The Brain of Morbius

21 May

A DVD review for DWM

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A joy from start to finish, The Brain of Morbius is the quintessential Doctor Who story. If someone – perhaps a Stargate fan with a Guinness Book of Records in his bag and a chip on his shoulder – took a match or a big magnet to the BBC Videotape Archive, and only The Brain of Morbius survived the apocalypse, then future generations could easily extrapolate everything that’s important about Doctor Who from these four episodes alone, so neatly is the show’s entire DNA coiled into every second. The product of a deliciously twisted imagination, bursting with quotable dialogue and wholly committed performances, these 100 glorious minutes would tell a curious historian all he needs to know about our preposterous programme.

In 2004, when Doctor Who was announced as being on its way back to our screens, the favoured press release slogan for the new series was “full-blooded” – suggesting both great energy and a steadfast refusal to compromise. It’s exactly the right adjective to describe Doctor Who at its best; and when selling that future, we can be sure Russell T was remembering The Brain of Morbius. The plot may be basic – famously a reworking of Frankenstein, as the Doctor battles to stop an evil genius transplanting the brain of his Time Lord master into a new body – but it’s made special because everything is taken to such glorious extremes. Philip Madoc gives one of the all-time great guest turns as mad-as-a-mooncalf scientist Solon. His castle laboratory is as creepy as heck and a triumph of production design, with something bubbling in every corner. Even the body Solon assembles for his hero is made out of the best bits of other monsters. In short, The Brain of Morbius is as full-blooded as it gets. It’s Doctor Who turned up to 10.

Looking at that mish-mash monster, it’s a credit to the costume designer that the creature remains scary despite looking hilarious. This new Morbius may be proud to have the lungs of a Birastrop, but he also has the face of a cross-eyed Dalek and a backside like two sacks of soil. There’s a cute moment when he spots his reflection for the first time, and puts a hand to his absent mouth in shock. “What the hell do I look like?” he’s clearly thinking – a reaction many of us will have shared with the bathroom mirror on a morning after a night pickling our brain.

While the brain of Morbius may hog the title of this story, it’s his left hand that really matters, as it ultimately brings about his downfall. Solon has callously thieved the arm from his servant Condo in a display of unfeeling arrogance that karmically comes back to bite him. When Condo discovers what’s now attached to the sticky end of his long-lost limb, he turns upon his master and – in a cunning bit of writing – what has seemed no more than an entertaining subplot becomes the engine of the story. If Solon hadn’t been so mean then Condo would have remained loyal to the cause, and there would be no reason to rush the transplant of Morbius’ fundamentals into a fruit bowl. After that disaster, the already doolally Time Lord goes completely nuts.

Even then, that arm continues to hog the limelight. When the creature is up and on the lurch, its left hand takes on new significance as the only part of actor Stuart Fell that can be seen by the audience. And you can’t take your eyes off it. With his arm giving its all, Morbius’ gestures become delightfully showy. “My brain functions perfectly!” boasts the creature at one point, and Fell’s forefinger whips up to point helpfully at the organ in question, in case we’ve lost track of it in all the fuss.

First hindering and then helping the Doctor, as he wrestles the arm of Morbius, is the Sisterhood of Karn. They’re the highlight of the story for this reviewer – thanks to wonderful performances by Cynthia Grenville and Gilly Brown – and without doubt the campest troop ever to follow the Doctor into battle.

They also provide much food for thought. We learn that the Sisterhood has an uneasy pact with the Time Lords, with whom they share the product of their fountain of youth: the precious pentapeptides of the Elixir of Life. But come on… there has to be more to it that that. At this point, we’ve seen Gallifrey as a planet occupied solely by men. And here is Karn, world of the women. One imagines a bitter divorce back in the day, with the Sisterhood winning their sacred flame in the settlement, and the Time Lords keeping the secret of putting big boxes inside little ones. They’d have much more fun if the boys and girls got back together again. Ohica could flash her eyes at Castellan Spandrell across a crowded Panopticon. High priestess Maren could melt into the manly embrace of Cardinal Borusa. With eternal youth and infinite life on their side, they could party the Universe away.

Actually, Maren already seems to have an eye for the Doctor here, discreetly shedding her Black Forest gateau of a hat for his second visit to her shrine, and letting her hair down. The old flirt. Even her whiskers seem more glossy and manageable.

DVD EXTRAS

Settle down to enjoy one of the finest commentaries yet. All the key players are present – producer Philip Hinchcliffe; director Christopher Barry; and stars Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Philip Madoc – and it’s a pleasure to spend time in their company. The mutual appreciation is constant – Tom compliments Lis, Lis congratulates Chris, Philip applauds Philip, and Philip praises Philip in return – but hey, they all deserve it. In the gaps between back-slaps they get down to the nitty-gritty, pointing out little flourishes of production you might not have noticed, and even throwing in a concise history of film and TV lighting that’s more interesting that it may sound. And Tom’s obviously enjoying himself – especially when the pretty girls of the Sisterhood are spinning across the screen. “Look at all that panting crumpet,” he sighs, probably recalling a happy day on the job.

If you ignore the clumsy narration from Paul McGann, then the production documentary, Getting A Head, is a definite hit. Philip Madoc’s here again, looking more the mad scientist than Solon ever did. He clearly adores these episodes, and gleefully quotes his favourite lines. As he does, one wild, glinting eye seems to follow you around the room. Then it follows you out of the room and into the kitchen. It’s scary stuff. Cynthia Grenville is similarly intense when she recalls how Tom Baker was almost burned to death in studio – though not, as you might expect, consumed by the flames of his own ardour.

Production values on the documentary are commendably high. If you’re of an age to remember when ‘green screen’ was called ‘CSO’, and only worked for viewers with a congenital squint, you’ll find yourself staring in fascination at Grenville’s frizzy hair. Or rather, you’ll be staring through Grenville’s frizzy hair to the computer-generated shrine beyond. This may seem a trivial detail, but it’s a big deal for those of us who’ve been waiting more than three decades for them to crack it.

And speaking of whizzo technology, those CG recreations of the sets are certainly pretty to look at, even if they don’t serve much practical purpose. They’re like something from an unreleased Brain of Morbius computer game. Imagine that on the Wii. You could go looking for Condo’s arm, build a monster out of alien entrails, or wave the controller around your head and dance with the Sisterhood. Casualty departments across the land would be full of Doctor Who fans who’d got dizzy chanting “sacred flame, sacred fire”, and brained themselves on the sideboard.

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4 Responses to “The Brain of Morbius”

  1. Tristan Alfaro May 21, 2011 at 9:51 pm #

    Great review, Gary, it’s made me want to dig out the DVD again. I’m now regretting the fact we never got the awesome tie-in book ‘Men Are From Gallifrey, Women Are From Karn’. I bet Terrance Dicks is wishing he’d never insisted on Robin Bland, too.

  2. jackinthebean June 3, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    I stumbled across you via randomly perusing Steven Moffat’s twitter. As someone who grew up watching classic who, I thank you for your marvelously funny, thoughtful and witty reviews. Kind even about the clunkers (because we do love them all, even when we hate them…after all, it’s the Doctor!)…

    Because of you and your review (sadly I missed out on reading DWM growing up…although I must have had a few copies here or there…this is the downside of growing up in an Australian country town), I just ordered Jackie Jenkins’ book.

    Oh, and ‘look at all the panting crumpet’ is now immediately a phrase I shall use randomly (I’ve given it to my young male friends who I got into classic Who to use when they’re out looking at girls)…

    Thanks!

  3. ian June 24, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    fantastic review! one thing occurred to me about solon, he was planning to decapitate the doctor to provide a head for his monster, yet it never occurred to the barmpot to just scoop out the doctors brain & put morbius’s brain in! mind you perhaps morbius always wanted to look like the result of a randy dalek shagging a yeti!

  4. Daniel Blythe July 25, 2011 at 11:10 am #

    I’ve always thought the look the Morbius monster does when he admires himself in the mirror in Part Four is more, for a second, “Where’s me willy? HE DIDN’T GIVE ME A WILLY!”

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