Sunday, 6 May 2018

The Brain of Morbius

Chapter The 85th, which outlines how to get ahead in transplant surgery.

The Doctor and Sarah-Jane are forced by Gallifreyan remote control to land on the planet Karn, home of a fountain of eternal youth guarded by a youth dance troupe / sisterhood. These sisters have an uneasy truce with the Time Lords: in exchange for providing some of their elixir in cases where regenerations have failed, they're left to destroy all ships that come anywhere near Karn and keep themselves protected and alone. Alone, that is, bar smooth-talking surgeon, Mehendri Solon, who's been allowed to stay and build a patchwork body from bits of crash victims. Years earlier, Karn was the site of a battle with Time Lord renegade Morbius and his followers; Solon extracted Morbius's brain just before the defeated renegade was executed, and has been keeping it in a jar. He wants to use the Doctor's head to house it. But the Doctor manages to persuade the sisterhood he's on their side, brutally murders Solon, and then engages in a mind battle with Morbius (who's now got a fishbowl for a head). It ends in something of a draw; the Doctor has to be brought back from death with some elixir and Morbius staggers around confused until the sisterhood harry him off a cliff with flaming torches.

Still no one in the family is much interested in watching Who. Over a few days, I watched the DVD, an episode a time, mostly on my own, but with family members drifting in and out, mostly out. The Better Half watched the ending and sought an explanation from me as to how, when the leader of the Sisterhood Maran sacrifices herself at the end, she manages to get into the flame chamber, even though it's not big enough to rejuvenate a cat. I spluttered and filibustered, but there wasn't any answer: it's a sub-genre of impressionistic special effects on Who where they are trying to achieve something mundanely impossible, rather than fantastically impossible, and still don't achieve it successfully.

First-time round:
The initial Brain of Morbius VHS release in 1984, the second ever story released in the range, was notoriously butchered. In those very early days, the videos all presented the stories edited together as one feature-length piece, presumably as someone somewhere believed no punter would want to watch repetitive credit sequences every twenty-five minutes. It wasn't a policy limited to Who either: my first bought tape of The Young Ones had three non-contiguous episodes, with no plot running between them, but the Beeb still felt the need to remove the roller captions bits and stitch what remained clumsily together (even if that meant removing some gags). What made it worse for Brain of Morbius , though, was that someone somewhere decided to put out a version with 30 minutes of story ripped out as well as the credits. Luckily, this was before I started buying the videos, so I never came across this troublesome version, but it was not popular with anyone; paradoxically, it's something of a collector's item now if you can get a copy.

Like all those early edited stories, Morbius was released a few years later with the episodic structure reinstated. By this time I was not only buying the tapes, but eagerly awaiting each release, and snapping it up as soon as I could find it. Morbius was supposed to come out on the same day as the similarly reissued The Five Doctors, but I could only find the latter in my local W. H. Smiths in Worthing. Many days passed, and I remember the slight embarrassment of ringing up to check whether it had come in, and having to say the words "The Brain of Morbius" to an adult non-fan, then repeat them, and then spell out 'Morbius' for good measure.

A few of the Doctor Who stories from this period take inspiration from classic horror texts, primarily their Universal movie versions. Usually, though, this is merely to seed an idea that grows out in a completely different direction. Pyramids of Mars for example, a couple of stories earlier than the Morbius tale, shares no story beats with any Mummy movie ever made, it just scavenges some elements of look and feel. The Brain of Morbius, however, is a pretty full-on retread - crazy, driven scientist reanimates stitched-together body from bits of dead people, the resultant creature finds it hard to communicate, runs amok and is pursued by a torch-wielding mob.

This is one of the reasons why its author (Terrance Dicks) was so frustrated with the heavily rewritten final product. He originally planned a little extra twist - the scientist would be replaced with a robot, following the only logical path open to it to re-body its master. The production couldn't ultimately afford to do a robot convincingly, script editor Robert Holmes did a hasty rewrite, and Terrance had his name taken off the thing. Robert Holmes garnered grudging amusement from Dicks, after being asked to slap on "some bland pseudonym", by taking that literally: The Brain if Morbius was credited to a Robin Bland. Dicks didn't like that the changes made the piece completely unoriginal, and stopped it making sense: why would a human make the insensitive mistake of imagining anyone would want to be transplanted into Frankenstein's monster? But a robot's cold logic could probably have worked that out too, and the lack of originality doesn't matter : it's so screamingly obvious that it's a pastiche, that a viewer just goes with it as a simple bit of fun.

Beyond the big James Whale inspired main course, Morbius offers up on the side a veritable smorgasbord of other horror-fantasy cliches, taking things from everywhere: secret cults to bring back evil dictators, all-female psy covens, brains in jars - it almost achieves some originality from the sheer accumulation of different hoary old tropes. There's only a few characters, but they're well drawn and well played (Philip Madoc as Solon is rightly held as one of the most memorable villains in classic Who). There's some delicious black comic dialogue in keeping with the heightened nature of the tone, and it trots along at a reasonable pace to a satisfactory if slightly questionable conclusion: what did the Doctor expect to happen when he attempted to gas Solon and Morbius to death, that the Sisterhood would come and let him out eventually? What's going on exactly in the mind-bending contest - does the Doctor lose, or win at the cost of his own life?

A much bigger problem with the story than its script, is how tatty everything looks. The sets, models, costumes, props - all of it is looking a bit threadbare; the production is regularly lauded as being rich and lush, and I just couldn't see any of that on screen.

Both The Brain of Morbius and Listen contain at least one futuristic craft grounded on a rocky planet, and in both stories the Doctor's companion is offered a drink at table, but doesn't end up having it (Danny and Clara miss out on water as they're too busy arguing; Sarah-Jane pours her wine surreptitiously away).

Deeper Thoughts:
Time, time, time team, what has become of me. I started this blog to avoid having a mid-life crisis. Doctor Who, an obsession I've had since I was nine years old, a subject I know far too much about in ridiculous detail, something I've never grown out of despite several obvious opportunities to do so (the nigh-on 16 years it wasn't on TV, for example) would never be a topic that would cease to be relevant to me. And watching and blogging every single episode, new and old series, would keep me busy for years, preventing me from having to start driving a sports car or forming a band, or wearing Lycra. Would I cease to be relevant to it, though? No, this too was impossible: I couldn't cease to be relevant to Doctor Who as I'd never been relevant to it in the first place. This has not stopped me banging on in blog posts for three years now, harmless old fart that I am. But, but, but...

In the latest issue of Doctor Who Magazine, the new time team has been revealed. For the uninitiated, there has been a team of four people featured regularly since 1999 watching and then commenting on Doctor Who stories one by one. The magazine has once previously traded in the time team for a younger set of four. This new third set are a dozen people, they're all shiny twenty-somethings born in that nigh-on 16 year period Doctor Who wasn't on TV, and a lot are involved in media or social media. Apparently, their taking over has caused a rash of negative comments online, which then prompted a backlash from other commentators accusing the first set of commentators of being intolerant, against diversity, etc. I say 'apparently' because I only saw the second wave, not the first. This was the same with Jodie W's casting - I only saw the complaints about the sexist comments, I didn't see any negativity first hand (at least until the negative tweets were compiled for me by various news outlets in that instance).

I don't doubt there were some bad comments from older fans about the new time team, but I'd guess not enough to warrant the somewhat defensive reaction. My own first thought was representative of neither of those polar opposites: I was confused wondering where the last time team had left off. I was sure they hadn't reached any point of conclusion (the new team is not picking up where they left off), and there was no proper goodbye. Flicking through my old DWMs, it seems the last story they covered was Matthew Graham's Ganger 2-parter from 2011 earlier this year. So, it seems clear that theirs was not a planned exit, and this new team and approach is another impact of the editorial changes that have been happening at Panini Towers recently. I scrutinised the photo of the new crew, and they did look very young; but, the previous time teams started off fresh-faced too and that bothered nobody. They've increased ethnic and gender diversity, which is good, but they've dispensed with even having a token slightly older-looking bloke as a reader-identification figure for grey-hairs such as what I am. Mind you, I often didn't agree with those particular individuals' opinions anyway. But, I admit, I still felt uneasy. Then, it hit me as to why: it wasn't that they looked young or diverse, it was that they looked cool. They didn't look like geeks at all; or, if they did, a twenty-something geek is a cool look these days.

No popular media magazine aims exclusively at an uncool ageing demographic, of course (except Mojo, perhaps), but I am startled to be increasingly finding Doctor Who Magazine covers less and less that is relevant to me, and represents a fandom that differs wildly from my experience of it. No-one wants to feel their favourite thing is growing away from them, which might explain any knee-jerk comments made when the new time team was announced. My guess is, though, that the number of confident young cosplaying media-savvy creative fans is in the same proportion as it ever was to the rest of us. And that there is, and always will be, a large number of middle-aged pale gentlemen who just collect Doctor Who stuff and watch the shows. It's just the cool kids' time in the sun right now, and there's nothing wrong with that. If I'm wrong, and they are taking over the fan gene pool, then that's okay too. The Brain of Morbius's key theme - without ageing and death there is no progress - would seem to be apposite here, and I'm okay with being increasingly irrelevant. Hold on, though: the new time team format seems familiar, doesn't it? Random episodes selected, with maybe only a tangential thematic link between the stories, and not watched in order? That's the whole point of this blog. Maybe I have been a trail-blazer after all.

In Summary:
Don't be in two minds about it: it's a fun pastiche.

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