Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius Review (or ‘A Triumph of Casting and Dialogue’)

There are certain points in a child’s life when he or she is encouraged to buy an autograph book.

For me it was in Walt Disney World, when finishing school and – oddly – when moving from Primary School to Secondary School, even though it was the same establishment.

My brother was the same, and I remember for some reason when he had his ‘Leaving Primary School’ autograph book, an eight-year-old Stuart decided to add a signature to it, which read…

To Steven,

All the Best In Secondary School.

From your friends,

Condo, Solon and Morbius

I’d even gone to the trouble of making up different signatures for each of them.

About 10 years later, we stumbled upon that autograph book and had a good laugh about it, and to this day my brother still gets a birthday and Christmas card signed from the three of them every year.

“Oh Stuart, you are a wacky one”, I imagine you’re thinking, if for wacky you mean “weird”, but the point is that these characters obviously made an impression on me at a young age.

There’s Sladen with the finest ‘Blind Acting’ since Blair McDonough in Neighbours

The Brain of Morbius of course was one of the early VHS releases along with stories like Revenge of the Cybermen and Pyramids of Mars, so it’s one that I know well and have been looking forward to reviewing.

Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius Review: What’s This One About?

Continuing the concept of Gothic Horror, this one is about Frankenstein and his monster.

Or to be more specific, a renowned neurosurgeon and member of the Cult of Morbius – an evil Time Lord who had been exiled and thought executed on the planet Karn – has the Brain of Morbius in a jar and wants to put it inside the Doctor’s head, atop a monster he has created from the spare parts of aliens and animals that have crash-landed on the planet.

Thoughts

There’s so much I like, so much that’s bang on about this story, that I’m having trouble finding where to begin.

Certainly, the first thing that strikes you when you watch it is the setting, which is largely impressive. The gloomy house that Solon lives in, the darkness outside, the incidental music that goes along with it – it all works wonderfully with what this story is.

Indeed, there’s only one main issue I have with the whole thing, which is that for select few scenes – the ones that take place outside and especially those set during the day – it does look cheap.

Beyond that – as well as maybe a little too much emphasis on the Sisterhood of Karn – this is one story that I consider to be an absolute triumph.

Here’s why…

The Writing

Condo Have Girl. What Condo Do With Girl? You Decide.

Like many Doctor Who stories, this one has a basic but effective and flowing plot.

But what sets it apart for me is that there are so many clever bits of writing. Writing that doesn’t just tell you what is going on with the plot, but makes you laugh without being comedic and – crucially – develops the characters.

Perhaps the key is that there is quite a small cast of characters and so they are all given time to develop.

In that respect, this is similar to both the Pyramids of Mars and the Ark in Space, but where I think this story exceeds them is that each character is more well-rounded, given not just a reason to be there, but a backstory and time to grow throughout the four episodes.

So with fewer people to write for, there’s more scope to write better.

And that – as I say – is something that this story manages to achieve.

The characters have memorable and interesting lines, and they work well against each other.

Condo and Solon

The best example of this is the relationship between Condo and Solon.

I just love the way these two work against each other. Alone they are great, but together they are superb, with Colin Fay (Condo) and Philip Madoc (Solon) getting the sort of ‘Pinky and the Brain’ relationship spot on.

And the dialogue they are give, such as…

Condo: Doctor gone.
Solon: I can see that you chicken-brained biological disaster

…is an absolute riot.

As their relationship plays out, Solon becomes the sort of character you love to hate, while Condo becomes a very sympathetic ‘gentle giant’ rather than just being Solon’s muscle.

Would you accept wine from this man?

You feel for him as Solon offers him up to the Sisterhood in place of the Doctor, when you find out Solon has been using his arm for his Morbius body, when he impresses upon Solon not to hurt Sarah (who he has developed feelings for) and ultimately when he is shot by Solon and then killed by Morbius.

The example of when he falls for Sarah springs yet another fantastic exchange of lines…

Condo: Master not hurt girl
Solon: I misjudged you all this time, Condo. Under that brutish exterior, there lurks a tender, compassionate nature.
Condo: Condo like girl
Solon (to Sarah): Oh, he’s such a romantic
Sarah: You think you’re a bundle of laughs, don’t you?
Condo (touching Sarah’s hair): Hair…pretty
Sarah flinches in terror
Solon (wearily): All right, that’ll do. She doesn’t like it. Now, get out. Go on, get out.

Written down, it doesn’t seem particularly special, but I suppose that’s the point. These actors are bringing out the best in the lines through their expression and delivery.

Madoc is especially good in this regard as he puts in his finest performance in Doctor Who – possibly in anything.

I imagine with lesser character actors in the show it might not seem anywhere near as good.

Morbius

It’s not just those two that are memorable – the Morbius monster too is also very good.

First of all you have the reveal of him being a brain in a jar at the end of episode two. How can a brain in a jar be an interesting character? Well again, it goes back to dialogue and delivery.

I said in the Pyramids of Mars review that Sutekh was voiced appropriately; that it wouldn’t have worked as well if he was voiced as a booming voiced angry villain. Well I’ll flip that here, because it wouldn’t have worked for a brain in a jar to be voiced like Sutekh. It’s horses for courses.

Noooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!

Michael Spice – who will be back in Talons of Weng Chiang as Magnus Greel – voices Morbius as an angry, frustrated and impatient man. He also manages to convey the vulnerability and fear of a man who has been reduced to a brain in a jar too, with the cliffhanger to Episode 2 being a great example of how to express emotion through voice alone.

And as Morbius’s story develops, his emotional state alters with it. By the time he is fully mobile in Episode 4 he has become smug and grandiose, and that is helped by the odd way Stuart Fell in the Morbius costume positions himself while moving around (which I imagine was so that he could see where he was going). Serendipity in action.

So again, it’s a triumph.

Messing With Canon

An interesting aspect of this story is that it throws Doctor Who Canon out of the window.

I love that people write essays on this subject or try to convince themselves and others that it’s something it’s not, but this story clearly makes out during the Mind Bending Contest that Tom Baker’s Doctor is not his fourth incarnation, but rather his twelfth.

I have no problem with that, because it really makes more sense for it to be the case, but certain sections of Doctor Who fandom will greatly disapprove of it.

But who cares really? Yes, I had a problem with Terry Nation completely rewriting Dalek mythology, but I’m not going to criticise Robert Holmes for failing to consider a line of dialogue from the Three Doctors when writing this.

But some people who do care. The ‘Season 6B’ crowd and the ‘Oh my God, Doctor Who is going to have to end soon because we’re going up to the Doctor’s last regeneration’ society.

Rearrange the words ‘A Grip Get’ and you have my feelings on the matter.

Random Observations

  • To continue on with my point about lines of dialogue, the ones where the Brain of Morbius states that he is in a situation where he ‘envies a vegetable’ is so brilliantly politically incorrect that there’s just no way it would be allowed in 2012.
  • Another noteworthy exchange is the ‘You thought I was dead; you’re always making that mistake” line which – if you’ve watched the show in sequence – is cleverly apt.
  • There are also a couple of fantastic ad-libs from the cast. Tom Baker’s “Can you spare a glass of water” is the most famous of them, but my favourite is Philip Madoc’s “I’m sorry, the pun was irresistible”. Genius
  • One could question why Solon doesn’t just put the Morbius’sbrain inside the Doctor’s body, but I think that gets covered by the notion that he’s built Morbius a body designed to be the most efficient form of life going, in spite of its hideous appearance.

    In possibly a first for the blog, a Double ‘Mon Then’

  • Why did the member of the Sisterhood that Morbius kills just stand around and let him do it?
  • Tom Baker is quite a strong guy to pick up Morbius and throw him over his shoulder as if he was nothing.
  • From the files marked ‘You’ve got to admire his brass neck’, I love that Solon offers the Doctor another glass of poisoned wine the moment he arrives back at his house.
  • The Brain of Morbius is similar to many stories – whether it’s Doctor Who or other works of fiction – that falls a bit in that it spends so long building up what could happen when some force of evil is unleashed, only for it to be quickly and resoundingly defeated when it happens. Pyramids of Mars was the same.
  • Solon’s death was done in a very low-key manner; almost disappointingly so. Or are we to assume he’s still alive?
  • If you don’t know the story behind the writer’s pseudonym ‘Robin Bland’, then I urge you to watch the accompanying documentary on the DVD.
  • Liz Sladen gets to add to her “Doctor, I can’t….” acting range. This time she can’t see.
  • And in fairness to her, she does quite a good job of looking like she’s blind, but I’d suggest the ease at which she gets around Karn while blinded is a bit silly.
  • Pot Pouri is the worst insult I’ve ever heard.
  • As to my earlier point about the story managing to be humorous without being comedic, a great example of that is when the brain falls on the floor. It’s like something out of a sitcom but it’s played absolutely seriously and so – much like the rest of this story – it just works.
  • Brain of Morbius comes in as low as #40 in the DWM Mighty 200. That’s something I really can’t understand. For the life of me, I don’t see how anyone can consider this as being worse than The Daemons, The Green Death or Terror of the Zygons, to name but three.
  • Since I’ve focused on the dialogue so much, I’ll finish with another one that I like. When the Doctor wakes up in the Shrine of the Sisterhood, his reaction of “Events have moved along while I’ve been asleep” is classic.

Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius Review: Final Thoughts

I’ve said it twice already, but I’ll say it again now. The Brain of Morbius is a triumph.

The plot is good, but the key to it is the choice of actors and the writing and execution of their dialogue.

You’ll see that I haven’t said too much about the Sisterhood of Karn, and that’s not that they are bad, but rather that they are simply outshone by better characters and actors than them.

Everyone in this one puts in one hell of a performance, and though I only just recently proclaimed a story – The Pyramids of Mars – as a true classic, I would go as far as to say I enjoy this one even more.

There’s a reason why the characters of Condo, Solon and Morbius influenced me enough to write a nonsense autograph from them when I was 8. They are larger than life, wonderfully performed and exceptionally memorable.

Of the Fourth Doctor stories I’ve seen, this might be the best yet.

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2 Responses to Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius Review (or ‘A Triumph of Casting and Dialogue’)

  1. Dave Griffiths says:

    Morbius is a great story. I can’t imagine the ‘outside’ scenes being made on location – it would just seem wrong somehow.
    Baker is at the height of his powers, one moment comic. the next deadly serious. His scenes with Madoc crackle.

  2. Simon Clarke says:

    This is one story that was banned on TV in Australia for many, many years due to its reasonably realistic use of spurting, fake blood when Condo is shot. It was simply deemed too violent for kids, and yet, The Deadly Assassin (controversial for the attempted drowning of the Doctor scene) wasn’t.

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