Monday, July 5, 2010

Grab Bag Reviews: "The Brain of Morbius"

So I'm back from a trip to visit family over the Fourth of July. There was fireworks and cake and corn on the cob and other good things to eat so all was well.

Anyway, before I left I reached into the grab bag and... happy accident, pulled out "The Brain of Morbius". A few reviews back ("State of Decay" to be exact) readers will note that I mentioned producer Philip Hinchcliffe and his partner-in-crime script editor Robert Holmes and their penchant for adapting Gothic horror stories for Doctor Who. Well, it so happens that "Brain of Morbius" came at what was probably the height of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes Gothic era.

Again, as with "State of Decay" veteran writer Terrance Dicks had been tapped to write this story and he was given the mandate by Hinchcliffe and Holmes to adapt Mary Shelly's classic story Frankenstein: Or a Postmodern Prometheus. Dicks wrote the script, finishing it just before leaving on a scheduled two-week vacation. Holmes and Hinchcliffe, upon receiving the script, didn't think it was quite what they had in mind and besides that they worried that they would be unable to pull off some of the special effects Dicks' script called for with the show's meagre budget.

By the time Dicks returned from his trip time was growing short and he agreed to let Holmes and Hinchcliffe tweak his script. Upon receiving the changed script, however, he was unhappy with the amount of rewriting done. Eventually Hinchcliffe soothed his ruffled feathers and asked if Dicks would rather the story went out under one of the previously established pseudonyms Doctor Who had used over the years. Dicks replied for Hinchcliffe to pick some "bland pseudonym" so Hinchcliffe credited the writer as "Robin Bland" -- something that rather amused Dicks.

The Plot: The Doctor and companion Sarah Jane Smith arrive on a strange, storm-wracked world instead of their desired destination. The Doctor believes the Time Lords are manipulating him again in order to do some job they don't want to get involved with. Sarah is, however, skeptical.

The Doctor soon learns they have landed on the world of Karn where a group of women, who have ties to the Time Lords, still practice great mental feats. They also jealously guard an elixir which can extend life -- although lately the source of that elixir has been drying up. The Doctor also stumbles across Solon -- once one of the greatest doctors ever... and a follower of the renegade Time Lord Morbius. Of course Morbius was long ago executed for his crimes... or was he? The Doctor begins to suspect that Morbius may still be alive but his search is hampered by the Sisterhood's suspicion that he is there to steal the elixir for the Time Lords and Solon's secretiveness... and that begs the question... just WHY is Solon so interested in the Doctor's head anyway?

My Take: Ah, "The Brain of Morbius". It has to be said that this story is a mixture of the sublime and the silly and it works.... as long as you can stop yourself from asking too many questions and noticing the huge, gaping plot holes.

The story opens with a thunderstorm -- to draw even more parallels with Shelly's Frankenstein and it works beautifully. Sadly, this entire story was done on soundstage and while some of the alien landscape works some of it does not and it is entirely too obvious this is a stage set. Of course, this being Doctor Who that is part of the charm. There is great atmosphere and Solon's house is a delicious mix of alien-looking and yet also old-fashioned Gothic. Even Solon himself is this mix as his laboratory uses devices which look futuristic -- like the artificial vocal cords rigged up for Morbius -- and yet Solon himself wears an old-fashioned doctor's reflector when preforming surgery and actually uses an old-fashioned stethoscope at one point too. While these incongruities are meant to be charming, sadly, they do pull one out of the story and instead point up how ridiculous it is.

And speaking of Solon, Philip Madoc turns in a wonderful performance here. He goes right up to the top but without going over it and he gets some dramatic lines which he delivers with great relish. In particular his insults are erudite and so complete that when he insults someone they are well and truly insulted.

There is also some awesome costuming and make-up -- particularly when it comes to the Sisterhood of Karn. The face paint and robes are strange and lush and lend a lot of weight to the characters and their lives. There is a feeling of completeness with with Sisterhood -- they and their culture actually seem very fully realized and this adds a nice depth to the story.

The main actors are their usual, professional selves. Elisabeth "Lis" Sladen had by this time been on the show for several years and had been performing with Tom Baker for about a year and a half. Her comfort with him shows and transmits into a believable close friendship between the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Tom Baker, for his part, reciprocates and also colors his performance as the Doctor here with just a touch of Groucho Marx. It makes for a nice mix of the dramatic and genuinely funny.

Within the story itself there is, sadly, some signs of padding as each of the characters are required to do things which seem monumentally stupid in order to keep stringing the story along. For example, Solon has built Morbius a terrible patchwork body and needs only a head to complete it. Upon meeting the Doctor he gushes at how perfect it will be -- a Time Lord head for Morbius the former Time Lord but it begs the question... If Solon can transplant Morbius's brain into a new body why take off the Doctor's head, why not instead simply remove the Doctor's brain and plant Morbius's brain in the Doctor's body? Then there is the fact that the Doctor KNOWS Solon is a bad egg, he KNOWS he's up to no good and yet when Sarah is blinded the Doctor takes her to Solon to have her eyes examined and worth believes what Solon tells him!

On the good side, however, there is a really great monster reveal for the end of episode one which must have made kids at the time jump. Sadly, though, an almost exactly similar reveal is done at the end of episode two which just then feels repetitious. There is also a surprising level of violence here -- something which would end up getting the show in trouble with critics -- but the violence is bloody and shocking and really effective and well done within the story honestly.

"The Brain of Morbius" really is a wonderful, atmospheric story with a number of things to recommend it but at the same time it does have it's flaws and it is a bad idea to look too closely at things because otherwise you WILL see the man behind the curtain and you will find out he's just a charming flim-flam man.

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