The Edge of DestructionBookmark and Share

Thursday, 18 March 2004 - Reviewed by Bill Albert

For many years when references are made to the Hartnell story "The Edge of Destruction" it has always been a part of the negative criticism of the early years of the show. It is generally looked down upon as a bad example despite that fact that this story was the highest rated story of the first season according to "Doctor Who: The Sixties" by Howe and Stramers. "It's so cheap" or "There's no plot" are the most common remarks yet when Warner Video released the story with the "Missing Years" video many of those comments started to change as the story was finally being viewed in a different light. Not only did the new release have a cleaner picture and sound quality but it included the original ending that was cut from the US broadcasts.

To address the first complaint about how cheep the story was I'd like to introduce you to a television term called a "Ship in a bottle" show. This term refers to episodes that are produced using only the already existing sets. These stories are very popular with producers because they allow them to work inside the budget constraints by saving time and money with the designing and building aspects. It is a commonly used practice in all television genres but is most prevalent in the science fiction field. You would be hard pressed to find a series that's never done it at some point. "Star Trek-TOS" used it in several episodes including "Doomsday Machine," "Immunity Syndrome," Tholian Web," and "The Changeling." All in all the fact that only one story was a bottle show in a twenty-six year run is a very impressive accomplishment.

As for the second complaint of "There's no plot" this will depend on your approach. If you look at this as a high event driven story like "Talon's of Weng-Chiang" then there is no plot. But if you look at it as a high powered character driven story then there are many things happening.

The Doctor is presented in most of this story as a villain. Since kidnapping Ian and Barbara there has been a growing animosity for him but he has come across as a stubborn man with an insatiable curiosity that gets him, and them, in to trouble. In this story he goes beyond that to where he is not only directly lying to his companions but he also purposefully drugs them to put them out of commission while he works on the TARDIS.

Many fans have commented on how the 7th Doctor becomes such a chess player in the series and the Virgin novels. Many of the elements that made the darker Doctor so popular are in the 1st Doctor's persona and are present in this story. Susan is one who is also expanded to darker levels bordering on violence. For a good part of her time on the show she is used as a buffer between the Doctor and Ian and Barbara. Here her paranoia and suspicions manifest themselves as she turns on the Earthlings she has previously admired by threatening them with scissors. Even by today's standard that is a very strong depth of character that shouldn't be faulted.

The audience also gets to see different sides of Ian and Barbara. Until this point Chesterton had withstood all the fantastic things going on around them. He has taken everything easily and has worked hard to be a sturdy pillar for the group. But here he shows that, like everyone else, he is vulnerable. He takes to the sidelines and tries to act as a peacekeeper while Barbara's much stronger character is featured. She burst out at the Doctor for being ungrateful for all they have done for him. This story succeeds in making them stronger and deeper characters for the audience to relate to.

This episode also strongly changes the way the characters relate to each other from this point on. It is obvious by the end that the Doctor realizes he has badly underestimated his companions and they have, grudgingly, earned his respect. Even to the point where he apologizes to Barbara for the cruel things he has said and admits his mistakes. "As we learn about each other we learn about ourselves."

One of the other aspects of this story that makes it stand out are the atmosphere and music. The usual bright areas of the console room are sunk in to shadows. The entire presentation is much darker than usual for the series with haunting sounds and music. As the characters become more aware of their situation and try to investigate there is discussion of the threat that something else may have entered the TARDIS when they were unconscious. This is heightened when we see the Doctor checking the others, as they appear to be sleeping. Then, as he works on the console, a pair of hands suddenly grabs him by the shoulder, swing him around, and then clasp very tightly on his throat. The result is very shocking and successful, perhaps even frightening, cliffhanger for the first episode.

Looking back on these two underrated episodes it is clear that this is a quality story on it's own as well as being important to the future of the characters. From the next story, "Marco Polo," on the four main characters are much deeper and more interesting than they were at the beginning. As viewers we are made aware of just how far these characters can be go and the suspense of what lies underneath their cool exteriors makes them much more exciting to watch. Watch this story again for the sheer excitement and drama of a character driven story and you'll soon see how this is an example of the series at it's best.





The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Thursday, 18 March 2004 - Reviewed by Robert L. Torres

We all know how successful the Daleks are and how interesting they can be storywise under the pen of their creator Terry Nation, but in 'The Keys of Marinus' we are presented with an interesting six-part sci-fi yarn that doesn't feature the Daleks at all. The question is, does it succeed?

The answer to that is really up to the personal opinions of those that watch it. It is noted that people are of a divided opinion about this story, some love it, others don't. I happen to be one of those people that love this adventure. Although there are sufficient reasons why it can be viewed as a failure or a disappointment, I disagree. I'll admit that there are some flaws, but it is still enjoyable nonetheless. There are some reviews from critics that complain and nitpick this adventure till the cows come home, sometimes to the point of ad nauseum. That is not my intention. 

The premise of the story reminds me of the quest/adventure type adventures found in most fantasy novels and are even used in scenarios for most role-playing games like 'Dungeons and Dragons'. Our heroes are forced to travel to various parts of the planet to retrieve four micro-key circuits from elaborate traps and obstacles (some physical some mental), meet some interesting characters & creatures along the way, in order to return the keys to a master computer that is essentially a brainwashing machine. 

The story is interesting in that it would stand as a prototype to the more expanded and flesh out quest story 'The Key to Time'.

Terry Nation (God rest his soul) must be commended for his creativity. He creates intriguing concepts for each location and that in itself is a marvelous thing to behold. The fact is, in science fiction you rarely see alien worlds with a diversified population, actually going to different locations, each with a different culture and a society all existing on the same planet. 

All of the ideas, concepts and situations our heroes are thrust into I feel are some of the finest examples of speculative fiction to be used on television. It is the sort of thing that most people weren't prepared for in the 60's. I like that in some of the places that are visited not all of the answers are given, because it actually gives the viewers the chance to maek their own conclusions or develop their own theories about things. 

There are many examples throughout each part. Take the Voord, who are they precisely? Are they a race of men who've banded together as a terrorist/rebel group? Why do they wear skintight scuba suits on dryland? Are they a separate race that also developed on the planet? Or are they in fact the original inhabitants of the planet, trying to take back control from the race of men they see as their oppressors? Are the Voord sea-dwelling creatures originally, and wear the suits to survive on land the way we would wear scuba gear to survive underwater? And the city of Morphoton, how exactly did the individuals controlling everything evolve into such a state to which they survive as beings of pure thought? Was it through genetic manipulation or a mutation caused by radiation? And why is the new culture of the city modelled after the Roman civilization? Could the super brains have once been men from Earth, who were transformed through cosmic radiation? Since their mental abilities gave them power, perhaps they became 'Gods' to the city of Morphoton, and they wished to model the society to reflect their new status, with the the technology of the mesmeron perhaps allowing for greater control over a vast populace. And the soldiers encased in ice? How did they get that way, were the chosen to be key guardians did they volunteer? Were they followers of Arbitan? What process of cryogenics was used to preserve them? Why are they wearing suits of armor that make them look like medieval knights? 

Some people complain that what Arbitan does is essentially blackmail/entrap our heroes and force them to help him retrieve the micro-keys. I don't see it that way. When Arbitan places the forcefield around the TARDIS, it is more out of desperation than from any malicious intent. You can clearly see that he is someone that did not take any pleasure in forcing the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan to help him. My take on the reasons Arbitan didn't simple use the travel dial himself to get the keys and return with reinforcements to fight off the Voord are simple. Arbitan could've been too old to survive the journey, he could've been reluctant to leave his pyramidal fortress/home because of the Voord, but the main reason is simply this: if Arbitan did use the travel dials to get the micro-keys himself, then there wouldn't be much of a story now would there?

What is also intriguing are the trademark Nation touches that make a planet truly alien, the little things that differentiate the planet from what we Earthlings are used to: the beach of glass crystals instead of sand, a sea of acid instead of regular water, is the acid natural or is it indeed a deliberate defense barrier? 

Still, the creative ambition of Terry Nation's script is a bit bogged down by the production values. Some of the effects work and some of them don't. The sets are impressive and do adequately showcase a different area of the planet Marinus, from a sandy beach, to a Romanesque city of Morphoton, to a jungle, to snow covered plains and mountains, to a 'somewhat' highly civilized city in Millenius. 

'The Velvet Web' is an impressive episode even though a bit cliched considering the overly content atmosphere that is given off. It is a sure sign that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Still, this episode clearly belongs to Barbara once she inadvertently breaks free of the effects of the mesmeron and sees that Morphoton is not as beautiful as she once thought. Jacqueline Hill beautifully portrays a sense of knowing a truth her friends cannot see. Her disgust, confusion and outrage over the deception and lies she and her friends are subjected to is well conveyed. There is a nice bit of camera work in which we see things as Barbara sees them that is most effective in conveying that something is terribly, terribly wrong. She proves very adept at being the heroine as she eludes capture and even finds Arbitan's daughter Sabetha, with the missing micro-key, and proves vital in helping Sabetha to break free of the hypnotic conditioning and to remember her initial purpose in travelling to Morphoton, as is indicated by the micro-key she wears around her neck. She also proves vital in ending the reign of the super brain trio by destroying the machinery that acts as both their life support and power amplifier for their mental abilities. The resulting revolution that comes about after their death indicates a sign of hope. The episode is a great parable and allegory when thinking about the price of pure pleasurable indulgences result in a decayed and corrupt culture, being run by equally corrupt individuals. 

In the two episodes that follow with the Doctor's absence (a plot device used to provide William Hartnell some time off), Ian and Barbara are given more of the spotlight. This is especially true of Ian when Barbara goes missing and his realization of Varos' malicious nature, his concern for Barbara is evident and very well displayed as he is willing to do just about anything to ensure her safety. This includes facing the various booby traps put in place, trudging through an icy blizzard, or dealing with jungle plantlife run amok. 

Therein lies another unanswered question, what caused the jungle plants to reach a state that a collective screaming could be emanated and that the plants would achieve a form of sentience that would permit them to attack all humanoid life? Was it an experiment gone wrong? Perhaps, something involving a vegetation growth formula, something that would be beneficial to the reclamation of lands ravaged by deforestation? Who knows? 

I remember Darrius' dying words to Ian and Barbara was a series of letters and numbers that would help them locate the micro-key, it was actually my girlfriend that pointed out that it might stand for a chemical compound. 

'Snows of Terror' is a pretty good episode for several reasons; chief among them is Vasor, the large loner of the mountains that helps out the others, only to serve his own purposes. The attempted rape scene between him and Barbara is very well played (along with daring for its time) and his behavior/attitude is so despicable that you are glad that he gets what he deserves by episode's end. Another reason would have to be the 'ice warriors' (no not the Martian ones you fool) that guard the micro-key encased in ice. 

In 'Sentence of Death', Ian shows great courage and determination in the face of adversity and his justifiable outrage at the legal system of Millenius can also be something attributed to the unfairness of our legal procedures. It is a delight to see the twists and turns in the story unfold.

One point of fact that I must make is in regards to the outfits worn by the judicial tribunal, although impressive they still looked like three Jewish Rabbis. 

William Hartnell's Doctor continues to excel as he has completed the transformation of a cantankerous & grumpy old man, to a lovable and doddering grandfather. He also continues to show his keen interest and curiosity of the alien wonders of the universe. Even when the Doctor is absent for two episodes, his reappearance in 'Sentence of Death' to help defend Ian and investigate his frame up in the city of Millenius is very much appreciated, not just by the companions but the viewers as well. To see him use his experience and intelligence in gathering facts and information is truly a delight as we can see the pleasure he gets from solving a mystery as well as demonstrating his skills in the courtroom, long before Leo McKern would similarly do so as 'Rumpole of the Bailey'. He is quite at home using his mental capacities to manipulate circumstances to uncover the truth. It is also entertaining to see the Doctor re-enact the crime scene in true forensic fashion long before 'Crossing Jordan' or even 'CSI'. 

Altos & Sabetha, the young couple are not as well-defined as individuals, but they go have some good moments as they are both eager and willing to assist the Doctor and his friends in the quest to retrieve the micro-keys. Altos proves himself to be an enthusiastic adventurer and protector, not just of Sabetha but of Susan as well. 

It all reaches a satisfying conclusion as the phony micro-key is put to good use in destroying the Conscience Computer. Despite some flaws in the execution of effects and some rushed plotting, it is an overall enjoyable story. Terry Nation proves adept at creating obstacles and scenarios for our heroes to solve as well as providing imaginatively creative ideas and concepts. It definitely proves that he is adept at spinning a satisfying sci-fi yarn of Doctor Who without using the Daleks.





The DaleksBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Michael Scott Shappe

"No bug-eyed monsters!". That was the original injunction laid down by Sydney Newman at the BBC when he and Verity Lambert came up with the idea for a time-travel programme for children called Doctor Who. But when production for the originally-intended second story fell through, the fledgling production staff found themselves in a bind, but with a script (originally intended to be fourth) by young Mr. Nation in hand. When the monsters of the series' first futuristic piece were designed, sure enough, they had a single, buggy eye, on a stalk, no less!

In truth, they looked ridiculous. Most commonly compared to pepper pots, completely lacking in manipulative appendages, the Dalek is an impractical mechanism, and an improbable success.

And yet, successful they were, owing largely to Nation's initial script. It's not their appearance that frightens, that generates tension...it's their psychology, their ruthless, selfish, merciless attitude toward the universe and everything in it. You can talk to a Dalek, but you can't reason with one, because, from the very first, it's clear that the Dalek mind doesn't work anything like the human mind, and they like it that way.

These earliest days of Doctor Who were very different from the hey day of Tom Baker and his successors. At this time, the Doctor was till a very unsympathetic character -- selfish, irascable, arrogant, occasionally charming and erratically brilliant. He's far more likely to cause trouble in his own self-interest than to fix things.

Instead, the heros of the piece wind up being the two human companions, Barbara and Ian -- particularly Ian, whose tendency to take a strong moral stance would rub off on the Doctor over the next couple of years, until, by the time of Ian's departure from the series, the Doctor, for all his increasing frailty, is much closer in temperament to the do-gooder of the next 25 years.

Almost all of this can be credited to Mr. Nation, who succeeded where Anthony Coburn (author of the first serial, "100,000 BC") had failed in bringing these characters to life. At a time when American adult television was still producing simplistic sitcoms with cardboard characters, Nation produced a script for children that properly introduced the four, very complex regulars, including a strong, intelligent female role model in Barbara.

The story itself is well paced for the style of story-telling they were going for back then -- somewhere between the purely episodic story-telling of modern American TV and the pure serial of a Flash Gordon. Tho' seven episodes long, it rarely drags.

Considering the budget they were on, the sets are incredibly elaborate. The petrified jungle where the TARDIS first lands is not nearly as cheesy as you might expect (the full-colour jungle in the 1976 episode "The Face of Evil" was far cheesier); the Dalek city is believably alien. Like the Daleks themselves, it's hard to understand how the city really functions at all, but that's not entirely a bad thing. The Daleks are supposed to be a little beyond our ken, after all.

But really, where the story shines is in the way it plays the main characters. The Doctor is marvelously ambiguous throughout, conniving and cheating in order to get to see the Dalek city (he doesn't know what it is, at the time), selfish and even slightly cowardly in the face of danger, and yet ultimately willing to do what seems to be the right thing.

Ian fulfills the role that in later years the Doctor himself would play -- agent provocateur. Ian understands where the extreme pacifism of the Thals comes from, but he refuses to accept it as a valid solution to the current problem. His reinforcement of those Thals who want to take action to save themselves tips the scales. The Daleks would spend centuries blaming the Doctor for all their problems, but in this first meeting, it's Ian they really have to worry about.

One of the most remarkable characters in Doctor Who's long run is Barbara Wright. The series would have occasional lapses (like Jo Grant), but this story establishes the more general rule that female companions, even if they scream a lot, will have brains in their head and be willing and able to take independent action. In this case, Barbara also has a heart of her own. In the earliest conception, Ian and Barbara were already a couple, but by the time the series came to air, their romance had been removed in favor of a professional friendship. This left Nation free to have Barbara get attached to one of the Thal men, providing a sympathetic hook and helping to make the Thals themselves more than just J Random Humanoid Alien With a Problem. Whether because Nation is a romantic, or because it's a children's program, there's never anything very overt about the bond that forms, but it's clear at the end that Barbara is actually a little reluctant to leave.

Susan probably fares the worst, and yet even she doesn't do too badly. While more prone to panic, she's also much younger, and very sheltered until recently. She still manages, however, to be useful and resourceful. She stands in adequately for all the younger audience who might well react the same way under those circumstances. The human adults provide excellent role models, while Susan provides someone for the kids to identify with.

Watching this story again today, there's little question as to why it was this serial that established Doctor Who as a success. While one couldn't predict a 27-year television run on the strength of this story, one can certainly see why people started tuning in more regularly. If you've never seen any of the William Hartnell stories, this is a good place to start.





The Time MonsterBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

It's hard to convey to someone who has never seen it just how truly dreadful 'The Time Monster' is. Its greatest flaw is that the plot and script are utterly appalling, and with this basis pedestrian direction, cheap set design and mediocre acting certainly cannot help it. 

So, the plot. Ironically, the plot doesn't actually contain any obvious holes per se, but somehow it manages to combine tedium and absurdity to plumb new depths. The idea of Kronos itself isn't bad, but the execution is terrible; this world-destroying threat to reality is realized as a large pigeon and is thoroughly unimpressive, combining a tacky costume with bad camera work that makes it plain that this is a man in a suit swinging backwards and forwards on a wire. The exact nature of the threat posed by Kronos is also glossed over, so that we never get anything other than a vague idea of what it is capable of; when Kronos appears in Atlantis in episode six, the set wobbles a bit and everybody falls over, whilst the Doctor and the Master dash into their TARDISes and safety. In addition, Kronos' ability to devour people is equally vague; it is said to devour people early on in the story, but this is changed to throwing them into the vortex instead in episodes four and five, for the truly ghastly deus ex machina resolution to the episode four cliff-hanger, with the Jo pulling a Big Red Switch to rescue the Doctor. Handy that such a function is on hand just in case… 

The lack of menace inherent in 'The Time Monster' is not solely due to the under whelming nature of Kronos, but also the reaction of the Doctor to it. Whilst I'm no fan of 'The Dæmons', at least in that story the Doctor conveys a true sense of urgency about the danger posed by Azal, a threat to the entire world. Forced to deal with Kronos, a threat to the entire universe, he makes glib remarks, seems generally relaxed, and messes around with his time flow analogue, a ludicrous plot device serving only as padding. And possibly humour, although not noticeably. Padding is painfully noticeable here, and it isn't very good padding; the scene in which the Doctor and the Master confront each other whilst their TARDISes are locked together is ludicrous for example. After several stories in which the Master has proved that he is unbalanced enough to toy with forces way beyond his ability to control properly, are we really expected to believe that the Doctor genuinely thinks that he can convince him of his folly by lecturing him from his own TARDIS? The only purpose served by this is to delay the Doctor actually leaving his TARDIS and facing the Master, so that the Master will summon Kronos to deal with him in time for the cliffhanger. 

The return of UNIT doesn't help the story and possibly contributes to the annoying cosy feeling that dispels any air of danger that could have been present otherwise. To be fair, Benton is quite good here, except when he falls the Master's "look behind you" trick. This not only detracts from his near outwitting of the Master just moments before, but also doesn't make sense, since he has his back to a closed door, which has just seen shut, and would clearly have heard if anyone had just opened it. The Brigadier is virtually useless here and I also can't help wondering why, if he's so sure that the Master will return to the TOMTIT lab, he doesn't search the research establishment, where he would soon have found the Master lurking in Percival's study. He knows the Master is dangerous, the Doctor has warned him that TOMTIT is dangerous, and yet he just shrugs and says that the Master will turn up, making no attempt to actually guard the lab. Yates also returns here, and whilst he is fortunately gets little to do, he is as annoying as ever, equipped as he is with his usually arsenal of cheeky comments to superior officers, a familiar strain on UNIT's credibility. He's also an excuse for more ridiculous padding; the Master seems to really want to stop the Doctor's TARDIS from reaching its destination, so why doesn't he just time-scoop the V1 bomb in the first place instead of messing about with knights on horseback and roundheads? And for that matter, if the Master time-scooped the V1 so that it exploded in the present, it can't have landed in the past, so the old local couldn't remember it doing so. Having said that, virtually no thought seems to have gone into the time-related technobabble whatsoever. The stuff about the Chronovores existing outside time works in the context of Doctor Who makes sense (the concept of things existing outside of time and space was touched on in 'The Mind Robber'), but the waffle about interstitial time isn't even remotely plausible technobabble, the line about time being made "up of little bits" a particularly dire example of the kind of gibberish on display here.

Once the story moves to Atlantis, things get even worse. Mercifully, all the actors make a real effort, and Ingrid Pitt as Galleia and George Cormack as Dalios both handle the diabolical cod-Shakespearian dialogue rather well, but the script is really cringe-worthy by this point. Delgado's portrayal as the Master is always worth watching, but here he struggles with some dreadful lines (calling Krasis a poltroon is a classic example) and generally ranting in a moustache-twirling fashion. I wouldn't mind so much if the Master was on his usual form, but he doesn't really seem to be trying here, just going through evil motions. Which also raises the question of why, since he seems genuinely annoyed here when UNIT and the Doctor track him down, he even bothers to establish TOMTIT in England in the first place. Sadly, during his final scene when the Master begs the Doctor to save him from Kronos, even Delgado seems to be hamming it up. He also adopts an unconvincing and extremely sporadic Greek accent. 

There's more. The Atlantean costumes look absurd. The Atlanteans, supposedly Greek, are clearly not (although I suppose I should be grateful that this spares us the uncomfortable sight of "blacked-up" actors). The Minotaur is crowbarred into the script in order to hammer home the fact that the Chronovores had an impact on mythology, and is the crowning turd. I don't even think the much-praised "daisiest daisy" scene is especially good, although this is of course down entirely to personal taste. Also how come the Doctor's TARDIS is suddenly working perfectly without outside intervention?

The two main regulars offer some solace. Pertwee, whilst not quite recovered from 'The Mutants', seems more interested in the script than he did in that story, although as noted above he's rather too laid back. Katy Manning is excellent, and Jo gets to play a key role, first rescuing the Doctor using the Big Red Switch, and later time-ramming the TARDISes to save the universe when the Doctor can't bring himself to do so. Sadly, it isn't enough; 'The Time Monster' is a shambles, and a dire end to a season that started so well. It is worth noting however, that if you are childish enough, there is one reason to watch 'The Time Monster'; I always thought that this was a fan myth, but I've listened to it carefully three times to be sure and in episode three, when the Doctor is supposed to say "Do buck up, Brigadier", Pertwee definitely says "Do f*ck up, Brigadier". Which is a lot more amusing than the thraskin/plinge conversation.





The Brain of MorbiusBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I noted when I reviewed 'Robot' that Terrance Dicks is not my favourite Doctor Who writer. Whilst I stand by this comment in general, I regard 'The Brain of Morbius' as the highlight of his Doctor Who career, and the success of this story is perhaps therefore due to the fact that Robin Bland is not, in fact, Terrance Dicks, but Terrance Dicks heavily script-edited by Robert Holmes. 

'The Brain of Morbius' is of course heavily influenced by Frankenstein, and in many respects feels like a homage to Hammer Horror. This results in a distinctly gothic feel to the story, which is unusually horrific even for this period in the series' history. The opening scene of Kriz the Mutt being beheaded by Condo sets the tone, and this is followed by Kriz's twitching head being wired up by Solon, the discover of the headless but obviously living Morbius monster at the end of Episode Two, the revelation of Morbius's brain floating in a tank, Condo's bloody and graphic shooting at the hands of Solon, and the grotesque sight of Solon gingerly cradling Morbius's brain in Episode Three. In addition to which we have the Sisterhood carrying out human sacrifice. This macabre atmosphere typifies 'The Brain of Morbius' and is crucial to its success; the entire story is set on an alien planet, but it could just as easily be set in a Hammer Horror version of Transylvania, with a gothic castle atop a bleak and rocky mountain, a mad scientist, a hunchbacked manservant, and a local coven of witches in the form of Sisterhood. 

The actual plot of 'The Brain of Morbius' is very simple; Solon wants the Doctor's head in order to house Morbius's brain and the Doctor is understandably reluctant to surrender it. Solon thus spends most of the first three episodes chasing after the Doctor, whilst he is alternately hindered and helped by the Sisterhood of Karn. By Episode Four, Morbius once more has a body and the emphasis changes as the Doctor, Sarah and the Sisterhood strive to destroy him. Whilst this plot is sound enough in its own right, what really makes it work is the exemplary characterisation and acting. Philip Madoc almost steals the show as Solon, playing a mad scientist without succumbing to the temptation to go over the top. Whilst Solon is undoubtedly insane, Madoc plays him with such pathos that we see numerous different aspects of his personality. Most overwhelming of course is his obsession with Morbius, and obsession, which has, as he himself notes in Episode Three, forced him to spend years in desperately lonely isolation. His absolute devotion to Morbius drives him completely, everything he does motivated purely by his need to complete his work. As played by Madoc he is nervous and twitchy, impatient to find a head for Morbius's brain, and this results in an air of wild eyed but restrained of mania. But Solon displays other attributes too; he's short-tempered, most notably with Condo, and when enraged he resorts to physical violence, cuffing his servant around the head and eventually shooting him. But he's also largely a coward, and it is thus his obsession with Morbius alone that drives him to desperate measures. When Solon realsies that the Sisterhood have "rescued" the Doctor, he rants and raves, describing them as "a squalid brood of harpies", and when he reaches their temple and discovers that they intend to sacrifice the Doctor, his desperation to obtain the Doctor's head drives him to dare to interrupt the ceremony. However, once his adrenaline rush wears off, he realises his folly and panics; when he pleads with Maren for the Doctor's head he babbles in obvious fear, offering Condo instead out of shear desperation. Indeed, his desperation is such that in addition to endangering himself by risking the wrath of the Sisterhood he comes close to blurting out his reasons for wanting the Doctor's head, thus also endangering Morbius. In addition to his humiliating failure, he also pushes Condo too far, resulting in his near death back at his castle, as Condo angrily pulls a knife on him. With little other option, he is then forced to offer Condo his other arm back, a promise he has no intention of keeping; this further complicates matters for him, as he needs to find a way of stalling Condo as a result. 

It is this deeply flawed persona that makes Solon work so well as a character, and there are other examples throughout. In Episode One, when the Doctor and Sarah first arrive, Solon is at his most charming as he grasps the opportunity presenting itself, but despite the effort he makes, his desperate obsession means that his charm barely covers his grotesque intentions for the Doctor's head and he comes across as decidedly creepy, as Sarah very obviously notices. Ironically, it seems that despite Solon's total devotion to Morbius, Morbius himself has little regard for Solon; Morbius's paranoia and rage whilst trapped in his tank is understandable, but it is worth noting than when he is finally properly installed in his new body, he casually discards the corpse of the newly deceased Solon, despite the fact that he has Solon to thank for his resurrection. It is perhaps fitting that Solon dies just as he completes his life's work. 

Morbius too is well characterised. Whilst trapped in his tank, he sounds desperate and paranoid, and Michael Spice's voice conveys some of the horror of his situation very well. Once Morbius is released however, he changes, becoming both confident and arrogant as he confronts the Doctor in Episode Four. For all that the Doctor and Maren describe the threat posed by Morbius, most of 'The Brain of Morbius' essentially revolves around a very localized threat to the Doctor and Sarah; nevertheless during the brief period in which Morbius is housed in his new body and is lucid, Spice manages to create sufficient charisma for Morbius to make it believable that he could rouse an army to threaten the entire galaxy. Appropriately, Morbius's confidence proves his undoing, as he accepts the Doctor's challenge of a mindbending contest, and pays the price. And the sight of Morbius's brain almost literally blowing a fuse is strangely disturbing as his brain case fills with smoke. 

Contributing to the atmosphere of 'The Brain of Morbius' is the Sisterhood of Karn, who despite ending up on the same side as the Doctor in the fight against Morbius is by no means particularly friendly. Whereas Solon is motivated by his obsession with Morbius to commit murder, the Sisterhood are motivated by their jealous possession of the Elixir of Life to commit atrocities that are at least as bad. So paranoid are they about guarding the Elixir and their Sacred Flame that they drag ship after ship to its doom, regardless of whether those ships are headed for Karn or of what their occupants intend. On first discovering the Doctor's presence on Karn, Maren assumes the worst and decides to burn him alive; in short, the Doctor's only allies on Karn are not nice people, and this adds to the general sense of danger in 'The Brain of Morbius'. As with Michael Spice as Morbius and Philip Madoc as Solon, Cynthia Grenville as Maren puts in a great performance, alternating between imperious and unforgiving in the first two episodes, and later showing a more vulnerable side, as the Doctor's criticisms of the unchanging Sisterhood hit home and she shows the weariness one might expect after centuries of stagnation. The Doctor's effect on the Sisterhood is quite profound, as his constant gentle mockery gradually has an impact not only on Maren but also on Ohica. By the end of the story there is a suggestion that the long-unchanged Sisterhood has been affected not only by Morbius's brief return, but also by the Doctor, and that there is hope that they will, if nothing else, at least stop hijacking passing space travellers and killing strangers without discrimination.

By this point in the season, it almost goes without saying that Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are excellent, but it is worth noting that 'The Brain of Morbius' is a particularly good story for Sarah. Unusually, all three cliffhangers revolve around Sarah instead of the Doctor, and of course she also gets blinded, a situation with allows Sladen to shine as she conveys a sense of barely restrained panic. Sarah is also frequently terrified here, encountering headless monsters and being forced to assist Solon in his brain transplant operation in Episode Four, unable to see and under threat of death. When Condo grabs her by her hair in Episode Three she is again clearly terrified, this giving way to revulsion as Condo shyly tells he likes her. When he saves her from the monster in Episode Four but is killed in the process, she sounds suitably guilty, as she struggles with the fact that Solon's hulking manservant has saved her life at the cost of his own. Of all the supporting characters in 'The Brain of Morbius', Colin Fay's Condo is arguably the most sympathetic; whereas Solon commits atrocities out of obsession and the Sisterhood commit murder out of jealous possessiveness, Condo kills (at least as far as the audience knows) because of Solon's hold over him; Condo wants his arm back. This doesn't excuse him, but in a story filled with characters who are on very dubious moral ground, Condo's actions are marginally more justifiable. His attraction to Sarah also adds to his character, in an amusing nod to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Doctor also shines, on the one hand at his wittiest when dealing with the Sisterhood (to Maren's obvious annoyance), on the other at his most intense when dealing with Morbius and Solon; his decision to resort to using cyanide gas to try and stop Solon is testament to how dangerous he considers Morbius and shows him at his most committed.

Production wise, 'The Brain of Morbius' is exemplary. It's very well directed, the score is marvelously evocative, and the sets are superb, especially Solon's castle. Also worth mentioning is the rocky landscape of Karn, which is one of the series better rocky landscape sets. The costumes are also very effective, from the elaborate flame-decorated robes of the Sisterhood to Solon's understated tweedy suit. The Morbius monster is particularly impressive, managing to look like it is made of alien body parts whilst still successfully looking like a piecemeal abomination rather than an actual alien creature. Overall, 'The Brain of Morbius' is a highly effective if unusual story, and after the dreadful 'The Android Invasion' it marks a return to the generally high quality of the season as a whole. A level of quality that will be maintained for the season finale…





The Masque of MandragoraBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

This is a somewhat overlooked, though well produced and entertaining story. 

Paul Clarke has written an excellent review that details the plot – that an alien energy wants to subjugate the earth in the fifteenth century, and that this power struggle is mirrored by power struggles on earth. Ultimately, the struggle for power is shown as futile here, and the thoughtful and empathetic Giuliano is (naturally and appropriately, I think) portrayed as an ideal ruler. Spoilers follow. 

As Mr. Clarke mentions, the story is, despite good supporting acting, the usually strong regulars, and a decent production, somehow unsatisfying. I think perhaps it comes down to the conclusion, and a little too much going unexplained. First, we aren’t allowed to see the conclusion of the battle between the Doctor and this alien force. While the reasons for this are clear – that the Doctor later appears in the guise of that same alien force and leads it to its own destruction – we still want a little more there. The attempt to create suspense is admirable, but undermined by the fact that we don’t really believe the alien force has destroyed the Doctor and won the day. In other words, the climax we’ve been building to is cut short in favour of another climax, where the disguised Doctor leads all the brethren (or, what remains of this alien energy helix) back to the same ruins they came from. From there, it’s the same glowing energy effect we’ve seen before, and all of them dropping to the ground. 

That said, it’s still a pleasure to watch these regulars, and the Doctor and Sarah have some nice moments, in particular a scene in episode four where the Doctor is doing some calculations and Sarah tiptoes to a chair to read and wait. It’s perhaps a tad sexist, but also has to be remembered we’re talking about a Timelord and a human, here. The conversation that follows is an interesting example of Doctor Who:

“Mandragora doesn’t conquer in the physical sense, it dominates and controls by helix energy – astral force. It takes away from man the only thing worth having.”

“Which is?”

“Well, a sense of purpose, what else? The ability granted to every intelligent species to shape its own destiny.” 

Here we see the typical vagueness of a Doctor Who plot device (“astral force”) put up against some solid themes and ideas, in the same breath, as the Doctor continues on about a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose is further illustrated in the plot: there are power struggles between the Mandragora energy alien and the Doctor (who wants humanity to have a sense of purpose) and the potential human rulers Count Federica and Guliano (Guliano would allow his people a sense of purpose). 

In a sense, this makes the entire fourth episode anti-climactic, as Count Federico is blasted to dust at the end of episode three. And we know the Doctor will go on to defeat the Mandragora energy. It’s possible that the best Doctor Who stories combine these kinds of themes and ideas without leaving the viewers scratching their heads about surface details and plot devices (we’re told at the end simply that the Mandragora has been sent “back to square one”). That said, this is an entertaining story with some worthwhile moments, such as the Doctor telling Guliano at the end that knowledge will come in time, and that keeping an open mind is the secret. And surely allowing others to create their own purpose, and explore their own pathways, is a part of keeping an open mind? As Sarah says, “Poor Guliano, he looks so wistful,” but Guliano is actually a brave character – he has the courage to be uncertain.