“I can see nothing, feel nothing. You have locked me into hell for eternity” – Morbius
An excellent story for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it’s the premiere example of this era of ‘Gothic horror Doctor Who’. It borrows familiar story elements and dramatic settings from the Frankenstein movies but turns them into the unique sci-fi story of a disembodied brain of an evil Time Lord and his devotee trying to recreate a body for him. It’s a really well done script that moves at just the right pace and definitely ratchets up the scary moments to be found in the show.
The story is also remarkable for much of the acting. The guest actors really sell the parts—the seriousness of Solon as he works himself into madness, the disembodied voice of Morbius, the crotchety wisdom of Maren, and the dangerous powder keg that is simple and abused assistant Condo. Meanwhile Tom Baker hits his stride in his signature characterization of the Fourth Doctor as we see his trademark out-of-place humor, sulkiness, wide-eyed bemusement, big grins, cool bravado, and sudden serious leaps to action. Lis Sladen takes on a bit of blind acting and does a great job portraying Sarah Jane as she struggles to make it across the wasteland step by step. Indeed, Sarah shines here as a companion in both her quick thinking and bravery; she quickly guesses for example that she needs to act like she was knocked out by the wine like the Doctor—and amazingly has nerves of steel not to flinch as Condo is standing over her ready to kill her!
Even better to me is the introduction of the Sisterhood of Karn, a band of sorceresses of great power, equal to the Time Lords but steeped in ancient magic and worship of a life giving elixir. They are evoke stories of witches’ covens and secret rites, and it’s wonderfully done as they whirl with flames or whisper chant with shaking arms “Sacred fire! Sacred flame!” I can’t believe they were never used again until the new series. It would have been very interesting if the series had explored more about their ability to rule lesser beings and “place death in the centre of their beings, send them mad with false visions.” The fact that all their power and wisdom is undercut by the Doctor cheekily showing that they just needed to clean the soot out of their chimney is classic Fourth Doctor.
There is some quite florid dialogue at times like Solon’s rage against the sisters (“That squalid brood of harpies, the Sisterhood. That accursed hag Maren…May her stinking bones rot! I’ll see her die…I’ll see that palsied harridan scream for death before Morbius and I are finished with her!”) or the Doctor’s description of the Sisterhood’s elixir (“The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists dripping like tea from an urn.”) Morbius’s self-pitying speech is a classic scene as well. (“Trapped like this, like a sponge beneath the sea. Yet even a sponge has more life than I. Can you understand a thousandth of my agony? I, Morbius, who once led the High Council of the Time Lords and dreamed the greatest dreams in history, now reduced to this, to a condition where I envy a vegetable.”)
The only point where the story rather drags is when Morbius is first brought back in his cobbled together body and escapes. Unable to reason or speak, the story just becomes one of a growling monster thrashing about like we’ve seen in a lot less interesting stories. Morbius is much better when presented as a thinking menace of whom the Doctor is fearful.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
Poor Condo. Despite his being taken advantage of for his simple mind, it’s horrifying when he’s got Sarah Jane by the hair and telling her how pretty she is. (But when he’s shot the chunk of blood that bursts out is just gross.) Most people remember the disembodied brain lying on the floor, but for me as a kid there was a lot of frisson in the portrayal of the Sisterhood as well.
- Time Lord cohorts
- Elixir of Life
So why couldn’t Solon just put Morbius’s brain in the Doctor’s body as a whole? [Maybe he wanted the helpful characteristics of the other ‘pieces’ like the lungs that keep Morbius from dying with Solon.]