Thursday, December 8, 2016

"You’ll get a new head, Morbius. The crowning irony."

I've been listening to the recently produced Big Finish audio productions starring Tom Baker as Doctor Who. Baker has returned to the role after nearly four decades for a series of superbly written new adventures. He's in his eighties now, but darn it if he doesn't sound as energetic and fun as ever.

So that has put me in a Whovian frame-of-mind, causing me to pretty much randomly pluck a Doctor Who novelization off my shelf. I used to own quite a few of them, but bookshelf space limitations eventually forced me to pare them down to those novelizations of the Tom Baker years. He will always be my Doctor.

My Dr Who novels are faithfully guarded by Kirk, Spock,
McCoy and the Fellowship of the Ring!

Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius was published in 1977, based on a 4-part serial that was broadcast in 1976. The novel was written by Terrance Dicks, a writer and script editor for the series who was also the usual go-to guy for the novelizations. He was really good at that. The novelizations did include an occasional clunker, but if Dicks' name was on the cover, you could be certain you'd have fun reading it.

Dicks wrote the original script for the serial as well. His idea was for a Time Lord war criminal--reduced to a disembodied brain--having a new body built for him by a robot servant. The body would be a mish-mash of parts from different species because the robot had no aesthetic sensibilities. 

But the idea proved to be too expensive and had to be re-written to drop the robot. Dicks' was out of the country at the time and someone else did the re-write. Dicks asked that his name be taken off the finished script, which is why the novel's title page tells us that it is "based on the BBC television serial by Robin Bland."

Well, however unhappy Dicks may have been with the script, he did his usual excellent job on the novel. The Time Lord criminal is still there--Morbius had rebelled against the other Time Lords and launched a campaign of conquest and destruction across the galaxy, gathering up an army of fanatical followers from various planets.

One of those fanatics is a brilliant surgeon named Solon. When Morbius is caught and executed by the Time Lords, Solon manages to secretly save the brain and keep it alive. Now Solon lives on the desolate planet of Karn. He's used bits and pieces from different alien bodies to build a bizarre new body for Morbius, but has yet to find a suitable head for brain.

So when the Doctor and his companion Sarah Jane Smith arrive on Karn, Solon figures he's hit the jackpot. A Time Lord head is the perfect receptacle for Morbius's Time Lord brain.

What follows is a story that is deliberately modeled off of Frankenstein, gothic horror and Hammer horror films. Solon even has a deformed assistant--Condo is the big and nearly super-strong survivor of a spaceship crash. His left arm has been replaced by a metal one with a hook at the end. Solon keeps Condo under his sway by promising to eventually give him a new arm--not telling the poor guy that his original arm is now part of Morbius' body.

There's another faction on Karn as well. The Sisterhood live there as well, using the naturally occuring "Flame of Life" to produce the Elixir that grants them immortality. They were also enemies of Morbius (though they have no idea what Solon is up to), but initially think that the Doctor has been sent by the Time Lords to steal the Elixir. Telekinetic powers make them dangerous adversaries.

All these elements are mixed together to tell a suspenseful and often very creepy horror/sci-fi/adventure tale, with the plot continually twisting and turning.. The Doctor, as always, remains awesome throughout it all. Sarah Jane--always my favorite companion--gets her share of awesome moments as well--including a few even after she's been struck temporarily blind by the Sisterhood. Solon is over-the-top hammy, but that's just the right note to hit for his Mad Scientist role. 

By the way, if you ever go into the Mad Scientist field, don't abuse your deformed assistant. Solon isn't very nice to Condo and that comes back to bite him in the end. As for Morbius--who fulfills the role of Frankenstein's Monster in the story--when he finally gets the new body he's so desperately wanted, he tragically discovers that it isn't necessarily the blessing he thought it would be. 

The TV serial is a good one, with strong acting and pure imagination helping to make up for some of the low-budget special effects. The novel expands on some of the characterizations and Morbius' backstory and, of course, doesn't have to worry about a special effects budget. It's a faithful and entertaining version of the tale, well-worth finding and reading.

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