Friday, 27 August 2010

Project: Lazarus written by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright and directed by Gary Russell

What’s it about? "I'll survive Doctor. I always do." Unfinished business. A frightened girl is stalked in a land of eternal night. A hunter longs for recognition and power. A traveller in time returns to correct the mistakes of the past and faces a danger that could rob him of his future. Unless his future intervenes. And in the shadows stands Nimrod. Waiting... Welcome to the Forge.

Softer Six: Some very interesting things being done with the sixth Doctor in this story as the rehabilitation and exploration of his character continues. What I really enjoyed was how we got to see the opposing sides to his character in extremis, parts of Lazarus find the sixth Doctor at his most tender and gentle and later you have never heard him so angry. He’s genuinely frightening in parts. Colin Baker gets to shine in two roles, as the Doctor that we know and love but also as a genetic experiment that has gone wrong. To hear the usually arrogant and effervescent Doctor reduced to a viciously angry lab rat is unthinkable but the story pulls of this macabre concept with some aplomb. Big Finish seem to push and push with the material they offer Baker and he doesn’t even break a sweat and within these audio plays it is possible to make an argument that he was potentially the best actor to play the part. The Doctor’s relationship with Evelyn is left on a cliffhanging high in this story and you have to wonder if their friendship can survive this latest hardship.

Evelyn wonders if the Doctor keeps popping to the co-op whilst she sleeps to keep the TARDIS kitchen stocked! He amazes Evelyn, which is good because he stopped amazing himself ages ago. He takes his tea with four sugars (which explains a lot!) and relishes the first cup of the day. He steps from the TARDIS and embraces the extreme weather (very Twin Dilemma). Attempts on his friend’s lives he takes very personally. I like the fact that the writers make light of the biggest criticism of Project: Twilight, that the Doctor wasn’t too bright in not realising it was Vampires behind that story earlier than he did. Nimrod prefers the old coat, he thinks its more unique but then he does have an askew take on life! The Doctor is more than a little curious to find out what goes on in The Forge. Project Lazarus opens the very interesting question about the effect the Doctor has on the people he saves since he left Cassie to fend for herself whilst promising to work on the twilight virus but has been sidetracked by all manner of adventures with Evelyn since then leaving Cassie so desperate that she accepted Nimrod’s offer of employment. When Nimrod reveals how he plans to murder him several times over to discover the secret of regeneration he is honestly appalled at the concept and for once very frightened. Has the sixth Doctor ever sounded so angry as when Cassie is murdered? ‘Damn you, Nimrod! Damn you!’ Its one of those rare occasions when he breaks your heart, as he enters the TARDIS and explains to Evelyn that he can’t always save everyone and sometimes he doesn’t win. To see these two friends torn apart so violently is devastating.

The Real McCoy: Well, well, well…that was a surprise. After garbled, confused and almost redundant performances in the last three stories we finally have Sylvester McCoy returning to Doctor Who. There is such a quantum leap between this and nonsense like The Rapture you have to wonder if somebody has had a word at last…or at least got the scripts posted to him well in advance? He calmly underplays the drama and it is dripping with menace as a result and at several points he genuinely sent shivers up my spine. He is travelling on his own which makes such a difference, mournfully talking to himself and murdering a piano. Even if it has been a century or three he never forgets a face. He growls that he is not as forgiving as his last incarnation and you really believe him. Oddly enough when he is confronted with himself working at The Forge he has no memory of the events and wonders if one of them is from an aberrant timeline. He doesn’t even remember having such a casual disregard for humanity. The Doctor talks with some regret when he admits that Evelyn never really forgave him for what happened to Cassie (which segues beautifully into Thicker than Water where the seventh Doctor explains what happens to little Tommy and gets her forgiveness). He is ashamed at his former self for abandoning his principles. Before this story is over he has to watch himself die which must be the most discomforting experience!

Learned Lecturer: Poor Evelyn. Can you imagine another companion tortured in such an obscene fashion? And yet the only reason they are so cruel is because we have fallen in love with her character so completely it makes for great drama to see her in such distress. By the end of the second episode you are gasping for air with discomfort as our favourite lecturer is choking down her tears, confronted with her own mortality and losing another dear friend. There are very few moments in Doctor Who that are as painful as this (thank goodness – I wouldn’t be able to take it!) but it really does stand out as another fantastically real horror that Evelyn faces and another developing moment that makes her stand out as such a successful companion.

Their opening scenes suggest they have reached a domestic zenith, more like a married couple than ever before. He is blissfully aware that she is talking to him and showing off her new cardie and has brought him breakfast. Evelyn knows when he isn’t telling her something. Lightening the mood is what she does? Meeting up with Cassie again really excites her but she feels very let down when she sees what she has become. Cassie reveals that Evelyn has been keeping a secret from the Doctor ever since they first met, she had a mild heart attack that long before he walked into her life and the university were going to retire her. The Doctor showed up and offered her a chance to escape and to see something new and she’s never felt more alive than when she is with him. She is desperate for him not to find out because she believes it will end their travels together. Evelyn pushes the memories of Thomas Schofield back into Cassie’s mind, breaking through her conditioning. Her reaction to Cassie’s death is violent hysteria; she rejects the Doctor’s attempts to comfort her and storms off to her room in tears, leaving their relationship up in the air.

Great Ideas: I love the fact that the TARDIS is equipped with a function as melodramatic as the ability to go Vampire hunting…and a directive of Rassilon at that! The Doctor has finally made a breakthrough with the twilight virus and wants to be able to give Cassie her life back. Sometimes it is best to trust the TARDISes instincts. Cassie can smell death. The Huldran, a very old Norse folk legend about a young man alone in the wild scavenging and he hears a beautiful singing voice on the wind. An angel has come to save him, wrapped in shimmering silk asking to be unsheathed and he cannot resist. As he touches her naked skin he is paralysed and has the life sucked out of him. The singing is the creature’s natural tongue. Everywhere that Cassie went nimrod was there. She couldn’t hunt, feel or hide and every time she shut her eyes she saw his face. She tries slitting her wrists and hanging herself but nothing worked. Cassie is working for the Forge as an assassin (codename Artemis) and she takes pleasure in murdering the Professor. The Forge has everything from Axonite to Zanium and all that is missing is T for Time Lord. Nimrod wants to induce regeneration over and over until they have the information they need. Lazarus is a codename for the Doctor, for a being that can cheat death. All Nimrod needed Cassie for was as bait to lure the Doctor back to The Forge. Cassie helps them to escape but its slaughtered by Nimrod for her efforts. Nimrod reveals that she took a long time to clean up. When the seventh Doctor picks up the story he discovers the sixth Doctor working as the Forge’s scientific advisor. Earth is under attack by the Huldran who are looking for revenge for the murder of their kind and the theft of their technology. The disturbances the Doctor detected in the vortex are the Huldran portals opening. All those who cannot stand the sixth Doctor (surely not!) can bask in episode three’s cliffhanger where he is stabbed over and over again. This attack should have triggered regeneration but this Doctor is a clone of the original. In a sequence that appals the Doctor as much as the audience we discover Nimrod murdered the initial clones to see if they would regenerate, slitting throats with casual abandon. There are dozens of Doctor clones in captivity, all dying, for every successful clone there are ten mutated versions kept for tissue experimentation. Forge Beta is activated when the Dartmoor operation is destroyed.

We know that Russell T Davies is a fan of the audio adventures (Jubilee, Dalek Empire) and I think I can see some blatant lifting of ideas from this story! Torchwood is The Forge! Lets take a look at the evidence…The Forge is a hidden base whose mission it is to study and utilise alien technology that washes up on Earth and adapting it to serve mankind (The Christmas Invasion, Army of Ghosts). You don’t leave the Forge; the Forge leaves you (this line was stolen almost in its entirety in the season two Torchwood episode Fragments). The Forge archives deadly life forms and keeps them contained but there is a Deadman’s switch in case they escape. And when the Forge is destroyed there is another one to take its place! The Doctor even states that Earth isn’t ready for this technology (‘The 21st Century is where it all starts. And you gotta be ready.’) Give Scott and Wright an on screen credit at least…but then perhaps a lot of this came from The Initiative from the fourth season of Buffy?

Sparkling dialogue: ‘Nobody escapes from The Forge! Artemis…you’re fired.’
‘You can’t always make everything better with a cup of cocoa and a slice of cake!’
‘The Forge has its very own pet Time Lord.’
‘You scar on the face of science! You abomination! You animal!’

Audio Landscape: Gareth Jenkins’ post production work on Lazarus is superb and part of the story’s incredible impact is down to the you-are-there feel of the sound effects. The opening scenes feature owls hooting, wind shushing through the trees and the birds fluttering away. Cassie is chased through the forest and captured and you can hear her hanging from a net that squeaks. Walking through the crackling forest scrub. There is a lovely crackling fire as the Professor tells his tale. A helicopter is heard approaching and landing, its blades cutting through the air. The Oracle has a gorgeous, sultry voice. The Doctor’s screams of pain are enough to stop your heart. The end of part two really comes alive with the best ever alarm klaxon and scenes of Cassie and Nimrod fighting to the death. Cassie’s death is very messy, very bloody. The TARDIS lands in a delicious rain lashed forest and the Doctor opens his brolley and we hear it hammering down on the fabric. The flashback to the Doctor-clone’s birth is gripping, his dying breaths as his heart gives up and the flash of a knife that cuts his throat and allows the blood to pour away. The plaintive cries of the experimental Doctors.

Musical Cues: Dark, brooding, perfectly in synch with the script. The Huldran get a lovely piece of myth music that gives their story far more credence than they deserve. The Doctor’s piano playing is rather good!

Isn’t that Odd: I can remember as Big Finish continued the length of the stories grew and grew until the narrative was stretched well beyond the natural length to entertain. Project: Lazarus is perhaps the one and only time I will ever reverse that criticism, this story tries to do far too many things in too short a running time. Worse, it rejects its more interesting elements in favour of some unappealing material. The first two episodes are rushed, Cassie’s re-introduction is skipped over far too briskly and her betrayal of the Doctor and Evelyn is barely touched upon before she is deprogrammed and murdered. Finding Cassie so easily (the TARDIS plonks down next to her) signposts that she is leading them into a trap. We get to experience Cassie’s story on the run, starving and terrified, via flashback when we should be experiencing it. Show, don’t tell. I could easily imagine the first two episodes stretching to four, an episode to handle Cassie’s reintroduction, one dealing with her reunion with the Doctor and then the two that we have. It would make the twists far more dramatic and less perfunctory. It feels as though the story is always in a hurry, such a shame when there is some top dramatic material to explore. The Huldran plot should have been tossed out, its largely filler and adds very little to the overall plot and distracts from the more interesting stuff going on around it. The last two episodes could be expanded as well, highlighting the clone storyline and developing it and giving the seventh Doctor far more to do. And what a thankless role Vidar Magnussen is given, there to offer some exposition and get slaughtered…Professor Harket is nothing but a plot function. And the most annoying thing of all is Nimrod himself, a really interesting twisted character who is re-introduced and given no development at all.

Standout Moment: Evelyn’s tears. Horrible.

Result: There are lots of fantastic ideas squeezed into a story that doesn’t have the breathing space to handle them all adequately. As such Project: Lazarus feels incomplete and would have worked much better as a duel four part release much like The Reaping/Gathering. However a lot of the individual elements of this story are very good, especially the gripping continuation of Evelyn’s hurt which began in Pirates. The Forge is a treasurable concept and it works far better here than it ever did as Torchwood because Scott and Wright really drive home the horrifying idea of the Doctor as a lab rat. Colin Baker impresses in two very different roles, throwing away his trademark arrogance in the last two episodes to explore anger like never before and Sylvester McCoy gives his best performance in an age, beautifully capturing the lonely wandering seventh Doctor. Certain dramatic moments really make this worth listening to but it feels like a watered down version of the even darker, more involving tale we should have had. An extra point because the ideas are so strong: 7/10

Artwork by Simon Hodges @


ali Servan said...

It might have been fairer to review this in two parts. The Colin Baker episodes are a solid 9/10 in my humble opinion, though I admit to being a big fan of Colin Baker and Evylin is my favourite companion. One of the most emotionally charged stories I've ever listened to. Even the McCoy episodes were good, with a lot less of the vocal gurning that makes me want to fill my ears with wax.

Anthony Pirtle said...

I agree that this is a strong showing for McCoy, probably his strongest since "The Fearmonger." I think having to play against Baker made him up his game, and he's much better for it.