Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Brain of Morbius

[1976 – Season 14, Serial 5]
One issue with science fiction, fantasy, and horror is that while it opens up every door possible to the imagination, there is a very fine line between compellingly imaginative and hilariously silly.  The Brain of Morbius takes that line, laughs at it, and dances all over and around it with unrestrained glee.  It’s dark, and tragic, and powerful, and intense, and goofy, and ridiculous, and wildly over-the-top, and horrific, all at the same time.  And somehow, it not only works, but transcends itself into something brilliant and special.

The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive on Karn, a planet not far from the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifry.  They soon encounter not only the Sisterhood, a mystical band of women guarding the secret of immortality, but also an ingenius but warped scientist named Dr. Victor Frankenstein Dr. Solon and his hunchbacked, hook-handed assistant Fritz Condo.  Solon has in his possession the brain of the evil Time Lord Morbius, and is rebuilding a body for him.  And he thinks the Doctor has the perfect head…

The original script was written by Terrance Dicks, then overhauled by script editor Robert Holmes, and the result is a script from two of the greatest writers in the history of Doctor Who.  The characters are terrific.  Dr. Solon and Morbius are both an incredibly rare breed of villain: wildly overblown caricatures with “take over the universe” sorts of ambitions who are also complex, well-shaded characters.  There’s just enough element of tragedy to make them interesting, but not so much that we regret their fates.  Condo is, of course, a dumb brute, but he’s a dumb brute with emotional depth.  The Sisterhood is a fascinating group whose obsession with immortality has frozen their culture in time.  Without death and birth, they can never move forward.

But the highlights are the two regulars.  Tom Baker’s Doctor is at his peak.  He is, of course, hysterically funny.  I love the scene when they first march up to Solon’s castle in the rain.  When Solon opens the door, they’re absolutely drenched as it practically monsoons outside.  The Doctor’s greeting: “Can you spare a glass of water?”  But he’s also very serious when called on, and with his deep voice and large frame, Baker has an unbeatable presence when solemn.  His concern for Sarah Jane, his solving of the dying flame with science, and his climactic showdown with Morbius knowing he’ll probably die in the process are all fantastic moments.

Sarah has plenty to do herself.  I love her cleverness when Solon gives them drinks.  But even more than that I love her bravery throughout; even though she’s blinded through most of the story, she shows incredible courage, even wandering outside on an unfamiliar planet to try to warn the Doctor of what’s coming.

And their relationship is beautifully portrayed.  Even though Sarah is just a human to the Doctor’s Time Lord, he treats her as a genuine equal.  Further, they’re just fun to watch.  There’s a great dialogue between them early on as the Doctor yells at the skies, convinced that the Time Lords are manipulated events and trying to get him to do their dirty work for them (though I love that it’s never stated for certain whether or not they did, implied as it may be), while Sarah teases him for being so childish about it.

Meanwhile, this is all set in a wonderful atmosphere.  The sets are stunning; Solon’s laboratory is a masterpiece.  Director Christopher Barry shoots it brilliantly throughout; it’s a tremendously well-lit, well-shot story.  He also plays the suspense for all it’s worth and layers in plenty of eerie horror and violence.

So it’s a compelling, dramatically sound character-driven adventure with great touches of horror, but there are also strong elements of satire, black comedy, and just outright silliness.  Probably one of the best examples of this oddness comes when Solon and Condo fight, during which Morbius’s brain is knocked to the ground.  Solon tries desperately to save it by putting it in a plastic case with long eyestalks.  However, the brain is damaged, and for a while, it runs around in a highly primitive fashion, wanted nothing but to kill.  The incredibly intelligent Time Lord reduced to his savage nature.

It’s also a brain sliding around on the floor, then put in a plastic head on top of a body that looks like this:

The first time I watched this episode, I was thrown by the last third, starting with the brain going on the ground, because while it worked, it couldn’t be taken totally seriously.  But rewatching I realized that it could be taken very seriously.  It's played straight enough and with enough depth to work as horror adventure.  It just has to be taken humourously as well.  

This is a brilliant episode, and one I love more each time I watch it.  It’s great fun, layered with intelligent, wit, and wonderful characters.  And it’s all that in ways uniquely Doctor Who.

* * * *


  • [Added: 6/27/11] I just finally watched Bride of Frankenstein.  That description of it as simultaneously funny, dramatic, and scary?  Very much like Bride, albeit leaning a bit more on the drama and horror scales than its '30s forebear.

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