Shows - Review
Doctor Who (1963-1989)
Episode: The Brain of Morbius (Part 1)
Review by: Michael Hickerson
When the BBC first decided to commercially release Doctor Who on video, they did so in edited fashion. In most cases, this simply meant the stories were edited together into feature format and not released episodically (the way Doctor Who was meant to be seen). It was a bit annoying, but nothing that you couldn't really live with, though I still yearn to have some of those early BBC releases in episode format. However, there was one story that was heavily edited upon it's initial release by the BBC--from a story that takes place in just over 90 minutes to one with a running time of 59 minutes. That story was the Brain of Morbius.
The BBC later saw the error of their ways and released the unedited and episodic format of this story, but it wasn't before the damage was done.
Every time I watch the Brain of Morbius, I always wonder just where that 30 minutes of deleted footage came from. What subplot, what story angle, what character development did the BBC consider to be not worthwhile enough to include on the initial video release? What was it that could be cut from the Brain of Morbius and still have the overall story make sense? That question keeps me haunting old video stores and E-Bay on the off-chance I might find a cheap copy of the edited version (I refuse to pay a lot for edited Who...esp. when I have the unedited copy) and see just what was dropped and what was left in. Because, quite honestly, I can't really see what you could drop and still have the story make any reasonable sense.
Part of me thinks the plotline of the Sisterhood could be easily cut or reduced, but it's so integral to the story at certain points. They steal the TARDIS, have the elixir that saves the Doctor in the end and are a vital plot of Solon's mechanizations to get the Doctor's head. Also, how can you cut out the storyline featuring Sarah's being blinded by the Sisterhood since that leads to her finding the Morbius monster fully restored and lurching about? Could you cut out the first lurching about of Morbius before Solon restores all the connections to his brain? Even if you did this, it would still leave the running time at just about 80 minutes. I guess it's one of those interesting intellectual Who exercises I like to engage in while watching the story.
Because to be quite honest, there's not really a lot else here to engage me on that type of intellectual level. Don't get me wrong here--Brain of Morbius is a decent enough story, it's just not one that I ever really think of as an absolute classic of the Tom Baker era. Which is a shame really because when I first saw it many years ago, I thought it was a cracking good story and surely it must be one of the top Who stories ever done. Time, seeing all of the series that's available and a great deal of cynicism have changed my view on the Brain of Morbius a good deal.
Again, it's not a bad story. For a BBC funded homage to Frankenstein and the Hammer horror pictures, it's really quite well done. The scenes in Solon's castle really stretch the budget of the BBC and provide a genuine creepy and mysterious atmosphere. The production staff clearly went that extra mile to make the fact that this was a studio bound story work in their favor for the scenes in Solon's castle.
And the acting by the two main heavies--Solon and Condo--is first rate. Philip Madoc just inhabits the role of Solon and runs with it. It would have been easy to make Solon a one-note mad scientist character, but Solon gives the role some dignity and even some sympathy. Even though Solon wishes to unleash the most evil, diabolical Time Lord mind back on the universe, you genuinely feel sorry for him in the end when he fails. He has worked his whole life for this, only to be defeated in the end and to utterly fail. Also, rising above what could have been a rather one-note character is Condo. He's the Igor character, but he's much more. Condo has a stake in things--even if it's because he's being manipulated by Solon. In many ways, Condo is the most sympathetic character in the story because it's he who loses the most--first his arm and then his life--by trying to do the right thing. Condo isn't necessarily a bad guy, so much as he's manipulated by Solon into doing the wrong thing.
You also have the two leads delivering some nice performances here. Elisabeth Sladen is up to her usual standards of excellence as Sarah Jane. In fact, she really pushes the envelope by not only playing Sarah blinded but also really selling to us the fact that Sarah is blind. It's the small things in her performance that have you really accept that Sarah is blinded. And Tom Baker's very restrained, under-played performance as Doctor really fits with the story. I once read that one reason that Tom Baker is so popular as Doctor was that his Doctor could walk into any situation and be totally non-plussed by what was going on. Certainly that is the case here. The Doctor wanders in, finds out that Morbius is coming back, is initially horrifed and then takes steps to defeat the monster. At no point, does the Doctor panic or accept what would seem to be defeat. Instead, he shakes off whatever the script throws at him and keeps plowing forward.
It doesn't mean he doesn't make some mistakes. Certainly, leaving Solon alone to disconnect the brain in part four is a rather silly blunder and it feels like a contrivance to extend the story just a few more minutes. Also, the constant bickering with the Sisterhood gets a bit uneven at times. But other than that, there's not much to complain about. (Well, except maybe the end battle with Morbius, but let's save that).
So, while all that works--and works well--there is still some of the story that is like an albatross around the neck. Namely, the plotline of the Sisterhood. From it's opening moments, this plotline screams plot contivance left and right. We find out that there is the Elixir of Life and it extends and restores life. We also find out the Time Lords have used it and, by golly, the Sisterhood helped to defeat Morbius. Anyone who was shocked by the fact that the Sisterhood would help to stop Morbius in the end and the elixir would somehow be used to save the Doctor, please raise your hand. Nope...I don't see too many hands going up.
And the Sisterhood really feel like a women's lib empowerment version of the Time Lords--only without that wacky time travel capability that makes us love the Time Lords so. They are very overplayed--the second-in-command Sister, espeically so. And the whispering and chanting any time the sacred flame is brought up gets old really, really fast.
But to top it all off, there is the end game with Morbius, which has opened so many contuinuity debates it's not even funny. Did the Doctor have lives before Hartnell? Certainly the evidence in the battle seems to suggest this. But it could be taken as the Doctor lays out his cards and then we see Morbius lay out his cards, in terms of his lives. In a lot of ways, it was just a good excuse to have the production staff's faces in there and for the audience to see them. Honestly, we could debate this one to the cows come home and never get any really good resolution to the debate. However, it would pretty much divide a lot of Who fans. And can't we all just get along?
Overall, the Brain of Morbius is a decent Who story. It's not great, but it's not really one to throw out either. It's got some great strong points, but all of those are off set by several weak points. And if you know what the edits in the original BBC release were, I'd love to know.
Last Updated: 10/25/2006
Other Reviews by Michael Hickerson
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