Sinister foes menace the Doctor from the moment he steps foot on the storm-lashed planet of Karn. What evil has lured so many to their doom? That was the preview from the Radio Times (Basically the British TV Guide) for the January 3rd 1976 serial of Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius four part story. Borrowing elements from Shakespeare and paying homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein this story has plenty of violence, horror and science fiction. Now over 20 years later I review the DVD and let you know if this is worth your time or a piece of Doctor Who lore you should avoid.

Come along as we review the Brain of Morbius!

The Plot:
Our story begins with a strange insect looking alien crawling across the rocky terrain of Karn appearing to be hurt. A matter of moments later a hulking brute with a hook for a hand decapitates the creature! What a start to Doctor Who this is! Eventually we find our heroes arriving rather unexpectedly as the TARDIS is forced to land on the planet of Karn.

The Doctor, in his fourth incarnation as played by Tom Baker is royally peeved that his time machine police call box has been grounded here. He’s certain that the Time Lords, his brethren are forcing him to land in this place. He suspects that they have sent him here for a reason and he refuses to cooperate. Thankfully his plucky companion Sarah Jane Smith, as played by Elizabeth Sladen begins to explore the craggy surface of the new planet and quickly finds that a lot of spaceships have crash landed here. Even more alarming, she finds the mutilated body of the insect alien from earlier.

Very quickly the Doctor is off to find out what all this is about as rain begins to pour down on the duo. They find themselves heading to the eery castle in the distance which is home to Mehendri Solon, a supposed brilliant scientist and his Igor-like giant Condo who we now realize was the man who beheaded the insect creature.

The pieces begin to fall into place rather quickly as the Doctor notices a statue of Morbius’ head. Morbuis we learn is an evil Time Lord who even predates the Master. He was defeated by the Time Lords and sentenced to death by having pieces of his body scattered across the universe. Solon while hospitable to the Doctor and Sarah Jane has no interest in talking about Morbius, but rather the Doctor’s head! Soon he’s knocked the Doctor out and plans to use his head for some diabolical experiment.

Elsewhere on Karn we find the Sisterhood of Karn, protectors of the flame which itself can create an elixer of immortality. The leader of the Sisterhood, Maren, reveals that it her who has been crashing all these spaceships and it was her who forced the TARDIS to land. She believes that anyone who is even coming close to the planet of Karn is out to steal her proverbial fountain of youth. The Sisterhood has long since shared the secret potion with the Time Lords but now that the flame is slowly dying out she fears that the Doctor has been sent to steal the remaining amount.

Before Solon can cut off the Doctor’s head, Maren and the Sisterhood steal him away and take him from the kitchen into the frying pan. Quite literally as they try to burn the Doctor at the stake. In one incredible scene where Tom Baker the actor is nearly burned alive! Eventually the Doctor escapes but falls back into the clutches of Solon where he finds out that Solon has managed to save Morbius’ brain and is rebuilding him a body, which is why he want’s the Doctor’s head. A Time Lord head for a Time Lord brain, a perfect fit!

Soon the Doctor must find a way to replenish the flame of immortality (it only takes a match!) and outwit the stubborn Sisterhood and teach them that immortality comes at a price, the cost is never evolving. Double cross and intrigue continues as the Doctor is forced to make strange bedfellows, working with Solon to help Sarah Jane recover her eyesight which she loses in a battle with the Sisterhood, only to be double crossed and go back to working with the Sisterhood.

In all the melee, Solon and Morbius decide to skip getting the Doctor’s head and use a crude brain bubble device instead. The end result resurrects Morbius but not in the way he wanted. This leads to a final showdown with the Doctor in the cross hairs of Morbius, Solon and the Sisterhood. Can the Doctor escape it all? Naturally.

The Verdict:
All in all this story of an evil Time Lord in a misplaced body, Shakespearian sisterhoods and mad scientist treachery is familiar to many stories you’ve seen before but with a special Doctor Who flare. Channeling a lot of Hammer style horror, the Brain of Morbius saga makes for one fun set of four episodes. It’s almost like watching a horror film and although the sets and effect do have a certain level of camp to them they stand the test of time as quite authentic in their goals.

Morbius plays the role akin to Hitler’s brain from the 1963 science fiction film “They Saved Hitler’s Brain” while eventually turning into a sort of intergalactic Frankenstein’s monster. Solon as played by Philip Madoc does an incredible job of being the evil scientist while never going quite over the top. He speaks his lines with conviction, so much so that a lesser actor might could have drifted into parody.

This serial is perhaps most famous for introducing the idea that the Doctor may have had more incarnations prior to WIlliam Hartnell’s First Doctor, as Baker and Morbius engage in Time Lord mind wrestling. Along the way we see previous forms of the Doctor and a bunch of other strange looking fellows who are supposed to be previous versions of the Doctor.

Is this man the Doctor?

Oh and then there’s the violence, quite a lot of that actually. Sarah Jane gets thrown down a set of stairs, the Doctor gets beaten down, women are strangled, Condo has his gut blown open and so much more. It’s really a step up in violence and gore for Doctor Who, so much so that at the time it caused a fair amount of controversy. Of course under the microscope of 2009 this is relatively minor.

So how is the story? Surprisingly good. It certainly feels like familiar territory as the story turns out to be essentially space Frankenstein with Doctor Who. That’s not a bad thing though as this is a clever homage to Frankenstein and it certainly includes a lot of new elements. The Doctor unfortunately isn’t given much to do and spends most of his time being captured and double crossed, but Tom Baker raises the performance with some hilarious one liners that keep you routing for him even if he fails to do anything effectual against his foes. Sarah Jane is mostly along for the ride, but she does manage to fight the bad guys and help the Doctor a few times all the while getting beat down.

Solon and Condo make for a really interesting set of characters with Condo becoming a great sympathetic villain. Solon is vastly more interesting than Morbius himself, although there is an allure to the character of Morbius despite not much of it ever being realized. His monster form is quite impressive if not slightly silly looking and although it lacks a lot of realism it does have a science fiction appeal to it.

Unfortunately the Sisterhood don’t really add a lot to the plot and drag it down several times. There are some interesting scenes, such as the one where they try to burn the Doctor alive, but overall they seemed like an afterthought. The fact that they’ve killed dozens if not hundreds of passersby for fear of them losing the flame, especially in light of the fact that they’re just too stupid to essentially spark the pilot light is quite disconcerting.

Episode Grade: 7 out of 10

Overall the story is a bit of a homage and the villains aren’t always clear, but there are some fun ideas introduced and the sets and conviction of all the actors involved make the story feel far more real than some of the others. The gritty horror and violence coupled with the gothic set and various weather environments adds to it as well. This isn’t great science fiction, nor is it great Doctor Who but it’s a enjoyable enough four episode story arc. The different elements make it fresh and change up the typical Doctor Who formula. It’s just tolerable enough at four episodes to make it quite enjoyable. Had it been longer, it would have scored lower.

Bonus Features:
The DVD is jam packed with nice bonus features. Not just commentaries (featuring Tom Baker) but several special featurettes. The first is a nice little look back at this specific storyline from concept to final product. Perhaps even cooler than the feature itself and it has a excellent CGI introduction that shows off the entire landscape of Karn. Credit has to be given here as they didn’t cheapen out on these. Often times on DVDs, especially ones of older properties, the bonus features seem to be afterthoughts, but clearly money was spent on these.

The feature explains through interviews, artwork and footage how the story came to be. The original story was actually much different and far less a homage to Frankenstein. Originally Morbius was to be banished by the Time Lords and then brought down by Sisterhood, in the crash he would have died but his ship would have had a robot drone that would rebuild him from the various pieces of other alien life forms.

Unfortunately the producers didn’t feel they could accurately make the robot so behind the writer’s back, they rewrote many of the elements largely lifting from Frankenstein but trying to do so in a way that was not parody. There is even discussion of how they originally thought of using Vincent Price or Peter Cushing in the Solon role, which would have been awesome… However it likely would have brought this into a parody. The changes angered the writer enough to have his name removed from it and a bogus writer’s name added in, but even the original writer admits that the final story is pretty strong.

Also included is a extra about the creation of the sets as well as a virtual recreation of how the sets were built. They touch a bit on the controversy of the Time Lord mind wrestling and the revelation of previous Doctors before Hartnell. Adding that fans get worked up about points of continuity like that, whereas writers don’t because they have more important things to do. As a personal note, I didn’t get the vibe that those flashes of other people were the Doctor’s previous forms, but rather Morbius’ previous regenerations. Morbius is supposed to be a much older Time Lord, so it stands to reason that those faces were of him, not the Doctor.

Bonus Grade: 8 out of 10

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