...a blog by Richard Flowers

Monday, May 07, 2007

Day 2316: DOCTOR WHO: The Lazarus Experiment


[R: elephant temporarily hiding under blanket – normal service will resume tomorrow; meanwhile, here is my review…]

It’s difficult to know what to say beyond “that was very ‘Quatermass’ wasn’t it?”

In 1953, the BBC broadcast the first play written for television, Nigel Kneale’s in every way seminal classic, the story of a man, Victor Caroon, whose capsule returns him from space with his DNA altered so that, under alien influence, he mutates into a monster. Fleeing from the laboratory, he seeks sanctuary in Westminster Abbey where finally his human nature overcomes the alien.

The BBC recently remade this for the new millennium, staring David Tennant and Mark Gatiss… and the results were shown on Saturday night.

Of course, this is hardly without precedent – the Doctor has previously, er, homaged the Professor most extensively in his third incarnation. “Spearhead from Space” does for “Quatermass II” and “The Dæmons” for “Quatermass and the Pit” and even large chunks of “Ambassadors of Death” are from “The Quatermass Experiment” (though handily they used the space capsule and ‘something mysterious’ in space bits leaving the mutation and cathedral bits for Mr Tennant). Perhaps mindful of this legacy, writer Stephen Greenhorn slips in a reference to one of Jon Pertwee’s favourite catchphrases when the Doctor “reverses the polarity”.

(Not that mutation and body horror do not feature extensively in Doctor Who under Tom Baker once Messrs Robert Holmes and Philip “von” Hinchcliffe get their hands on it…)

Actually, though, this might be better described as the Anti-Quatermass Experiment. Instead of the tragic failure of a noble experiment to broaden human knowledge, here we see the just deserts for snatching knowledge (perhaps alien knowledge) too soon and for too selfish a reason. Where “Quatermass” is about the strength of the human spirit, “Lazarus” is about its shallowness.

Professor Richard Lazarus, as played by Mark Gatiss, is a full-on League of Gentlemen grotesque: venal, avaricious and above all greedy for eternal youth. Significantly, he demonstrates these traits even before he climbs into his blender, thus avoiding the “it made me evil” effect, one of the pitfalls of this sort of story. The monster is already inside of him: just as its hideous form comes from the unused DNA so its carnivorous egoism comes from his own personality.

Gatiss’ performance is perhaps a little too Grand Guignol – in particular when acting opposite David Tennant’s beautifully sold pity and revulsion – evidence perhaps of his own comedy DNA. His neck-popping twitches come straight from his appearance in “Spaced” where he was spoofing Agent Smith of “the Matrix”. Like Agent Smith, though, Lazarus’ coding has become corrupted to make him a devouring monster, an incarnate cancer.

This was great fun to watch, a rollicking Doctor-Who-by-the-numbers bug hunt, “Alien” for the teatime audience.

But the episode would seem very slight if it were not for two things. Firstly, the use of the “false ending” sees Lazarus apparently dead – killed by his own machine, Avengers fans – but actually rising from the dead to escape to the Cathedral climax. (That move to the cathedral is nicely foreshadowed both by the model in Lazarus’ office and by his wartime reminiscences). Doctor Who’s twenty-first century format would hardly seem to give you the time to pull that off, and the episode certainly seems surprisingly to wrap up the monster thirty-five minutes in. Although I think it probably could have done with more time: the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Lazarus’ transformation is played out too quickly.

(And incidentally, how does that work? It would seem that by absorbing Lady Thaw’s DNA or life force or something, he is able to transform back, stabilise himself somehow, perhaps like Magnus Greel from “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”. But this is in no way clear, and doing the same to the snooty party goer – yes, she was asking for it – does not seem to have any similar effect.)

But he only gets to Jekyll-and-Hyde it the once before we are into the full monster chase. For once, perhaps, we have a story that would have suited the old four twenty-five minutes better, and this is only emphasised by the way the thirty-second trailer manages to cover all the plot points of the first thirty minutes. His second transformation on the roof, which fully reveals the monster, is ideal end-of-episode cliffhanger stuff.

The second point that lifts the episode is the confrontation inside Southwark Cathedral (somehow, perhaps dimensionally transcendentally, containing the insides of Wells Cathedral) between the Doctor and the Professor. The circling camera-work draws us to this central vortex, showing us their diametrically opposite points of view. Lazarus has lived his life afraid, and devoted his life to obtaining nothing but more life; the Doctor already has long life and – remember “School Reunion” – sees it as a curse when all you can do with it is lose people. But it’s not all one-sided: Lazarus has a good riposte to the Doctor’s assertion that humanity is at its best facing death: humanity, he says, saves its best efforts for running away from death – that is why we survive. It shows that this series is at the top of its game when it can slip in a profound question about its own philosophy in the middle of a monster run-around like this.

Meanwhile, the episode also advances the season’s ongoing themes, not just the recurring ideas of DNA and humanity and also family, but of course more references to Mr Saxon, whoever he might be(!)

If family is going to be important this year, then I reflect that Martha has one thing that Rose didn’t, namely a brother. Which of course links back to the Doctor’s throwaway remark in “Smith and Jones”. Although my suspicions actually linger more over Martha’s sister, the far too able PR assistant Tish. I previously speculated, that Tish might turn out to be PA to that nice Mr Saxon. Well, I wasn’t quite right: she is actually head of PR for the Lazarus Laboratory that just happens to be a wholly owned subsidiary of whatever Mr Saxon is up to. But quite possibly she’s been installed there by someone else, since Lazarus himself does not seem familiar with her. At least until he starts to get over-familiar with her.

Just as there are dark reflections of the Doctor in Lazarus, so Tish reflects Martha – both of them seemingly looking for some romantic connection, both drawn to a scientific figure. It can’t be denied that Tish was on the brink of kissing Professor Lazarus even knowing something of his character. Powerful, dangerous and a little bit bad: I’m told that can be attractive, and it certainly sets Tish up for a possible future encounter with another shall we say dark reflection of the Doctor.

We also get to see more of Martha’s mother and her entirely justifiable suspicions of her daughter’s new best friend. Cleverly turning “Aliens of London” on its head, here the Doctor gets it wrong by getting it right, returning Martha a mere twelve hours after inviting her aboard the TARDIS. So this time out, he and her have had far too much time together compared to the length of their relationship seen from a non-time-travelling mother’s point of view. Obviously, the Doctor gets another slap.

Though, of course, there is someone else involved muddying the waters and – in best “X-Files” tradition – he’s named in the end titles as only “Mysterious Man”. (Alex’s suggestion of “Whispering Man” would be even better.)

What is it that he says to Mrs Jones? David A McIntee has suggested the very believable and not untruthful from a certain point of view:

“He killed Adiola, your niece.”

This would turn another throwaway gag from Mr Russell T into an important – and quite dark – plot point. Alex liked the idea – he said he’d been wondering whether the Doctor’s hand in the death of Martha’s “identical cousin” would come back to bite him.

It’s probably nothing so complicated as that, but you can see that it would be a quick and certain way to get Mrs Jones’ attention and set her against the Doctor.

And it turns out that he’s working for Mr Saxon.

Of course you have to ask yourself what Mr Saxon would be doing supporting and funding this experiment in rejuvenation anyway. Has he, for example, provided Professor Lazarus with the technology that he uses for his device? It would certainly be in keeping with Lazarus’ character to accept a shortcut of some alien tech to reach his goal, and, well, who else do we know who makes use of “sonic” technology?

If Mr Saxon’s connection to the Doctor is what we all think it is, then he’s got to know that this is interfering in human history. But then maybe that’s the point. After all, he’s got a man on the spot briefed to look out for the Doctor. Perhaps the Lazarus Experiment is nothing to do with turning Mark Gatiss into a fey Peter Davison, but is really just a great big piece of bait to attract the Doctor. In which case, it is Mr Saxon’s plan to use Martha’s family against him?

So in the end, it’s all very like another story too: last year’s Doctor Who and the Werewolf adventure: “Tooth and Claw”. Both stories feature an impressive CGI monster, both monsters are lycanthropic, one is created by and defeated by moonlight, the other created by and defeated by sound. Both stories feature an extensive chase sequence. And both stories are significant to the season’s developing arc.

Next time… silver suits and electronic voices take over the airwaves for a week. No, I’m not going to be interrupted for Eurovision; it’s Terrance Dicks versus the Cybermen in “Made of Steel”.

1 comment:

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Personally, I found the plot rather too predictable and derivative, although I didn't make the Quatermass link until the action transferred to the Cathedral. The meta-plot was definitely more interesting than the episode itself.

And that monster reminded me unfortunately of the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns - and not in a good way - along with the face of Jeff Fahey's computerised version in Lawnmower Man. They probably would have pulled it off if they'd left the face off.