|Yeah, but at least my head isn’t covered in penises.
It’s May 5th, 2007. Beyonce and Shakira are still at number one, with Avril Lavigne, Ne-Yo, Mika, and Gym Class Heroes also charting. In news, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation acquires the Wall Street Journal, the Labour Party gets whacked in local and regional elections, and on the day this story airs, Floyd Mayweather Jr. defeats Oscar De La Hoya in what is apparently the highest grossing boxing match ever.
Clearly something in the air, because Doctor Who decides that what it really needs is a story that’s basically all action sequences. With Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks there was at least enough going on that we could play the quasi-entertaining game of simply ignoring quality entirely. With The Lazarus Experiment this becomes harder – there is simply not a heck of a lot going on in this story. At around the fifteen minute mark it switches into action set pieces, and it stays there until the end with almost no scenes doing anything else. This is not an episode that has much in mind beyond spectacle.
Structurally, we have another case of “let’s update one of the non-classic Doctor Who formats.” By legend, Malcolm Hulke, in complaining that the earthbound structure of the Pertwee era was a bad idea, claimed that there were now only two viable Doctor Who plots – aliens invade, and mad scientists. As it turned out only one of these had much in the way of legs – the UNIT era became known for alien invasions, which became a classic approach that Doctor WHo is obliged to go back to periodically. Mad scientist plots, meanwhile, basically dropped out of the series – there are basically no “pure” mad scientist stories – i.e. ones with no aliens – after Robot (yes, you can make a case for counting Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel, but I don’t want to).
So The Lazarus Experiment is basically The Mind of Evil without creepy racism. And, you know, with the prison raid stretched out to half an hour. Fair enough – it is indeed an odd discarded subgenre of Doctor Who. The problem is that there’s nothing much more than “ooh, let’s do this genre” here. It is, as mentioned, a staggeringly vacant episode, its purposes seeming to be esoteric.
First among them is giving Mark Gatiss a 40th birthday present (literally – it filmed on his birthday) and letting him appear in a proper episode of Doctor Who. It is, in many ways, the part he was born to play – Gatiss is an extremely mannered actor, and clearly revels in the opportunity to do various standards of the well-regarded art of Doctor Who acting. He’s particularly good at “I am turning into a monster” spasms and that ever-important Doctor Who standard, the “I have just eaten somebody” face.
But he doesn’t have anything that can accurately be called a character here. There’s a bunch of effort to give him a bunch of World War II memories, but they all come after the point that he’s been obviously established as a villain, so it’s frankly tough to care by that point. “Oh, the obviously evil guy is reminiscing about the past with his obviously evil financial backer. Oh look, now he’s eating her.” And the final chinwag of the Doctor and Lazarus flounders because Richard Clark inexplicably decides on facial closeups for everything, losing the sense of grandeur that the story tries to gin together by setting the finale in a cathedral.
Still, for the first time since Simon Pegg we have someone who is both good at and enjoying Doctor Who acting. Mark Gatiss sees the scenery and hungers for its flesh, but he also knows how to go about it, and he’s obviously having a ball. Put another way, whatever this story’s weaknesses are, and there are many, Gatiss elevates it to watchability. In this regard, the story is even more of a Pertwee homage. The basic virtue of the Letts era was “don’t fuck it up,” which they managed with fairly ruthless efficiency. There’s a similar virtue in play in the Davies era. By empowering every department to contribute to the storytelling, Davies has built himself a sizable cushion so that, for instance, when the writing falls down on its face (as it does here) at least some of the slack is picked up by other departments. (And not just acting – the Lazarus monster is an impressive feat too. Its one apparent weakness, the kind of awkward model of Mark Gatiss’s face – turns into a virtue when the mouth opens in a bizarrely inhuman way that makes the face look like a weird vestigial trait instead of an actual face.)
He’s only really up a creek when a story is systematically misconceived on every possible level such that everyone goes dutifully and productively marching in a completely absurd and ill-advised direction, as in Fear Her, or, yes, let’s admit it, Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks. (Which is the same problem Letts had, at least prior to everybody burning out into cratering indifference for Season Twelve, hence The Time Monster.)
The other thing that’s interesting about The Lazarus Experiment is that it heavily advances the role of Martha in the series. But there’s something odd about this. The brief outlines of characterization we got for her family in Smith and Jones don’t really have time to be expanded here because of the pressing need for more things to explode. This has mixed effects, most, though not all of which, are problematic.
Worst-served is Francine, whose two character traits become “cranky” and “doesn’t like the Doctor.” This one probably comes off a bit worse in the US than the UK, since the “angry black woman” stereotype isn’t as prevalent there, but it remains an absolutely dire bit of characterization. Much like Professor Lazarus, it fails to realize that it’s a lot easier to have a sympathetic character become the antagonist than it is to get anyone to care about the antagonist’s problems.
It’s worth comparing Francine to the character her arc inverts, Jackie Tyler. Jackie is also a mother who doesn’t particularly get on with the Doctor (at least for her first season). But in Jackie’s case she gets an entire episode in which she’s a primary character who doesn’t particularly interact with the Doctor, and then has the Doctor be responsible for something truly and genuinely horrific that happens to her (having her daughter go missing for a year). Only after that does she become in the least bit antagonistic towards the Doctor.
Francine, on the other hand, hates the Doctor because… erm… some guy in a suit told her nasty things. And she starts mistrusting him before that, because apparently it’s appalling and unheard of that Martha would have a date to a formal event. This is not great. But what’s really strange is that this isn’t just one aspect of Martha and her family. On the one hand The Lazarus Experiment is a story about Martha and her family, but on the other it’s bewilderingly hostile to them.
The crux of this is Martha herself. The story starts with something that happens here for only the second time in televised Doctor Who: the Doctor fires a companion. What’s shocking here is that there’s no visible reason for it. It’s not for Martha’s own good. It’s not visibly some post-Rose angst. Davies and Tennant consciously started the season with the sense that the Doctor isn’t really in full adventuring mode in a large part because he recognizes that Donna’s “you need someone to stop you” advice was accurate, and there’s a clear sense of him having auditioned Martha. There’s certainly nothing articulable that Martha has done wrong as a companion. And, of course, the audience largely knows she’s around to stay. The result is that the Doctor’s obvious reluctance to take Martha on as a full-time companion comes off primarily as a criticism of her. Yes, there’s the eventual “you were never just a passenger” line, but this line runs up awkwardly against the fact that the Doctor really does leave Martha at the beginning of the story. (Indeed, you can insert an arbitrary number of missing adventures in that gap.)
But this seems also to be the point of Martha as a companion. In a storyline about the Doctor’s hubris, his dismissal and marginalization of Martha when she is, in practice, the most capable human companion ever is appalling in all the right ways. Indeed, much of this extends intriguingly from Martha’s status as not-Rose. In the end, the reason the Doctor overlooks Martha, in the general case, is the continuing focus on Rose as the platonic ideal of companions. Which is to say that the problem with Martha is that she’s not the massively popular and famous pop star.
There are problems underlying this balance that come to the fore in the Davies era’s resolution, yes. But at least in Season Three, this really does seem to be the arc. The point isn’t, here, at least, Martha’s unrequited love for the Doctor, it’s that the Doctor is wrong in his rejection of her. This comes to a head in the season finale, of course, in which Martha saves the entire world more or less single-handedly, and in doing so realizes that she deserves not to be treated as the second choice. Which is absolutely true.
The problem, of course, is that the series is ultimately trying to have it both ways when it can’t, really. In the end, of course, Davies is never going to sell Doctor Who down the river and proclaim that it doesn’t deserve to be the greatest and best show on television. In the end, we know where the balance gets struck – the Doctor’s hubris is just another narrative collapse. It calls the structures of the series into doubt, then triumphantly but tragically reasserts them.
Which is the problem here, ultimately. Martha is used to advance a plot that’s not really about her, and more to the point, she’s marginalized for it. The result works within this season, but is also why, after her departure, the character becomes quite a problem character. Because the series has given the Doctor’s endorsement to not really liking Martha. It really becomes difficult to get that invested in her after that. Not impossible, but you’re actively reading against the grain of the series at that point.
But honestly, if we’re looking for reasons Martha doesn’t quite work… there are other ones. Freema Agyeman is probably one of them. She’s not a bad actress by any measure, but she’s limited in her range. Again, this isn’t a problem. But what Agyeman is good at is conveying spunk. This is probably the single most important task for the modern companion, but it’s not the only one. And Agyeman has what can charitably be called limitations. In particular, she’s really not very good at displaying animated passions, not having a lot of tricks beyond “talk louder and put the emphasis on every single syllable.”
That’s not a huge problem for Martha in this specific season, where her character brief really does just amount to “be terribly clever.” She can do that, and do it well. But it does mean that she is, in many ways, a character designed for a specific narrative role in a specific context, and that she doesn’t quite work outside of it, much as, for example, Turlough never really works right after Enlightenment. It’s not that she’s bad as such – and it surely doesn’t help that her three episodes of Season Four are by any reasonable standard the runts of the litter.
But int he end the problem is simpler – she’s designed for one specific narrative problem. She’s the companion the Doctor arrogantly overlooks. She’s the one that deserved better. And in a bizarre and ironic way, that kept her from actually working better. Because the depth of character she’d need if the series fully embraced her never developed. The cruelest and saddest thing, then, is that it could have been different. It seems strange to separate the character from the actress, but given an actress with the range to do more than was initially asked of her (and again, Agyeman was perfect for what Martha actually does in the season she was hired for) and a world where one of the key stories in her evolution wasn’t a mindless action episode that shunted characterization off to the side, we could have had a companion that everyone recognizes as one of the greats.
In an odd way, this is all too fitting for Martha. In Season Three, she’s the character who deserved better. That doesn’t just describe her treatment by the Doctor, but how she’s written and how she’s acted. And while I love Season Three, I wish I lived in the world where she got it.