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13x5. The Brain of Morbius
Writer: Robin Bland (Terrance Dicks & Robert Holmes)
Director: Christopher Barry
Script Editor: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe

Synopsis: The Time Lords divert the Doctor and Sarah to Karn, where the scientist Solon is attempting to resurrect notorious Time Lord criminal Morbius, whose brain he has kept in a preserved bodiless state. The Doctor must confront both Solon and the paranoid Sisterhood of Karn to complete his mission.

Review: "The Brain of Morbius" is refreshingly unapologetic -- and successful -- in its ambitions to spin a good old-fashioned horror yarn. It's the sort of story where a mad scientist can interrupt a human sacrifice by pleading for the victim's head to be spared so he can put someone else's brain in it, all without the slightest trace of either hokiness or self-parody.

Though the serial takes place on another planet, one could easily imagine it taking place in an isolated 19th-century Earth setting, exactly the sort where terrifying experiments take place in a gloomy old castle while the nearby locals practice strange rituals and superstitions. In considering "Morbius," I'm reminded of something I've said in the past: the reason clichés become clichés is that, when done well, they are in fact effective. Condo, Solon's hulking and mentally challenged servant who has a hook for an arm, capable of violence at Solon's direction but nevertheless displaying a gentle side in his affection for Sarah, is an example of this: we've all seen this sort of character before, and yet he earns a certain sympathy in his better moments. Philip Madoc is particularly effective in this context as Solon, playing his obsession with resurrecting Morbius "turned up to eleven" (as the members of Spinal Tap might say), especially in scenes like the one where he's just killed Condo (who had discovered that he never intended to reattach his arm) and, instead of showing any remorse, rants about how his experiment may be ruined.

I've previously quoted John Carpenter's statement that the essence of horror is the loss of control. That is often true, but the horror in "The Brain of Morbius" is of a slightly different variety: it arises from people attempting (and failing) to control something they can't and shouldn't. Solon's plan to resurrect Morbius demonstrates what the Mad Scientist fundamentally represents, namely someone tampering with the forces of nature and unleashing something horrible in the process. Morbius' voice is appropriately inhuman and disturbing, the warbliness being a particularly effective choice given that the brain is floating in liquid. The scene in which he is awakened too early and goes berserk because only the brain's motor controls have been activated effectively gets the point across that Solon's ambition has exceeded his capabilities. Though Solon seems to have been a "follower" of Morbius, this experiment seems as much for Solon's benefit as for that of Morbius: he speaks of it as his final "great operation," and later calls himself the "creator" of Morbius. "The Brain of Morbius" is often described as an attempt to echo Frankenstein, but that's really only true in the sense of the theme of trying to create life artificially: had the Doctor not stopped them, Morbius and Solon would have been much more likely to clash out of ego than out of a fundamental conflict over the very fact of Morbius' resurrection.

This theme is also present in the portrayal of the Sisterhood of Karn. Having kept the secret of an immortality-inducing "elixir" produced by a perpetually burning flame, they have become paranoid and xenophobic to the extreme, using their unusual mental powers to cause passing ships to crash lest they attempt to steal the elixir. By their own admission, nothing ever changes in their mini-society, and now that the flame finally appears to be dying, their leader Maren seems unable to do anything other than hide the truth and wait for their inevitable deaths. The Doctor obviously disapproves of their murderous methods, but he also makes it clear that he doesn't think much of their pursuit of immortality or the way their society has stagnated (with which Maren eventually agrees). "Death is the price of progress," he tells them, an observation which I don't think I've heard before and which rings true on a number of levels. The Sisterhood's relationship to the Time Lords, whom they fear will return to steal the elixir, is also interesting. Though much of this can be attributed to their general paranoia, they seem to have some reason to distrust the Time Lords even now that Morbius' plot has been stopped. The Doctor's amusement at their "quaint" practice of teleportation, along with the life-threatening mind-bending contest that the Doctor and Morbius engage in at the end and the very fact of Morbius' history, indicate that Time Lord society once dabbled more in the realm of the "occult" and that it has a dark side at times (as opposed to merely a bureaucratic and aloof side, as seen in their previous dealings with the Doctor).

Unfortunately, the script drops the ball on a couple of occasions with the characterization of the Doctor. The first instance is just a case of questionable logic, in that the Doctor takes Sarah back to Solon to have him treat her temporary blindness even after he drugged them both and tried to kill the Doctor. There's a line where the Doctor explains that he knows what Solon's up to and thinks he can outmaneuver him, but still, why take the risk? Why not at least try to sneak into Solon's castle and take whatever equipment he needs? The second instance is a bit more serious, that being the Doctor's controversial decision to use cyanogen to stop Solon from completing the operation on Morbius and apparently killing him. It would be one thing if Morbius were a character like Sutekh, who could and would unleash immediate devastation throughout the universe once he's free, but it doesn't seem that he is. He was once a dangerous and powerful political leader of some sort, but he only seems to pose a limited threat on his own, and so this doesn't seem justified under the circumstances. Moreover, this scene is played so casually that I wondered if the writers even considered the moral can of worms they were opening here. I'm told that the Terrance Dicks novelization has Sarah question the Doctor and that he admits he doesn't like doing it but explains that millions could die otherwise, but even that seems like dubious logic for the reasons I just outlined, and there isn't even a hint of this doubt on his part or Sarah's in the televised version.

"The Brain of Morbius" is great Doctor Who for most of its running time, and I don't want to penalize it too much for a couple of mistakes, but questioning the Doctor's moral character is something that has to be done carefully. "The Brain of Morbius" is not only incautious in that regard but doesn't even seem entirely aware of what it's doing. I still recommend the serial for its skillful and effective use of horror conventions and some interesting Time Lord backstory, but its flaws prevent it from being the classic it otherwise might have been.

Rating: *** (out of four)

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