Planet of EvilBookmark and Share

Sunday, 30 September 2007 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

Not exactly painfully mediocre - but not exactly great either. 

This pretty well sums up "Planet of Evil" in my book. It's a solid little Tom Baker tale with an interesting monster, a bit of an overused premise and a lot of fun on a spaceship and jungle set! It serves up a nice adventure but it really doesn't stand out much in anyway. Which, when you think about it, is the case with quite a bit of the Tom Baker era. Yes, he has some of the best stories the series ever saw, but when it's not one of those classic stories, we get some pretty "paint-by-numbers" storytelling going on. Though "Planet Of Evil" exemplifies this idea quite heavilly, I'd still say it's a bit better than a lot of the other more bland Who stories of this era.

The jungle set is, of course, one of the most memorable aspects of this story. I won't go on about it too much because lots of you already have. But it certainly looks gorgeous and shooting it on film makes it look even better. By contrast, the spaceship interior looks like it was cobbled together by multiple other spaceship interiors used over the years on the show. There definitely seems a lot of "Ark In Space" and "The Mutants" stuff in there. Which just gives the story even more of a "been there done that" kind-of-feel. Not only are certain elements of the script re-hashed - but so are certain elements of the set!

Which is the biggest problem this story suffers. The "scientist meddling with powers he shouldn't be meddling with" concept has been so overdone by this point in the show's history that it seems almost laughable that the Doctor is being so dramatic about it all. You'd think he'd be so tired of arguing with stupid scientists by this point that he would just club them over the head - stop whatever project it is they're working on - and head back to the TARDIS by the end of episode two! But, instead, we get the usual runaround where the Doctor pleads endlessly with Sorensen to abandon his research whilst dealing with various plot complications created by other members of the supporting cast. It's all pretty "pantomime", really. Even though the Doctor's quote about a "scientist's ultimate responsibility" is very well-delivered. 

By the same token, there are some elements to this story that make it a bit "fresh" too. The use of the TARDIS in this story was quite unusual for this era. Usually, the TARDIS serves as merely a way to get the main characters to the story location. The fact that it's instrumental in saving the day is a bit unusual. Which is a nice touch. 

I also enjoyed the way the millitairy team is presented. The concept of a Captain and a Senior Officer is sort of a neat one which kind of makes sense in some ways but would also be a breeding ground for power struggles (which is, inevitably, what happens by episode four!). I also quite liked the burly crewmember whose name presently eludes me. A nice little bit of comic relief in a tale that tried desperately to take itself seriously all the time (even though, as always, we get some pretty laughable-looking effects that become even more laughable because it's all trying to be so dramatically intense).

A third nice strongpoint to this tale is the way we see that the Doctor is "not without influence" because of his status as a Time Lord. It's a neat sort of concept that lends a deeper image of power to his origins. Anyone else falling into that pit just plain dies. But the Doctor, because of who he is, is able to communicate with the anti-matter monster and reach a resolution to the plot. And the actual sequences in the void are very surreal and well-achieved. Another point many of you have made so I won't go into it more than I have to. 

Now, we come to the performances of the supporting cast. We have, quite noticeably, the notorious Prentis Hancock back on the scene. Sorry to sound so catty, but who the hell told this guy he could act?! So wooden and yet trying so desperately to be dramatic. It all looks quite dreadful. In harsh contrast, the casting of Sorenson was a great move. He is played to perfection, giving us all the right emotions at all the right times. Watching the actual scenes where Salamar and Sorenson are playing off of each other are almost like having a plate of filet mignon and human fecal matter placed in front of you and being told to eat it! 

Ew. That was a gross mental image.

Anyway, moving on to some other performers. I loved Tom Baker's work in this story. This is all way before he went so zany with the part and I really enjoyed just how serious he could be sometimes. Particularly in this story. It's almost as if the removal of the scarf in episode two is symbolic. He recognises that it is a bit of a silly piece of costuming and ditches it so he can get really dramatic for the final two episodes. 

And now, another harsh contrast. One that I'm sure a lot of you will take great issue with. I'm sorry folks, but I was never quite sure what was the big fuss about Lis Sladen. Her character with Pertwee, though a bit "choppy" in places, was far more interesting. By the time we get to second season Tom Baker (as we are in this story) she has become such a blatant plot cypher that I really find her to be practically characterless. She's still not quite as dumb as Jo Grant, but boy can she stumble around, get into trouble and then get rescued! Or, on a rare occassion or two, she can actually be able useful and help the Doctor. In Planet of Evil, she displays this mediocrity of character in great abundance. I don't blame the actress too much - moreso the poor scipt-writing. This is frequently the case with the Doctor Who when the protagonist is travelling with just a single female character from the twentieth century. She's used to serve the plot rather than given a lot of interesting nuances to her personality. Only with latter-day examples like Ace and Rose has this problem been solved. Whereas poor old Sarah Jane, to me, seems about as cut-and-paste as the female companion can be in this story. 

Wow, it was tough writing that last paragraph knowing how much some of you will be offended by my heresy. But now, let's move on:

My only other big bone of contention with this story is that it really does lose steam in episode three. The tribute to Jeckell and Hyde, though nice in some ways, is blatant padding. A desperate attempt on the writer's behalf to introduce a subplot virtually out of nowhere that will fill the episode and get us to part four. It's a pity the show was so dedicated to evenly-numbered stories during this era. Part three could have easilly been chopped out and we could have been given a nice tight three-parter that might have moved up the callibre of this story quite significantly. Just think of how enjoyable stories like "Happiness Patrol", "Survival" and "Ghost Light" were in the late 80s because they didn't force themselves' to just "put in time" til they got to that fourth episode. Sadly, no such luck here. Instead, the story gets slowed to a bit of a snail's pace until it can be brought back up to steam for a nice climax in the final episode.

Still, overall, I'd rather put this story more in a positive light than a negative one. There are a lot of strongpoints here with a few negative aspects that drag it down a bit. It's a good solid story with a nice sense of adventure to it. Very dramatic and intense and much of that drama is used very effectively. Better than most of the "blandness" some of the Tom Baker era suffered.

FILTER: - Television - Series 13 - Fourth Doctor

The Brain of MorbiusBookmark and Share

Thursday, 14 December 2006 - Reviewed by Frank Collins

Set on the planet Karn, this is the simple story of renegade Time Lord Morbius and his surgeon friend Mehendri Solon. Solon’s trying to piece Morbius back together as you see he’s just a brain sitting in a tank for the moment and he’s keen to get back out there and rule the galaxy. Also on Karn are the Sisterhood, led by Maren, who was present at the trial of Morbius and saw him executed and believes him long dead. The Sisterhood also worship and maintain the sacred flame that produces an elixir of life, thus allowing them to be immortal. Then the Doctor and Sarah turn up…

Looking at the story from a 2006 perspective, it's holds up remarkably well and offers new and veteran viewers alike a rich palette of ideas and concepts.It's fascinating from a symbolic and psychological perspective as well as being an interesting story redolent with past influences.

To being with, let's take a look at what I think is the core of the story the dichotomy between the head (masculine rationalism) and the heart (feminine emotion and intuition). Morbius is literally torn apart by the dispersal chamber at his execution and this is an apposite act by a society that was threatened by his disruption. His punishment cuts him off from an instinctive free relationship with nature and he becomes an irrational figure who has lost contact with the personal experience of life. 

Solon’s after the perfect head in which to house Morbius’ brain, the Doctor becoming the preferred option. Solon’s obsession about having the perfect head is understandable. Morbius has effectively been castrated and left to his own torment in a dark Underworld devoid of senses. The head is symbolically regarded as the domain of the masculine with the heart being its feminine counterpoint. One can see that the Solon/Morbius relationship is concerned with the dominant male progressing in the world through the application of science. The Sisterhood are the feminine principle of the story, driven by intuition, forces of nature and relying on the mind and matter approach of magic and sorcery. The head is also symbolic of the fully conscious mind, of the full awareness of reality – something which Morbius lacks in order for his masculine ego to be freed from the Unconscious. ‘The crowning irony’ as Solon informs Morbius that his new head will be that of a Time Lord.

Morbius fears the feminine and has no masculine power until Solon can provide him with a new head and body. The Sisterhood fear Morbius and the Time Lords and have an aversion to progress through scientific rationalism. It takes the Doctor to demonstrate that science and magic can be one and the same thing. Hence, his firework aided chimney sweeping of the Sisterhood’s sacred flame, his instant analysis that the elixir could actually be synthesised and his cyanide solution to getting out of the laboratory to stop Morbius. And of course, he will eventually need the elixir himself if he is to survive the ordeal with Morbius. 

Emotionally, there are also things to note. Solon is driven by his work and is obsessed to the point of madness in trying to give Morbius his freedom. His is a life absent of real joy. He only sees the material potential of the bodies around him with no concern for sentiment and feelings. He is all about the disintegration of the personality which leads to schizophrenia whilst he physically is attempting to stop the material disintegration of Morbius. As he feverishly sews up bits of bodies to re-integrate Morbius, he is inside shattering psychologically.

Secondly, a brief discussion of the female principle in the story as formed by the Sisterhood and Sarah. The Sisterhood, through their disavowal of the benefits of science, are impotently immortal. Any intrusion through science – the crashed spaceships on Karn are the result of their handiwork – meets with destruction. Their immortality is a curse, their magic brings them no progress. They are static and isolated even though through their femininity they are able to co-operate with the blind forces of nature. This force is literally evoked through Maren’s temporary blinding of Sarah. Sarah as an active, free feminine influence in the narrative is punished with blindness and isolation because of their fear. She’s the potential of what they could all be (progress) and Maren brings her down a peg or two for rescuing the (masculine) Doctor. In the end, the Sisterhood are as equally isolated as Morbius – they through their fear of the masculine penetration of science and he through the mis-application of science – Solon’s attempts to reanimate his body and the effects of the dispersal chamber. The Doctor is the figure that reconciles all of these elements – he uses a science/magic approach to vanquish Morbius and to hopefully bring progress to the Sisterhood.

Appropriate to this era's supposed use of the Gothic, the story has a number of very visceral and physical elements present within it. Condo's arm is highly symbolic of this. Condo experiences his body directly through pain and because he can see his own arm as an external object grafted onto the Morbius body. It is symbolic of Condo’s humanity and with it he would be a complete person again. It is also the only recognisably human part of the Morbius body, capable of vain gesticulation. Condo’s also capable of feeling and emotion and appreciates Sarah’s feminine beauty and does not understand why it should be destroyed. He recognises the power of his emotions through seeing his promised physicality given to the Morbius creature and through his affection for Sarah but Solon ultimately punishes him for it. For that, it’s an astonishingly brutal story. One particular sequence in Part Three is rather notorious. As Solon prepares Morbius’ brain for the surgery, he faces an angry Condo (Condo has seen his arm on the creature). Solon shoots him, they fight and the brain falls on the floor. It’s at once violent – Condo’s chest explodes very gorily in full frame – and blackly comic – the brain plops out onto the floor rather satisfyingly in a pool of slime. It is hilarious, repulsive and fascinating. It’s a sophisticated range of reactions produced in a short sequence and is highly typical of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes attitudes to overt violence and black homour in the series. Solon is attempting to further disintegrate Condo’s body and expunge the outpouring of feminine emotion and feeling into his isolated male prison of science.

The mental battle betwen the Doctor and Morbius is as much about the apparatus being a mirror reflecting the opposing forces within the psyche. The combatants are as much a reflection of each other, a reverse of each other. The contest is also conducted in reverse in so far as to reach the desired goal it is necessary to regress to your origins e.g. we see all their previous incarnations. The hero must descend into the depths of infancy in order to move on towards maturity. The Doctor’s trick is to get Morbius to gorge on his own Ego, to fly too close to the sun and therefore come crashing down to earth when his brain literally fries. He is overcome by his own narcissistic reflection of himself. The mirror is also earlier a trigger mechanism for the Morbius creature to go on the rampage as he sees his true reflection in the laboratory.

Looking back at the story now, it is worth noting that it’s entirely studio bound, complete with sets representing the exteriors of Karn. Now, admittedly, the construction of those sets does affect our reception of the story. Wood is used to represent stone for the exteriors and you can clearly hear Lis Sladen’s feet clomping about. However, the production’s overt staginess actually doesn’t destroy the illusion but rather contributes to the feeling that this is an entirely closed environment, hermetically sealed. It reminds me of some of the BBC’s studio bound Shakespeare productions of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Let’s also not forget that much of studio based television was still using theatrical modes of presentation at this time. The camera very rarely moves in this story, is fairly static and the lighting, flaring into the lens on occasion, often heightens the sheer theatricality of it e.g. the sun rise at the Doctor’s execution. Barry Newbery’s design is also a huge contribution to this ‘play’ and the sets in Solon’s castle are a bricolage of design styles and the almost Himalayan atmosphere these create is very similar to the pressure cooker environments of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcisscus’. The combination of the ‘hippy Tibetan’ vibe of the Sisterhood’s costumes and make-up, the radiophonic wind chimes and other sound effects for the planet surface and the Nepalese flavour of the production design really build up that effect. There is also a nod to the Expressionist lab designs of umpteen Universal and Hammer horror films too.

As far as influences are concerned, this is ‘Frankenstein’, primarily. But there are also nods to ‘The Island Of Doctor Moreau’, Rider Haggard’s ‘She’, ‘Beauty And The Beast’, ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’, 50’s B movies and Top Of The Pops (the Sisterhood do a delirious Pan’s People number to capture the TARDIS and to sacrifice the Doctor)

Visual effects are on the whole pretty good. The vista of crashed ships is just about acceptable. The brain tank in the cellar with Morbius’ brain is a triumph of physical effects, especially the trembling bit of material that vibrates as Morbius’ voice rants on. One favourite effect is the blast from Maren’s ring directly into camera as Sarah escapes. That would still pass muster today. The ‘monster’ is so self-referentially ridiculed within the context of the story (‘pot pouri’ and ‘Chop Suey’) that there’s really no need to highlight how daft it looks now. The intentional and unintentional humour implied by the monster costume combine to offset some of the more visceral moments – the shooting and the brain on the floor for example as well as numerous strangulations and a burning at the stake.

Tom and Lis are at their best here. It’s a solid relationship of mutual respect and admiration. Sarah is a tad too much of victim here but who can forget that chill up the spine as she advances, blind, toward that big glowing brain and Michael Spice’s delicious, ranting performance as Morbius. Philip Madoc is superb as the twitchy Solon, desperately trying to rescue his own career as a surgeon whilst trapped in the dungeon of Morbius’ own mind.

FILTER: - Television - Series 13 - Fourth Doctor

Planet of EvilBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

To be honest, it’s a bit difficult to introduce Planet Of Evil. It’s a very, very strong story but only in very standard ways, as if its formula has been taken from a textbook. I could go on about the great plot and design work while mentioning the occasional flashes of scripting and acting brilliance but, while all true, none of it is exactly unique. It’s just a bloomin’ good story, well suited to being in Doctor Who’s best season.

The jungle set on Zeta Minor has its detractors but I think it’s probably the best set the series ever had: the studio-recorded scenes are bearable (a rarity) while the film-recorded ones are terrific, an absolute triumph of lighting that actually uses shadows effectively rather than being swamped in them unintentionally. The subdued lighting obscures the fine detail making it seem even more realistic, while the addition of small details such as puddles are the icing on the cake. Amazing. It’s also helped by a good score: Dudley Simpson had got over his dire electronic phase under Barry Letts and was now producing some good material perfectly suited to the episodes themselves, here aided by Peter Howell’s augmentations. The studio interiors, by contrast, are extremely plain (season 11 style), and I notice that some of the electronic equipment in fact comes from The Ark In Space. However, I’d rather have them plain than have them extremely complicated and suffer as a result (naming no names, but it involves the Doctor strangling his companion).

The set design helps in part to create a brilliantly atmospheric introduction, in which the last survivors of the Morestran expedition are wiped out by some unseen force; the unknown has always been the most dramatic and interesting for me, and here it is only spoiled by actually seeing the victims disappear and reappear again, which doesn’t make much sense anyway.

The TARDIS scene, again a rarity in the Philip Hinchcliffe years, showcases the wonderful dynamic of Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker, illustrating why they were the best Doctor / companion duo; Sladen’s clumsy characterisation that held her back when she first appeared has now settled down, creating an immensely likeable and realistic character. Spotters of these things can see an enormous boom mike shadow on the wall near the beginning of the scene though (seriously, you can make out every detail of it, it’s terrible). It leads on to them entering the jungle where Sarah first experiences the monster; her acting is brilliant, such as when she says “as if my mind…left my body” in a very quiet and subdued voice, increasing the menace greatly. I’m a believer in the power of understatement, and this is a fine example. 

The spacecraft, however, comes as a real let down. The spartan sets that just about passed for the scientific base now just look boring, and the costumes are truly terrible: light cotton spacesuits with shoulder pads, open necks and flares. Morestra must be a really culturally backwards society; it’s the 380th century (or thereabouts) and they’re still living in the 1970s. The common, prosaic names of the characters implies that Morestra may be a former Earth colony, and in fact the crew are portrayed as being more multinational if their names are anything to go by than we usually see with humans (Morelli: Italian; O’Hara: Irish; De Haan: German, etc.). There is some very crude exposition here as Salamar (played dreadfully by Prentis Hancock, possibly the worst guest actor to have appeared in the programme more than twice) goes through the hierarchy of the ship to help the audience. While I’m on the subject Ewen Solon and Frederick Jaeger are the standouts among the guest cast here; suggestions that this is because they’d worked together on The Savages almost a decade earlier always seem a bit tenuous to me, but whatever the reason they are both excellent.

The shrivelled bodies left by the antimatter monster are gruesome in the extreme, even though after a while it becomes obvious that there is only one corpse prop that gets dressed up differently each time. There is a thorough explanation of the cause of death which isn’t really necessary as the mode of the killings aren’t directly relevant to the story; nevertheless it’s seriously creepy and if I’d seen this when I was very young (I didn’t, and if I’m honest it was probably for the best, I was a sensitive soul as a nipper) it would have provided some serious nightmare material.

Elisabeth Sladen’s “can’t breathe” acting is absolutely identical to other stories where she’s been cut off from oxygen (The Ark In Space, Terror Of The Zygons…do you think the production team where subtly hinting at something here? Nah), but she’s still brilliant. In fact, she’s so superior in her scenes featuring Hancock that I can’t shake the feeling she was mocking him. There’s also a nice piece of direction here where the shot of the tool she’s holding cuts to a shot of its empty place on a rack, although I notice that there seem to be some focussing problems when there are sudden movements in this episode.

Baker’s constant boggle-eyed expression is an exaggeration top his performance that I hadn’t thought had kicked in yet; it’s a shame as it’s things like that that show why he could have been the best actor to play the role yet wasn’t. The cliffhanger to the first episode is brilliant though, as the antimatter monster is revealed for the first time: it shows Hinchcliffe’s habit of finding out if special effects can be done well beforehand (surely just common sense, but you’d be amazed). Also, it utilises the image-loss effect that happens whenever something shiny is CSO’d; I always love it when what are normally problems for lesser producers and directors are integrated and used to produce great results. It strikes me as slightly odd though that the Doctor and Sarah leg it off into the jungle to let O’Hara get thrashed. Haydn Wood’s death-throes are good though, and some good direction shows the beast looming over him. The Morestran gunshots are more good effects (see how it pays to keep it simple?), although they do appear to hit Sarah as she runs off into the jungle.

The dawn sequence is amazingly atmospheric as the Doctor and Sarah hide from the monster, a scene helped by the Doctor quoting from Shakespeare (Romeo And Juliet III.v.9-10, by the way). I’d say that the film-recorded jungle scenes in this story are the best the programme ever did from a purely visual point of view. The oculoid tracker has a silly big eye but other than that it works fine as well, and I love the shots of it weaving through the vegetation.

The idea of the pool between the worlds is great (a sort of macabre version of The Magician’s Nephew), but only let down by being in fact described as a pool and it’s presented as being a simple hole. If they’d had it as that in the first place it may have been better, but I’m nitpicking so never mind. It’s also slightly patronising and lazy how the psychic Doctor has worked out the problem already so that he can talk us through it upon the presentation of some actual evidence. Sorenson provides a bit of explanation about the antimatter, a bad scene turned into a good one by his wholly ignorant foil, De Haan. Michael Wisher, by contrast, having created the most iconic character ever (after the Doctor, obviously) the previous season is here cast in the utterly thankless role of Morelli, and seems thoroughly bored. Can’t say I blame him, really.

The Doctor’s portentous revelation about the nature of the problem is very well written and performed, although the “cataclysm” idea lacks development and is only provided so as to deny the Doctor an excuse to high-tail it out of there. Also, how does Sarah know what the compression units sound like? Do they just come as standard?

Before thoughts of little spaceship mechanics indelibly lodge in my head and distract me I’ll move on and say that the cartoon starburst effect for the force field is actually quite decent if a little silly, and the cliffhanger provides Hinchcliffe with his one freeze frame per season.

The effects for the antimatter void, yet again, are great through their simplicity. Sorenson’s transformation, although similarly well visualised, has come out of nowhere and could have done with being established a bit earlier. Like I said though it looks great, and ironically blurring is used effectively to obscure his features (I’m not sure what the point of that is as we see him pretty clearly pretty soon, but even so).

Morelli being a Morestran Orthodox is more detail than we normally get with alien races (it smacks of Robert Holmes’s influence actually), even though the Morestrans like many other races are just humans by another name.

Hancock gets even worse when trying to be intense; he’s quite painful to watch and lets down the cliffhanger, which otherwise is dramatic and exciting. Episode four then kicks off on all six cylinders, even though I think it’s a mistake setting the story so much on the ship rather than the planet. The idea of an alien loose aboard the ship smacks of fun B-movie It! The Terror From Beyond Space (this was four years before Alien, don’t forget), making it the third major reference of the story, the others being Forbidden Planet and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. It may not be original particularly, but it’s good TV all the same. 

The Doctor’s confrontation with Sorenson is another very well written and tense scene, but Hancock gets even worse still which is hard to believe considering he started at the bottom anyway. His death comes as a blessed relief, finishing off the mortality rate (not including nameless cannon-fodder extras, as usual) at a vast 80%. Is it me, or does the special effect of Sorenson’s duplication look like the video of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’? It does lead to some more great (and scary) effects as the multiple antimen roam the ship.

The resolution isn’t the most dramatic ever, but at least it makes sense. Sorenson survives, which is unusually merciful by this story’s standards, and leads to a charming resolution in which the ship’s two survivors are left to fly it on their own (sorry, unnecessary sarcasm. A fair point though, I think, even given that “emergency refuelling” business).

As far as a final rating goes, Planet Of Evil is a very tricky one to make a decision about. My memory of it was of a clear 5/5, but on re-viewing it’s a borderline between Very Good and Excellent; it would be the best story of a lot of other seasons but given the overall brilliance of season 13 I’m going to grit my teeth and withhold a maximum rating if only to distinguish this story from its peers. I’ll probably regret it later, though.

FILTER: - Television - Series 13 - Fourth Doctor

Pyramids of MarsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

You have to laugh at second-generation clichés, where one cliché is used to avoid using another. For example, how many reviews of The Talons Of Weng-Chiang begin with “classic is such an overused term, but…”? Now, you could argue that I’ve just said the same thing myself in a roundabout and rather smug way, and you’d be right. I also might have just given birth to the third-generation cliché. So before I digress any further I’ll lay my cards down straight: Pyramids Of Mars is an all-time top-tier platinum-card officers’-club classic. Despite this is has its share of detractors, and maybe one day I’ll understand why. Nah, probably not.

It rocks and rolls from the very beginning, with a brilliantly atmospheric introduction in the Egyptian tomb. It’s jarring to see Bernard Archard playing an ordinary bloke as it’s at odds with what I’m used to from the rest of the story, but the idea of him stumbling into a hidden chamber only to be blasted down by an unseen something within is magic. Also of note is Ahmed, the one credited cast member who doesn’t die (and that’s only because he flees for good having uttered his one line); from here on in it’s doom and gloom all the way with a massive 87.5% mortality rate.

The opening TARDIS scene is one of many from this story that had a particular effect on me in my youth, for reasons that will shortly become clear. The dialogue between the regulars is up to Robert Holmes’s usual high standard (apart from the Prince Albert joke which I never laughed at, ever) with the Doctor going through a mid-life crisis moment when suddenly all gives way to one of Doctor Who’s top three scariest moments ever: a transparent, disembodied nightmare-face materialises on the wall of the TARDIS. My word, I had nightmares for weeks and weeks when I was small, and I still feel a bit nervous every time I know the scene is coming up.

It’s a nice idea for once that the TARDIS should arrive too early for once rather than too late, especially because it leads to one of the most successful studio recreations of period detail there ever were. The shot of the sarcophagus in the mirror reminds us that Paddy Russell is at the wheel; a fearsome lady by all accounts but a superb director, so fair enough.

One notable thing about this story is how perfectly it’s constructed, with the first episode building up the premise in layers in order to make sense later. Here then we have unexplained missing professors, walking mummies, and so forth. Collins’s death makes good use of the unseen, with something emerging from a sarcophagus (can you guess what it is yet?). Namin shifting the weightless polystyrene sarcophagus lid looks just like it does every time anyone ever tries to make weightless polystyrene seem heavy, but such trivialities are forgotten with the first sight of one of the mummies: slow, silent, lumbering but unstoppable killers, which look just amazing.

The sight of blood on Warlock’s hand is a funny thing: common in Hinchcliffe (Terror Of The Zygons and The Brain Of Morbius to name two examples just from this season) but rare elsewhere. Perhaps that’s why I can’t make my mind up about whether it’s jarring or not. I’ll admit it though, the first episode does contain too much running about in the woods. That said it is one of the most effective uses of location ever with the mummies looking amazing as they stalk between the trees, and Dudley Simpson scores it with some of his best ever work.

Now we meet the late Michael Sheard putting in a bumbling but sympathetic performance as Laurence Scarman, and the dialogue between him and the Doctor over the marconiscope is priceless. “Beware Sutekh” provides us with the next layer of the plot; those who criticise the “glacial pace” of the original series (step forward Radio Times, turncoat that y’are) should be silenced by this expertly constructed yet deliberately slow-paced story.

I’ve always thought that the space / time vortex effect looks like a load of flying smarties, but it’s actually a pretty good effect for the time and in this instance it leads to one of the most terrifying cliffhangers of them all. The black-clad figure, whose footsteps cause the floor to smoulder, striding forward to kill his loyal servant…and some people don’t like this.

With the intro over part two starts telling us how all the pieces fit together, and so begins the most exposition-heavy episode that concerns itself about mummies building rockets and power sources on Mars. It’s well written and a great concept though, so you’ll not here complaints from me. I also get some ironic humour from the idea of Egyptian aliens being worshipped as gods – maybe the new series got its giant budget from Stargate’s royalty payments.

The Doctor getting caught in the vortex is a very contrived way of getting the TARDIS key to Sutekh (and yet the Doctor has a spare, handily) and lacks explanation apart from that “parallax coil” jive which is no help to anyone. However, the following scene of the mummy being caught in the badger trap in the dawn light is as atmospheric a moment as the series has ever made. This is followed by the deflector shield, leading to a brilliant effect as Clements throws a stick at it. Clements is really just a means of showcasing Sutekh’s power, and this simple task is performed very well indeed. After this comes another great moment: the death of Warlock is chilling in the extreme, featuring a brilliant performance from Bernard Archard.

The priest-hole scene shows up the limitations of the time as all characters have to stay facing the camera rather than each other. However, Marcus’s comment that “there are other humans within these walls” is a brilliant bit of wordplay that I’d never noticed before and the sight of him getting shot in the back only for the bullet to come hurtling out again is one of the show’s defining moments. 

Laurence sees inside the TARDIS – now he has to die. The return to 1980 is a wonderful moment (and freaky to people watching this in 1975), and puts some thought into Sarah’s question which is often asked about time travel.

The swirls as Sutekh communicates with Scarman are much more effective than the Tunnel of Smarties; this is our fist experience of Gabriel Woolf’s virtuoso vocal performance as Sutekh. The casting is perfect; and to think Hinchcliffe wanted to use a ranting “bwa-ha-ha” type.

Clements’s death is shocking in the extreme; how did this story ever get a U certificate? The cliffhanger lingers a bit too long though, with everyone holding their poses for the sting. This requires a bit of judicial editing for the reprise in part three, and thankfully it gets it.

Well, we know the plot now, so the goodies spring into action. The Doctor’s dismantling of the generator loop is a very tense scene with some good interplay between the Doctor and Sarah – but then, you have to spice up sonic screwdriver scenes somehow (SSSS…er, isn’t that taking alliteration a little too far?). The scene in Clements’s shed is fun amidst the seriousness, as Laurence’s death is unbearably intense (I had to skip forward through this when I was young). The Doctor’s reaction is an enlightening bit of characterisation and shows the regulars at the top of their game. The only thing that makes me wonder is the fact that Laurence’s body is still rocking in his chair when the Doctor walks in so Marcus could only have left seconds earlier, and yet nobody saw him.

Sarah’s missed a vocation as a costumer because her dressing up of the Doctor is flawless, rendering the covering line of “it doesn’t have to be perfect” redundant. She’s also a crack shot with a rifle, for some reason. This kind of contrivance I have a problem with. It’s a nice twist though to have Sutekh’s original plan failing at the end of part three; there’s no better way to pad a story up to length.

The Doctor’s confrontation with Sutekh is one of the show’s best ever scenes, as the two talk together almost as equals even though the Doctor remains firmly in the villain’s power. It’s let down by the sight of the TARDIS key wobbling about on a piece of string, but raised again with the possessed Doctor – will he make it?

Handily, Horus has filled the Pyramid of Mars with an oxygen atmosphere. I always liked the travel through the pyramid (I have a particular soft spot for The Crystal Maze), and the logic puzzle scene with Sarah trapped is fantastic – people still ask that riddle as if there isn’t an easy answer. However, the roll-back-and-mix effects are slightly crude in this story. Scarman’s final death is another spooky moment.

As Sutekh has apparently one the scene is set for a seriously dramatic showdown, but unfortunately endings was where Holmes’s genius often tended to falter a bit, as here he presents some naff deus ex machina worthy of Russell T. Davies himself: the Doctor grabs a random bit of machinery from the TARDIS and confines Sutekh to the Tunnel of Smarties forevermore. At least he won’t go hungry, and it leads to a great final shot of the priory burning down.

The disappointing ending is not enough to knock this story down of its pedestal. Always a defining episode of the show, despite naysayers I’m confident it will always be a favourite. It’ll certainly always be a favourite of mine – what more is there to say?

FILTER: - Television - Series 13 - Fourth Doctor

Planet of EvilBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

Positive: even now that I’m older it still manages to be somewhat creepy, with a great jungle set and sound effects (still find the peculiar tinkle that accompanies the anti-matter monsters effective). Considering the Dalek voices and many other great sound effects in Doctor Who, I’m beginning to think it was one of the BBC’s best strengths at the time, and perhaps still is. 

Negative: the effects (certainly all the spaceship shots) don’t hold up, and take away from the overall effectiveness. In fact, they’re laughable, and could easily be replaced. 

Positive: it’s interesting for being the Doctor Who tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 

Negative: the whole scientists-shouldn’t-meddle-where-they-don’t -belong theme is a little tired. 

Positive: the acting by the leads/regulars is solid, Frederick Jaeger is excellent at portraying Sorensen’s clouded mind, and Ewan Solon is good as Vishinski. I’d have to say that as a youth, Vishinski pretty much stands out in my mind as a great example of good, listening leadership. 

Negative: Prentis Hancock as Salamaar, ouch. To try and be fair, he isn’t given much good dialogue. 

Positive: the idea of a planet that is something of a lynchpin between universes, containing elements of both, that are not to be disturbed, is a good one. Are the anti-matter creatures on the planet appointed guardians? Are there no matter guardians to stop them from taking matter through into a universe where it doesn’t belong? Perhaps this never happens in the anti-matter universe because they have less flawed system, something better than a corrupt power structure and its struggles?

Negative: all the characters know nothing except what the Doctor tells them – Salamaar accepts that the Doctor is correct in assuming that the anti-matter is holding the ship back (despite later mistrusting and shooting the Doctor), and later Vishinski simply accepts that Sorensen was infected by something on the planet. Why isn’t there a scientist on board, other than Sorensen, who could inform the crew of some of these things? Seems odd to send out a ship with a captain, (oh, sorry “controller”), a second in command and a bunch of grunts. And the uniforms make them look more like superheroes than military. The weapons are also a little inconsistent – Salamaar appears to kill a guard with his pistol, but the Doctor is shot point blank in the head and recovers. 

Positive: it was a great and atmospheric set of episodes when I was young. 

Negative: it’s far less creepy, and closer to overly dramatic space opera now that I’m older, though to end of a positive note…

Positive: it was fun to revisit.

FILTER: - Television - Series 13 - Fourth Doctor

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…

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 13/39