Saturday 28 April 2012

The Brain of Morbius

Readers of this blog will know that I have a strong dislike of the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who, which is bizarrely considered by most fans to be the strongest period in the show's history. In my judgment, The Brain of Morbius is the stand-out story of the Hinchcliffe era, the one that truly exemplifies the strengths of this period. The other so-called 'classics' of Hinchcliffe Doctor Who such as Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and Talons of Weng-Chiang are all marred by very significant flaws. The Brain of Morbius is not perfect, but its faults do not significantly detract from it.

The Brain of Morbius is an adaptation and re-telling of the story of Frankenstein and his monster, with all of the Hollywood trappings of that story. This is not in itself a bad thing. Doctor Who has often thrived on borrowing and adapting other stories. In particular, Brain of Morbius adds some very interesting elements to the story, with the renegade Time Lord Morbius and the Sisterhood of Karn. This delightful borrowing is perhaps overshadowed buy the fact that every other story in this period of Doctor Who was in some way an adaptation of a classic story or movie. For all the brilliance of this serial, it is a reminder of just how much a one-trick pony the Hinchliffe era was.

The title is one of the endless 'something of something' variations, but it is a very arresting one. It's a title that captures the tongue-in-cheek nature of the serial. The Brain of Morbius is a really fun story with some lovely moments of camp humour, such as Solon's delight in the Doctor's head and Condo's fascination with Sarah.

The exterior sets are not very realistic and have a theatrical feel, but I have no problem with that. The castle of Morbius is beautifully designed and creates a delightful Gothic feel. The Brain of Morbius is a story brimming with atmosphere. I particularly like the dance sequences and the oriental flavour of the Sisterhood of Karn. There is a strong sense of Goth Exoticism about them, just like a Dead Can Dance record. The Goth movement in the 80s was often more about the exotic than it was about the Victorian (and things Victorian can get very mundane).

I imagine this story must have been very terrifying for younger viewers, with the story openning with the hideous insect creature (borrowed from The Mutants) and the blind Sarah menaced by the Morbius monster. The serial generated a lot of controversy from Mary Whitehouse. I do think the violence in this story could have been toned down a bit, though I don't see why the brain on the floor was such a fuss- that was an obviously fantastical scene. People who say the Doctor is a pacifist clearly have not seen this story; it is quite striking the way the Doctor is prepared to kill Solon in cold blood, as he does here.

The performances are strong from all the cast here, especially Madoc who really brings the character of Solon to life and manages to make him alternate between ranting maniac to camp charmer. Elisabeth Sladen does some great blind acting. Some reviewers have complained about Ohica's wild-eyed stares, but with the character's lack of interesting lines, the actress had to do something to make an impact.

The story is a little let down by a rather linear plot. It is obvious from the first episode that Morbius will return with Solon's aid and the Doctor and the Sisterhood will need to join forces to stop him. The mind conbat scene feels a little like an afterthought to pad the story out a bit. It does seem a bit surprising that the machine to facilitate this duel just happens to be in Solon's lab.

The faces in the mind-duel have raised a good deal of controversy. It is clear that the production team wanted to drop the hint that the Doctor had several pre-Hartnell incarnations. This is a position I most vehemently reject for five reasons. Firstly, there are clear references to the First Doctor being the earliest Doctor in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors. Secondly, the First Doctor is strikingly different to the other incarnations in that he has grown old. It is clear that the First Doctor has been around for a good deal longer than the other Doctors. The aging of the the Hartnell Doctor seems to point to his being the original form. Thirdly, despite his aged appearance, the Hartnell Doctor shows the most immature behaviour among the Doctors, leaving aside the instability of the Sixth Doctor. If the Davison Doctor was an old man in a young man's body, the Hartnell Doctor was a teenager in an old man's body. Fourthly, with his oval face, the unidentified Gallifreyan Doctor in the astounding novel The Infinity Doctors has an oval face that suggests Hartnell. There are canonical difficulties with The Infinity Doctors, but if it is accepted as canon, it fits best as a pre-Unearthly Child story. Fifthly, Hartnell being the original Doctor just feels right. We started the show with him. He is where it all began. I would much rather believe that Morbius had a fetish for silly hats than that there were incarnations of the Doctor before Hartnell.

A rather less discussed issue is how this story fits into the chronology of the Time Lords and the exact point of Gallifreyan Mean Time. If the Sisterhood of Karn is contemporaneous with the Time Lords (which the Virgin novels seem to indicate), that would strongly point towards the far future as the date for Gallifreyan Mean Time. Personally, I prefer to see the Time Lords as inhabiting the past (which is why the Doctor feels freer to meddle with future history than with the past) and therefore the connection between the Sisterhood adn the Time Lords must be a bit more muted (the Virgin novels themselves tend to view Gallifrey as located in the past). There is no indication in The Brain of Morbius that the Sisterhood are themselves Gallifreyan. Perhaps the Pythia of Gallifrey founded the Sisterhood, but the other Sisters are not Gallifreyan and inhabit a different time zone to the Time Lords.

Friday 20 April 2012

The Leisure Hive

The Leisure Hive has always divided fan opinion, mainly because it featured the introduction of the aesthetics of Doctor Who demanded by new producer John Nathan-Turner. The prevailing view these days seems to be that there is nothing very special about this story. My own view is that The Leisure Hive is a very good story and that its strong production values are a breath of fresh air after the sloppiness of Season 17.

It's hard to imagine what it must have been like for a viewer in 1980, seeing the new title sequence and hearing the revamped music for the first time. This title sequence is followed by a disconcerting long shot of Brighton beach. People say its too long and pointless, but it creates such a wonderful sense of eeriness. There are few things as bleakly enchanting as a British seaside in bad weather. Then we get the temporary destruction of K9. That irritating entity who plagued the Graham Williams era is thus removed from the story. JNT had the right idea getting rid of the robot dog.

One of the most striking things about The Leisure Hive is the strong visual quality of it. It has great camerawork, strong and impressive sets and some well conceived video effects. While the Foamasi do look like walking beanbags, the other costumes are very well designed, especially those of the Argolins. The popping of the pods as they age is a great idea. The yellow of their robes adds to the strong sense of colour in the serial, contrasting with the bold burgundy of the Doctor's new costume. The Leisure Hive is a serial that is meant to look good and succeeds.

There is a striking change in tone too. While The Leisure Hive has its moments of humour, there is none of the silliness that dogged the previous season. It is played straight and every actor is taking it seriously. Tom Baker is no longer joking around and acting more like a stand-up comedian than a lead actor. There is a sobriety to his tone. The Doctor also now comes across as vulnerable. When he turns into an old man, he really does seem ancient. We are made to feel that he really could drop dead. However, my favorite moment in The Leisure Hive is when the Foamasi agent is trying to communicate to the Doctor in it's own language. The Doctor taps its arm affectionately and says "I wish I knew what you wanted, my friend." There is just such a sense of warmth and kindliness in that gesture and line that is a testament to the skill of Tom Baker as an actor.

As ever the Fourth Doctor and Romana II make a great team. Their disdain and lack of awe in what they see of the leisure hive make up for the heavy-handed technobabble and sciency stuff going on. Lalla Ward was never the greatest actress in Doctor Who and her screaming fit at the climax comes across as a bit weak, but she always makes an impression when she is on screen. The sailor suit is another of those great Romana outfits. She looks adorably cute in this.

As I said, everybody is taking this story seriously, unlike much of what we saw in Season 17. The guest cast do some great work. Meena is definitely the best and her subtle relationship with Hardin is a nice touch. There are plenty of authoritarian lunatics in Doctor Who, but the young Pangol is definitely one of the most compelling and believable. As for the lawyer Klout, not only does he have a fantastic, Dickensian-style name, but despite not saying a single word, he conveys such a sense of menace in every scene he appears.

Fans ought to look more kindly on The Leisure Hive, for it was an excellent opening for a new era of Doctor Who.

Monday 16 April 2012

Dr. Elizabeth Klein

I asked Jokerxsiren to draw a picture of Elizabeth Klein from the Big Finish audios. Klein (voiced by Tracey Childs) is a Nazi scientist from an alternate timeline in which the Nazis won the war. She temporarily travels with the Doctor as his companion, a strained relationship if ever there was one! I have written a lot of fan fiction about her.

Drawing Klein was a challenge for Jokerxsiren as we have only ever seen the face and shoulders of the character. I like the figure that she has given her- a mature woman who has aged very well, but is not skinny. One of the things I love about Klein is that she is a mature woman who is elegant and sexy. Too many Doctor Who characters are 20-something girls in short skirts.

I asked the artist to draw Klein in a floral dress. In my fan fiction I have always described Klein as wearing feminine clothes and avoided putting her in uniforms or boots. This creates a contrast with her cold personality.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Rags, by Mick Lewis (BBC novel)

Rags appears to aspire to be the most violent Doctor Who novel ever. It certainly succeeds. We are treated to chapter after chapter of savage and graphically described violence. People are butchered, sometimes by people they know. Every character is affected by the primal urge to fight and kill, except the Doctor, of course. Generally, I dislike strong violence in Doctor Who, however, I accept that Rags is a book that could never have been written without the shocking graphic brutality it is given. I doubt that it had many young readers, fandom at this period in Doctor Who having become a more mature company.

This novel is about punk rock. That in itself is an interesting topic because until the McCoy era, there are no visual references to punk in Doctor Who. The show and its writers appear to have largely ignored the punk movement when it was at its most prominent. While the New Adventure novel No Future dealt with the DIY performance side of punk, this novel deals with the nastier, more disturbing side of the movement and how the music was associated with a savage urge to deal out physical violence.

The real pleasure of this story is seeing the world of the Third Doctor era turned upside down. The kind of realistic violence we see here just didn't happen in Third Doctor stories. Best of all is what the author does with Jo Grant. We see Jo get into punk rock, smoke a joint and share a lesbian kiss. This is Jo Grant as you have never seen her! Mike Yates is as daft as ever and wears an appalling disguise as an hippy. Yet strangely, he is show to be rather useful in hand-to-hand combat.

While I certainly enjoyed reading Rags, I was very conscious of its flaws. It feels very much like it is a little too derivative of other novels, particularly in the New Adventures range. It almost feels like an ironic tribute to the Virgin New Adventures. It's plot is also a little too stodgy and slow paced. I also felt that the incident with Princess Mary was oddly handled. This was a massively significant event and its implications were barely touched on this novel.

On the whole I was disappointed with the way the Doctor was handled. He is described accurately, but he lacks the colour he might have been given. I would have liked to have seen him vent some snooty disgust at punk rock music. Unfortunately, he is written out of a good deal of the action and spends time in a kind of dreamscape (New Adventure cliche!). The way he stays out of the action and he keeps his plans to himself actually adds to the Virgin New Adventure feel of the story, but unfortunately fails to make it engage as a Third Doctor story.

The subplot with Kane and his family secrets felt somewhat out of place; this was very much supernatural horror territory. While this subplot was written well, it very much felt like a distraction from the much more interesting socio-political exploration of the punk theme.

Rags is an interesting installment in the BBC Past Doctors range and does something quite different, but perhaps fails to be a great Doctor Who novel.