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Doctor Who complete reviews: The Lazarus Experiment

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The Lazarus Experiment (Doctor Who)

I've never thought what it would be like to be 76 years of age. Ideally, I'd like to be able to rely on my own limbs rather than a mobile scooter, but at the same time, I'd probably be one of those moaning old gits on the bus who shouts at anyone under the age of 40. Victor Meldrew, look out.

Of course it's feasible that by the middle of the 21st century, some bright spark might have dug out a copy of The Lazarus Experiment, scribbled down a few notes, and then decided to construct a miraculous machine that allows old fogies to shed a few years. Well, why not? 50 or so years ago, the thought of recording your favourite TV programmes seemed as likely as a hamster reciting the entire works of William Shakespeare in Cantonese.

Try and sell the idea of a Lazarus machine though, and you could end up hitting a snag. Say, for example, you choose to take this amazing contraption onto Dragon's Den where you bow before the freeze-dried mummies of Bannatyne and co – your pitch will sink quicker than a fire extinguisher in a full-up bathtub. While the machine shaves a few years off, unfortunately it has the side effect of turning the user into a giant, life-sucking monster. Bannatyne would be oot in seconds flat.

"Gruesome deaths. Cool sci-fi gadgets. Great acting. A memorable baddie. Intellectual debate for the adults. What's not to like?"

The Lazarus Experiment (Doctor Who)The very notion of trying to cling onto life and preserve it for as long as possible is just part of this small but perfectly-formed adventure, which proves to be a return to form for the 2007 season of Doctor Who. So far, I've been torn between being entertained and narrowly avoiding hitting my head against a brick wall during a run of adventures that have been mixed to say the least. The Lazarus Experiment gets back on track with a simple monster tale that still manages to find time to chew over a moral ethic or two. Oddly, the fans haven't reacted too well to this one, which is strange, considering it includes every Doctor Who ingredient: Scary monster for the kids. Gruesome deaths. Cool sci-fi gadgets. Great acting. A memorable baddie. Intellectual debate for the adults. What's not to like?

It's possible that maybe The Lazarus Experiment is a bit too simple – it's basically a straightforward action adventure with a great big monster. That's about it, and I guess that in a season that contains the likes of the Human Nature two-parter and Blink, The Lazarus Experiment tends to get overlooked. Which, as I said, is a great shame, since it achieves its objectives of being a well-told and well-made monster story with great style. It's a story that looks to the Pertwee years for inspiration – we're back on Planet Earth (yet again) where a blinkered scientist refuses to heed The Doctor's warnings about tampering with the forces of nature. Cue lots of running about, James Bond-esque bow ties and even everybody's favourite: “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!” All that's missing from the DVD is a cameo appearance from Jo Grant and a commentary from Uncle Terrance in which he compares David Tennant's quiff with Pertwee's bouffant.

The Lazarus Experiment (Doctor Who) - Mark GatissProfessor Richard Lazarus is the eponymous sparring partner for The Doctor, initially a crumbly old fool, who's feted in these local quarters as a bit of a genius in his field. He has enough clout to commandeer the TV stations for a demonstration of his anti-ageing device, and also isn't shy to shout about his self-proclaimed brilliance. “Tonight I'm going to perform a miracle,” he boasts before comparing it to Rutherford's splitting of the atom or Armstrong's huge leap on the moon. He's also a bit of an old perv, leering at Tish, who just happens to be handling PR for this awesome event. “That's an interesting perfume,” he mumbles. “What's it called?” (Tish hilariously responds with a simple “Soap”). And after he's regenerated, he's quick to hang around with a clutch of fake-tanned bimbos, while ignoring the advances of his long-suffering partner Lady Thaw, a woman who looks mysteriously like Mavis from Coronation Street.

Naturally, after becoming “REBOOOOORN”, Lazarus finds that youth isn't all it's cracked up to be, since he starts to mutate into a giant scorpion-like thing with a hell of a hunger. But this is Doctor Who we're talking about here – if you're after a valued prize like immortality, this never comes free of charge. And Lazarus pays the ultimate price after his DNA cells are changed beyond recognition. The energy field in Lazarus' machine has woken up dormant genes in Lazarus' DNA – genes that were forgotten about years ago, but have now been reopened (“Like Pandora's Box” says Martha). So obviously a night out in a restaurant with his latest bit of eye candy is only going to end in tears for Lazarus. Not to mention his date.

However, like the Pertwee-era villains, this isn't just a hackneyed case of trying to take over the world: Lazarus simply wants to stay alive. It's that very human and primitive instinct of survival that drives Lazarus. After he's become young and supping drinks with Lady Thaw, he's musing on his wartime experiences (“1940 – do you remember? Night after night. Explosions. Guns. Firestorm”). That seems like a throwaway line, but later in the cathedral, this takes on a more significant meaning, as Lazarus tells The Doctor of his memories and how he had vowed to cheat death (“In the morning the fires had died and I was still alive. I swore I'd never face death like that again”). Whereas Lady Thaw just regards the Lazarus machine for purely greedy financial gains, the Professor's motives go deeper than that. While he's undeniably out for status and power, his main aim is just to go on living (“That's being human,” says Lazarus. “It's our strongest impulse, to cling to life with every fibre of being”). In a season that's concerned with what it means to be human, Lazarus's speech is one of the key elements.

The Lazarus Experiment (Doctor Who) - Mark GatissIt's that clinging on for dear life that seems to drive the other characters in the season: The passengers on the New Earth motorway all cling to that hope for survival and freedom. John Smith does his best to cling on to his fake life, even if it's all a sham. Even the human race attempt to survive in some twisted form far in the future, as we'll see with the Toclafane in the season finale. Like Lazarus though, the human race evolves into monstrous form in Last Of The Time Lords – the artificial prolonging of life equates with something evil and immoral. “Facing death is part of being human,” says The Doctor at one point, and it's that dark side of human greed that's just as dangerous as The Master's fiendish plans. We see the superficial side of human greed with Lady Thaw's obsession with making money, or even the shallow bleatings of the Olive Woman, who thinks that The Doctor's warnings are getting in the way of her enjoyment of the party. Tellingly, they both become mummified skeletons before the end credits roll. Doctor Who has always promoted that anti-greed message, and The Lazarus Experiment is no exception. What's great about this though is that it doesn't explain the moral in very obvious, twee terms, but in a case of “Be careful what you wish for”. Lazarus gets his wish to become young again and halt the ageing process, but it comes at a dreadful price.

And also, as The Doctor points out: “A longer life isn't always a better one” before explaining that this just leads to weary fatigue of losing everything that matters and watching everything turn to dust. Interestingly though, the Tenth Doctor doesn't actually take this on board during his last few adventures, since he's the incarnation that tries to cheat death the most. Whether he's channeling regeneration energy into his severed hand, rebelling against the 'Knock Four Times' prophecy or throwing a hissy fit at Wilf, this incarnation curiously forgets his big old speech to Lazarus – but then it shows the viewer the dark side of wanting to live forever. As we'll see, The Doctor's desire to stay alive by whatever means possible leads him to some very dark places.

"It's nice to see Martha actually using her loaf for once – a trait that had apparently been forgotten about since Smith And Jones"

The Lazarus Experiment (Doctor Who) - Martha and The DoctorBut back to Lazarus vs The Doctor. The two-hander scene in the cathedral is excellently played by both David Tennant and guest star Mark Gatiss. Gatiss is one of the few guest actors to have also written for the show – think Glyn Jones, but don't think The Space Museum or it may give you a painful headache – and he's evidently having a whale of a time playing the quintessential human baddie. Gatiss gives a carefully observed performance, whether he's failing to impress Tish under layers of latex old-age make-up or scarily screwing his neck back on. It's a part that could have been overplayed to death, but Gatiss refreshingly goes for the alternative choice, and so scenes like the cathedral confrontation make far more impact as a result.

Tennant's also on top form here, and in fact this story is both a good one for The Doctor and Martha. There's less of the combative “One trip only” stuff and more of a genuine, warm rapport between the two. It's nice to see Martha actually using her loaf for once – a trait that had apparently been forgotten about since Smith And Jones. For example, she's quick to recognise that a kiss on the hand from Lazarus contains a DNA sample that can be analysed. “Oh, Martha Jones, you're a star!” gushes The Doctor, and indeed she is, thanks to the ever-enthusiastic Freema Agyeman, who's finally got some worthy material to work with rather than fluttering her eyelashes in vain at the grumpy Time Lord.

Shame the same can't be said of her family – in particular, sour-faced harridan of a mother, Francine, who has all the sunny good cheer of an OAP on a raucous school bus. Francine spends her time prowling around Lazarus' party with a perpetual scowl on her face and dishing out withering comments that can cut through the air like machetes. “She's not a doctor yet,” she frowns over Martha. “Never will be, if she doesn't stay focused.” She's a strange one, Francine – she evidently thinks that Martha's still about 10 years old, and proceeds to treat her like one, forever putting her down or questioning The Doctor's actions. OK, so it's a contrast to the warm heart of Jackie Tyler (well, from The Christmas Invasion onwards any road), but it's too OTT to take – especially when she inexplicably takes the word of the mysterious suited man at face value. Yeah, that's right Francine – just believe a mysterious stranger, even if he tells you that there's a flying elephant in the sky. We also get to see Leo again, although he doesn't really get to do much apart from fall under a table full of food. It's a shame that this dysfunctional family aren't really that well served by the scripts, which just require them to be as different as possible from the Tylers. There's no real identity or likeability there, just a string of hostile cliches.

The Jones family aside, The Lazarus Experiment still has a lot to offer the viewer. It's genuinely creepy for kids for one thing, with its giant monster and the grisly remains of its victims. The Tennant era seems to love macabre close-ups of skeletons and shrivelled corpses, whether it's Daniel Llewellyn, the grumpy bus driver or the hapless burger biddy. This time around, Lazarus sucks the life out of its victims, leaving only withered skeletons (harking back to Planet Of Evil) behind. There's that great shot when Martha first spots Lady Thaw's skeletal corpse poking out behind a desk, a real behind the sofa moment for kids. As a side point, guest artiste Thelma Barlow doesn't get that much to do, since she's dispatched about 15 minutes into the episode. Although, this is a small mercy, since Barlow inexplicably sounds like she has a wig stuck in her throat when she talks.

"The Lazarus Experiment is one great big homage, but then Doctor Who always was"

The Lazarus Experiment (Doctor Who) - The Lazarus MonsterThe Lazarus monster has been criticised for looking too fake – I'm not quite sure that the CGI Lazarus head quite works, since it looks nothing like Mark Gatiss – but then Doctor Who's not really aiming to frighten sad old critics in their mid-30s, but kids. And I'm sure that there were plenty of youngsters peering cautiously behind their bedroom doors in case a Lazarus monster decided to play Peek-A-Boo. Richard Clark films the monster well, and shrewdly uses POV shots to add to the menace. In fact, Clark's direction is of the highest standard, adding a vibrant urgency to proceedings with good action sequences, moody lighting (especially in the chase bits) and a fine grasp of the memorable set-pieces. The climactic battle in the cathedral is worthy of note, and I really like the way in which The Doctor destroys the monster with a typically left field solution of playing the organ too loud. Eat your heart out, Ibrahim Namin.

The Lazarus Experiment is what happens when you condense all the old monster films into one 45 minute package. It's one great big homage, but then Doctor Who always was. And some of the most successful Who episodes have very obvious roots – just think of the the mid-70s stories which used old books and films for inspiration. Maybe it's that cosy old way of storytelling that appeals to me – combine that with a Pertwee-style framework, and this is one of the prime choices for this Old School Who fan.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work here.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Daleks In Manhattan

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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