THE DOCTOR WHO RATINGS GUIDE: BY FANS, FOR FANS

BBC
The Lazarus Experiment

Story No. 194 Lazarus, huh? That wouldn't be a bit of a clue, would it?
Production Code Series Three Episode Six
Dates May 5 2007

With David Tennant,
Freema Agyeman
Written by Stephen Greenhorn Directed by Richard Clark
Executive Producers: Russell T Davies, Julie Gardner.

Synopsis: Professor Richard Lazarus promises to change what it means to be human.


Reviews

Fresh and (The) Fly by John Nor 22/5/07

I enjoyed this. Very trad, very Classic.

There was not much plot to it (a scientist unleashes a monster, which must be stopped) but the enjoyable aspects were more to do with the atmosphere created, the production design, the characters and the performances. Any of the two-handed scenes featuring Lazarus-the-man, the well-written scenes with Lazarus verbally sparring with the Doctor - these were the heart of the episode.

Gatiss managed to bring a believable depth to the villain while at the same time revelling in bringing a sinister theatrical undercurrent (like Morgus or Sharaz Jek in The Caves of Androzani.) The pitch of his performance was just right.

This was the most Classic in style of the 2007 season so far. (And the Doctor literally pulling out all the stops on the cathedral organ brought to mind the Davison era graphic novel The Tides of Time.) It did have contain some very Nu-Who moments though: the considering of the consequences of being a companion of the Doctor; the featuring of the reactions of the family of the companion. Freema Agyeman continues to shine as Martha Jones.

In a contrast of pace to the brilliant and thoughtful scenes where Lazarus ruminates with the Doctor, the traditional running-down-corridor scenes were fast paced and spectacular, and reinvented for the 21st century. Once again the Alien films were an inspiration for this production team, as the images of the Lazarus-creature lithely and rapidly pursuing the Doctor demonstrate. (The spinning-upside-down-pursuit camerawork was great!) Tennant is to be applauded for continuing the tradition begun by McCoy in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy by doing his own explosion stunts! (As the Doctor Who Confidential demonstrated after the episode.)

Tennant's performance here was excellent; nice to see a more restrained approach; his quiet scenes with Gatiss were electric, especially the debate in the cathedral.

A very good story indeed.


A Review by David Weber 5/6/07

Like The Idiot's Lantern last season, and The Shakespeare Code this season, this is a well-paced action-driven comic book romp. Unlike either those stories, unfortunately, there's rather little in the way of digestible substance.

Mark Gatiss and Garath Roberts knew their jobs when it came to the task, and came out with what were very good traditional throw-backs to the past, adding in enough new material and knowing when to play the cliches up. Unfortunately, Greenhorn doesn't seem to have such skill with similar material, the result being that The Lazarus Experiment is an experiment that, ironically, may have been in greater need of a final rewrite than either of those said stories, given that Davies has indicated that it was one of the few that did not require such treatment.

The story starts out well, however. On first impressions it would look to be in the similar vein as The Shakespeare Code: not too serious, engaging, and filled with witty lines. It works well, in fact, until the start of the party, where the problems begin to creep in. Despite the script being light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek, it lacks the same skilful tailoring Roberts achieved, with some of the humour proving either too niche or too unsuitable to really succeed - and often both at the same time.

More important is the palpable lack of either substance and freshness about the execution. When combined, these make up a serious problem, in that they leave little in the episode to be capable of engaging the viewer in any way, and force the responsibility of holding the episode up onto the performances, which has been increasingly the trend recently (although particularly with series two) as a unadvisable thing to do.

Fortunately, Tennant is far better here, and proves more than up to the task. From the start, he plays the witty, imaginative and youthful character that has been to the fore in the best of his moments; almost the direct opposite of the last time he featured in a tuxedo, but that's beside the point. He hasn't been this good since his (mostly) phenomenal performance in Gridlock, and to be honest the balance struck seems to be slightly better than in that episode, despite the fact that he does not reach the same peaks here. Agyeman is also good; although existing critics are not likely to be persuaded otherwise here - her performance being about the same standard as usual - current admirers (such as myself) are likely to continue to warm to the character. And her on-screen family, so sidelined and under-performing in Smith and Jones, are much better used here, complementing the episode instead of detracting.

Mark Gatiss, however, is a slightly different matter. Although giving a decent performance (easily on par with the series' villains on average), his casting does less to appease critics as to merely hit home the unoriginality and more importantly: lack of distinction of the villain. Although Lazarus has his moments, they are almost exclusively from Gatiss' performance than from the character.

The exception to this is of course his final confrontation with the Doctor in the Cathedral, in which both actors play off each other marvellously (if you'll forgive the unintentional pun) and more to the point the script finally hits the right point with his character, offering him substantial material rather than superficial substance. However, it almost jars with the final climax, which feels slightly disappointing after such an intelligent build-up, although the post-climatic humour almost saves it.

Apart from this, there's not really much to the story, something which is a point against the story's favour. The long-term events are set up very nicely for once, and it's clearly something more significant than the Bad Wolf hints; the scenes with Saxon's people are impressively manipulative, as well as unintentionally ironic. (Considering danger literally does appear everywhere the Doctor treads, otherwise there wouldn't be a series. Perhaps its the TARDIS. Works for me.) And the development of the leads is done spot-on, with the two playing off each other fantastically. However, despite having several laugh-out-loud moments, and several notes of interest, The Lazarus Experiment fails offer anything other than the superficial. It's comic book, and at least does exactly as said on the tin (or the Radio Times episode guide) but it might have at least tried to engage, and somewhat misses the point of what makes Doctor Who interesting in the first place - in offering interest in even the most cliched of ideas.

6.5/10


A Review by Charles Phipps 27/8/07

The Lazarus Experiment is yet another Doctor Who tale in the vein of The Deadly Assassin, The Five Doctors, or The Brain of Morbius. In the world of the Doctor, attempting to live beyond your current life-span is something that always seems to cause more pain than it eases. It has been an especially strong theme with the Tenth Doctor. His dealings with the sublime Face of Boe, the older Sarah Jane Smith, and the freakish Cassandra is punctuated by his desire to stop the passage of time. In the case of Doctor Lazarus, it's really an old-fashioned monster chase but the melancholy that haunts the villain is one that's punctuated throughout the series.

Doctor Who is always best when it returns to its roots as science fiction rather than space fantasy. In this case, there's a genuine lesson to be learned here about the attempt to 'cheat nature' by letting our fears get ahead of our knowledge. Despite being a dirty old lech, Doctor Lazarus is a surprisingly poignant villain. He clearly thinks he's wasted his life with a woman that he doesn't love, a childhood riddled in the misery of WW2, and a devotion to science that's never yielded him any real happiness. The bad science of "leftover DNA" in the human body for turning him into a giant scorpion man was something that I could handwave away. Let's face it, humans in Doctor Who have a rather bizarre evolutionary history anyway.

More important to the story arc is the continuing development of the Doctor and Martha's relationship. Unlike Rose's working-class family, Martha's kin is from the social climbing middle class. Despite veering into caricature, the Tylers were a likable bunch and RTD chooses to contrast them against the thoroughly detestable Jones. The look at the sneering and petty nature of the family is another nice bit of social commentary even if I felt we were on the verge of making Martha into the 'Anti-Rose.'

Fans will no doubt be more interested in the latest "Meta-Arc" of Mister Saxon as this episode is thoroughly tied to the mysterious politician that is being set up as this series' master villain. We see little of Mister Saxon here, but that actually lends credibility to his role. Clearly, the man is running bizarre scientific experiments and wields considerable social authority in addition to political. The Joneses seem to worship the ground he walks on. More interestingly, Mister Saxon seems to know who the Doctor is and is his enemy. That doesn't mean much in the current Who universe though. The Doctor's identity in this time period is known to UNIT, Torchwood, several alien races, and Jack Harkness. Whether he turns out to be an older foe or a Henry Van Statten figure is not illustrated by this story.

Overall, I was very impressed by this story and think that it was an excellent standalone episode, despite a disposable and generic villain. I hope that RTD can continue to provide such entertaining one shots.


Nobody Likes Change by Mike Morris 18/9/07

After The Lazarus Experiment was aired, a lot of people were commenting about it as being a "traditional" sort of adventure. It was one of those statements that actually, under any sort of scrutiny, quickly falls apart; try and identify a single Doctor Who story that has been like The Lazarus Experiment and you'll quickly start to struggle.

Unfortunately, this makes the story sound more inventive and interesting than it really is. It's not traditional, it's routine. Dreadfully, killingly, hatefully routine. Anyone who can't guess the entire plot of the episode from the previous week's "Next Time" just hasn't been paying attention, and what plot there is ends up stretched so thin that we have to have a second ending tacked on which is derived from ill-considered technobabble that actually makes very little sense. The only way you can call it "traditional" is that any science fiction show, from Star Trek to The Outer Limits, could do a story like this - but that's not traditional, it's generic.

It's not that The Lazarus Experiment is badly realised; it's well-directed, and the performances of Mark Gatiss (he and Glyn Jones are the only people ever to write for Doctor Who and to appear in an episode, you know) and Mavis OffCorrie are both excellent. Gatiss's character is actually very well-drawn, with a delightfully slimy edge, and the climactic sequences in the cathedral are well-handled. The production is impressive; if the story was even halfway engaging it might work.

In terms of the nasty-monster-chases-people-around-a-building genre, the closest point of reference is probably Tooth and Claw. The comparison is rather sobering. Tooth and Claw gave us kung-fu monks, Queen Victoria, the Kohinoor, a telescope that's not a telescope, the mistletoe... and a great big sodding werewolf, all woven into a beautifully linear plot. With The Lazarus Experiment, there's not enough going on. There's a machine! There's a monster! That's it! And yet that would be enough, perhaps, were it not for the story's big obvious flaw:

THE MONSTER ISN'T FRIGHTENING.

Not even vaguely. Not in the slightest.

The story's obvious antecedent is The Fly, specifically the David Cronenberg version - which is one of the most disgusting, graphic and yet compelling films to be made by anyone ever. Understandably, Doctor Who can't go down that road - and yet it can take what's frightening at the core of the film, and portray it in a less visceral version. The Fly is frightening because the central character's transformation is about distorting and twisting the human form, and the emphasis is on "human". All that was really required in The Lazarus Experiment was for someone to put some icky make-up on Mark Gatiss. Stephen Greenhorn's original concept was to have Gatiss regress through stages of evolution, and that would have been frightening if well-achieved.

Instead, we've got "the scariest thing The Mill have ever done" and, like all big computer-generated things, it looks like a big computer-generated thing.

I'll digress a bit here. These days, lots of the buildings winning architecture prizes are big curvey turd-shaped things that are made up of a million little triangles of glass. The generation of architects who give awards tend to think of these things as amazingly complex feats of design, rather than what they are; tedious feats of computer programming. Now that the difference between designing a curvy building and designing a straight one is hiring a bloke who can work a 3-D modelling programme, these things stop being interesting. In much the same way, now that any old advert for Volvic Mineral Water can feature a CG tyrannosaurus, and Peter Jackson has shown that the only difference between five orcs storming Helm's Deep and six gazillion of them doing the same thing is a different type of software, no-one is going to be impressed by Doctor Who doing a CG scorpion-thing, even if you do stick Mark Gatiss' face on it.

So, rather than being something that's a disturbing degeneration of the human form (it's even too big to be anything to do with the human body), it's a computer-graphic of something or other. It's got no physicality, no presence. And it's rubbish.

If it was frightening, of course, the episode would still have its problems. It smacks of someone trying to do a traditional Doctor Who story, but misunderstanding exactly what Doctor Who does. In design terms it's surprisingly similar to the telemovie (remember that?), and suffers from the same problem: there's just not enough story, and the conclusion is shrouded in hand-waving technobabble about sound that drops into the story pretty much from nowhere. Factor in the way that Lazarus (rubbish name, by the way) seems to arbitrarily blur the line between faintly-nasty-man-who-kills-through-necessity and a rampaging bloodthirsty maniac and you're left with more handwaving where there should be characterisation (well, killing people is what monsters do). There's no sense of Lazarus trying to control or being tormented by his creature, so there's no real tension at the story's heart.

Ultimately, though... it's just dull. Fans of the old series will remember, possibly, the sense of howling embarrassment that lurks somewhere in every old Doctor Who story, the appearance of a dodgy Jagaroth mask or a big rubber snake or Magma Beast opening up any story to ridicule. Even the new series has its shameless moments of silliness, some intentional, some not, that leave the story open to be laughed at. There's nothing like that in The Lazarus Experiment; it's drearily competent from start to finish. Ultimately though, if I'd never seen Doctor Who before, there's very little here that would make me bother tuning in again. Tish looks nice in that dress, Tennant's flannelling with Mrs Jones is amusing, and his argument with Lazarus in the cathedral is atmospheric (even if no one really says anything surprising), but there's just nothing in this that hasn't been done somewhere else. Better.

In an up-and-down-but-ultimately-enjoyable season, The Lazarus Experiment seems to sum up everything that I don't want from Doctor Who. It's unimaginative, dull and if it wasn't perfectly generic it would barely exist at all. It's not even interesting enough to really dislike, and I think that's what I dislike about it most of all.


A Review by Graham Pilato 7/1/08

Unfortunately, as the Myrka monster of the original series' story Warriors of the Deep illustrates, there are monsters on Doctor Who that will age very poorly due to the improvement of FX over time. And I'm very afraid that the Lazarus monster is going to be one of those in only a few years' time. The monster in this story, while creepy to behold in concept and general appearance, is so obviously false and made entirely of CGI that it simply doesn't work that well at all. One really has to want it to work for it to do so.

Well, it would seem that if the TV you're watching it on isn't HD or you have some problems with the picture... perhaps you haven't got your glasses on or something... there might be some improvements. But this is really a case of the formula and the silliness of poorly thought-out scripting leading the way. The resurrection bit (well, his name IS Lazarus... sure... gimme a break!) was as ludicrous as the notion that "DNA is magic" here. Sorry. But this story needed several more drafts before it was through being made ready for consumption. The best bits are, of course, early on, before the sudden dramatic transformation completely to a ridiculously huge beast and then back... for no good reason other than to make a monster for the story. Suspense was out the door the moment this guy started killing... and unfortunately, even that was pretty expected.

I say, to really save this story from sucking blowfully (I know that's a silly mixed metaphor, but it's fun), I'd simply take a whole lot longer to get to full scary giant scorpion stage -- and not let that happen until the end. The urgency to get this show into a cathedral only to play organ music and watch a terribly contrived 'n' convenient end come is the same urgency just to do cool stuff for the sake of cool stuff; it made no sense. Good stories have reasons for the things that happen in them other than the fact that it looks pretty on the screen -- and of course, in this case with a woefully 1D looking CGI monster, it really doesn't look very good on the screen at all.

This is the first truly dreadful episode of New Who to my taste. One can be disappointed again and again, but still keep coming back to this show for the likes of episodes such as Blink, Gridlock and The Empty Child -- so I'm not in the least worried to see one or two real clunkers a year. But this is a pretty hugely flawed episode, unfortunately, with almost nothing but Mark Gatiss' pre-transformation twitching to disturb and bewilder enjoyably.

Though good enough to convey some basic aspects of character, Gatiss' performance as man with actual motivation beyond survival as a monster is quite brief, thus quite simplistic. Along the same lines, this entire season's coverage of Martha's family is exactly the same, as to make almost no real impact worth caring about. Lazarus' greed for accomplishment is clear, but not his urgency for youth. And who knows what drives the Jones family to such distraction. Keeping it simple makes for easy sympathy, generally, but this episode gets nothing from it when everything else just doesn't work.

Although, again, those scenes just before his transformation, when Lazarus is twitching and crackling, those are actually pretty effective, but that's it for the whole 45 minutes.

2/10