It’d be all too easy to write off “The Lazarus Experiment” as Season Three’s transitional episode, because, like “The Long Game” and “The Idiot’s Lantern” before it, that’s exactly what it is. Unlike the previous two outings, however, this has a firm grasp on what a transitional episode can really be. “Lazarus” shows obvious signs that the season is actually headed somewhere. Its strength lies not in its plot (which appears deceptively simple), but in its approach to character. Best example? Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) finally struts some serious companion wares and all of a sudden her chasing around of the Doctor (David Tennant) makes a lot more sense.
In the opening scene, the Doctor returns Martha to her time and place—and unlike the similar setup in the first season’s “Aliens of London”—he gets it right. It’s been less than 24 hours since she left; she hasn’t been missed and nobody’s asking, “What happened to Martha Jones?” The events here, in fact, are the flipside of “Aliens of London”: The Doctor wants to bid farewell to his companion, not hang around while she gathers her stuff and says hello to mum. His companion’s family, rather than being outsiders viewing pivotal events from afar, is central to the goings-on. Probably most noticeable is Francine Jones’ (Adjoa Andoh) attitude toward the Doctor. Throughout “Lazarus”, shadowy, governmental type figures plant ideas in Francine’s head about the dubious nature of the Doctor. None of them go directly for the Doctor himself, but rather seem alarmingly aware that the easiest way to get to him is through his companion—and the easiest way to get to her is through her family. Francine isn’t a case of Jackie Tyler redux—this woman means business:
Francine: (smacks the Doctor across the face) “Keep away from my daughter!”
Martha: “Mum, what are you doing?”
The Doctor: (rubbing his jaw) “Again with the mothers. It’s always the mothers.”
Francine: (to Martha) “He is dangerous. I’ve been told things.”
Mark Gatiss brings Dr. Richard Lazarus to life, not once but twice. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he wrote the aforementioned “The Idiot’s Lantern” as well as Season One’s “The Unquiet Dead”. I wasn’t overly fond of either script (“Lantern” was last season’s low point), but he owns the screen as an actor and his work here is his tightest contribution to new Who yet. Lazarus isn’t even an especially innovative creation—a mad scientist making himself young feels about as fresh as a new Freddy Krueger flick—and yet Gatiss really sells the guy despite the script’s hackneyed contrivances. Gatiss is a life-long Who fan and as such knows that a stock Who villain can work as long as the actor imbues the role with the importance of Shakespeare. It’s no minor achievement to upstage David Tennant’s Doctor, but Gatiss repeatedly does just that. (Although I doubt he’d ever be cast as the Doctor, he’d likely excel in the role.) His final scene on the church floor is priceless:
Lazarus: “I came here before—a lifetime ago. I thought I was going to die then. In fact, I was sure of it. I sat here—just a child—the sound of planes and bombs outside.”
The Doctor: “The Blitz.”
Lazarus: “You read about it.”
The Doctor: “I was there.”
Lazarus: “You’re too young.”
The Doctor: “So are you.”
(Lazarus laughs and then arches his back in pain.)
There’s a fair amount of hypocrisy in the Doctor’s dealings with Lazarus. The Time Lord can rejuvenate himself, but a mere human isn’t allowed to shoot for the same. Unfortunately for Lazarus, he seems to have been a pawn in a much bigger game, given that his entire experiment was funded by the yet to be revealed Mr. Saxon. Indeed, it speaks volumes about the seemingly unimportant nature of his work that Saxon couldn’t be bothered to show up for its unveiling. Yet the Doctor remains blissfully unaware of this Saxon figure.
First time Who writer Stephen Greenhorn packs his script with stellar dialogue and elevates the proceedings above the banal central construct. I could quote line after line and it’d end up being half the teleplay. (It’s no surprise that he’s been lined up to pen an episode for Season Four.) His story isn’t really about an old man becoming young, but about the Doctor and Martha’s relationship and their need to develop a tighter bond. What was intended to be one trip in the TARDIS has turned into something bigger for both of them, although neither seems entirely sure what that something is. Martha is proving to be the anti-Rose. Rose was high maintenance—she’s gone and the Doctor’s still maintaining their relationship. Martha doesn’t ask for much more than to be seen as worthy of some of his attention. It’d be easy to write her off due to the pair lacking the intense Doctor/Rose dynamic, but it’s the lack of that closeness that makes for an intriguing friendship. Why does Martha believe so strongly in this man who doesn’t seem to believe in her? As the episode draws to a close, the Doctor invites Martha for “one more trip” in the TARDIS. She asserts that she doesn’t want to be “just a passenger anymore”. He happily relents and seals the deal with, “You were never really just a passenger, were you?”
As the TARDIS dematerializes, Francine leaves a frantic message on Martha’s answering machine:
Francine: “Martha! It’s your mother. Please call me back. I’m begging you. I know who this Doctor really is. I know he’s dangerous. You’re going to get yourself killed! Please trust me. This information comes from Harold Saxon himself. You’re not safe!”
Oh yeah…one more thing—bitchin’ CGI monster!
Ross Ruediger is a San Antonio-based critic and columnist, a contributor to The House Next Door, and publisher of The Rued Morgue.
NEXT WEEK: Doctor Who goes all Jack Bauer on your ass in the real-timed and coolly-titled “42”.
Classic Who DVD Recommendation of the Week: The old series did transitional episodes, too. Check out “The Keeper of Traken”—the penultimate Tom Baker story, which introduced a new companion (Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa) and also saw the return of one of Who’s classic villains.