The Brain of Morbius
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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
hen it comes to classic “Doctor Who,” there can be no doubt: “The Brain of Morbius” is one of the best. It comes from the treasured and oft-praised era of the series known as “the Hinchcliffe years” (so named after producer Philip), a time when the show could seemingly do no wrong. At this point in the series, every week was a new excursion into the realms of horror and sci-fi, and perhaps no other “Doctor Who” tale so successfully mixes up the two genres. I’d easily place it in my Top Five were I making a list of favorite “Who” serials. In addition to the horror/sci-fi aspects, “Morbius” also has a wicked sense of humor which takes it right up over the top.
Solon: (looking at the Doctor) What a magnificent head!
Sarah Jane: What?
Solon: Superb head.
The Doctor: (chuckling) Well, I’m glad you like it. I have had several. I used to have an old gray model before this. Some people liked it.
Sarah Jane: I did.
The TARDIS lands on the planet Karn, outside of the Doctor’s (Tom Baker) control. He shouts at the heavens, certain the Time Lords have dragged him there to do some dirty work, although we never find out for sure if that’s the case. But as the events unravel, it certainly seems as if he was correct in his accusation. He and Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen) climb a craggy mountainside, and knock on the door of the gothic castle at the top. The residents are but two: Dr. Mehendri Solon (Philip Madoc) and his Igor-like assistant, Condo (Colin Fay). Solon is an evil scientist, devoted to resurrecting the even more evil Time Lord Morbius, who was executed by the Time Lords on Karn years ago. Morbius’ brain exists in a jar in Solon’s laboratory, as does a headless body stitched together from half a dozen different aliens. All Solon needs is the perfect cranium, and Morbius will live again.
Also living on Karn is the Sisterhood, a group of immortal priestesses whose time may be coming to an end, as their supply of the Elixir of Life, which gives them their great powers, is dwindling. They hate Solon and distrust Time Lords. Their leader, Maren (Cynthia Grenville), witnessed Morbius’ execution and refuses to believe he still lives. She also views the Doctor as a serious threat, assuming he’s there to steal the rest of the Elixir, and sentences him to death. The Sisterhood is a genuinely bizarre “Who” creation. There are a couple of very lengthy scenes of them chanting away, that would’ve been edited out in any other series, but here the camera lingers, cementing a disturbing tone in the process. (Anyone familiar with the new series installment “The Fires of Pompeii” will immediately recognize that the Sybilline Sisterhood is a total homage to Karn’s Sisterhood.) Who can the Doctor and Sarah Jane trust when there’s seemingly no one to turn to, and sinister goings-on lurk around every dark corner?
“The Brain of Morbius” may sound cheesy and formulaic, and in many ways maybe it is. It was a studio-bound story, and therefore shot entirely on videotape, which should be a minus, and yet miraculously isn’t. By all counts it probably shouldn’t work, but it does on every level. There’s an immense amount of momentum behind this derivative “Frankenstein” riff, and the series is firing on every cylinder. It’s weird, creepy, atmospheric and so well directed and paced that the 90-minute running time flies by. Dudley Simpson’s score -- one of his finest -- adds yet another layer of gothic beauty. The acting is top notch, particularly Madoc, whose mad scientist is nothing short of villainous perfection. The bonus documentary reveals that the producers wanted to get either Peter Cushing or Vincent Price for the part, but it doesn’t seem at all a missed opportunity, especially since both actors have played such roles to the point where their presence, while novel, would ultimately have seemed old hat. Madoc, on the other hand, presents something fresh, and he’s one of the all time great one-off “Who” villains. Baker is in fine form, but is surrounded by so much richness of detail that he doesn’t seem as central to the proceedings as usual. (As compliments go, that’s admittedly about as backhanded as they come.) But look closely at his work in this story, and you might see a more desperate and complex Doctor than is typically portrayed. His final act against the clearly desperate Solon is uncharacteristic of the Time Lord, and shows a man who must do whatever it takes to save the day (or night, such as it is). The final showdown with Morbius himself is a controversial scene (see the extras for more info), but most importantly it brings the proceedings to an intensely kick-ass crescendo.
On top of it all, “Morbius” just so happens to have been released at an ideal time of the year, as this is perfect Halloween fare. Useless trivia: Terrance Dicks wrote the first draft of the script, and script editor Robert Holmes gave it a major overhaul. Dicks didn’t like what Holmes had done and told him to slap some “bland pseudonym” on the story – and so the story is written by “Robin Bland.”
Special Features: “Getting a Head” is an excellent making-of doc narrated by Paul McGann that runs a half hour, and is chock full of delicious tidbits. There’s a lively audio commentary that’s perhaps a tad crowded – it features Baker, Sladen, Madoc, Hinchcliffe and director Christopher Barry. “Designs on Karn” is a discussion with designer Barry Newbery. “Set Tour” is a wonderful little piece of computer animation that recreates the studio as it would have looked accommodating all of the story’s many sets. There are also photo and sketch galleries, and the usual production notes option and Radio Times billings for PC-ROM. Finally there are two Easter Eggs, one of which is a funny audio recreation of a letter from a young fan telling Robert Holmes the show isn’t as good as it used to be, and Holmes’ reasoned response.