Thursday, 10 January 2019
Inspirations - The Brain of Morbius
It was a dark and stormy night...
Actually, it was a dark and stormy year. Welcome to 1816 - the Year Without A Summer. The previous April had seen the biggest volcanic eruption in some 1300 years - that of Mount Tambora in what was then the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). This event led to a volcanic winter, lowering global temperatures and resulting in freakish weather across the planet for the next 18 months. In Europe, summer never came. It remained cold and wet and crops failed, leading to famine and civil unrest in many countries. It wasn't all bad news. A chap in Germany invented a prototype bicycle, when there weren't enough oats to feed the horses, and JMW Turner got some spectacular sunsets to paint. Lord Byron won't have known what the weather was going to be like when he booked himself a villa in Switzerland for the summer. Villa Diodati lies on the shores of Lake Geneva. Tourists staying in nearby hotels hired telescopes in order to catch a glimpse of the infamous poet, and his equally infamous house guests. Present were Dr John Polidori, Byron's travelling companion, as well as fellow poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and his soon-to-be wife Mary Godwin, plus her step-sister Claire Claremont (who was hoping to rekindle a romance with Byron).
The weather was so bad that the group of friends had to spend a lot of time indoors, and one way of passing the time was a scary story competition. Polidori came up with The Vampyre - based on Byron himself. For many years it was believed that the mad, bad and dangerous to know poet was the actual author. Mary Godwin, meanwhile, devised the story of Frankenstein - a scientist who attempts to create new life from the bodies of the dead. There's a lovely sanitised version of these events as a prologue to James Whales' 1935 movie Bride of Frankenstein. Elsa Lanchester plays Mary, before later reappearing as the titular Bride.
Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was first published anonymously two years later, with Mary Shelley credited as author only from the second edition in 1823. She was inspired by a number of sources, including the story of Pygmalion. The Swiss setting came from where they were staying, as well as it being a location for some of her father's works. She was aware of the electrical experiments that had been conducted by Luigi Galvani in the latter years of the previous century - experiments which had led some followers to attempt to reanimate the bodies of executed criminals.
Mary Shelley's own life story also fed in themes of death and guilt.
The Brain of Morbius is, of course, the Frankenstein Doctor Who story, wherein a mad scientist makes a monstrous body in which to house the brain of a renegade Time Lord. We don't know for certain how many of the Frankenstein trappings were in writer Terrance Dicks' original story. His version had the Time Lord's body being built by a robot servant, using whatever it could find to make a patchwork creation, not having any sense of aesthetics. It simply used what was practical. Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes had reservations about the robot being realised in a studio, and certain aspects of the plotting. Dicks had gone off on holiday and couldn't be contacted, so Holmes was told to start redrafting. It was he who came up with the human scientist building the body. When Dicks returned, he read the new draft and was furious at what Holmes had done to his story. He argued that a brilliant scientist would never have created the patchwork body, for instance. He eventually told Holmes to take his name off the story, telling him to "use some bland pseudonym instead". When he discovered that the story as broadcast was credited to one Robin Bland, he found it hilarious, and the rift with Holmes was healed.
What we see on screen is a Robert Holmes story, so we can safely assume that much of the more explicit Frankenstein references came from him. He looked not so much to the book, but to the movie versions of the story - especially the Universal Studios series of the 1930's and '40's (from Frankenstein in 1931 to House of Dracula in 1945), and to the Hammer series, which ran from The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957 to Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell in 1974.
The first two Universal films feature the creature's creator, Henry, whilst the next two feature Henry's sons, as the franchise wanted to move things to contemporary times. No Frankensteins feature in the final three movies - just the creature, which led to the popular misconception that Frankenstein was the name of the flat-headed bloke with the bolts through his neck. Hammer chose to have Peter Cushing's Baron as the protagonist in all their movies, whipping up a new monster each time.
The Universal movies created the idea of the mad, amoral scientist, which was picked up with a vengeance in the 1950's after the world entered the atomic age. All the 1950's Sci-Fi movie mad scientists owe a debt to Baron Frankenstein. One of the archetypal amoral scientists of the golden age of Sci-Fi is the one played by Walter Pidgeon in Forbidden Planet - one Dr Morbius...
The Brain of Morbius' mad scientist is Mehendri Solon - played impeccably by Philip Madoc. Solon was a follower of the rogue Time Lord Morbius, who had been President of the High Council. He had craved even more power and had promised his followers access to the Sacred Flame on the planet Karn, which produced an elixir that greatly prolonged life. Captured by the Time Lords on Karn, Morbius was executed - but Solon managed to remove his brain and keep it alive before his body was vapourised. Hammer did the same trick when they had the Baron's brain transplanted into a new body by one of his acolytes at the conclusion of The Revenge of Frankenstein - a body which just happened to look very like Peter Cushing.
One of the elements which comes from the movies is the hunchbacked assistant - generally known as Ygor. In the original James Whale film, this character is actually called Fritz (played by Dwight Frye. He returns in a number of later films in the franchise as other characters, and had previously portrayed Renfield in the Bela Lugosi Dracula movie). The Son of Frankenstein, the third installment, does introduce a character named Ygor - a murderer who broke his neck when hanged but who did not die. He's played by Lugosi. He has befriended the monster and wants the new Baron, played by Basil Rathbone, to make it well again - mainly so he can use it to kill the people who tried to hang him. Ygor is in the next film as well (The Ghost of Frankenstein), at the end of which he has his brain transplanted into the monster, and Lugosi goes on to play the monster in the fourth film (Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman).
In The Brain of Morbius, the Ygor figure is Condo - a character of brute violence as well as having an affectionate side, as he takes a bit of a shine to Sarah.
The Sacred Flame is in the care of the Sisterhood of Karn. The elixir has meant that they can live forever. The inspiration for this part of the story derives from H Rider Haggard's She. She: A History of Adventure was first published in 1886. That's She, as in She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. The tale tells of explorers coming across an African civilisation ruled by a queen named Ayesha who is immortal. Her kingdom lies beneath a dormant volcano, and she gets her longevity from bathing in a pillar of fire which has magical properties. There have been a number of film versions of the story - the best known of which is the Hammer one from 1965 starring Ursula Andress as Ayesha. Peter Cushing is the leader of the expedition. I should point out at this juncture that director Christopher Barry had hoped to get Cushing to play Solon or, failing that, Vincent Price, who worked a lot in Britain in the 1970's.
Another cinematic version of She you may have seen is the 1935 one starring Randolph Scott and Nigel Bruce, which relocated the action to a lost civilisation in the Arctic.
For much of the action in The Brain of Morbius, Sarah is blind. When she first realises this she becomes a little self-pitying and mimics a flower seller - "buy some lovely violets...". This may be just coincidence, but Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady is a Covent Garden flower seller - and that musical is based on George Bernard Shaw's play of Pygmalion, the classical original of which was one of Mary Godwin's inspirations for Frankenstein...
We can't leave this look at The Brain of Morbius without mentioning its most controversial sequence. (Controversial for fans that is. Mrs Whitehouse really started to go to town on the programme following this story's broadcast). The Doctor and newly reanimated Morbius fight a mental duel, in which they force each other back through previous incarnations. After we see Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee, we get a number of other characters (all played by members of the production team). Hinchcliffe and Holmes maintained that, as far as they were concerned, these figures were earlier versions of the Doctor. When the first regeneration took place back in 1966, David Whitaker originally had the Doctor say that he had been renewed several times before - so the Hartnell Doctor was not the first. However, this dialogue was cut from later drafts of The Power of the Daleks, and The Three Doctors explicitly states that there have only been two Doctors before the Pertwee one. As it is Morbius who loses the contest, and not the Doctor, these other figures have to be his earlier selves - despite what they intended at the time.
Next time: The Thing From Another World meets an episode of The Avengers, as not everything in the garden is rosy for the Doctor and Sarah...