The Time Meddler
Love and War
The Brain of Morbius
|Dates||Jan. 3, 1976 -
Jan. 24, 1976
With Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen.
Written by Robin Bland (Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes).
Script-edited by Robert Holmes.
Directed by Christopher Barry. Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe.
|Synopsis: The Time Lords send the Doctor to the planet Karn where he discovers an odd scientist and a sisterhood guarding a powerful resource.|
So There's Another Evil Time Lord? by Adrian Loder 6/10/97
Tom Baker has perhaps the most unenviable role of all the actors that have played the Doctor in this respect: that over his 8-year tenure as the fourth doctor, he was guaranteed to be handed a number of truly lousy scripts, in addition to some of the gems such as Genesis of the Daleks and Logopolis. But if there's one thing that gems and duds share it's that they both get lots and lots of attention.
What, then, happens to a story such as The Brain of Morbius, which has it's flaws (a pretty simple plot), but is also highly entertaining; in short, one of the many, many, many fair-to middling storylines that the Tom Baker years brought to us.
In this fan's opinion, what should happen with The Brain of Morbius is approximately what seems to have happened with episodes such as The Five Doctors; forget about any kind of extreme complexity, forget about lots of sci-fi tech jargon, just sit back and enjoy the mayhem. For this is where The Brain of Morbius' strengths lie. Watch the brain pulsate. Watch the Doctor get chased around by Morbius in some crazy insect body. Even watch some bug-creature get killed within the opening minutes of the first episode of this storyline.
And we might as well mention that all the characterizations are done superbly. Sarah Jane is perfect at being...well, what she always is, nosy, explorative, easily frightened but curious, and quite intelligent, all done within the frame of trying to convince these wacky women to help you out because this psychopath has taken an evil Time Lord's brain and done gone and stuck it in a crazy insect shell. As for the Doctor, he is, well, Tom Baker doing what he does best. Suffice to say, he's like that here, too. The Sisterhood is, well, solemn, and convincingly so; they make their anger felt very well, and everything, even their generosity, is tempered with.....sulleness. And as for Morbius, whoever played him does a good job being the typical power-hungry, eager-for-revenge psycho.
Not an extremely clever or emotionally revealing story, but certainly an episode that, in its upfrontness, is stronger than it is weak.
A Review by Michael Hickerson 20/5/98
For years fans complained about the shoddy treatment this "classic" of the Tom Baker years had received when the BBC released it on video. Thirty minutes were cut from this story, making the total running time just under an hour. A few years ago the BBC saw the error of their ways (and a potential for making the fans purchase the same story twice!) and released the complete "collector's edition" onto video.
But why all the hoopla and noise surrounding this story?
To be honest, I'm not quite sure I see it. Don't get me wrong, The Brain of Morbius is straight-forward, four-part adventure that is enjoyable to watch on a stormy evening. But the biggest problem may be that it's simply too straight forward. Once the Doctor and Sarah arrive on Karn and discover Solon's plan, it's pretty much as predictable as the old monster movies it's based on. You know that in the end, the Doctor and Sarah must stop Solon from completing the body for Morbius or all hell is going to break loose. Along the way, there are some major padding moments such as the Doctor's capture by the sisterhood, Sarah's blindness, the subplot involving Condo's arm (which is one of the more interesting plots in the story!). I can easily see how thirty minutes could be cut out of the story and it wouldn't suffer too much.
Does that mean the BBC should have done it? Absolutely not. I think The Brain of Morbius stands up rather well as four fun, turn your brain off and just enjoy it, episodes in their entirity. I think any cuts from the story would be too glaring since most of the side-plots depend on each other to keep going.
Overall, The Brain of Morbius is not one of Tom Baker's finest episodes, but it's not his worst either. It's four episodes of the fourth Doctor's zaniest best. Even if it does raise all those fan disucssions about the final mind battle with Moribus and if some of those faces could possibly be pre-Hartnell Doctors.
Don't even get me started on that....
I don't think you're in the first rank any more by Will Jones 16/6/99
Well, it seems like the contributors to this review page aren't overly impressed with The Brain of Morbius. Damning with faint praise is the term, I believe. As far as I'm concerned, this is not a story for faint praise. This is a damn fine adventure.
I'll not deny that it's not Baker's best story, but then it would have to be pretty good if it were to be better than the likes of Genesis of the Daleks, Deadly Assassin, Robots of Death, etc, etc. But it isn't the switch-your-brain-off stuff the other reviewers seem to believe. OK, the scripts aren't the most complex ever written for Doctor Who, but what do you expect? After all, Terrance Dicks wrote them. Not every story can be Ghost Light, you know.
I also disagree that Philip Madoc makes Solon into just another run of the mill megalomaniac. He gives one of the most perfectly acted portrayals of any villain over the twenty-six years of the series. This isn't just a fanatic without any background or character; he's believable and a really strong character. I detect the hand of Robert Holmes (the god of characterisation) in his lines. Personally, I'd have liked to have seen Madoc rather than Anthony Ainley as the Master. (Not to say Ainley was weak - it's just that Madoc was exceptionally strong).
Lots of padding? No! Just because a story is full of subplots doesn't necessarily make it padding – in this case it gives it more depth and keeps it entertaining. For down-and-out entertainment value, Doctor Who never got better than this. For a tale originated by Terrance Dicks (not my all-time favourite writer) this is exceptionally good stuff. OK so it's not imaginative, stealing from Frankenstein, Hammer Horror, and a million other things, but I like it. Tom gives a good performance too, making great use of the angry/shocked whisper technique he had perfected by this time (as in his line 'Why did I get that impression?').
Morbius too is really cool. You get a strong sense of his personality despite being just a brain in a jar or a bizarre monster. I should have liked to see more of the monster stuff after he got his intelligence back. The effects are great, in particular the shot where the brain falls onto the floor – gruesome but it looks excellent.
I think this is more than simply an enjoyable adventure. I think it's a true classic, a story that narrowly misses out on my Top Ten. It's a runaround, yes, but it's got far more depth than the typical story of that type. Never dull, always involving, thought-provoking and with some really great lines (Solon's speech about the Sisterhood at the beginning of Part Two is a classic), The Brain of Morbius is up there with the best of Tom.
A Review by Richard Radcliffe 28/3/01
This story forms one of the most abiding images of my childhood. As a fascinated 7 year old I watched, with my Grandad, as this horrific, monstrous creation of Solon stood poised to attack the blind Sarah-Jane. The credits rolled, and I had to wait a week to find out whether or not Sarah-Jane was okay.
So is the power of the cliffhanger! Watching the story again recently brings lots of good memories from my childhood. Brain of Morbius was also one of the first TARGET books I bought and read, and became a firm favourite. It remains so to this day.
It's gothic interiors - formed a strong, lasting image in my mind, when I was 7. I was unfamiliar with such "Adult" stories as Dracula or Frankenstein. It was the first time I had experienced that kind of dark, gothic horror. I remember seeing Frankenstein a few years later and thinking - "They've pinched this from Brain of Morbius!" - the innocence of childhood is a wonderful thing. I love a good Gothic Horror adventure - it's my favorite backdrop on which to tell a tale. Most of my favorite books, including Who Books, are of that kind. It all stems from Brain of Morbius.
So how does it hold up for a more experienced 32 year old? Actually very well indeed. From the moment the Doctor and Sarah-Jane arrive on Karn, we are flung into a wonderfully rich setting. Lightning streaks across the sky. They gaze up and spy a dark, huge, ramshackle house at the tops of the cliffs. Nearby the Sisterhood of Karn perfom their strange rituals. Their whispered chants echo throughout the caverns - Sacred Flame, Sacred Fire! If DW is about creating evocative atmosphere, then Brain of Morbius has it in spades.
This is a story rich in characters and atmosphere. Solon is terrific - one of the great DW villains. Morbius is fantastic, that almost Dalek voice matching the mismatch of a body he now has. It's a story rich with scenes that live in the memory. The aforementioned blind Sarah-Jane with Morbius towering behind her. The sisterhood dancing round the Funeral pyre that contains the Doctor. Solon betraying his servant. Sarah-Jane stumbling blindly over the Karn landscape, with the cliff nearby.
Brain of Morbius is a story that has not aged in 25 years. It stands up just as well now as it did back in 1975. We have the best Doctor, the best Companion, great villains, a wonderfully imaginative setting. I still like it as much now, as I did when I was 7. 9/10.
A Review by Rob Matthews 7/5/01
Not great but not bad, Brain of Morbius is perhaps the story most representative of the show's gothic era. And outright winner of the award for Doctor Who Story Most Blatantly Ripped-Off From a Well-Known Classic. Rewatching it on UK Gold, two things occured to me. The first, of course, was - 'Which one did Paul Magrs have in mind for Iris Wildthyme?' The second was how much this oft-beloved story, harked back to as an example of the good old days of the show, reminded me of the much-criticised adventures of later years.
This was arguably the first time the Time Lords were a significant presence in the plot. They turned up in The War Games, and were slightly demystified by their appearance in The Three Doctors, but those were both special occasions. One of their rank turned up to prompt the Doctor's actions at the beginning of Genesis of the Daleks, but came across like something arbitrarily tossed into the script to give the Doctor some reason for going back to Skaro.
Here, a couple of stories ahead of The Deadly Assassin, we get the first hint of their corruption, the suggestion that, if it suits their purposes, they might harm or destroy the Sisterhood of Karn. In retrospect, it's paving the way for the darker view of the Time Lords to come. It's never entirely clear whether the Doctor's Tardis is brought to Karn by the sisterhood's radiation belt or - as the Doctor believes at the beginning - by their interference.
More importantly, we learn that the Sisterhood have good reason for their suspicions - the High Council once had Morbius as its evil president, so is not entirely impervious to lunatics. And, as the Doctor mentions, the desolation of Karn was in effect caused by the Time Lords (in facts, he speaks as though Morbius alone was responsible, but obviously he couldn't have done much damage without all those presidential powers at his disposal).
So for the first time we have both the suggestion of the Time Lords influencing events from afar, and evidence that they're not all a bunch of good eggs, no matter how high they rank.
Add to that a scene of surprisingly graphic violence (ususally in Doctor Who, gunshots somehow leave no marks - thats' not the case here!) and a less-than-seamless mixture of two different plots, and you have a story in the vein of the better parts of seasons 22 and 23.
An interesting case of foreshadowing, although slightly disappointing in itself. The plot is too Frankenstein for its own good, and seems a bit lazy. Phillip Madoc is always good value for money, mind you, and the head honcho sister of Karn (is it 'Marn'? 'Maran'?) gives a good, embittered performance.
Morbius, alas, is a wasted opportunity. He has the voice of a Dalek, and not much more personality. It doesn't help that he goes demented as soon as he gets his brain housed. And Morbius' Igor-like assistant is a dismally predictable charcter (he's meant to kill Sarah, but he can't because he fancies her. What a surprise).
Oh, and those blokes in the mind-battle scene are pre-Hartnell Doctors. As Morbius says, he's taking the Doctor's mind "Right back to the beginning". Just one of those things that were effaced by later developments, I suppose. Still, they're a godsend for anyone who wants to take the suggestion up.
Rehashed traditions and radical departures by Tim Roll-Pickering 2/9/02
Okay let's get the big one out of the way first. There's a famous scene in The Brain of Morbius in which we see that the Doctor had at least eight incarnations prior to the one played by William Hartnell. "But it's always been clear that Hartnell played the original Doctor! This is wrong, wrong wrong! The production team didn't pay attention to continuity enough!" I hear various people cry. Yet like many of the so-called "facts established since it all started" this one isn't on particularly strong ground. In 1976 the only evidence in the series itself that the incarnation played by Hartnell was the original was one ambiguous reference to "earliest Doctor" in The Three Doctors. Nothing concrete had ever been really established by other stories, whilst many other details about the Doctor had been contradicted over the years - his age being only one such example going from 450 in The Tomb of the Cybermen to "thousands of years" in Doctor Who and the Silurians to 749 in The Android Invasion and other stories from this very season. Amidst such confusion and ambiguity it seems entirely reasonable to accept The Brain of Morbius' assertion that there were previous incarnations. If anything, it should be the later stories such as Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors which should be criticised for going against this when they established that Hartnell was the first incarnation and Davison the fifth. But that's one for a review of those stories.
Leaving aside the great continuity debate, there is a lot to commend The Brain of Morbius for. It uses no prefilming whatsoever and yet still manages to offer a convincing alien world completely within a television studio. The acting is strong, with Philip Madoc stealing the show as Solon and Cynthia Grenville giving a highly dignified performance as Maren. The production values are just as strong, with the camera work providing for much suspense in the tale.
It is the story that stands out the most. There's no real attempt made to hide the story's Frankenstein roots and much is lifted straight out of the many movies of the same genre. We see a mad scientist living in a castle in an isolated environment, his hunchback servant who doesn't entirely approve of his master's experiments, a group of superstitious locals who fear the scientist's work, a raging monster that seeks to destroy much about it and a screaming heroine. But The Brain of Morbius manages to take all these elements and add the story of Morbius, a being desperate to be released from the prison he has been trapped in in order to survive. Morbius is one of the most chilling Time Lords yet encountered in the series, surviving by an immense force of will and determined to become mobile again so that he can once more set out to conquer the universe.
Equally strong is the subplot about the Sisterhood's dependency upon the Elixir of Life and the question of whether or not immortality should be sought or if it would be better for there to be an ending to things. Maren's death at the end of the story is spectacular even though it isn't entirely clear how she has become one with the Flame of Life. The Doctor emerges as the key figure in this story, challenging both Solon and the Sisterhood as they each seek to cheat the normal processes of death and provide immortality. The result is a challenging tale. Sarah is unfortunately reduced to screaming a lot in order to fit the stereotypes of the story but she also shows determination at times such as sneaking in to the shrine to save the Doctor. There are some scenes which go against the Doctor's traditional character, such as his willingness to cut up Morbius and later his willingness to use cyanide to kill Solon and lure Morbius down to open the cellar door. This portrayal of the Doctor as a more desperate individual, willing to kill in cold blood is a little too radical a departure from the norms of the series (even Colin Baker's incarnation only used violence when in more direct danger) and is ultimately the story's main weakness. Otherwise it is a good tale but not the best casual example of the series. 8/10
How To Get A Head By Advertising by Andrew Wixon 24/5/03
There's a fun game you can play the next time you watch The Brain of Morbius. It's called 'spot the intrusive plot device'. you can get quite a high score if you pay attention closely enough. Here are a few just to get you started:
But for all this - and for all the faintly ropey sets, especially of the exterior of Karn - Brain of Morbius remains quite watchable. This is mainly down to the performances of Tom Baker and Philip Madoc, who both give it absolutely everything they've got. But even so the story still comes across as ever-so-slightly camp, the gothic pastiche concentrated on at the expense of the plot.
A Review by Terrence Keenan 18/8/03
There are times where you can look a Who story and find deeper meanings about life, art, behind the scenes issues, politics... and then there's The Brain of Morbius, Terrance Dicks' homage to Frankenstein, with a little rewrite help from Robert Holmes.
There are no deeper meanings in this serial. Trust me, I tried to come up with one, and failed. (There might be others out there who can. Good luck.)
But what The Brain of Morbius is, is another fun little gothic horror/sci-fi hybrid that the Hinchcliffe/Holmes team did so well. The story bounces along quickly, and although some of the plot points are a bit weak, you can tell the cast is putting all their effort into it.
Philip Madoc has gotten much praise for Solon. But, my favorite in the cast is Cynthia Grenville's Maren. Part of it is the voice. The rest of it is that face. She looks like she ate lemons daily. (That and some good aging makeup.) Also, Gilly Brown's Ohica is so over the top that it becomes a natural performance by the end. You wait for her to wink and say "I'm really not this anal" but she doesn't. Colin Fay's Condo is all right. That's one helluva unibrow he's sporting. He's doing Igor, and does it well.
Tom and Lis? They rocked. Nuff said.
Okay, let's get to the one bit of controversy. You know, the eight faces on the mind bending screen thing. If you go by what's in this story and no others, then the only plausible argument is that they are previous Doctors. Morbius is whupping the Doc in the mind bending fight and only backs off when his fishbowl skull pops and fills with smoke. And then there's Morbius's lines: "Back, back. How long have you lived, Doctor?" Says it all methinks. But, hey, it's another continutity controversy in a show infamous for them. (If this bugs you, try dating UNIT stories. That'll really drive you batshit).
The Brain of Morbius is what it is. Four well-acted, fast-paced episodes of Horror/Sci-fi/Who fun. "Buy the ticket. Take the ride."
Body horror! by Joe Ford 16/10/03
This story is a timeless classic, one that is long remembered by fans and those with only a casual interest in the show. The title (melodramatic as it is) sticks in the mind and images of the Morbius creature with his glass brain case and huge, crushing claw remain extremely memorable. The fact is this story lives up to the hype and more. Not only is it an honest to God horror with some of the sickest images the show ever produced it is also a visually striking tale which pushes beyond its studio limitations and becomes something very special.
That same title kind of ruins things though. I cannot think of a cliff-hanger I love more than the end of episode two. The build up to actually seeing Morbius' brain is astounding, the ominous scene with the camera panning down the shadowy stairwell whilst Solon talks to somebody who is expertly kept out of shot. Compounding this appetite whetting you have Sarah, blinded by Maran's ring, hearing the malevolent voice and tripping down the stairs to discover its source. She stumbles into a room, reaching out for whoever is speaking to her and the camera moves backward to let us see what she cannot, a huge glowing brain encased in green fluid. It's absolute genius and I punch the air with joy every time I watch it! The brain, powerfully voiced by Michael Spice, looks fabulous and I love the way it breathes air bubbles just before the cliff-hanging music begins.
I think a lot of the credit for this story belongs to Chris Barry, director extrordinaire! He did not have an easy task assembling this story, a gothic horror with a million and one steals and stuck in the cramped BBC studios... but he manages to overcome his limitations and create a highly atmospheric piece with enough Who trappings to give it a unique, individual identity.
Give that man Barry Newberry a pat on the back for his excellent sets that capture the mood of the story perfectly. The ultimate expression of Goth horror comes with Solon's castle, a lightning streaked house of horrors, all period furniture, tilted pillars and twisted scientific equipment. An extremely cramped set, thick with shadows, it provides an ideal location to tell this grotesque body horror. But the 'exterior' sets deserve much praise only betraying their studio limitations on the rarest of occasions. I love the way the fog rolls across the ground, disguising the studio floor and the misshapen, hexagonal rock faces only add to the distorted, unreal feel of the show. If that wasn't enough the shrine of the Sisterhood has its own charms, the shocking reds of their robes and walls contrasting wildly with the duller colours elsewhere.
It's an ideal acting showcase for Phillip Madoc. I cannot decide what is my favourite of his four (I think) appearances of the show. Power of Kroll is certainly his weakest but The Krotons (an underrated but still desperately average story) and The War Games both see him imbuing the stories with a quiet menace, both the better for it as a hysterical performance would have let them down.
The Brain of Morbius shows Madoc at the height of his powers as the deranged Solon. It is this character that sets of all the events in the story driven by the insanity that only comes with worshipping a higher being. However instead of writing him as a complete loony Holmes gives him a charming edge that makes you question his motives. I love it when his manservant drools over Sarah and he casually says "Poor old Condo, perhaps I'll give him your hair as a memento." Some of the lines he is given ("There are those who would not agree with that assessment Doctor...", "Morbius was wrong...", "If he dies! You die!") could have been hopelessly overdone by a less experienced actor but Madoc keeps his cool, only losing it when things turn frighteningly bad (such as the bit where the brain splatters on the floor... "The greatest intellect ever known... destroyed by a mindless brute!!!"). There are too many stand out scenes for Solon but my all time favourite is his tense confrontation with Condo... the way he casually dismisses his hurting servant and is forced to suddenly beg for his life as Condo pulls a knife... it's a shocking scene but Madoc's desperate pleading "It was just a joke! Just a stupid joke!" is great.
That's not to say the other actors aren't pulling their weight. Oh no, Tom Baker is entranced in his season of violence and continues his disturbingly alien portrayal of the Time Lord. After they hunt down Morbius, he orders Solon to disconnect the brain "or I'll do it my way..." he says pulling out a pair of pliers! How cool is that? His scenes with the Sisters are loaded with wit and Baker plays it with a twinkle in his eye. Chemistry is an important factor in the Doctor/companion relationship (obviously) and Baker and Sladen make such a charming pair, she reacts hysterically to his sulks at the beginning and he rushes off after her as soon as she is in danger. The Doctor risks death to save Sarah's eyesight in this story, an incredible act of sacrifice. I adore the way they chat about the Morbius monster ("No head, oh no it look as though it was made out of butchers' left overs!", "Glass brain case? Could you read its thoughts?", "What's happened to Mr Allsorts?"). It's all topped off wonderfully with the scene where they are locked together in Solon's laboratory and he proceeds to tell her how long in seconds and minutes they will be there for if they're stuck there for a month.
There is a question of the show's violence which has been addressed ad nauseum. My opinion? Isn't it fabulous? Lets have blood leaking from wounds when people are shot! Let's have women strangled to death by huge claws! Let's have brains splattering to the floor in green slime and throbbing uncontrollably when it's picked up! For Christ's sakes this is a horror story! If you are going to do it you might as well do to the extreme... what's the point otherwise? There are a few questionably strong moments for little kiddies but as Barry Letts seems quite fond of pointing out kids LIKE to be frightened. Thoughts of Morbius monsters hiding under the bed and hunchback Condo stalking the shadowy hallways are healthy... I showed this to my niece a few years ago and she was scared shitless. I had to wait until she fell asleep before I could leave her bedroom. For the next month she was dancing around the garden like the Sisterhood and running away from Morbius monsters as she played... it fired up her imagination in all the best ways.
Trust me, this story is mercilessly graphic in a way the show could do with being more often.
Who can resist the thought that that interfering interloper Iris Wilthyme is actually one of the Sisters? I always try and spot which one she might every time I watch it. An example of a book that has enhanced the enjoyment of a TV story and not detracted from it, John Peel and Terrance Dicks take note.
The direction is quite intimate in places with some very effective camera angles and techniques. I love the shot through the fire as Sarah and the Doctor first enter Solon's castle. The overlapping scenes of the Sisters dancing give their rituals a sense of disorientation and magic. The Brain of Morbius isn't just filmed like a season 20 throwaway, it is carefully assembled into a flowing story with vivid images striking the right chord. The monster creeping up on Sarah as she regains her eyesight, the monster on the bed as she approaches thinking it's the Doctor only to sit up and discover it has no head, the sisters climbing the steps of the castle with their torches flickering in the wind... real care has been imbued to ensure the end result is as atmospheric as possible. And Dudley Simpson's score is perfect, laying on the Hammer Horror campness in style.
Who can resist a story where the Doctor cyanides the main bad guy to death? And with a sequence as gripping as the mind bending competition? Or with Sarah at her all time most useless/brilliant?
Robert Holmes was right to thieve the story from Terrance Dicks, he has created a masterpiece of television, a story that holds up superbly and can be enjoyed by all generations.
A terrific achievement.
A Review by Stuart Gutteridge 29/11/03
Despite the parallels that can be drawn with Frankenstein, The Brain of Morbius still manages to be entertaining and a strong piece of Doctor Who. Much of this is down to the atmosphere, created by the small cast who are uniformly excellent. Tom Baker is at ease in in the role of the Doctor, Elisabeth Sladen gets more to do as Sarah Jane, largely because as she is blind the cliffhangers revolve around her, Philip Madoc brings the right amount of devoted mania to Solon and Cynthia Grenville`s uneasy alliance as Maren, leader of the Sisterhood of Karn is well conveyed. Something else worth commenting on is Christopher Barry`s direction; given that the sets are relatively small and the story has no location work he does an admirable job. Recommended viewing.
A Review by Brian May 4/1/08
The Brain of Morbius is never less than entertaining, continuing the quality run of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era of Doctor Who. True to these years, there's all the gothic mood and horror homage, this time fusing Frankenstein, She and They Saved Hitler's Brain in a satisfying way. It's resplendent with many an underlit room, creaking doors and moody music (the freaky, discordant score at the end of part three is very Psycho-like!). Of the many lasting images, the one ingrained in my memory is the brain spilling onto the floor. It's so wonderfully gruesome, if that's not a contradiction in terms, and more evidence of the boundaries Hinchcliffe and Holmes weren't afraid to push. It still looks disgusting and horrific for kids' TV even by today's standards.
It's well acted - mostly. Gilly Brown (Ohica) is an exception, overacting somewhat and subscribing to the "wide eyes = dramatic" school of thought, while the extras playing the Sisterhood are made to perform some ludicrous choreography what with all their "Sacred fire, sacred flame" silliness. Philip Madoc is the star turn, achieving what genre cliches usually make impossible - a credible mad scientist - conveying Solon's obsession with the right amount of restraint. It's not his best ever performance in Doctor Who - that accolade belongs to the War Lord in The War Games - but, for the reasons listed above, Solon is a far more difficult role in terms of precision.
The production values are mixed. The Morbius monster is an excellent design. The interiors are fine - Solon's residence in particular is made up of a great collection of sets. It's the mock exteriors that leave much to be desired. In a season when we were treated to a fantastic jungle set and a pretty good Antarctic blizzard, several piles of polystyrene rocks and fake plants are quite a disappointment. The rain and lightning are awful, and the story is pretty much an editing nightmare, with many awkward chops and changes in the shots - for example, after Sarah says "Pardon?" and the sequence following the first glimpse of Solon's domain. I've mentioned that I love the music that accompanies the end of part three, but the final image lingers for a considerable time. Morbius stands behind Elisabeth Sladen, waiting for the director to call "cut", very patiently if I may say so! But it's indicative of Christopher Barry's overall effort - rather flat, which is unusual for him.
The script reflects the difference between two of the classic series' most prolific writers. Terrance Dicks's original story regarded a robot servant trying to re-create its (presumably injured) master. It lacked the horror elements, which were later incorporated by Robert Holmes. It's sheer conjecture on my part, but I can envisage the Dicks version as being similar to his earlier Robot. The automaton would have been a figure of pathos, making a highly noble attempt to understand humanity, as did K-1. But I think I prefer the finished, spooked-up rewrite.
This said there are a couple of problems. The Doctor leaving Solon to disassemble Morbius unsupervised isn't very clever, and the Time Lord conveniently leaving the sonic screwdriver in the TARDIS is unlikely. Both incidents are obviously plot catalysts and they're glaringly awkward. But Morbius gets some great speeches, Solon delivers one of the most hilarious insults in TV history ("chicken-brained biological disaster") and it's a brave move to show the Doctor actually commit murder - and a human victim at that, not just some faceless monster. Holmes shows more daring by implying that the Doctor isn't in his fourth incarnation. It's an idea unanimously rejected by subsequent production teams (and fans), but you've got to admire the brazen boldness of such a concept, more than twenty years before the retcons of John Peel and Lawrence Miles.
At the end of the day The Brain of Morbius is an enjoyable story and a good representation of the series at the time of broadcast. 7.5/10
A Review by Thomas Cookson 14/3/09
It has to be said that there is something very absorbing and immersing about this story. It is basically an example of Doctor Who as no more than a piece of televised theatre - literally. When the TARDIS lands on Karn in the middle of a thunderstorm, it is obvious by the mock-up sky and landscape that they are in a studio set. But once that is established from the get-go, it functions as a piece of televised theatre with all the representational conventions therein and actually conveys a very classic, baroque feel. This isn't simply the cheesy charm of cheap effects and wobbly walls. It becomes a visual art form in itself, free of the trappings of realism.
The actors move about in this theatrical world and handle the props in a way that makes it all feel tactile and textured. The dialogue complements the scenery, describing the make up and composition of the walls and fire geysers, bringing word and image together as the compounds that build and solidify this whole world like the mixture that forms concrete. It feels like a piece of storytelling architecture, and as such is beautiful and grand. Indeed, I would say that the televised theatre type of episodes are generally my favourites, such is the case with The Curse of Peladon and The Keeper of Traken. In this case, the story is directed by Christopher Barry and, like in his first Dalek story, he conveys a real air of desolation, of conveying the sense of an ancient global catastrophe that has left the whole planet barren. We see a limited few locations and meet a handful of characters and because everything is so desolate and primitive, we actually believe that they are the only remnants of life on the whole planet and that the whole of civilisation lives or dies with them.
The Sisterhood of Karn are a highly superstitious and insular all-women cult, who have no tolerance for trespassers on their world. They also have access to the 'elixir of life', which has kept the individuals of the cult alive and unaged for centuries, but now it's running scarce and they have become even more paranoid and suspecting that the Time Lords wish to steal it, they immediately try to sacrifice the Doctor. And we see that they are a culture with its rituals and superstition in rigid stagnation.
When the sisters gather around the 'sacred fire' and perform their exotic concerted dance with their torches, it is a hypnotic sequence. The sisters are quite beautifully designed with their own tribal facial makeup and wiccan dresses. They are like delicate works of art, and when the Morbius monster attacks and begins snapping the fragile necks of the poor damsels, the effect is hard-hitting. The strangulation scene always make me feel like loosening my collar and even the corpse of that poor strangled sister looks cold and deathly; it is so poignant.
But of course the chief villain of the piece is Professor Solon, as played by Philip Madoc (who also appeared in the classic Fortunes of War), and Doctor Who is always something special if it has a good villain. Christopher Barry tends to coax not a single bad performance from his cast and that's certainly true here; Philip Madoc's performance is superb, his delivery of words is so silky and eloquent, his mannered dinner-table discussion with the Doctor is full of edge. Whilst he is eloquent and passionate about his work in a way that makes him almost noble, he plays the role for ambiguity in terms of whether he might come round to the side of good and it eventually becomes clear through his duplicitous interactions with the Doctor that he is very devious and can't be trusted an inch; the scenes where he manipulates the Doctor are riveting for that reason.
It has to be said of course that this is very much a pastiche of Frankenstein. This story, along with Talons, is one of the most definitive of the gothic-horror stories. As such, the look of the story feels right and known.
As with the story of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, this story is heavily imbued with the theme of the abuse of life science and playing God and perverting nature. This is about the curse of immortality.
When the Doctor points out that the medieval Sisterhood of Karn are a sterile, stagnant society which has been ruled by one woman, Maren, for thousands of years, he tells them that 'death is the price we pay for progress'. And that's when the theme really hits home. Imagine if the reign of Bloody Mary had never ended to this day. Imagine if the Salem witch trials had remained a modern tradition; those are just a few extreme examples of our blood-soaked history that we once had to take for granted. That's what the Sisterhood of Karn represent, a society that never escaped the dark ages, the barbaric preserved for far too long beyond its time.
As a society that never experiences change and has a clan mentality, the Sisterhood are very paranoid and hostile to any outsiders and that insular way of life, where nothing new is ever welcomed is arguably very detrimental. In fact, it's probably worth bearing in mind in today's society when we now seem to be considering the idea of living in caged communities, which surely would be just as detrimental and unhealthy as have all past attempts by societies to segregate peoples by race or gender. It's very bad for the mind indeed to be in a social situation where you never get to meet new people.
I have reviewed Time and the Rani and I revile it, but it contains similar moments and similar themes. Both have a noble sacrifice moment and a message delivered with a sledgehammer of how death is the price we pay for progress. The thing is, in The Brain of Morbius, the theme of progress and stagnation wields so much potency because it has run through the whole story; so even though the epitaphs to both stories are melodramatic, the Lakertyan smashing an offered antidote, or Maren walking into the fire and letting herself burn, it is the one the story has invested in which works, while the other is just repellent and seems neurotic. Same way that the noble sacrifice feels less crass when dealing with a character who we learn has led a long and full life, as opposed to a cipher. The same way that the sacrifices in The Green Death and Death to the Daleks are imbued with the characterisation of nobility and personal responsibility and are drawn from a Frankenstein-style morality play. Time and the Rani is just ultimately too vapid.
Sometimes Doctor Who makes some incredibly prescient points about the history and development of human society. This story came out in the 70's when the dust was still settling from the 60's counterculture movement and the story seems to be championing the idea of youthful rebellion against the status quo, and how in many ways it's important for the sake of progress and understanding that each new generation rebels against the one before. And of course the story is not just about unending barbaric ways of life, but about the possibility of evil itself becoming immortal. A twisted, deranged mind of ruthless ambition clinging to life, too old and evil to be redeemed, ready to wreak havoc once again. And Morbius is preserved for the most part as a brain in a jar, furious and helpless and this gets back to the detrimental point. The idea of living longer than is healthy for the mind.
The moment when the Doctor senses the emotional fury of Morbius, it's as if Morbius' rage is primal enough to have an outer body experience in itself, to exist and project beyond the physical and into the supernatural and astral. As if the rage can become a living being itself, separate from the host. And this primal sense of rage is helped in no small way by the excellent performance of Michael Spice who does the voice of Morbius.
The story is about accepting your mortality. The fact that the Sisterhood and Morbius have immortality and will not let go of it, and are prepared to kill to preserve it tells us that there are some powers we should just never have. It's that over-reaching yourself theme from Frankenstein again. The Doctor himself has lived for several centuries and through several incarnations, and he can kind of cheat death by regenerating but he knows he can't do it forever. And in an unspoken way that's what gives him greater courage than these insular, self-serving parties. He is willing to put his life on the line to save the day like he always does, because he knows, deep down, in the long run that death will come to him one day anyway.
So we have all these self-interested parties. The Sisterhood with their paranoia clinging onto their immortality, Solon with his life's work reaching fruition, Condor with his fondness for Sarah playing against his loyalty to Solon, Morbius with his grand plans for revenge and desperation to live again, and the Doctor determined to stop him. So every character and their relationship with the rest of the cast plays an intrinsic part in moving the plot along quickly, particularly given how the Doctor's presence make Solon and Morbius more desperate to accelerate their plans, which of course goes against the story's message of not being reckless and rash with scientific research. And although the aesthetics of this Frankenstein pastiche are familiar and known, there is so much happening at once that the turn of events really is unpredictable.
This is what happens when the plot is moved along by forces of nature and cut-throat devious villains: the narrative itself becomes quite treacherous and unpredictable. So there's a refreshing sense of real plot and character friction, and it keeps us on our toes. In fact, the directing and the lighting complements this. The camera often decieves and surprises us with misleading close-ups that convey this sense of uncertainty, as indeed does the dim lighting which also conveys a sense of anticipation and makes us stay alert on the details and watch the shadows. Hiding both the visual surprises and, in a symbolic way, it also seems to hide the intentions of the characters. It's a visual aesthetic where anything can leap out at you unknown.
A perfect example is when the Doctor is hit full blast by a psychic force and is knocked out cold, allowing the foul fiend to advance unobstructed. When he's gone, Sarah tries to raise the Doctor from unconsciousness. The camera slowly zooms in to the Doctor's face and we expect to see his eyes open, when the camera reaches the closest frame. They don't, and instead the action cuts elsewhere. That's one example of how the camera dangles the Doctor's fate by a thread and leaves us all very worried.
And within all this conflict there is of course a fair ammount of violence onscreen, and as I said earlier the effect is hard-hitting. Indeed, this is very much a body-horror piece of television. That's something else that the Hinchcliffe era specialised in, and Hinchcliffe and Holmes could make it so effective even on Doctor Who's limited budget.
In this story, things are quite literally close to the bone. The story is about constructing a new body out of the assorted parts of dead and dismembered alien creatures. This kind of twisted spare-part surgery and butchery makes things feel that bit more fleshy. Morbius exists as a talking brain in a jar of dampening fluid, which of course is a classic cliched staple of retro science-fiction. But we see how Morbius is able to talk when the camera pulls towards a stretched piece of vocal chord tissue that vibrates when Morbius speaks and that makes it somehow far more gruesome and believable. Things like Solon overseeing a blinded Sarah and examining and describing her burnt retinas, are just like the dialogue reinforcing the makeup of the walls. The dialogue goes beneath the skin's surface. The dialogue itself is actually tactile and touching all sensuous areas.
The Doctor is uncharacteristically violent and murderous here, which leaves a bit of a sour aftertaste for me. I'm not against the Doctor resorting to violence on principle, but I like to believe he will only kill if it is absolutely necessary. Now, given the tightness of the plot and the urgency of the narrative, and also by making the viewer directly share in the Doctor's helplessness, the story does somewhat justify the Doctor's use of drastic measures to beat the clock, but only just! And the truth is, I'm not at ease with it, and it makes all the other times in the show that the Doctor has harped on about the needless violence of humanity seem incredibly hypocritical.
But, that aside, Tom Baker is on fine form. From the moment he steps out the TARDIS he's just absolutely captivating and larger than life. When he's sharing dinner with Solon he's so warm and chatty and personable and yet he's also sharp and shrewd, and he quickly sees through Solon's devious intentions. And his drunk acting is great (at least I think he was acting).
Tom Baker was dubbed the comical Doctor, but his was a performance of contrast and he could re-instil the gravity of the situation at the click of his fingers. Some say that, towards the end, his performance leaned too much and too often towards indulgent and comical, and as a by-product so did the show itself. There's a truth in that but that's only really an issue to the kind of people who mind that sort of thing. Personally I thoroughly enjoy and treasure the frivolity of the Williams era.
But, in any case, Tom Baker's performance here has not drifted into those realms yet, and he's disciplined and grave in all the right places. The moment when he recognises the clay statue of Morbius, he looks as though he's been physically struck. His sparring with the devious Solon is very edgy and he scores many points off him. And then there's the final confrontation with Morbius. You know, given that so much of the story has revolved around the conflict between the Doctor and Solon, when Solon gets superceded by the newly resurrected Morbius for the one encounter, it does feel somewhat out of the blue, and it feels like something of a comedown rather than a climax.
And yet, it's still an excellent scene; this is where Tom Baker's talent for mixing flippancy and fury together really works. He mocks Morbius' haphazard, nightmarish, hodge-podge new body, calling him "Chop Suey, the galactic emperor!" which always makes me laugh. But, beneath that, the Doctor knows he's dicing with death which makes his flippancy all the more courageous. And there's a real, tangible moral abbhorence of Morbius to him. Even though he's never met Morbius before, he just seems to know of him from childhood history lessons as an evil tyrant, rather like Hitler, and you just know that the Doctor is determined to stop him by all means necessary. It's a scene that moves unnervingly fast, as Morbius grows more volatile. The fear, the daring mockery, graveness and courage on the Doctor's part makes it all really matter. And it's appropriate that the final battle between the Doctor and Morbius should be quite literally a battle of wills. It's one which is directed with such intensity and has a very unsettling climax, and Tom Baker really milks the moment of weakness for all it's worth. So, despite what I said, it is very much a wonderful highlight of a scene.
And of course then there's the Doctor's companion, Sarah Jane Smith. It's not hard to see why Sarah is so fondly remembered. She was the first of a new breed of female companion who broke the mould. Beforehand, the companion had always been relegated to the role of follower to the leading Doctor. With Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor and companion became something more of a dynamic duo where both characters could be proactively independent of each other and really complemented each other and could get one another out of scrapes. Sarah was the precedent for companions like Leela, Romana and Ace.
Elisabeth Sladen has a great deal of charisma and warmth, very well spoken and with a lovely twinkle in her eyes. I really like how Sarah's socialite savvy comes through in that dinner-table scene with Solon, and yet at the same time she shows herself to be far shrewder than the Doctor, and very good at improvising in a panic. The scene where she rescues the Doctor shows her ingenuity, her dependable resourcefulness and her bravery. Indeed, even when she has been blinded, she still loses none of her adventurous spirit. She overhears Solon talking to Morbius in his dungeons and she goes to investigate. Clearly she is frightened as she gets closer to the voices but that's what makes her intrepid courage all the more commendable.
So, all things considered, this is a classic story that I can write much praise on. I would thoroughly recommend it, even to first time viewers who've never watched the series before. It's nicely self contained and it really is a story I consider good enough to stand alone. Not only is Brain of Morbius a demonstration of the show's charm at being cheap and cheerful, but, as a piece of televised theatre with potent themes, it's also to my eyes very artful and heart-warming and has quickly become one of my favourites.
The Haunting of Mary Whitehouse by Joe Briggs-Ritchie 18/4/10
Mrs Whitehouse must have had a fit after seeing this story. Blood exploding from gunshot wounds, disembodies brains, headless bodies, sacrificial bonfires, death by cyanide gas... It's undeniably a gruesome story and all the better for it. After all, if you're going to do a story that is so obviously inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, then it would be a bit daft to ignore the splatter potential. Mrs Whitehouse was apparently up in arms about this story but then again when wasn't she up in arms about Doctor Who, particularly during this period? She savaged The Deadly Assassin for its cliffhanger to episode three so heaven knows what she must have made of this one.
The Brain of Morbius begins with a Mutt crashing in an escape pod after clearly trying to escape from the carcinogenic boredom of The Mutants. Up pops Condo who swiftly decapitates the poor thing, thereby setting the tone for the remainder of the story. The stormy, desolate landscape just about works in these scenes because it's lit very darkly. I personally think they should have turned the lights down even lower but then again what do I know about studio lighting? When we see the landscape in day-level lighting, all credibility goes over the cliff. It just looks far too... well, crap.
While I'm on the subject of lighting, much of this story seems to be lit at the red/brown end of the spectrum and it I like it. The interior of Solon's castle is nicely underlit although I think they could have turned the lights down a bit more in the Sisterhood's shrine. As we are all aware, the early Tom Baker years have always had the term "Gothic Horror" applied to them. It's a style which pervades Seasons 12 and 13 and 14. It also pops up again in Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood and State of Decay. Season 13 is probably the high point of the Gothic Horror years and nowhere is it more evident than The Brain of Morbius, what with it being a Frankenstein rip off and everything. Sorry, I mean homage. Let's see, you have the mad scientist, the damsel in distress (Sarah), a monster on the loose and a horde of natives armed with flaming torches. Add to that the castle and the lightning and there you go.
Another recurring theme throughout Doctor Who is that of people worshipping things that are scientifically explicable, believing them to be sacred and mystical and creating a lunatic religion around them. In The Face of Evil, we have the Sevateem and the Tesh worshipping a barking mad computer; in Meglos, the Deons worship the power source of a doomsday weapon; and in Planet of Fire, the inhabitants of Sarn believe that a hazard suit is their god. In The Brain of Morbius, the Sisterhood have built a religion around the Sacred Flame which the Doctor quickly denounces as being a natural phenomenon. It's all part of the Doctor Who ideology: science and rationality over magic, religion and superstition. I love it!
Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are at their peak by this point. It's interesting to note that just as he teased her in The Ark in Space when she's in the conduit, now she's teasing him when he refuses to explore their surroundings upon leaving the TARDIS. They clearly feel very comfortable with each other and it comes across very well on screen. Philip Madoc is superb as Solon. He's not what you'd called a completely stable megalomaniac, if a stable megalomaniac isn't a contradiction in terms. He's jittery and has a tendency to ramble. It's as if all the years of stress are finally starting to push him over the edge. He's also endlessly quotable, referring to Maren as a "palsied harridan" Cynthia Grenville is also quite good as the "accursed hag" in question. I'm not that keen on Morbius himself, though. He's a bit too ranty for my liking. I liked Michael Spice in The Talons of Weng-Chiang but he's not quite as good here.
The Brain of Morbius ripped off Frankenstein and offended Mary Whitehouse while simultaneously contributing to Time Lord mythology. Quite an achievement, I'd say.