Written by: Stephen Greenhorn
Directed by: Richard Clarke
Of all the things to base a Doctor Who episode on, a risible instalment of Star Trek is one of the worst options. But that’s the case here, as Mark Gatiss’s professor tries to defeat ageing, only to end up with a bad case of Barclay’s Protomorphosis Syndrome...
If the reference sails over your heard, google “Genesis”, a season seven episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which an airborne virus starts “switching on” the crew’s dormant genes, transforming them into a variety of weird monsters. A truly bat’s arse-episode spun from nonsense science, it’s not the soundest foundation on which to build a new edifice.
That’s not the only problem with “The Lazarus Experiment”. It’s hard to think of a Who episode that shows its hand earlier. By sixteen minutes in, when the Lazarus-monster snacks on its first hapless victim, you know everything you need to know. After that it apes another template: a monster-on-the-loose B-movie that’s unafraid to toss in a cliché as hoary as “turn on all the gas taps and blow it up!” And “defeating the menace with amplified sound” should go on the production team’s list of banned clichés immediately – that’s its third outing in the last six stories, so you’d have to have the memory of a concussed goldfish not to be struck by deja vu. So yes, it’s quite easy to reduce this story to a tick list of familiar old bobbins.
And yet... the experience of watching it is something quite else, thanks to the quality of the execution. It’s slickly made, with horrendous deeds taking place in beautiful locations. The CGI monster is magnificent, possibly the production team’s finest new creation - check out that scene where it scutters along the floor and ceiling of a corridor. The script is played with gravitas and conviction; there isn’t a single bad performance, but Mark Gatiss’s icy, aloof turn as the crypto-fascist Lazarus is the stand-out.
Then there’s the general tone of the piece, which is curiously grown-up . You don’t expect to find references to TS Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” in Doctor Who, and some of Stephen Greenhorn’s dialogue is equally lyrical: take Lazarus’s line about “the living cowering amongst the dead”. Give David Tennant fine and noble words and you end up with something special, and his under-played head-to-head with Lazarus in the cathedral is one of his best moments as the Doctor. Again, their debate is one that SF fans will have seen played out before, but it’s so beautifully written that it would be churlish to sneer. Chuck in some amusing interplay with Martha’s family and a deepening of the mystery surrounding the mysterious Mr Saxon, and you have an episode that, against all the odds, works.
“The Lazarus Experiment” is a bit of a hybridised monster itself, constantly struggling to contain its DTV DNA. Sometimes it devolves into a rampaging riff on The Relic. But when it matters, it’s able to retain both its intelligence and its humanity.
Best line: “You think history is only made with equations?”