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Friday, October 01, 2021

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2021 - Day 1: DOCTOR WHO "The Brain of Morbius" (1976)

A blinded Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) stumbles upon the brain of criminal Timelord Morbius, a baleful entity awaiting a new body with which to continue his campaign of evil.

At an unspecified time, The Doctor (Tom Baker) and staunch companion Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) unexpectedly find themselves in the planet Karn, diverted there for an unstated purpose by the Timelords, but the Doctor is certain that he has been brought there to do some "dirty work" for his overlords, a hunch that proves right. The landscape it littered with crashed spaceships from dozens of worlds, but no survivors are evident. It turns out that the lack of survivors is due to them being killed and their body parts harvested by Condo (Colin Fay), the hulking dimwitted slave/assistant to Dr. Solon (Philip Madoc), a madman who was once considered the galaxy's greatest surgeon. He is obsessed with crafting a viable body for the evil Timelord Morbius, of whom all that remains is his sentient brain in a life-sustaining tank, ands all he needs is a suitable head. The Doctor's curly-topped noggin happens to be both a perfect match in terms of species and also convenient, but while fending off the machinations of Solon, the Doctor must put a stop to the threat of Morbius before he is resurrected, he must also prevent the Sisterhood of Karn — basically a cabal of science-fictional witches — from sentencing him to death, as they are convinced that he has been sent by the Timelords to steal the sacred flame that grants them near-immortality. 

The Sisterhood of Karn gets its chant on.

During this era of DOCTOR WHO'S classic 1970's run, the program, which had initially been conceived as a means by which to educate children about history, truly found its groove (and immense popularity and relevance withing its native British culture) once it began exploring its conceit of being able to have its protagonist and his companions freely travel throughout the boundless reaches of time and space, where they often ran afoul of assorted evil life forms that could be categorized as "monsters," though always with a scientific/biological explanation for their existence.  

By the mid-1970's, the children that had watched DOCTOR WHO since its debut in 1963 had grown up with the program, and it's more kiddie-oriented aspects began to wane as the show hit its adolescence at the same time as its audience. The stories became darker and were front-loaded with elements that kept its fans terrified, with a common experiential marker of British youth of the era being "watching DOCTOR WHO from behind the setee." Though still often quite shonky thanks to the BBC's notoriously tight-fisted budgets, the series more than compensated for its lack of funds with scary scripts and solid performances from the cast. 

Once under the control of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and with actor Tom Baker taking over as the Fourth Doctor, becoming arguably the most iconic actor to essay the role as of this writing, the stories embarked on a two-year (1975-1977) streak of serials that went as far as possible in providing scares allowable under the auspices of the BBC's censors, material that would set DOCTOR WHO firmly in the sights of hardline Christian conservative Mary Whitehouse, an opponent to what she considered changes to "traditional" British values, and self-appointed arbiter of good taste and decency in media.

Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001), arch-enemy of fun.

While wielding no officially appointed position for weighing in on such matters, damned near any aspect of change that began during the 1960's, be it the sexual revolution and feminism, hit records like Alice Cooper's "School's Out" and Chuck Berry's cover of Dave Bartholomew's "My Ding-a-Ling," sitcom TILL DEATH US DO PART (upon which ALL IN THE FAMILY was based), and THE BENNY HILL SHOW (for obvious reasons),  were vehemently opposed by Whitehouse, so it was only a matter of time before the BBC would pussy-out and cave to Whitehouse's criticisms, toning down the material to an insulting degree in the name of children, but in actuality to serve her own ultra-conservative agenda. Fortunately, "The Brain of Morbius" went out before Whitehouse's baleful influence would neuter DOCTOR WHO for the remainder of its original run.

"The Brain of Morbius" is of interest to horror buffs because it is unabashedly meant to evoke the look and feel of Hammer films, the flavor that dominated U.K. horror for almost two decades at the time of its airing. It has all of the elements of a Hammer Frankenstein entry, including mad scientist, hulking lab assistant of questionable intelligence, an atmospheric landscape, an moody lab stocked with all manner of bubbling vials and sparking electrical ephemera, and, of course, a creature crudely assembled from whatever body parts were available, in this case items savagely stolen from murdered survivors of crash-landings on Karn.

  Dr. Solon (Philip Madoc) contends with the impatient Morbius, whose brain resides in a makeshift bubble atop a hideous patchwork body. The stuff of nightmares.

The Morbius creature is a piecemeal horror of mismatched biological elements — a hulking, hairy body, one arm a massive crustacean claw while the other is the flesh and bone of a human, surmounted with a bubble sporting artificial eye stalks — and it must have been terrifying to younger viewers at the time. Hell, it's still unnerving, with its threadbare look actually adding to its effectiveness. 

In short, "The Brain of Morbius" is simply an old school family-friendly creature feature of the type made for saving an otherwise boring Saturday afternoon, and it's also probably the closest that classic DOCTOR WHO got to crafting a straight-up horror yarn (science-fictional aspects notwithstanding).

 Packaging for the DVD release.

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