“My name is Richard Lazarus. I am 76 years old. And I am reborn!”
Lucky he lived up to his name, then.
Professor Richard Lazarus is a true comic book style mad scientist in that his destiny is dictated by his name. Like the biblical Lazarus, he is reborn not once but twice in this entertaining but ultimately inconsequential episode. Just as Spiderman‘s Dr Otto Octavius spent his life working towards becoming an octopus, just as DC’s Dr Jason Woodrue dedicated his life to becoming the plantlike Floronic Man.
While reminiscent of classic comics in tone, the script didn’t shy away from nicking ideas from other sources. Lazarus’ machine and the monster it eventually produced were reminiscent of nothing so much as The Fly, while the cathedral-bound finale was obviously from The Quatermass Experiment. As was, indeed, the title! Still, as was evident from the Philip Hinchcliffe era of Who, plundering the heritage of gothic horror is nothing new for the show, and if done well can have remarkable results.
It didn’t here, though. The Lazarus Experiment passes 45 minutes entertainingly enough, and is a good yarn, but ultimately is no more a classic story than last year’s equally fun but inconsequential Idiot’s Lantern. Mostly, it’s an extended chase with a scary but none too convincing CG monster and a plot identical to Quatermass. What was intriguing was the integration of this year’s ongoing themes and plots. The uncertain future of Martha was resolved as the Doctor decided to take her onboard the TARDIS full time, and we got to see more of her family. I could have lived without this, but they were far less irritating than their initial appearance made them seem. Sister Tish was a strong, interesting character, and even brother Leo was a sympathetic, occasionally comic foil. The character that made the most impression though was Martha’s mum. I’m not sure the show really needs another dragonlike disapproving mother, but the part was played well and given a twist by her acquisition of (presumably distorted) information about the Doctor.
And this was where the previously low-key plot of the mysterious Mr Saxon came into play. The mysterious henchman who whispered indistinct words into the ear of Martha’s mother was a nice touch – if Saxon’s the main villain this year we wouldn’t want him to show his hand so early by appearing in person. We also learned that his full name is Harold Saxon, which presumably is already making the anagram hunters on the internet crazy with possibilities. Can’t say I came up with anything coherent, though, unless you’re meant to work the word “mister” into it as well…
As to the script itself, while there was little of originality in it, the dialogue was superb. Lazarus was given a real personality, with a believable history of a childhood in the Blitz and seeing London change around him. His discussions on the morality and motives of his actions with the Doctor were extremely well-scripted, and I loved the inclusion of various quotes from TS Eliot, one of the moodiest of doom saying poets. Mark Gatiss played the part surprisingly well; given the couple of lines evident in the trailer, I expected him to go for a high-camp League of Gentlemen / Nebulous style performance, but he was actually rather restrained. There was just enough camp relish to make him a memorable bad guy without becoming a cartoon Bond villain. Although he did seem to be channelling early Peter Davison in his blond-wigged younger version! For that matter, his performance as the older Lazarus was very impressive, seeming genuinely doddering with the aid of some surprisingly effective prosthetics. As ageing make-up goes, it’s some of the best I’ve seen, even down to the bulging veins and liver spots on the hands.
But at the other end of the scale, there was that monster. Oh dear. Clearly a lot of thought went into the design; it was a good idea to have Lazarus’ face on its head, and the Blade 2 -like splitting of the lower jaw was an impressively scary concept. But it seemed like the Mill had let their ambition exceed their ability again, and the CGI looked very cartoonish, blending into the live action about as convincingly as Tom and Jerry in On the Town. Added to that, not only did the face look very little like Mark Gatiss, it seemed like a 2-D mask painted onto the front of the creature’s head, oddly like those eerie cardboard masks Vic and Bob used to wear in The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer. There’s a school of thought which says that the monster was made to look deliberately unconvincing so as to avoid scaring the kiddies too much; personally though, I just thought that the Mill had bitten off more than they could chew again. Points for trying, though.
David Tennant was again excellent, reining in his shouting and moralising for an effective confrontation with Lazarus in the Cathedral. The haunting dialogue about living too long and seeing those you love die was delivered with a sombre, convincing understatement, and was thankfully the only (oblique) reference to Rose this week. The humour was well-handled, too. I loved his enthusiastic reaction to being described as a “science geek”, his comically misunderstood exchange with Martha’s mum (“we didn’t have much time for talking…!”), and especially the Spinal Tap gag as he turned the organ up to 11 with his sonic screwdriver.
In a story that showcased her family quite effectively, Martha was oddly… ineffective. With the exception of her impressive exchanges with the Doctor at the episode’s beginning and end, she seemed to mostly be in the story to run away and/or be menaced. Ok, so that’s the trad companion role, but I’d hate for her to become the sort of cypher you used to see so often in the original show. I think we’ve already seen that the character has more potential than that.
So, a solid, entertaining episode enlivened by some good dialogue and excellent guest performances, but ultimately rather forgettable. Given its dark tone, it might resonate rather well with nightmare-prone kiddies, but I wonder if they’ll remember it with the same thrill of comfy fear that I remember The Horror of Fang Rock? Somehow I rather doubt it.
And now the show is on an enforced two week break. That’s irritating, and if anything reality tat-fest Any Dream Will Do is more responsible for its shifting around the schedules than the perennial Eurovision Song Contest, which let’s face it hasn’t interfered for the last two seasons. But it provides what looks like a convenient mid-season break as the Martha plotline comes to a conclusion of sorts while the Saxon plotline begins. At the very least, it gave us the chance to see a storming trailer for the remaining half of the season. It looks storming! I know that’s sort of the point of trailers, and it’s all in the editing, but I’ve got to say, I’m excited!