as he did in the British version, since that would be how everybody expected the series to end. And that ending is also pro-suicide–something that ABC would never have agreed to air. Besides, if the US version just copied the UK version, people would complain about how the UK version was more original.
The other way in which the series could not have ended would have been for him to stay in the past. He was supposedly from 2008 so he had to return there. While he may have wanted to stay in 1973, he couldn’t because he wasn’t in control of his life. And trying to pass off his comprehension of modern day wouldn’t work if he came from 1973. Just compare the sci-fi of the 70s with the technology of today. Nobody could get it all right.
However, the US version manages to explain all the weird stuff that happened to him. Yes, it was a dream but we have been constantly told that throughout the show. (I’m bolding this because it’s important.) And it may have been thought up at the last minute, but it’s rare for the ending of any story to be thought up until it’s reached. This holds particularly true for TV. While we always knew the people on Battlestar Galactica would find Earth, it turned out to be a different planet than the one they were looking for.
I’ve seen many people post about how they hated the ending, yet they give absolutely no explanation as to how they would end the series and still cover all the loose ends. The robots. The "tripping" and distortions of reality. Even the appearance of a mentor who was supposedly dead. All were images programmed by the computer and affected by computer glitches. And the title of the show, "Life On Mars," is explained by the ending. (Although it’s really "Life In Suspended Animation While On A Journey To Mars" but it’s still better than the explanation of MARS by the UK show.)
One could even compare the US version to Total Recall, except we never got to see the start of Sam’s journey. In Total Recall the story starts before the "dream" and ends just at what would be the waking point. But in Life On Mars the story starts with the dream and ends just after waking. We were basically told it was a dream from the start and all throughout the show, but were mislead as to what the dream was. Interestingly, it would have been much harder to pull off this ending had they used the original US pilot since that established it as a coma.
One of the best TV show ending was the end of "Newhart" which basically made out the entire series as a dream of a character in another series. Yet one of the worst TV show endings was St. Elsewhere which tried to explain the series away as a dream. In the case of Newhart, it worked because it was unexpected and a little rediculous. Newhart was a comedy, so it was making fun of itself. St. Elsewhere simply tried to use it as a way to bring a popular character back to life. It was a drama and there was nothing to establish it as having been a dream. And there were things that happened in the show which could not be explained away as a dream.
Life On Mars had to end with a waking scene because we had been told he was in a dream. I just can’t say this enough. He could have woke from a coma but everyone would have predicted that and it wouldn’t have made for an original ending. He could have woke in his bed, but that wouldn’t have explained the traffic accident. Waking in space, however, was something nobody would have saw coming.
It was science fantasy (sometimes seeming more like sci-fi and at other times more like fantasy). Giving it a sci-fi ending was perfectly appropriate. Giving it an ending nobody saw coming but which fit into the story perfectly well was brilliant.