The Brain of Morbius

Written by:
Terrance Dicks
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Starring: Tom Baker
Year: 1975
Video Availability (NTSC version only): Try Amazon

It took me years to learn to love The Brain of Morbius. Years. I think what troubled me most was not the studio exteriors or the plot contrivances, but its fan mythologising as a gothic chiller so scary it had to be edited for the kids.

Anyone who says they're not influenced by fan opinion - and I've often said it myself - is lying. You hear it all the time: "I don't get influenced by fan opinion, because I think 'insert name of poorly regarded story' is a classic." Yes, but by that statement you do, as your appraisal of that story is using majority fan opinion as a benchmark with which to define it. With Majority Fan Opinion (Hereafter referred to as MF Opinion for shortness' sake) so prominent in Who circles then it's impossible not to be effected by it. If I watched Nightmare On Eden in isolation, I'd think it was imaginative and amusing, but maybe a little too silly. Knowing it's sniffed at by MFs I find myself mentally chalking up its plusses and playing down its minuses. Okay, I'm not being a sheep, but my farmyard position is taken as a direct reaction against sheep - I'm an anti-sheep. Without them I could not exist. It doesn't just apply to people who are aware of fan circles - even if you, as I once was, were oblivious to Caves being regarded as "classic" Who, you'd surely have heard one single opinion, somewhere, at some time. Even on an unconscious level it would effect you.

All of which rambling is my way of saying that I could never enjoy Morbius when I was told it was a gothic horror. Only when I removed myself from this mindset totally - and saw the Hammer Frankenstein movies, not the Universal ones of which it really DOESN'T resemble - could I enjoy it. There's Tom in full Cushing regalia (six degrees… Madoc acted with Cushing playing the Doctor in Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150), plus a wry, witty send-up throughout. Yes, the sets are appallingly fake, but it's almost as a humorous intertextual homage rather than the production team just knocking it up on the cheap. Besides, the direction is fabulous. The Brain of Morbius is achingly funny (just look at one of the "horror" scenes - Morbius's brain knocked on the floor as Soron talks to it!) and a self-conscious pastiche all the way through. Essentially, it's a Graham Williams story two years ahead of its time, but that doesn't quite fit with the fan assessment of the Hinchcliffe Gothic Era™ so it gets chucked out and this gets rated as something it's not. This conflict between representation and actuality always jarred horribly with me, but taken as what its supposed to be and it's not only intelligently amusing but also exciting on its own terms.

Okay, let's analyse: the work's artificiality is constantly referenced throughout, both in coding of star performance (Baker making an example of finding his spot, thus keying in the audience to the direct adjunct of his portrayal as acting duty), dialogue (Baker's "glass of water" remark a literal signifier to the studio fabricated rainfall) and production (the stock sound effect thunder, wooden footsteps on rock, etc.). Thus Morbius operates not only as a television programme within itself, but also as a metawork that is wholly aware of its own manufactured origins. Not only does Morbius function as a piece of television; it also operates on a level of self-reflexive discourse. The introduction of the Sisterhood further involves the audience, particularly in the area of Mulvey's work on the Male Gaze. While ostensibly dominant characters, their gaze is only accessible in so far as the audience is aware of it. While no other characters acknowledge their look, their look exists only so that the viewer can gaze upon it. Thus they are objectified, and denied a gaze. The sole examples of attempted female gazes are reduced within the narrative: Sarah is the first to see the debris, but she asks the Doctor to share in the gaze, thus delegating the responsibility of the gaze to him. A similar example is witnessed with the Sisterhood calling forth the Tardis. While in essence the look is theirs, the object they call forth is the direct representation of the Doctor's masculinity, a phallic object before which they all kneel in pacification. It is notable that the only time they are allowed to deny a gaze is Sarah's, which they deprive her of by temporarily blinding her, thus removing the interspatial character gaze in the most literal of narrative constructs. The sole instance of the Sisterhood having the ability of a gaze relies upon Kaplan's theory of the Imperial Gaze, during which they are allowed to look upon Morbius falling, his mixed racial make-up enforcing his bio-sociological position as The Other.

Ohhhhhh…….. I feel all dizzy. The Drunk! Sarah's got a nice arse in those trousers! Solon has a poo on the toilet! Scary cliffhanger!
* * * * ½

In all seriousness, this is a lot darker (both in lighting and in tone) than I normally give it credit, the performances are spot-on and Christopher Barry's direction is excellent and inventive. Even Dudley Simpson's having a good time with it all.

I used to be disappointed with the easy dispatch of Morbius after all the build-up to his resurrection, whether it homaged Frankenstein or not. Though one of the story's great strengths is its ability to tell a story that we never even see on screen. While in lesser hands it could be anorakky (and Tom mentioning Pertwee in the first episode is something we'll see again in the last) the tale of renegade Time Lord criminals and executions is marvellously evocative.

I won't single out Philip Madoc for special praise because if any Who gueststar ever had a Big Up that went without saying it's him. For some inexplicable reason his "just a joke - a stupid joke!" is one of the most quotable lines in Who for me, just ahead of Tom's "how quaint!" I guess it must be the delivery in both instances.

The brighter "sky" throws the fake exteriors into lesser regard, though one of the much-slated plot elements: why Solon doesn't use the Doctor's entire body instead of his head - can be resolved. As early as the first episode it's made clear that his insane egotism has overridden his mind, and that logic has abandoned him. Okay, it's tenuous - maybe even more tenuous than the existence of mind-bending equipment, the Doctor leaving Solon alone to "dispose" of Morbius or Sarah's blind cross-country route - but it works. Just. All of these things used to annoy me, but The Brain of Morbius gets by on wit and panache, little things like narrative logic mere distractions for its overall ambitions. The cliffhanger is, in essence, a straight recreation of the first, but works exceptionally well.
* * * *

It's easy to underrate this story - as I once did - as a cheap one done in the studio. But compare it to the rest of Who's oeuvre and it's arguably the most successful story filmed wholly in a set. With the dark, vivid colours and sinister themes it's one Hinchcliffe that fully deserves the term "gothic".

On the negative side, then this is another "day" episode, whereas it would have perhaps been preferable too suggest Karn endured permanent night. And of course, Pole-To-Pole with Sarah-Jane Smith is exceptionally silly given that she's been blinded by Maren's ring. (Matron!) Speaking of Maren, listen out for bit (7'07m in, Anorak fans!) where she starts her "what are you suggesting?" line too early. Not a nit-pick - it's just worth a Billy Big-Up throwback chuckle, that's all. Only real sore point is the scene where Condo gets shot. While the full on blood'n'guts is commendably visceral, Dud-ley's music sounds like a jaunty countryside picnic is taking place.

With another story I'd probably slate the plot progression. After all, Sarah's spent half the runtime escaping and being recaptured, but there's a huge wealth to the lines and performances, and out of all of season thirteen it has easily the densest text. Also, a note of praise for Michael Spice. After seeing Stephen Thorne do an atrocious job of ranting megavillains, it's astounding that Spice is doing essentially the same - shouting, basically - yet doing so superbly.

The cliffhanger is again - essentially - the exact same thing, but if you had a cliffhanger that good then you'd use it, wouldn't you?
* * * * ½

Made just the following year after Hammer's Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, you might note that the Morbius creature more closely resembles Cushing's budget-friendly bestials than Karloff (and even less so Shelley's original work). Maybe the goldfish bowl head makes Morbius more comic than frightening (as pointed out by the Doctor and Sarah) but this is still probably the most graphic Doctor Who story up to that date - a factor hard to take in in these post-Saward times.

There's a tremendous amount of long shots in this one, which really adds a slightly grandiose feel to proceedings. There's a real level of self-awareness here (the Doctor's "you're always making that mistake" in particular) which would be irksome in a lesser story but is wonderful here. And in Madoc's performance we have the crux of the entire story's appeal - a perfect balance between horrific intensity and controlled camp.

You know, call me thick, but I never realised before that one of the linking themes in this story is that of the perils of wanting to live on past your natural time, a theme common in much of Terrance Dicks's work (Look at that! I nearly went an entire review of Brain of Morbius without mentioning the old "Terrance legged it after Holmes rewrote heavily and it was put out under a pseudonym" anecdote). Morbius is decaying after unnaturally extending his life, Solon wants to live on through his work, and Maren finally come to realise that "perhaps the Doctor is right… I should be dead." Sole exception to this, it seems, is regeneration, which brings us to the Mind-Bending competition. It's contrived, irrelevant, indulgent, lazy and fannish - yet it rocks like a daddy! Always one to annoy the fanboys, the Doctor taking Morbius into the rope-a-dope (knowing his connections are faulty) and revealing he's had eight pre-Hartnell lives always sparks a knee-jerk "but in The Five Doctors…" response. Personally, I love it to bits.

Pieces left over? Well, I used to think "Morbius falls over cliff" (causing his head to fall off, the camera to wobble and a special effect that I was going to take the piss out of but it's not so bad so I'll be kind) was an anti-climax. Narratively, though, it's the only possible resolution, and this story is more than just the monster of the week. Trivia spotters may like to check out Maren's hair from 9'15 - 9'20m, where it grows its own boom mike shadow, and "oh, nothing, nothing, a mere nobody" is another of my favourite lines. Great stuff all round.
* * * * ½

There was a time fourteen years ago when I would have rated this as a two-star story. Didn't I use to think a load of rot?
* * * * *