21st Century Doctor Who Reviews: The Lazarus Experiment

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? 60 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 freeze-dried Dragon mummies. Your pitch will sink quicker than the Bismarck. While the machine shaves a few years off, unfortunately it has the side effect of turning the user into a giant, life-sucking monster. All five Dragons would be out. Literally, as they run away as fast as their legs can carry them to barricade themselves in their swanky mansions.

The notion of trying to cling onto life and preserve it for as long as possible is only one 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 under the sun: 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 is a 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.

Professor Richard Lazarus is the eponymous sparring partner for the Doctor, initially a crumbly old fool, who's regarded in 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 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 letch, leering at Tish, who just happens to be handling PR for this awesome event. “That's an interesting perfume,” he pervs. “What's it called?” (Tish hilariously responds with a simple “Soap”). 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. 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). A night out in a fancy 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 human and primitive instinct of survival that drives Lazarus. After he's become young and supping drinks with Lady Thaw, he muses 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 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 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. It's that clinging on for dear life that drives 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 in the season finale. But 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 the danger.

The superficial side of human greed is everywhere in The Lazarus Experiment: Lady Thaw's obsession with making money. 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 be young again and to halt the ageing process, but it comes at a dreadful price.

As the Doctor points out: “A longer life isn't always a better one” before explaining that this only 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 – but then it shows the viewer the dark side of wanting to live forever. The Tenth Doctor's desire to stay alive by whatever means possible leads him to some very dark places.

But back to Lazarus vs Doctor. The two-hander scene in the cathedral is excellently played by David Tennant and guest star Mark Gatiss, 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).

Gatiss is evidently having a whale of a time playing the quintessential human baddie. He 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, 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 friendship 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 a grumpy Time Lord.

Shame the same can't be said of her family – in particular, sour-faced 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 steak knives. “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. While it's a contrast to the warm heart of Jackie Tyler, it's too OTT to take – especially when she inexplicably takes the word of the mysterious suited man at face value. That's right Francine – just believe a mysterious stranger, even if he tells you that there's a flying elephant in the sky. Leo shows his face 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 that well served by the scripts, which require them to be as different as possible from the Tylers. There's no real identity or likeability there, just a string of hostile clichés.

The Jones family aside, The Lazarus Experiment still has a lot to offer the viewer. It's genuinely creepy for kids, with its giant monster and the grisly remains of its victims. The Tennant era loves its macabre close-ups of skeletons and shrivelled corpses, whether it's the remains of Daniel Llewellyn and Major Blake, River Song's crew, the grumpy bus driver or the hapless burger woman. This time around, Lazarus sucks the life out of its victims, leaving only withered skeletons behind (harking back to Planet Of Evil). 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. 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 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-40s, but kids. 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 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. Some of the most successful Doctor Who episodes have very obvious roots – think of 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 Doctor Who fan.

* Old School Doctor Who's out with my takes on all of the classic adventures from 1963 to 1984 (1985 to 1996 coming soon!). Revisit the B&W days on my blog or take a look at my bumper 1970s & 1980s Doctor Who ebook guides, which include lots of extra stuff including reviews of books, videos & DVDs, character/monster/planet profiles, cliffhanger & music thoughts.


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