I may have stumbled across the most random story ever.
Early on in The Lazarus Experiment, the Doctor (David Tennant) is on his way to drinks and canapes before the mad scientist kicks off, and notes that there’s always trouble when he wears a tuxedo. But companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) reckons he looks like James Bond, prompting some grudging approval from the Doctor. And with its madman millionaire, glamorous party, big shiny technology and spunky lady scientists (hey they must be scientists, right? They’re wearing lab coats), we are kind of in the same territory. Although I can’t think of a Bond villain who transformed into a bug eyed monster or a film where Bond defeated said villain with an organ solo.
It’s a shame that this story didn’t follow The Mutants, which is also about humanoid transformation into insectoid beast. There’s even a shot of a knobbly spine protruding from Professor (again, of which University?) Lazarus’s (Mark Gatiss) back, Solonian style. It fits in well with a number of other references to the Pertwee era, like reversing the polarity, and indeed, a formally dressed Doctor battling a suave villain. The Pert is sometimes labelled the James Bond of Doctors too, but I never saw a Bond movie with an old yellow banger instead of an Aston Martin and a Bea Arthur perm instead of short back and sides.
Then there are the references to TS Eliot, with the quoting of The Hollow Men and a murder in a cathedral. And the allusion to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And referencing Spinal Tap. And most prominently, the Gospel according to John. What do all these texts have in common? Well nothing, as far as I can tell. They’re all just window dressing.
Underneath all the metatextuality (oh yes, I did film studies at uni)The Lazarus Experiment has a straightforward plot. So simple I doubt it would get of first draft stage in these famously mind bending Moffat years. Lazarus has a machine which will restore his youth, but it malfunctions and turns him into a monster. Then the race is on to kill him before he kills again. This the Doctor does, but he’s not quiet dead and the race starts again. Next time the Doctor gets it right. It’s basic stuff, but it’s livened up with chases and explosions and general hi jinks.
Lazarus is one of a select group of villains who want a second go at life, or to massively extend their first one. President Borusa wanted immortality, Queen Xanxia chewed up planets to keep herself alive and Scaroth wanted to rewrite his own life. “You’ve thrown the dice once,” the Doctor says to that last one. “You don’t get a second throw.” He could have well said that to Lazarus too because the message is the same. Folks seeking immortality or eternal youth are bad news on Who. They want to pervert the natural order of things, by denying the inevitability of aging and dying. It’s a desire that the series won’t abide.
Lazarus manages to knock off a few deadly sins along the way. His greed for money is clear, as is his gluttony, as he wolfs down a plate of nibbles. He lusts after Tish (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and his pride definitely comes before his fall. And of course he murders a couple of folks. One of which, I’m right behind him on.
When Lazarus transforms into a slathering beast, the Doctor tries to warn the assembled thrill seekers that they’re in danger. But there’s one particularly sniffy woman – let’s call her Olive – who’s not having a bar of it. “The biggest danger here is choking on an olive!”, says Olive. Has there ever been a less convincing line? (Well, sure, but go with me) So irritating. I’m glad when she’s desiccated by Lazarus shortly after.
Then there’s Mr Saxon and Martha’s Mum and a snog with a septuagenarian and… Blimey, what does all this miscellany of random things mean? All those references, all these odd little moments make this story feel as patchwork as the Lazarus monster itself. If I was feeling harsh I’d say what this story lacks is a clear and consistent central theme. Again, think back to The Mutants. Not the best story ever, but at least with its critique of colonialism it’s about one thing, not a crazy mix of things. (That and it also does that thing where the story stops and restarts which you may recall I’m not a fan of.)
But true to form there’s another moment which is perfectly formed. Having snuck off to the cathedral, Lazarus is having a little quiet time. The Doctor confronts him, and they have a conversation about London during the Blitz. The Doctor says he was there. “You’re too young” dismisses Lazarus. “So are you” replies the Doctor. A lovely couple of lines, beautifully performed, that remind us that we’re watching two old men trapped inside young men’s bodies, and a quintessential Doctor Who moment. We’re miles away from James Bond.
Now, I promised you a female orgasm joke. It comes when the Doctor and Martha are trapped in Lazarus’s overloading gizmo. They are jammed up against each other when the Doctor pulls out his sonic screwdriver, gently buzzing to itself. ‘What are you going to do with that?’ ask Martha. ‘Improvise’ promises the Doctor and then sinks down to skirt level, a flirty look on his face. Well, we know from The Curse of Fatal Death that it has three settings.
ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: ‘He was biding us time’, says Tish. Er, no he was buying you time.
LINK TO The Snowmen: in each a character falls to their death from a great height.
NEXT TIME: Did you wish really hard? Because it’s time to meet The Doctor’s Wife.