Doctor Who’s third season starts to approach its midway point with “The Lazarus Experiment”, or as I like to call it, the one where the Doctor fights the white Scorpion King. As you would expect from a Dalek episode, the previous two-parter got pretty intense, since the Doctor and Martha just barely stopped the Daleks from obliterating New York City. The next couple of episodes will also be pretty intense, between the Doctor being possessed by a malevolent entity while he’s trying to stop a spaceship from plunging into a living sun, and the Family of Blood coming for the Doctor and Martha in hiding, waging war on a tiny village. So “The Lazarus Experiment” serves as a breather episode, a chance for the Doctor and Martha to get their bearings and reassess some things that need to be said when they pop back to Martha’s hometown for a smaller adventure.
There are two main storylines in this episode, one involving the Doctor, Martha and Martha’s family, and another one involving Richard Lazarus’s failed attempt to create a fountain of youth, and the former subplot is a lot more interesting than the latter. “The Lazarus Experiment” is one of the lighter episodes we’ve seen so far this season in terms of plot (though not to the extent of “The Shakespeare Code“). There is some character work done, especially for the titular villain, but about half of the episode is a non-stop runaround devoted to the Doctor and Martha chasing Professor Lazarus or being chased by him (and one downside of that is that the CGI work for Professor Lazarus’s scorpion form is really, really dodgy). I do like that “The Lazarus Experiment” has two climaxes. Stephen Greenhorn includes a fake one at the end of the second act, when the Doctor and Martha seemingly kill Lazarus (which will surely confuse people keeping track of the clock), and then a real one when the man comes right back and forces them to fight him in a cathedral.
Something I really like about Series 3 is how well every episode flows into each other; even by Doctor Who’s usual standards, the continuity in this series is very tight. When the Tenth Doctor brought Martha onboard the TARDIS in “Smith And Jones“, he promised her one trip into the past as a token of his gratitude. He’s been happily stretching out his offer ever since because he’s really been enjoying having company in the TARDIS and jaunting about time and space with a friend again. However, in their last adventure, they had a deadly encounter with the Daleks, his greatest enemy, where they almost died several times, and plenty of good people who weren’t as fortunate as them did get murdered horribly. Not to mention, the last time the Doctor encountered the Daleks, Rose was trapped in a parallel universe for the rest of her life. So the Doctor has decided to bite the bullet, nip this one trip thing in the bud and take Martha back to the safety of her home, before anything else happens.
However, he clearly doesn’t want to go through with saying goodbye and keeps looking for an excuse to stick around, like Professor Lazarus setting off some serious red flags with his radical research to buck the laws of nature and try to become immortal. It’s implied that Lazarus’s technique to rejuvenating himself has some similarities to time lord regeneration. The time lords were a very advanced race, well ahead of mankind, and their science was very dangerous, so the Doctor knows Lazarus is playing with fire and he can’t foresee all the possible consequences of messing with his DNA. He tries to impress that on the man, but of course he doesn’t listen. Ten is willing to tolerate Lazarus’s foolishness and arrogance, up until the point where it starts to become a real threat to everyone else in the area. The Doctor reprimands him at every opportunity, but it’s clear that he also wants to educate him, like a parent scolding a child.
Ten is nine hundred years old – he’s outlived his children, his grandchildren, and many of his friends – and he can safely say that the common human fantasy of living forever is not all that it’s cracked up to be. “The Lazarus Experiment” is one of those episodes like “School Reunion” that reminds the audience that underneath his pretty boy looks and his youthful demeanor, Ten is easily, comfortably, the oldest character in this show. It’s always an interesting side to see from Ten, a perky restless Doctor who’s always bouncing around and loves to live in the moment, and it’s an interesting angle for David Tenannt to portray, letting his Doctor become more tired and weary and cynical than he usually is, giving him gravitas.
The Doctor and Professor Lazarus have a very bitter dynamic throughout the episode: they’re both two old, nostalgic geniuses with deceptively young bodies, trading jabs and philosophical quotes, attacking each other for their idealism and selfishness. But between the two, Ten is easily the one with more life experience, wisdom gained from pain and loss and heartbreak. When Professor Lazarus dies and his body reverts back to its original elderly form, I’ve always found the stony scowl the Doctor gives him, while nonetheless closing his empty eyes so he can rest in peace, telling. The man was an unrepentant monster, and Ten quite rightly regarded him as a mad dog that needed to be put down for everyone else’s safety, but a part of him still pitied the man for his madness. Mind you, it’s pretty ironic and a bit funny in retrospect that Ten is the one who keeps scolding Lazarus that accepting death is a part of life and everyone has to do it eventually. Because when it was Ten’s turn to bow out and regenerate into Eleven, he did not go quietly – like at all. It turns out giving someone else that advice is easy, but putting your money where your mouth is when you’re the one who’s on death’s door is quite a bit more difficult.
Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) is quite rightly shocked when it seems like her voyage of a lifetime with the Doctor has come to an end. Neither of them are ready for it to be over yet, but they have to decide if they really want to continue onwards together or go their separate ways. By this point, they’ve gotten pretty chummy together and they understand each other’s personalities to the point where they think on the same wavelength sometimes, becoming partners in crime. With her extensive medical knowledge and her own code of ethics, we’re once again shown how much fun it can be having two doctors in the TARDIS, as Ten and Martha spend the whole episode analyzing Lazarus’ research, trading comments on his methods. Attending Lazarus’s gala is an opportunity for them to have a fun formal night out, and a chance for her to meet up with her family again. Martha loves her family, but she also realizes that they can be a bit frustrating and overbearing, and she likes having some space from them. However, she is still fiercely protective of her little sister from predators like Lazarus trying to take advantage of her.
Following up on her character development from “Evolution Of The Daleks“, Martha continues to become a more proactive sidekick and is more prone to taking initiative, with or without the Doctor asking her to. Stephen Greenhorn’s script gives her plenty of opportunities to show off how crafty, brave and resourceful she can be. While the Doctor distracts Lazarus, Martha is the one who takes charge during the crisis at his gala and gets all his terrified guests to safety, and she later risks her life luring the professor into a trap to get rid of him once and for all. By the end, Ten and Martha both acknowledge that they make a great team, but she still puts her foot down and lays down some important conditions if they’re going to commit to traveling together onwards. As an official companion now, the ice is broken between them as good friends, and they set out to have some more fantastic adventures together for the rest of Series 3.
After the minor establishing roles they had in the series opener, “The Lazarus Experiment” is our first major introduction to the Jones family, particularly Martha’s mother and her sister. I don’t know why, but for some reason, Russell T. Davies really liked to give his companions nosy, overbearing mothers to gain audience sympathy for them (and if you notice, they get progressively worse until you reach Donna’s mom, Sylvia, who is just awful). Martha’s mom, Francine, is characterized as a rather clannish, prying and haughty woman. She quickly picks up on how close Martha and the Doctor are, seemingly out of nowhere, and grows suspicious of him, especially when Martha starts acting wildly out of character to cover for him, hiding things from the others.
Her suspicions quickly grow into motherly concern when Martha prioritizes helping the Doctor over staying with her family during a crisis, running towards a murderous monster. Since Martha refuses to explain anything, Francine misconstrues her loyalty to the Doctor as the man outright brainwashing her with some kind of sick relationship. The show has done this kind of conflict before with Jackie in “Aliens Of London“, but Nine and Rose set the record straight there quickly, allowing Jackie to grow as a character over time. With Francine, this failure to communicate will go unchallenged for the rest of the season, with faults on both sides, putting her in the perfect position to be manipulated by Harold Saxon, who’s feeding her lies to turn her against the Doctor. But on the bright side, things work out a lot better with Martha’s sister, Tish. The two are already pretty close siblings: even if they bicker, even if they don’t understand each other, they’ll always have each other’s backs. And after Tish gets a taste of the sort of life Martha lives with the Doctor, gaining a different perspective of her sister, the two wind up closer than ever.
After the last two-parter was centered around the Daleks practicing mad science in secret to try to change their species, we get an another episode about a would-be visionary practicing dangerous mad science, hoping to break down some boundaries, courtesy of Richard Lazarus. Mark Gatiss has never made it any secret that he’s a massive Doctor Who fanboy: after leaping at the chance to join the Doctor Who revival in Series 1, he would go on to write numerous episodes throughout the show’s first ten seasons (particularly during the Moffat era), so landing a starring role as Professor Lazarus in this episode, being part of the magic on the other side of the camera for a change, must have been an exciting day for Mark. He’s clearly have a blast turning in an icy, sinister, wistful performance in his classical villain role.
Professor Lazarus is a brilliant man, but he’s also cocky, arrogant, pompous and hubristic. He grew up during World War II, where he nearly died helplessly during a hellish bombing siege, and ever since then, he’s become obsessed with conquering death any way that he can and making a name for himself. As a self-proclaimed visionary, Lazarus is unsatisfied with the way he’s spent his life – bitter and vain and chained to a shallow, greedy woman he clearly doesn’t care for – so he longs to do his life over again, rejuvenate himself and gain immortality through the power of science. It’s a fool’s dream if ever there was one. Even before things start to go horribly wrong, Lazarus is shown to be a vain, condescending, self-important and deeply selfish man. Once he’s gotten what he’s needed from his ‘lover’ Lady Thaw, he abandons her to enjoy his new youth, letting his true disgust for her show. Of course, the professor bit off a bit more than he could chew. Like all good things in life, his new mutation comes at a steep price.
The only way he can sustain himself for long is to feed off the life-force of others, ravenously steal their youth like a vampire, complete with a transformation into a giant CGI scorpion creature. You would expect him to be unsettled by this turn of events, like a doomed protagonist in a horror movie, but the disturbing thing is how quickly he accepts this predicament and acts upon it of his own free will. He considers the deaths of lesser people to be an acceptable cost, a necessary evil, to maintain his own fountain of youth. Lazarus is truly a monster because of his personality, not his affliction. And he was already implied to have a predatory mindset before his transformation, now he’s become an actual predator.
The last couple of episodes have really stressed the fact that humans are tough, clever and resilient creatures, and extremely good at finding ways to adapt and survive, even in hellish conditions. “The Lazarus Experiment” is the first episode to suggest that that might not always be a good thing. When humans refuse to accept that death is a natural part of life, when they stubbornly cling to life at all costs, to the point of madness, to the point of defying nature, it can twist them into something monstrous, something evil. It’s an interesting thematic counterpart to the last couple of episodes, which have largely portrayed human nature in a positive light, and also major foreshadowing for the finale, which has that notion play out on a much larger scale with the Toclafane. At the end of the day, Lazarus is fittingly killed in the place where his madness began a long time ago, and in a rather impressive feat, Stephen Greenhorn manages to get you to feel just a speck of pity for this twisted, tiny man. So far, a major overarching theme in Series 3 has been the human experience, what it actually means to be a human being (the good, the bad and everything in-between) – so it’s only fitting that the Doctor will getting be a taste of a human life himself in two more episodes.
Like “Gridlock“, “The Lazarus Experiment” is helmed by Richard Clark, a director who knows how to choose his shots carefully to visually tell an engaging story and build up a large amount of kinetic energy. I noticed he once again shows a fondness for full rotating shots, when Lazarus chases the Doctor down a hallway, gratuitously scaling the walls to do so, and the gliding angles Richard uses when the Doctor and Lazarus have their final one-on-one talk are just what the episode needed. The bulk of the episode was filmed in Cardiff, as per usual for the series, while the final act of “The Lazarus Experiment” was filmed in Southwark Cathedral and Wells Cathedral. Considering the villain’s biblical namesake, it only felt appropriate that the climax be set inside a church, for some twisted religious imagery.
When it comes to The Mill’s work, “The Lazarus Experiment” has some of the worst CGI we’ve seen from the show since Series 2. CGI is good at creating landscapes or astronomical objects – for example, the visual effects for the living sun in the next episode still look great after twelve years, along with the effects used for Lazarus’s machine – but something CGI is not good at (without a budget of several million dollars) is creating and rendering flesh and blood creatures. It doesn’t help that the design for Lazarus’ scorpion form is basically a human face plastered onto a CGI animal’s body, which never looks good, but I digress. “The Lazarus Experiment” is a pretty run-of-the-mill, mid-season episode for Murray Gold’s score, and as a result, nearly all the music from this episode is unreleased (though there is some nice electronic material used during the climax). Since the plot is centered around Martha and her family for the most part, Murray writes several new arrangements of “Martha’s Theme”, including a sweet instrumental rendition of it that a band performs at Lazarus’s gala.
“The Lazarus Experiment” is a pretty standard episode of Doctor Who, and in a season filled with good material, I wouldn’t say it’s one of the standout adventures from Series 3; however, it does develop Ten and Martha’s dynamic well and puts some very important pieces in place for the latter half of the season.
* “No, I’m sorry, did he say he was going to change what it means to be human?!”
* “Oh, black tie. Whenever I wear this, something bad always happens” “That’s not the outfit, that’s just you. Anyway, I think it suits you. In a James Bond kind of way” “James Bond? Really?”
* “Tonight, you all will watch and wonder. Tomorrow, you’ll wake to a world which will be changed forever”.
* “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Richard Lazarus. I am seventy-six years old and I am reborn!”
* Professor Lazarus was funded by Mr. Harold Saxon, who is a genius, every bit as clever as the Doctor: one good look at Lazarus’s research would have told him that it never had a snowball’s chance in hell at working. But one, he wanted to lay a trap for the Doctor and Martha, and two, all that beautiful chaos, death and destruction that would ensue from Lazarus’s stupidity – how could the Master resist encouraging it?
* “Oh, my God. Did that just change? But it can’t have” “But it did” “It’s impossible” “And that’s two impossible things we’ve seen so far tonight. Don’t you love it when that happens?”
* “We had a plan! When the device is ready, I’ll be rejuvenated, too. We could be rich and young and together” “You really think I’d waste another lifetime on you?” Hot damn, Richard.
* “It doesn’t work like that. Some people live more in twenty years than others do in eighty. It’s not the time that matters, it’s the person” “But if it’s the right person, what a gift that would be” “Or what a curse. Look at what you’ve done to yourself” “Who are you to judge me?”
* “It’s no good, Doctor. You can’t stop me” “Is that the same arrogance you had when you swore nothing had gone wrong with your device?” “The arrogance is yours. You can’t stand in the way of progress“.
* “You mean you don’t have a plan?!” “Yes, the plan was to get inside here” “And then what?!” “Well, then I’d come up with another plan”.
* “WE’RE GONNA END UP LIKE HIM!” I’m guessing Martha didn’t want to become the Scorpion Queen.
* “He seems so human again. It’s kind of pitiful” “Eliot saw that, too. This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but with a whimper”.
* “Ah, Mrs. Jones. We still haven’t finished our chat-” “Keep away from my daughter!” “Always the mothers, every time”.
* “Facing death is part of being human. You can’t change that” “No, Doctor. Avoiding death, that’s being human. It’s our strongest impulse, to cling to life with every fiber of being. I’m only doing what everyone before me has tried to do. I’ve simply been more successful“.
* “I’m old enough to know that a longer life isn’t always a better one. In the end, you just get tired. Tired of the struggle, tired of losing everyone that matters to you, tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you’ll end up alone” “That’s a price worth paying” “Is it?”