Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius Review
Tom Baker's first three series, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script-edited by Robert Holmes, are regarded by many, myself included, as a particular purple patch in Doctor Who's forty-five year (and counting) history. I've gone into the reasons before, and won't repeat myself here. However, the general ambience of a Hinchcliffe/Holmes story is easy to describe. There are rivals but for one reason or another, that ambience is found in its purest form in The Brain of Morbius. It's an air of gothic horror, of emotional extremity, of peril and violence that sometimes pushes at the boundaries of what is nominally children's television. Morbius contains a decapitation (offscreen, but more than suggested by sound effects), the threat of decapitation, the threat of burning, and a surprisingly graphic shooting and a strangulation. Then there's the memorable UGH scene of a brain sliding out of its jar and falling on the floor. Mary Whitehouse did not like it at all.
We are on the planet Karn. Winds howl, lightning flashes, and the landscape is bleak indeed – and only once seen in daylight. The Doctor and Sarah become the guests of Mehendri Solon (Philip Madoc), a brilliant surgeon gone into hiding. However, Solon is an acolyte of Morbius, a renegade and apparently executed Time Lord. He is in the last stages of rebuilding Morbius a body and all he needs to finish the work is a head to house Morbius's brain. The Doctor's head.
The four-part script is a combination of Holmes and the other key writing voice of Seventies Who, Terrance Dicks, under the pseudonym of Robin Bland. The original idea was Dicks's, involving a robot trying to build a man – which would explain the patchwork results rather better than the final version does. Holmes rewrote the serial considerably, to the point where Dicks asked for his name to be taken off it and a “suitably bland” pseudonym put on it. So Mr Bland received his one and only screen writing credit.
As an eleven-year-old in January 1976, this gripped me utterly. I saw the cut-down sixty-minute omnibus repeat (something that the BBC used to do not infrequently at the time) but I hadn't seen this serial in any form in nearly thirty years. Some classic Who stands up very well today. Morbius does too...up to a point. Watching it again, I noticed some longueurs, many of them contained in the scenes with the Sisterhood of Karn, despite the good performance of Cynthia Grenville as their leader and Gilly Brown as Ohica. Also, it's a little unsatisfactory when the villain is dispatched by the supporting cast, which is also something I noticed watching The Time Warrior again.
One of the reasons why those three years are such a highpoint is that for two and a half of them the Doctor is accompanied by Sarah Jane Smith. Elisabeth Sladen had begun the role in Jon Pertwee's last season but she blossomed with Tom Baker's version of the role. It isn't for nothing that she is the only companion (human companion, so that we don't count K9) from Classic Who to have returned in New Who, not to mention being given her own spin-off series. In many ways Morbius is a Sarah story than a Doctor one. All three cliffhangers feature her rather than him, and Sladen shines in the sequences where Sarah has been temporarily blinded.
Philip Madoc, who had appeared in Who (with a sizeable role in The War Games, due out on DVD in 2009) is an excellent villain, given some extra dimensions and some Holmesian sardonic wit by the script.. In the supporting cast, Colin Fay, up to then an opera singer, is effective in the Igor role (called Condo here). Michael Spice's Morbius is an effective voice presence, though second to his Weng-Chiang. And a word for Stuart Fell, inside the Morbius costume, who makes for a memorable monster. (The headless version seen around the Part One cliffhanger was played, uncredited, by Alan Crisp.) Barry Newbery's design is excellent, and there's some nice directorial touches from Christopher Barry, and a full-blooded score by series regular Dudley Simpson.
And finally, there's the mind-bending contest between the Doctor and Morbius in Part Four. Morbius attempts to regress the Doctor through his past incarnations, so we see Pertwee, Troughton, Hartnell and...who's this? (Answer: members of the production team.) The implication is that the Doctor has had previous lives before the Hartnell one...or are they Morbius's past lives? And how does that square with the twelve-regeneration limit set by The Deadly Assassin the following year. Much intellectual energy in Who fandom has been expended on this!
The Brain of Morbius is released as a dual-layered DVD encoded for Regions 2 and 4.
The DVD transfer is in the original 4:3 aspect ratio, so anamorphic enhancement is not necessary. Morbius was an all-studio production, shot entirely on two-inch videotape, so is not going to look as good as modern-day productions. But it still looks very good indeed – apparently one of the less problematic restoration jobs the Restoration Team have done. The soundtrack is the original mono, and includes a section of music score which somehow went missing from the master tapes, most likely because of damage. But it had been broadcast to the nation in January 1976, and with the help of an off-air tape recording it could be put back in for the first time in thirty years.
Subtitles are available for the feature and all the extras except the commentary. Also available are the trademark information subtitles, this time provided by Richard Molesworth. One quibble: Holmes and/or Dicks are unlikely to have been influenced by Jaws as it was not released in the UK until Christmas 1975, when The Brain of Morbius had already been recorded.
The commentary features Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Philip Madoc, Christopher Barry and Philip Hinchcliffe. As with the story, so the commentary: Sladen takes the lead and Baker is somewhat in the background, though as always he comes up with slightly addled but always entertaining remarks. (“Look at all that panting crumpet,” he says as the Sisterhood are on screen.) Madoc does his bit to contribute, while Barry and Hinchcliffe concentrate on technical issues and the serial's context in the show's history. The results are lively and worth listening to.
The main featurette this time is “Getting a Head” [groan] (32:07). Paul McGann narrates this run-through of the making of the serial. Baker and Sladen are absent from the interviewees, but the rest of the commentary participants are, along with Terrance Dicks, Barry Newbery, Dudley Simpson, Cynthia Grenville, Colin Fay and Gillian Brown. This is what you expect from making-of featurettes, no more and certainly no less.
Barry Newbery has a solo spot in “Designs on Karn” (6:12), in which he describes how he created the planet and also the buildings in it. He deliberately deviated from Earth designs, such as having buttresses on the inside rather than the outside. Production design is an often-neglected aspect of TV and film making, so it's good to showcase one of Doctor Who's longest-serving crew members. Also on the theme of design is “The Brain of Morbius Set Tour” (2:13), a 3d CGI reconstruction of how the studio sets were built.
As well as the usual photo gallery (4:37) there's also a sketch gallery (2:24). The “Coming Soon” is for The Trial of a Time Lord (1:17). Also on the disc as a PDF are the listings from the Radio Times of 1976, including a letter and cartoon I remember from the time asking why characters in Doctor Who never seem to eat, sleep or go to the toilet. (Well, they are seen drinking in this one...)
Talking of letters, one from a young reader appears as an Easter Egg, complaining that the show was becoming too scary and stupid. Robert Holmes's reply is included, and this item runs 1:14. This can be found by clicking left from “Designs of Karn” on the first page of the special features menu. A second Egg can be found by going to the episode selection menu, going to “Main Menu” and clicking left. You will find some Brain of Morbius trivia (1:44), in similar style to the Egg on the Time Warrior DVD.