28-02-09 “Brain of Morbius”
“We often go on a mystery tour, don’t we, Doctor?” --Sarah Jane
I say this every time, but stories like this—that happen to be in the thirteenth season—really plundered the Matthew Lewis treasure trove of Gothic imagery and motifs. Which, in my humble opinion, isn’t really a bad thing. Philip Hinchcliffe believes Bob Holmes maybe oversaturated this one with the Frankenstein vibe, and Terrance Dicks is quick to distance himself from the eventual story. And yet the fans love this story. Is its status justified? I found it quite enjoyable but quite camp! Perhaps the best facet was Sarah’s heroism, followed by the superb design sense.
The first thing I wrote in my notes was “someone really needs a Fanta.” I was puzzling over this, wondering if I meant myself, before I remembered the story opened with a rather horrid-looking insectoid-reptile thing falling down a cliff trying to hold onto an orange-colored bottle. Then a pirate—with a hook for a hand—dressed out of some idealized version of the 15th century came after it and killed the insectoid-reptile, which gave a dying squeak. Only in Doctor Who. The pirate isn’t a pirate, by the way, he’s an Igor-like figure named Condo for the scientist Solon—our first clue to the Frankenstein heritage. Solon, we find out, has forced Condo to work for him by removing Condo’s hand and replacing it with the hook, only to restore it when his work is finished. That’s one way of imprisoning someone.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Sarah have been forced to land on the planet Karn by the Time Lords—“interfering idiots!” The Doctor is showing his petulant, childish side—“Robot” as much as hints of the Ninth Doctor to come—while Sarah is the one who is proactive and curious, despite the fact the planet appears to her “a Sargasso Sea.” The Doctor sulks and perfects his yo-yo. Sarah is wearing some odd outfit that would be vaguely practical except she has some fantastically absurd red high-heeled shoes on. The rest of the ensemble is quilted and goes to show how amazingly tiny the beautiful Elisabeth Sladen was (well, still is, and looking better than ever in my opinion). The ships’ graveyard is full of mutts—mutant insect species that crash landed. The pair next experience weather west of the Bristol Channel for which the Doctor’s solution is a wonky umbrella. They seek shelter in Solon’s parlor. Doh.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Karn is the temple of the Sisterhood of the Sacred Flame. These are obviously the forerunners of the priestesses in “Fires of Pompeii,” from their uber-eccentric makeup to the red costuming. Nevertheless, whether it’s down to the larger-than-life acting of Cynthia Grenville (Maren) and Gilly Brown (Ohica), the beautiful design work of Barry Newbery, or the fabulous choreography of Geraldine Stephenson, the Sisterhood just succeeds. They make an interesting, if no less hyper-serious, counterpoint to Solon and Condo. Desperate for the Elixir produced by the flame they guard, the Sisterhood believe the Doctor, as a Time Lord, has come to rob them of it and are, of course, ill-disposed against him from the start. Maren spends her time texting from the center of Newbery’s dais in the temple and looking like William Hartnell (according to Jamie, anyway).
Solon, of course, just wants his head. The Doctor is justly proud of his cranium, though he refers to the grey model he had when he was the First Doctor. Philip Madoc, who shares the same booming yet lyrical Welsh accent as my poetry tutor Nigel Jenkins, manages to keep Solon just on the knife’s edge of complete histrionics. The character is an ego-maniac with amazingly little compassion toward the dull-witted yet kind-hearted Condo, serving an even greater ego-maniac, literally a brain in jar. Solon is, I think, supposed to be this big villain in Who mythology; he seems to have the literally extreme, expressive quality of Zaroff combined with this casual cruelty. I guess that’s what makes him memorable—or at least bearable through the course of the story! It does seem that Hinchcliffe’s allegation that stories of this era liked to have a good grounding in familiar literary conventions—this idea of grave-robbing, sewing monstrous bits of flesh to reanimate—rings true.
While the Doctor’s being flattered by Solon’s glib interest in the Doctor—cranial or otherwise—Sarah shows herself to be one smart cookie, by not drinking Solon’s proffered wine, pretending that she’s fallen victim to it, and then sneaking away. Solon doesn’t think much of Sarah’s face or brains and instructs Condo to “Kill her.” As Sarah wanders around and somehow mistakes a rather gruesome headless specimen reclining in a four-poster bed for the Doctor (!), Solon describes Time Lords as “spineless parasites.” Kidnapped by telekinesis to the temple so the Sisterhood can dispose of him, the Doctor makes light of the situation—“if you got yourself a decent forklift . . .” He reveals himself to be 749 and makes an interesting comment about Pompeii. The Sisterhood are about to burn him as he can’t seem to talk his way out of it, and he can still say, “That music was terrible!” (It was, actually. It’s Dick Mills to blame, not Malcolm Clarke.) Solon comes in to plead his case, though in the end he reveals his true colors when he just asks for the Sisterhood to preserve the Doctor’s head. He is unsuccessful as well, leaving the Doctor to be burnt alive. The heroic Sarah has not only escaped and made her way to the temple, with a slight of hand (and the convenient fact that Maren closes her eyes) she manages to rescue the Doctor—and they escape. Unfortunately, a flash of light in the temple has not changed the color of Sarah’s eyes, it’s blinded her. Interesting.
The Doctor and Sarah bicker, and throughout this story he’s been petulant and not very grateful for her efforts. However, he doesn’t have to say in words that she’s important to him—he goes to Solon for a medical opinion on Sarah’s blindness. While the blindness is temporary, Solon leads the Doctor to believe it’s incurable and that he must go to the Sisterhood to get hold of the Elixir as a last resort, which the Doctor is happy to do, even though they will most likely try to kill him again! Solon wants to head the Doctor off and sends Condo with a letter to the temple first. Sarah stays put, increasingly helpless without her sight—Condo, like the huntsman in Snow White, is told to take her out to the wilderness and kill her, but he is stopped by her purity of heart—or the fact that she is both pretty and good (according to the Discontinuity Guide that’s supposed to make us think rather more of Hunchback of Notre Dame, but whatever).
In the temple, “nothing ever changes,” whereas back at home, on Morbius’ insistence, Solon is preparing to operate and transfer the brain to a plastic casing rather than a head. Morbius is moaning about being a vegetable—actually ranting is a better term!—though Solon suggests, “imagine how you’ll see yourself.” This is (one of the parts) where Mary Whitehouse has a cow, and even I do, sort of. For refusing to kill Sarah, Solon shoots Condo in pretty graphic detail, then Morbius’ huge gelatinous brain gets dumped on the floor. (This reminds me of two things. First off, the eyestalk brains in “Keys of Marinus” that Barbara deflates, and Young Frankenstein.) Sarah is forced to serve as Solon’s assistant in the super Gothic scene of reanimation. Something goes wrong, however, and the beast-bodied Morbius gets set on fire, then, in a Phantom-esque scene, destroys a mirror after seeing its reflection.
The Doctor is not dead, Maren having seen sense after he revived the Sacred Flame with a small firecracker, and Morbius, full of “simple animal instinct,” is rampaging the countryside in purely Frankenstein fashion. He quickly sees sense, but not before Tom Baker gropes a dead priestess. Oy. The Doctor and Sarah are locked up in a dungeon, unfortunately the dungeon is full of laboratory equipment so even though they don’t have the sonic screwdriver (ha!) the Doctor decides to pump cyanide into the ventiliation system (!). This kills Solon (a rather ignoble death for the crazed scientist) but Morbius has “the lungs of a Ballastrop” so it hardly effects him. He and the Doctor undergo a “mind-bending contest” (as opposed to a spoon-bending contest). This is the part of the episode that has caused so much controversy. I think it was a bit dumb of the show runners to include those photos of themselves, though clearly they couldn’t foresee how serious generations of Whovians were going to take their interference (and the addition of all those beards!). It seems perfectly reasonable to me that they’re either fake images the Doctor is feeding Morbius to confuse him, or I even thought it was plausible that they were images from Morbius’ past. Why not? Anyway, it’s no reason for anoraks to get their panties in a twist, especially since the contest really serves no purpose (other than to get Morbius outside and in the hands of the Sisterhood). The Sisterhood, again in true Frankenstein style, throw him over the cliff. Clearly, women + fire + cliff = destruction of monster.
Like I said, this was enjoyable because of Sarah Jane, parts of it were quite funny, and the visual element was rather remarkable. Whether it really deserves its mythic status or not I don’t know.