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More Than the Sum of Its Parts
on 5 March 2014
When I unexpectedly crash-landed on Karn for the second time, watching 2013's `Night of the Doctor', my interest in the classic series regenerated almost as dramatically as Paul McGann did. I could remember this from 1975 ... with Tom Baker ... and `Sarah Jane' ... and the sacred flame ... and *that* monster ... So I ordered a few DVDs from the classic era - obviously, one of them had to be `The Brain of Morbius'. But it had been almost 40 years - would the story live up to my memories? Definitely Yes!
`The Brain of Morbius' is the crown of the `gothic' stories from the Robert Holmes / Philip Hinchcliffe period of `Doctor Who', widely considered the best three years in the show's 50 year history. Robert Holmes' superb script began with a story by Terrance Dicks, then seems to have surgically attached ideas from the horror classics of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, nourished it with the elixir of eternal life, grafted on some Time Lord history and - "It's alive!" - a monstrous masterpiece stands before us.
Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen have one of their best stories together. The Doctor is by turns sulky, flippant, comedic, scientific, deadly serious, ruthless, heroic and victorious in a virtuoso performance by Tom Baker at his very best. Elizabeth Sladen brings great confidence to Sarah Jane Smith at her pluckiest, as Sarah copes with a personally terrifying, isolating experience and that grisly monster with only one, entirely justified scream. Philip Madoc gives a magnificent performance as the obsessed, brilliant surgeon Solon. He brings total belief to the role; we never doubt that in his own mind, Solon is a hero working in a noble cause to restore his revered leader Morbius (a splendid voice performance by Michael Spice). Solon's massive servant Condo (Colin Fay) is a curiously vulnerable character. He is ready to carry out the most brutal acts to serve his master, but only under constant duress. Opposing Solon, yet in some ways strangely similar is Maren, leader of the Sisterhood (Cynthia Grenville). She and Solon are both pursuing immortality by different means and are both totally dedicated to their missions.
Christopher Barry's direction takes full advantage of Barry Newbery's superb set design and brings Karn to life. The massive main hall of Solon's `castle' takes top spot, with its weird sloping architecture and jumble of old and new equipment salvaged from wrecked spacecraft. A close second is the cave of the Sisterhood, which, like the Sisters themselves, is splendidly dressed in red and gold. The twirling, swirling, chanting Sisters of the Flame wouldn't look out of place on the stage of the grandest operas. Creating an alien landscape in the studio is more difficult, but the volcanic basalt pillars of Karn look great, especially in the night scenes as the thunder rolls.
There is a lot of darkness on Karn, but `The Brain of Morbius' is illuminated by flashes of humour; Solon's gleaming-eyed obsession that becomes ridiculous to everyone but him, the Doctor being cheerfully flippant in the face of danger (with what sound like some brilliant ad-libs from Tom Baker). There are also lines of dialogue which, while perfectly placed in the script and seemingly serious, must surely have been designed to raise a laugh.
But horror is the underlying theme and if you put yourself in the characters' place, parts of the story are truly horrific and can still give a jolt of surprise. When the shows of this era were first broadcast, the BBC did receive complaints about `horror' and `violence', but those complaining people mostly weren't the target audience. Back in 1975 I was at secondary school and we thought `The Brain of Morbius' was great! And so did many millions more who have enjoyed `Doctor Who' for decades, making it the show that wouldn't die, that seems to have drunk the elixir of eternal life - "Sa-cred fiiiire... sa-cred flaaame..."!
A brilliant commentary (by Tom Baker, Elizabeth Sladen, Philip Madoc, Philip Hinchcliffe and Christopher Barry), the best I've heard yet. It's entertaining, informative, actually talks about the story moment-by-moment (unlike some commentaries) and Tom Baker throws in some hilarious contributions you won't forget!
`Getting a Head' looks back at the making of the show with great CGI backgrounds recreating the sets. The excellent design work on this show gets extra coverage in `Designs on Karn' and there's a short but interesting CGI fly-through of the reconstructed sets as they were originally built in the studio.
Two short `Easter eggs', both well worth hunting for.