Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The Brain of Morbius written by Robin Bland and directed by Christopher Barry

This story in a nutshell: ‘I’ve just had the most terrible dream. First of all I was blinded…then I was attacked by a great claw thing that looked like it was made from butchers leftovers and then I was knocked down a flight of stairs!’

Teeth and Curls: Coming to the end of his second year as the Doctor, Tom Baker is absolutely in his element and delivering the sort of confident performance he is justly famed for. What a grumpy sod, he leaps from the TARDIS and bellows at their heavens as though his own people are Gods.  I loved his scathing opinion of them: ‘Some dirty work that they won’t touch with their lily white hands!’ I don't know if it is the work of Robert Holmes or just the natural opinion of a man who was exiled to Earth at their behest but the opinion of the Time Lords starts to rot around this time, no longer God-like beings but more political animals with a chip on their shoulder. He’s childish and brooding and wont jump into action until Sarah is in danger. Would you believe that I have been using the ‘can you spare a glass of water?’ line for 10 years now when I’m coming in from the rain and it never fails to get a laugh? He’s only 749 but life doesn't begin until 750. He can feel Morbius’ mind reaching out to his, an uneasy presence the second he walks into Solon's castle. He is drugged, sacrificed and smacked on the head…this is a dangerous business he is in. I love his penchant for comedy in middle of all the drama (‘Take no notice Solon, I’m delighted to see you – that signing was terrible!’), he finds his strength in adversity through humour. One of my all time favourite Doctor moments happens in this story when the Doctor tells Solon either he disconnects the brain or he does it his way…and wields a pair of pliers. Something about Tom Baker's brooding performance suggests that the Doctor is entirely serious. Death by cyanide seems to be something of theme with the Doctor and yet it strikes me as odd that so many people should forget his extreme methods here (perhaps because it was done from afar) and yet make such a song dance about the sixth Doctor doing the same thing in The Two Doctors. I have to mention Baker's relationship with Lis Sladen at this point because their relationship sings at this point, the two of them in total harmony at saving the universe from Television Centre. This is Tom Baker's chance to indulge in a Hammer homage and he grabs it by the throat and never lets go. It is one of his most assured turns as the Doctor, amongst many.

Sumptuous Sarah: Oh lovely Lis Sladen, how good you are in The Brain of Morbius! At this stage in her Doctor Who timeline Sarah is on fire, making me laugh and cry with equal measure. She's shoehorned into the role of a Hammer victim in The Brain of Morbius but with a dash of Sarah attitude that makes all the difference. Sarah walks from the TARDIS poking fun at the Doctor as only she knows how (‘So there! Bibblebibble!’). Nothing can stop her nose for a story as she heads of to investigate the crashed spaceships. She’s a smart girl, tipping away her horrid green drink that has been laced with poison and watch as she remains as cool as a cucumber when Solon orders Condo to kill her, not flinching or yelping to give the game away. I would have been out of that seat quicker than you could come at me with Rassilon's Rod. In a wistful moment, Sarah wonders if she will ever see the Earth again. I don't think her ideal vocation is a member of the Sisterhood, she looks quite uncomfortable waving the elements about and chanting her head off in silky red cloth. There are a great many moments in this story that show just how well the Doctor and Sarah clicked, one of my favourites is when she first discovers that she has been blinded and moans that she will have to become a purblind old flower seller (‘lovely fresh violets!’) and he tells her if she keeps moaning he will bite her nose! It's gentle mockery and genuine affection. And the scenes when they are locked in the laboratory (‘how many seconds in a month?’) are pure magic. See, at this stage I can watch the two of them locked in a room together doing sod all and it is still masterful entertainment. Poor Sarah, she’s conforming to every cliche in the companion handbook as she screams her head off and gets knocked down a flight of stairs! Some might find her a bit useless in this story but she feels like a real person struggling with an insane situation. What she goes through in The Brian of Morbius would drive anybody to insanity so the fact that she comes through it (relatively) intact is a marvel.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Take him, the flame must feed…’
‘The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists dripping like tea from an urn.’
‘Death is the price we pay for progress.’
‘Poor old Condo, perhaps I’ll give him your hair as a memento.’
‘Morbius has got to be stopped!’ ‘He should never have been started.’
‘Chop Suey the Galactic Emperor!’

The Good Stuff: The first scene goes through several subversions, trying to convince the audience that the mutant creature is the scariest thing you have ever seen stumbling about a hideous landscape before forcing us to witness its horrific decapitation at the hands of Condo. From fear to sympathy in seconds, that's Robert Holmes at his best. Pillars askew, candles flickering, cobwebs billowing, bubbling laboratory equipment, statues, fire crackling – the design is a delicious love letter to hammer horror. Cynthia Grenville gives an outstanding performance as Maren, considering she was reasonably young at the time she manages to stress the great age and wisdom of the character through some highly convincing make up. A lot of work has gone into making the potentially kooky idea of the Sisterhood look visually distinctive and convincing – the bleached reds, whispering sibilant chants and their various rituals and dances. Compare them to the cult of Kroll and you will see what I mean. All this talk of heads being removed still cannot prepare you for the truly grisly sight at the end of part one (I bet Mary Whitehouse spat her false teeth out in disgust!). There’s a wonderful effects shot of Maren’s ring blinding Sarah from our viewpoint, literally stretching out to blind the audience. I love the relationship between Solon and Condo, you really feel for the brute and how Solon mistreats him until the tables are turned in that fantastic scene where he pulls out the blade and threatens to take his master's life (‘you make Condo fool…now you die’). It's how the characters constantly break from their mould like that that makes them to riveting to watch. Christopher Barry has always been a master of building up suspense (remember the Thal excursion into the Dalek City as they smuggle themselves away in the alcoves...or the entire first episode of The Daemons); there is a delicious slow pan down the stairs towards Solon's laboratory and the director shoots through scientific equipment as Solon talks to a mysterious voice. You don't know what is in that laboratory at that point but are aware that it is completely malevolent. Solon was the character that Philip Madoc was born to play, giving him the chance to charm, frighten and amuse – his insane character is even sympathetic at times and his moments of pure psychosis are very entertaining because Madoc goes for them hell for leather. All praise for the second cliffhanger is one of the best in the shows history; Sarah is blind, following the grating voice that has been screaming from the laboratory and discovers a bubbling, ranting brain in a jar, something we have been denied throughout the episode (and the idea of the audience being able to see something so horrific and she can’t is terrific, you're literally screaming at her to back off!). Listen to dastardly Dudley's music during this scene as well, as it rises and rises to a dramatic crescendo. The brain bubbling in green fluid is one of Doctor Who's enduring images, completely ridiculous and utterly revolting. The Elixir is another great Robert Holmes idea; tiny drop of nectar that offers immortality and the consequences of synthesising it by the gallon would be genuinely catastrophic (go and watch Caves of Androzani to see how far people will go for a liquid that will give you extra years). I've always known that the Hinchcliffe years push it a bit when it comes to plastering some brutal horror across the screen but could have quite prepared me for disgusting sight of the sloppy brain splattering to the floor and Condo's chest exploding with blood as Solon pumps bullets into him. How they thought they could get away with something so explicitly gross is beyond me but I'm glad they went for it anyway as I was laughing and squirming in equal measure. Solon's true moment of madness comes when he cradles and venerates the throbbing brain in his hands - it manages to to be both hilarious and utterly distasteful. Say what you will about Holmes, he sure likes to take a risk. I really like the fact that despite the Doctor bring the Flame of Life back to full strength (in a very wittily scripted scene), the Sisterhood still betray him to Solon, hoping that their gift of their saviour will be enough for him to leave them alone. Episode three sports another tremendous cliffhanger, mirroring the end of the last episode where once again we can see the abhorrence that approaches Sarah and she can’t. Just imagine the kids at home screaming at her to turn around and become aware of Mr Allsorts making his advance. Holmes wisely saves the completed Frankenstein’s monster for the final episode, a truly savage looking beast that somehow genuinely looks as though it is made up of component parts of various creatures and yet comes together to make a convincing whole. Condo’s bloody, choking death is really rather nasty. The violent disgrace that this man suffers throughout this story makes him one of the ultimate Doctor Who victims. Proving that he is something of a sadist (or perhaps just happy to be rid of him), Solon waits whilst Morbius chokes the Doctor before anesthetizing him! Anything that shits all over continuity and gives Doctor Who fans a headache for the next few decades works for me and at the same time the mind bending contest works a genuinely arresting set piece, Morbius finally exercising his mind against the Doctor. Talk about the brain overheating, Morbius' goldfish bowl is full smoke by the time they are finished.

The Bad Stuff: Its odd because the only aspects of this story I want to criticise are purely superficial, the fake looking wrecked spaceships, the added on storm and the studio bound exteriors all fail to convince. However I think if this story had been filmed on location it would have lost much of its claustrophobic theatrics.

Result: Blood! Gore! Brains in jars! The murder of innocent virgins! There are no lengths that The Brain of Morbius wont go to to repulse and entertain. This is nasty, playful, imaginative and very frightening in parts; The Brain of Morbius is the ultimate expression of the Holmes/Hinchcliffe gothic horror approach. The story plunders Shelley and other sources with confidence and applies it to a gripping, beautifully thought through science fiction setting. Whilst stagy, as written Karn is a terrifying world of ancient secrets and abhorrent experiments for the Doctor and Sarah to unearth. The performances of Baker, Sladen, Madoc and Grenville are astonishingly good, managing to tap into the melodrama and deliver authentic performances and Christopher Barry gives his most engaging direction yet. He's clearly been influenced by Hammer horror and he plumps for a atmosphere of foreboding in the first two episodes before letting rip with some graphic horror in the second. Dudley Simpson’s music and Barry Newbury’s designs are faultless, one providing some comic undertones to soften the air of terror and the other constructing some moody sets to enhance the atmosphere. I have never failed to enjoy this story despite watching it ad nauseum, it is very funny and very scary and sees the Doctor and Sarah’s relationship at its height: 10/10


Audrey the Leviathan Vampire Girl said...

Result! Holmes saves the day again! ;)

David Pirtle said...

I might not score this one quite as high, but I do love it. It's terribly unoriginal, but it never pretends to be otherwise, and everyone's having such fun that it's hard to fault it. Doctor Soron in particular is one of my favorite villains, even if he's a walking cliche.