Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Lazarus Experiment written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Richard Clark

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Martha come up against a man who wants to turn back time…

Mockney Dude: Just how insensitive has the Doctor become? Even the ninth Doctor at his worst wasn’t as ill aware of people’s feelings as the tenth Doctor is here. Mind you there is no reason why he should be a master at handling human emotions, as Colin Baker repeats ad nauseum he isn't human. He might be hurting from losing Rose (whilst the rest of us are still cheering after her character assassination in series two) but he has never gone as far as kicking somebody out of the TARDIS before and especially not somebody who has proven to be as loyal and as resourceful as Martha. Tennant is trying out for the role of Bond in his black tuxedo and despite his lanky frame he manages to pull it off. Tish describes him as a science geek in a derogatory sense but in this, the era of the Geek, that can only be taken as a compliment. I enjoyed his assertion that he has had some experience with this sort of transformation. Martha equates the sound of an explosion with the work of the Doctor - if you look back over his past lives that is quite a sensible conclusion to draw. I really enjoyed the image of him in black tie bashing away on the church organ like a mad gothic genius. The mothers do like to give him a good slap – maybe he should take a good look into why and try and avoid this fate again. Cruelly the Doctor doesn’t pick up on her feelings and once again offers Martha one more trip and after they sort out their misunderstanding he admits she was never really just a passenger to him. It is ultimately a rather sweet closing scene but I think he might need to work on his patter if he is going to tempt anyone else through the TARDIS doors.

Marvellous Martha: Is it true that Freema Agyeman brings more enthusiasm than acting talent to the role of Martha? No, I don't think that's fair (especially after her solid performances in Human Nature and The Sound of Drums/Last of the Time Lords) but she certainly does bring a great deal of enthusiasm to the role which, divorced from her unrequited love story, is rather lovely to watch. This was the point where we had adjusted to the idea of 'a trip of a lifetime' (whereas it was a giddy thrill in season one, it's the status quo now) and the traits of the character have to justify their selection. The Lazarus Experiment follows on directly from Smith and Jones (I believe it has only been a day or so - important plot point this, not just a cute idea) and Martha picks her life up from where she left it. Her mum angry at everybody, her dad flaunting his trophy girlfriend, her (impossibly gorgeous) brother trying to stay out of it and her (impossible cute) sister trying to forge a career. Whilst I don't think they gelled in quite the same way (the series owes a great deal to the Tyler's), the Joneses do deserve some credit for having to come next and still managing to be quite distinctive and enjoyable to watch. Clearly middle class (compared to Rose's working class roots) and yet even more dysfunctional. Francine terrifies me in a way that Jackie and Sylvia never could...somehow the other two always seem to have their daughters best interests at heart but Francine strikes me as somebody who is really angry with the world that has slapped her in the face so badly (her husbands infidelity is embarrassingly public and extremely eye catching) and will act out accordingly. It is such a relief to take her out of the same clothes she has been wearing all season and give her something gorgeous to wear. Apparently Martha was married to her career choice because going out two nights on the trot is a rarity and coming dangerously close to having a social life. Martha takes charge when things get dangerous and her family cannot believe how confident she has become. The Doctor will do that to you. Clearly Martha is used to disapproving of Tish’s boyfriends and makes her feeling very clear about pursuing Lazarus. During the climax Martha lets out a few belting screams which reminded me of companions of old. I really enjoyed the last scene where she stroppily asked him to leave because she doesn’t want to be a passenger any more, someone who comes along for a treat. I always punch the air with delight when I see this moment - it is six episodes in the making and about three episodes overdue. This is where Martha really finds her voice and she doesn't stop having her say right until the point that she walks out of the TARDIS. Series three charters Martha's confidence and her ability to voice that she isn't willing to be sloppy seconds and The Lazarus Experiment is a vital step in that journey.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You’re just a vain old man who thought he could defy nature!’
‘Avoiding death – that’s being human. Its our greatest impulse.’
‘There’s no such thing as an ordinary human.’

The Good Stuff: Everything the Doctor and Martha did (Judoon, Carrionites, Macra, Daleks) they did in one night – it's remarkable that this little show of ours can have tiny moments of joy like that just as throwaway lines and we barely even notice. That would be the central premise of another show, on Doctor Who it is just another day at the office. I still get a tiny thrill when I see the TARDIS landing in a domestic setting like this (until Moffat spoilt the idea by having the Doctor land in Amy's bedroom and her try and jump his bones). I've been working with the elderly for the past year now and I can say with some certainty that being young and beautiful can make people cruel as this story seems to suggest. It's an idea that is touted but isn't explored in enough depth. I love it when music from the soundtrack somehow makes its way live into the finished programme and the orchestra playing Martha's theme is a great touch. Visually this is a great show, offering a high-tech setting to show of the Lazarus experiment and capturing all the young and beautiful onlookers in the best possible light. Weaving insidiously into the main arc plot of the season is Francine's turn to the dark side, being manipulated into believing that the Doctor is a bad influence on Martha and getting her into dangerous scrapes (there's an element of truth in the idea which making the deception all the more believable). In this episode I would go as far as to say it is the more interesting plot although it is mostly dealt with as a side issue for now. It certainly adds an extra layer of menace and interest. The Master getting his clutches on the Doctor through the planet he loves and the people he travels with and their family is beautifully realised by the end of the season and it great to go back and watch how much is set up almost invisibly without ever giving away the identity of the mastermind behind this whole operation. This is how to pull off an arc without getting too mired in plot mechanics and still having space for plenty of decent standalone stories. Despite the cumbersome nature of the CGI Lazarus creature (can something that is computer generated be cumbersome?) there are still some wonderful touches to the effects work. I particularly like the bisecting mouth dribbling with fluid and the flawlessly achieved mixture of CGI and physical effects when Lazarus jumps over (and smashes) a glass balcony. The entire set piece in the church is expertly handled and probably the highlight of the episode, bathed in creepy moonlight, featuring intense performances from Tennant and Gatiss and featuring some excellent music courtesy of Murray Gold. Gatiss deserves a lot of credit for imbuing Lazarus with dignity and pathos, despite being carved in the mad professor mould. Watch as he is writhing around the church in pain...this is a man giving his all for his big chance to own a Doctor Who episode.

The Bad Stuff: I remain unconvinced by Thelma Barlow’s unusual delivery and the first transformation of Lazarus (where she is killed) is handled so confusingly it is hard to figure out precisely what is going on. I thought we had entered b movie territory when Lady Thaw's skeleton was discovered (the Davies era is full of dessicated bodies like this). Remember Davies' stunning The Second Coming? Taking a huge idea (the resurrection of Christ) and studying the reaction of the world as it tries to come to terms with the idea. Or Miracle Day? Which, for all it's flaws, studied the idea of the Miracle (nobody dying) in a very sophisticated way. The Lazarus Experiment sports an intruiging premise (never growing old) and instead of exploring the catastrophic consequences of such a revolutionary notion (think Miracle Day without any wrinkles), the writer decides to boil it all down to a chase around a laboratory with a crap CGI monster. Talk about boiling away all the intelligence and going for the least complicated route to tell this story. Tish completely loses credibility when she falls for Lazarus (not because Gatiss isn't attractive but because of the icky transformation hat he has just undertaken). There is an unforgettable extra who looks like she is choking on an olive just before Lazarus takes her out.

The Shallow Bit: Leo is so pretty I find his presence quite distracting. Is this the first case of full on nudity in Doctor Who? Does Jack in Bad Wolf count?

Result: An intriguing opening ten minutes and a gripping final ten minutes with a whole lot of running around in between, The Lazarus Experiment is an empty but superficially entertaining episode. The trouble is all the extraneous material dealing with Martha and the Doctor’s will they/wont they travel together and Francine being turned against him is far more interesting than the monster mash up that is on the prowl. Fortunately the director approaches the story with a light touch and so it bubbles along charmingly enough and the unnerving arc plot looms in the background suggesting there is a whole world of pain to come. Mark Gatiss does a great job as Lazarus, a pretty thankless role given the character is merely a tool of the real villain of the season but he imbues the part with real menace and a degree of pathos too. Despite the Doctor behaving in the most appalling fashion towards Martha (in human terms anyway), the episode is kept afloat by some fantastic interaction between Tennant and Agyeman and by the end of the episode they are finally ready to step out into the universe as equals. Because it is so unambitious I feel as if I should be harder on this episode but there is enough talent on display (a pleasingly old school setting, a fine Murray Gold score, nice performances, arc relevance, the church scenes) to kept me entertained: 7/10


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David Pirtle said...

I don't think this is one of Gatiss' better performances, actually. It's not exactly bad, but it's missing something. Or maybe that's just the script. But it is a fun adventure, I agree.