Everything Old is New Again (Sort of)
(The Lazarus Experiment Reviewed)

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Image courtesy the BBC.

I’m hearing that the CBC will be showing the third season of the Doctor Who revival this summer, starting with The Runaway Bride, possibly as soon as the hockey playoffs come to a close. As I said before, when these episodes debut, I’ll post links to my reviews and give anybody interested a space to comment.

As always, this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t wish to be spoiled, please look away.

So, after leaving from 1930s Manhattan, the Doctor keeps his promise and returns Martha home; to her very bedroom, in fact (a minor creep factor, here — did she give him her home address? How did he know which room was her bedroom, hmm?). That’s it, he says, I’ve fulfilled my obligation. So long, farewell, auf weidersein and all that, but hold on…

On television, a very old professor Lazarus appears on the news, talking up his bold experiments and promising a miracle reveal tonight that will “change what it means to be human.” Of course, this twigs the Doctor’s interest, and to Martha’s delight, it’s time for one more adventure, as they crash the party and find out what’s what.

Intriguingly, Martha’s sister Letitia is there, assistant to ancient Dr. Lazarus, and Martha’s mother and brother also show up to the event. The Doctor is wonderfully out of his depth here. The poor man: centuries of companions on his TARDIS, and only in the last three has he had to deal with mothers. Mrs. Jones instantly twigs onto the fact that the Doctor is trouble, and as Dr. Lazarus’ miracle experiment spirals out of control, forcing the Doctor and Martha to intervene, her grim assessment of the Doctor deepens — especially when a representative of the mysterious Mr. Saxon appears and whispers something in her ear.

The Lazarus Experiment is a solid but ultimately middling story. The acting, directing and special effects are all of the top calibre that we’ve come to expect from this show, and there are even standout moments in the script, in the acting and in the directing. But my friend Cameron (who really needs to write these thoughts onto his own blog for everyone to see, hint, hint) pegs what is wrong with the episode with a single comment and example.

In the classic Doctor Who episode, The Planet of Evil, the Doctor confronts mad scientist Sorenson and manages, amazingly, to reason him to the ground.

Doctor (to Sorenson): “You and I are scientists, Professor. We buy our privilege to experiment at the cost of total responsibility.”

And that’s it. Sorenson crumbles. He can’t argue with the results; the experiment is a failure, and it’s turning him into a monster. He has to accept responsibility and kill himself, and this is what he sets out to do. Unfortunately, the monster within him takes over before he can act.

And in that moment, Doctor Who took the mad scientist genre and turned it on its ear. Sorenson becomes a character with depth, not just a cackling Dr. Jeckell. More importantly, when most mad scientist stories go on about Things Man Was Never Meant to Know, in that one comment the Doctor speaks out in defense of science and human curiosity. Sorenson has to take responsibility for the fact that his experiments killed people and turned himself into a monster, but by golly, he was still right to try.

Compare that to the Doctor’s taunt (delivered with the aim of pulling the Lazarus-monster away from his victims) of:

Doctor (to Lazarus): “You’re a vain old man who thought he could defy nature, only nature got her own back, didn’t she? You’re a joke, Lazarus!”

You get the sense of something missing, here.

Professor Lazarus, this episode’s Professor Sorenson, is played by Mark Gatiss, the talented writer of a number of books and television episodes including the Doctor Who revival’s The Unquiet Dead and The Idiot’s Lantern. Here, he shows himself to be an excellent physical actor, portraying 76-year-old Lazarus credibly (Gatiss himself is 41), both as old man, and as young-man-about-to-turn-into-monster. He has a good rapport with David Tennant’s Doctor (the two have acted alongside each other before), and delivers a crisp performance, but the script never gives his character time to develop beyond a paint-by-numbers villain.

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Part of the problem may well be the strongest scene in the story, when Lazarus, all but consumed by the monster inside him, has a final confrontation with the Doctor inside a great cathedral. Lazarus’ fears and the questions of what it means to be a human or a Time Lord, are all on display here, and Mark Gatiss and David Tennant give them excellent play. Unfortunately, there is no subtlety, no subtext. Gatiss has to play the man desperate to extend his life at all costs, so that Tennant can show that longevity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. It’s a strong moment for Tennant, but one which isn’t worth hampering the rest of the episode to achieve.

If anything, the biggest flaw of The Lazarus Experiment may have been that it was too short. If an extra episode had been added, we could have had more time to add depth to Lazarus’ character. As it stands, his story is almost a distraction to the really interesting thing going on in the background — that of Mrs. Jones growing disquiet over Martha’s contact with the Doctor.

Cameron again gets props for predicting that the Jones family (especially Letitia and Mrs. Jones) would be caught up in the Mr. Saxon storyline. And credit to the series’ producers for developing this better than Torchwood last year. As season-spanning plots go, this has been more subtly inserted than references to Bad Wolf or Torchwood, and that’s to this plot’s credit. It has been confined to a specific time and place; it feels like something that’s more truly in the background and more reasonable for the Doctor to miss (Mr. Saxon is very likely the prime minister of Britain at this point, and the Doctor never busies himself with politics), and a definite sense that a trap is being set. Now, when he visits the future or the past, these seem like refuges that the Doctor doesn’t know he has, and you almost want to warn him to stay away from present day Earth.

The Lazarus Experiment accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it does so well. Unfortunately, what it sets out to do isn’t very special. There is no attempt to provide its own twist on the genres it plays with. So while we have a solid hour of television to enjoy, there is a lingering sense that more could have been done here.


Doctor Who Notes

  • I do have to say that I found the science to be somewhat wonky on this show, but on further reflection, I’m not so sure. The whole concept of hypersonic waves (sound waves) being used for genetic manipulation doesn’t strike me as realistic, but then I’m forced to ask, what other kind of technobabble would do this? Hypersonic is as good as any, though I still have some work to do in suspending my disbelief in thinking the Doctor could reverse this process by going all Phantom of the Opera. Basically, I believe the Doctor’s grand plan for dealing with Lazarus once he got to the top of the cathedral involved a lot of gravity.
  • I had a similar “like hell!” reaction when the Doctor said that the form Lazarus took was a branch of human evolution that mother nature rejected. Oh, really? And just precisely when were we thinking about growing six legs and a scorpion’s tail? But there is the fact that we share a lot of our DNA with the other species on this planet, so why not? Although the scriptwriter could have overcome my initial resistance if the Doctor had talked about the planet’s evolution, rather than limiting things to just human evolution. With that in mind, Lazarus should count himself lucky that the rejected portion of evolution that his DNA shot over to wasn’t some giant fern. Although, maybe that could have been a neat alternate ending for this story; imagine Mark Gatiss transforming into a bowl of petunias and delivering the line, “oh, no, not again!”
  • It’s intriguing that Lazarus wanted to “change what it means to be human” given that, just a week before, Dalek Sec wanted to “change what it means to be a Dalek.” In three weeks time comes the Paul Cornell episode Human Nature, based on his critically acclaimed Doctor Who New Adventure novel of the same thing where, let’s just say, the Doctor explores in depth what it means to be human. I think I’m detecting a theme, here, and I wonder how it will play up in the final confrontation with Mr. Saxon, entitled Last of the Time Lords.
  • Because Doctor Who is pre-empted this Saturday due to the EuroVision Song Contest, the producers promised “something special” to make the wait go by quicker. That turned out to be a compilation of clips from the next seven episodes of this season. Not particularly special, especially since some fans were talking about getting David Tennant and Freema Agymman performing karaoke, but some of the clips were interesting. Mr. Saxon in particular looks to have the suave form of creep nailed down. I eagerly await his arrival on my television screen.
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