Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Brain of Morbius - "I'll see that palsied harridan scream for death before Morbius and I are finished with her."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Brain of Morbius - Index

Season 13, Story 5 (Overall Series Story #84) | Previous - Next | Index

Images via time lords and ladies

One of my favorites of the entire series, classic or new, if not *the* favorite. "The Talons of Weng-Chiang" sometimes holds that title, some days it's "The Ark in Space," other times I might answer with "School Reunion," or "The Day of the Doctor," or "Pyramids of Mars," but this is right up there. Ask anyone, they'll tell you, it's one of the greats.

There are links below to a few reviews that will give you more of a rundown and outline of the many reasons we all love it so much, so I won't re-cover that ground, instead want to speak to a few aspects that make it work so well for me. My enduring love for this story (watched twice before writing this, enjoyed it no less than the dozen or more times I did before) is largely attributable to the script editing of Robert Holmes, if not the writing of Terrance Dicks (who had is name taken off the final product because it had been so heavily re-worked by Holmes), but is also a function of the high caliber of the cast: Tom Baker and Lis Sladen, as always, joined by the marvelous Philip Madoc as Solon.

The look of it, the sets and costume design, the music, the directing, all work in support of the first rate performances and the Holmesian flair of the script, even when they're not what you'd call world class production. The things that always constrain the classic series, time and resources, here help fuse the all the elements. Of course it's got its dodgy bits: a wobble of the camera, repurposed spoons from the BBC cafeteria in the costumes, prominent zipper on the monster, mindbending plot elements, some rough editing, and the like. But this production team executes perfect TV-making judo, turning the weaknesses into strengths, making a TV story that's more than the sum of its considerable parts. They made a story we don't just admire, they made one we love -- one that wins young fans over and turns them into the sorts of folks who where motivated to learn about computers and usenet at an early age specifically so they could connect with other fans, and who persist in visiting message boards into middle age to keep the conversation going.

Here's one way a production team on a budget can inspire that kind of loyalty. Solon, trying to reign in Morbius's temper, let's slip a pun, and then quickly apologizes for it:
MORBIUS: The Doctor is a Time Lord?
SOLON: That is why his head is so perfect. From one of your own race, from one of those who turned up on you and tried to destroy you, you get a new head for Morbius. The crowning irony.
SOLON: I'm sorry, the pun was irresistible.
MORBIUS: You fool, Solon. Don't you see what this means? The Time Lords have tracked me down.
That moment is more than just funny as a great line perfectly delivered by an actor giving his all to bouncing his lines off a glowing brain in a fish tank -- it supports our willing suspension of disbelief because it tells us something about this Solon character, why he is trying to put the Doctor's head on the hodge-podge monster he's painstakingly assembled by harvesting body parts from the ships that crash on Karn instead of just putting Morbius's brain in the Doctor's body.

It's because he's utterly mad. A skilled genius in his field, sure, but daft. Exactly the sort of man who would never consider the obvious because he's a megalomaniac who's invested so much time and effort into his monster he can't see the simpler solution. An obvious problem with the plot is justified, ot merely lampshaded, as part of making Solon a full-fledged character. A theatrically verbose, over-the-top mad scientist with dimension -- a distinct and lovingly written and performed example of the type.

Solon, indeed every character in this story, is more than just one thing. The story itself is never just "Hammer Horror Frankenstein in Space," Horrifying, and funny. Sarah's blinding is both, again because of the brilliance of the actor. Lis Sladen is so perfect reacting with terror and forced humor at Sarah's situation. Her performance so perfectly suited to the story it's in we want her to come out for curtain call to receive her standing ovation and shower of roses. The Doctor has never had a better companion than Sarah Jane, and no one could have played that character better. She is the perfect foil for Tom Baker's madman in a box, bringing out the best in Tom, and in his Doctor. Saving them both from themselves, as it were. (Without Sarah, this Doctor was about to be burned alive, beheaded, and his skull used as the new home of the brain of one of the universe's greatest villains.)

Then there's Condo, the Igor of this Frankenstein story. Not bright enough to point out Solon's foibles, brutal enough to harvest organs, but sensitive enough to fall for Sarah. Again, he's more than one thing, and the many things he is fit together and give the story depth.

Holmes's stories tend have these remarkable supporting characters with outsized personalities that have cracking conversations with one another. His supporting characters cry out for spin-offs and inspire fanfics they can star in because they're just that good. Any scene in this story, no matter who's in it, stands on its own as a little TV gem. Whether it's Condo and Solon, the Doctor and Solon, the Doctor and Maren, Maren and Ohica, the Doctor and Sarah, Sarah and Condo, the story positively crackles with charm, each actor like one of the metallic spheres in the old monster movies with electricity sparking between them. A joy to watch from soup to nuts.

  • The mind duel regression controversy gets lots of play, but my take on it is the Doctor constructed false personalities as a way to prolong the fight. Not that there's any evidence for it in the script or the background we can glean from the DVD extras, or anywhere else I could find, but I think it's the easiest way to gloss over what was sort of obviously just a bit of rash goofing around without mind to sacred continuity. 
  • I'm sure Yo La Tengo had other things in mind when naming their garage rock alternate identity, but when I first heard they cut an album as Condo Fucks, my mind went here. 

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