Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Karn Eval

The Brain in the rain stays mainly splattered over the plain. A spot of elocution practice to test mental faculties there: apparently I was, like the villainous Time Lord, destroyed in a dispersal chamber but was saved by a devoted mad professor who managed to preserve everything but my brain. Because, try as I might, I can't see what's supposed to be so rubbish about The Brain Of Morbius.

As if my recent birthday bonanza of Who-related materials was insufficient (which it wasn't, but I couldn't help myself) I went and treated myself to this Season 13 classic on DVD. And like many 'classics' it does come in for a deal of stick from some quarters, and that's fair enough - each to his own - but - possibly because I have this brainless head - I couldn't see it and, to be honest, loved every minute of this superbly orchestrated 'Goth Opera'. Like so much of the same season it has that combination of old, new, borrowed, blue working for it and while Pyramids Of Mars turned to The Mummy for its inspiration and Planet Of Evil pays homage to Jekyll & Hyde and Forbidden Planet, this one is the team of Hinchcliffe, Holmes and Dicks taking a romp through a Mary Shelley/H Rider Haggard theme park.

Along with the old and borrowed of Frankenstein and She, there's lashings of blue - where blue is my convenient catch-all heading for mood and atmosphere - in the craggy Karn landscape, shrouded in dry-ice and assailed by storms, and the 'new' lies in the sf/fantasy reworking of the source materials that also succeeds in making some key contributions to the building of the Who universe, ranging from casual references to Mutts and the Hoothi to the crucial background story of the Cult of Morbius, all as potent in their own way as that single reference to the "advance on Reykjavik" (Talons Of Weng Chiang) that so vividly painted other unseen adventures and worlds in this young viewer, once upon a time.

Actually, I say "once upon a time", but it still has as inspirational an effect on me as a 'proper grown-up writer'. That in mind, it's perfectly possible that nostalgia plays a part in my impressions of the story, but I've no problems owning up to that and even if I take that out of the equation - so far as I can - The Brain Of Morbius still impresses.

There are elements that could so easily be laughable: Condo as the Ygor figure, for example, and any group of women emulating flame in dance form are in danger of looking silly, but it's all played with such conviction and, in league with the wonderfully gloomy atmosphere of it all - to say nothing of the brutality (Condo's hacking off of the Mutt's head at the beginning, the attempted burning of the Doctor at the stake, Solon's blasting his troublesome servant with a gun and his casual, clinical approach to the Doctor's impending decapitation) - helps keep things sober.

Humour is there in the dialogue (and in an incident of brain-spillage), but this was a period when you could really gauge the seriousness of a given threat by the gravity of Tom Baker's portrayal and, as in Pyramids, he's as gloomy as his environs here when the name of Morbius crops up. Thus, the portrait of a truly dangerous villain is painted long before we've met his cobbled-together remains and there's a beautiful progression to the cliffhangers, where each is carefully constructed to conclude with an encounter with Morbius at various stages along the assembly line: headless monster, brain-in-a-tank and - in a brilliant moment for Sarah Jane to have just recovered the power of sight - the fully assembled Creature.

It's a shame, perhaps, that he's demented, as we've been given the impression of a foe who would surely have been much more formidable with his mental faculties intact and it's also something of a shame that he meets with such an ignominious end: pitched off a cliff by the Sisterhood, who are, for the purposes of the homage, reduced to the level of the torch-wielding mob. But it's fitting that a Gothic horror should play out as much as a tragedy as a horror story. And the cliff-top dive is at least preceded by the famous mental duelling scene, so the Doctor has very much played a part in the villain's ultimate end.

At which point, I have to pause and mention - if only to aggravate the continuity-obsessed fans - it's entirely possible to read those mysterious faces in the mindbending machine as incarnations of Morbius. Sure, at the time, Morbius is ranting on about how far back he can drive the Doctor, but it's also right after that he develops an overload and stomps off, thrashing madly about. In The Three Doctors, the Time Lords speak of lifting the Doctor's earliest incarnation from his timestream and that's unambiguously William Hartnell. So while there's room for interpretation in the Morbius scene, I'm going with that reading. People will mock and scoff, but hey, they laughed at Mehendri Solon and look what he achieved.

Speaking of whom, Philip Madoc is supreme as the mad scientist in this: so good that, although you know he *must* be insane, there's little overt evidence of it in his performance. He's cold and calculating and charming - a tough blend to pull off - and a great foil for the Doctor. Utterly convincing, you almost understand why the Doctor's trusting enough to leave a blind Sarah Jane in the man's care. Almost. (Personally, I wouldn't: I'd be taking her around with me everywhere - just to make sure she was okay, you know.) The way Solon stands there, openly admiring the Doctor's head is a brilliantly bizarre moment that Madoc sells completely.

Cynthia Grenville as Maren is good too, her heavily aged features at least as startling in their own way as any brain in a fishbowl. Ohica, her second-in-command, is a shade on the theatrical side, but it's not so overdone that it can't simply be taken as the earnestness of an intendant 'heir', keen to be taken seriously. And the design work is rich in detail, both on the Sisterhood costumes and their shrine. The design work in general is very good, in fact, both interiors and exterior, with the landscape only losing a little something in the rare daylight scenes. And the Monster itself is a truly memorable creation, with that special bio-mechanical collage look being hard to pull off successfully, or at least so I imagine.

There are a few questions about some aspects of the story - for instance, wouldn't it have made more sense for Solon, eager to collect body parts, to have been somehow responsible for the crashed spaceships, rather than the Sisterhood who are set on keeping people away? - but as far as this viewer's concerned, nothing sufficiently damaging to detract from the overall experience and what I get from it is an involving sf-horror adventure, rich in inspiration and possibilities that range beyond what's actually seen on screen. The sort of Doctor Who that's worth celebrating.

Who knows, maybe my brain will be found and replaced and I will be able to see through the illusion to the rubbishness underneath. But if it is an illusion, it was achieved with acting, dialogue, papier mache and a budget of thirty quid - not frenetic pacing and razzle-dazzle CGI - and in that respect it'd still be something of a remarkable achievement.


Stuart Douglas said...

Sadly I too have the exact same brain illness as you when it comes to Morbius. I though it drips with atmosphere too and am realy looking forward to watching the final two episodes tonight.

What can I say - brainless heads are catching...

SAF said...

I'm seeking out an appropriate sized fishbowl to house my brain when it's found :)

IZP said...

Sequels I'd like to see-
Doctor Who and the Rest of Morbius
by Roland Nibb

from the back cover

Morbius had many followers, not all of them were team-players, and some of when were homeopathic maniacs.
Unbeknown to Dr Mehendri Solon, other followers of Morbius' stole his body shortly after Solon nipped off with his brain. Needless to say they were gutted to discover just what rubbish was in their Lord's head when they got him home. Deep beneath the bowels of a new age crystals emporium in Kidderminster, practioners of dark alternative medicine are attempting to recreate the implicit form of Morbius' brain by extrapolation of the faint echoes of his traces of his life's thoughts that are ingrained in his body's muscle memories.
The shambling caricature they awake has a hunger for a revenge, one that can not be satiated by wholefoods.

The cover of this book depicts the Tenth DOCTOR WHO whose appearance was altered after he kissed a girl.

For copyright reason this book is not available for sale in N-Space.

Right, now that's out of my system, great stuff, just watched half watched the DVD with commentary- doesn't Tom say "Yeah, yeah" very quickly a lot on these?

The continuity question no one ever seems to pick up (I always thought they were Morbius faces as we'd been given very clear Doctor number facts in all my books, and it's quite easy to taunt an opponent while losing actually) is this story seems to pop Gallifreyan history in the future- the Doctor will be born around here, Solon is after Sarah's time, but Morbius was upto his badness within living memory. If we assume the Mutt is part of the next phase of Solosian evolution that's at least 30th century and the Doctor's not been born yet, which is fine except the Three Doctors and Arc of Infinity seems to put the Doctor's home Gallifreyan era round about transmission date.

Must go and lie down.

PS. Robin Bland, anagram of Blond Brain, coincidence or something less interesting?

IZP said...

Should have proofed that, but you get the general idea.

Stuart Douglas said...

My quick, half-arsed and none too in depth contribution to the suddenly controversial "Gallifrey Dating"...eh...controversy: doesn't one (at least) of the books specifically set Gallifrey and the Time Lords way back at the beginning of the Universe (the Time Lords are the first race to gain space travel or something like that).

Also, the main problem with Morbius is how easily Solon is lured away by a knock at the door. That's a shocking lack of focus in an evil genius scientist.

IZP said...

Focus, he's got no attention to detail. More proof of him being from the future. Tsk, evil genii today.

Stuart Douglas said...

Evidence he comes from the past surely - it's a well-known fact that anything older than, say, 1993 is rubbish.


IZP said...

Bur Blur's Modern Life is Rubbish came out in 1993, If both they and you are right that makes everything rubbish. Unless of course... well, you get the idea with that one too.

SAF said...

Stuart: "Also, the main problem with Morbius is how easily Solon is lured away by a knock at the door."

It could be the Sisterhood Pizza Delivery Service and, well, you just wouldn't want to keep them waiting would you. :)

And *applause* for Ian's Rest Of Morbius. And, you know, just general head-scratching over the whole continuity question. ;)

Meanwhile, I've just realised I've not watched any of these with the commentaries. Does Tom Baker saying "Yeah, yeah" a lot qualify as a recommendation? ;)

IZP said...

If I was Solon, I'd have given Condo's hook a corkscrew and pizza cutter attachment for just such stormy nights in.
You don't want that silly arm back Condo look at the accessories you've got now.

SAF said...

Ah yes, the famous Swiss Army Condo.