The Outer Limits: The Brain of Colonel Barham

Outer Limits 1963 titles logo originalHere’s all you need to know about The Brain of Colonel Barham.  Col Barham is a really smart dude, but he’s dying of an incurable disease.  As part of an experiment to colonize Mars, the powers-that-be decide they could remove his brain and put it in a jar, pairing it with a computer, and all could be right in the world, but the brain has other ideas and starts showing just how powerful a mind it is.

Ok, there were a whole mess of movies like this, but my personal favorite is Doctor Who’s The Brain of Morbius. Mostly because I love the voice of that brain, and that it gets dropped on the floor and still pops back.  Ah, resilient, I tell you!   The brain in the jar goes evil because that’s what happens when you have no senses anymore.  I mean, it’s sensory deprivation 101.  If I can’t see, I’m going to be pretty ornery.  If I can’t taste… well!  You bet I’m going to use my telekinetic powers to ill effect.  I mean, I have some dark chocolate that needs eating and I can’t have any?  Yeah, expect to be electrocuted!!

The episode is really about exploring the power of the human mind and I think there’s merit here.  The idea that the brain really can’t exist without the body is a fascinating one and in that regard, it’s a clever idea.  They fail to adequately explore the idea and that’s a shame because they mention it, with phantom limb syndrome, but they go down the more tedious bad-guy path.  But did we need such a cliched episode for it?  There’s nothing original here.  The Brain that Wouldn’t Die came out in ’62, just 3 years earlier than this, so I can’t even say that it had the benefit of being an early pioneer into the brain-monster genre.  Even within The Outer Limits, it’s hardly original.  In fact, I saw this as a diluted and far more boring version of two classics.  In The Architects of Fear, Robert Culp plays a married man who is going to be experimented on and who dies “on the operating table” for all intents and purposes.  Same with Barham, and his wife gets to stay for the whole horrifying ordeal!  Then, when describing Barham, it is said that he has “outgrown petty emotions” and entered the “cosmic phase”.  I had instant flashbacks to David McCullum’s The Sixth Finger.  Remember when he outgrew humanity?  That was a great episode though while this was… boring!  It’s really a shame since we are coming into the final few episodes and we get a story that is simply drab!

I did get a kick out of one line.  After an attack, the General asks where Barham’s wife is.  “I left her in the corridor!”  What was she, a baby?  Was she still expected to be where she was left?  Especially after the gun shots?  Earlier there was a great bit of dialogue between Barham and the general upon learning about the option of being a brain in a jar: “How would I do with pretty girls?”  “How are you doing now?”  Snarky, General!  (And a bit rude, Colonel; you’re a married man!  Are you trying to have one last attempt at thinking with a different head?)

But as tedious as this episode was, there was one really great idea buried in it.  “Future generations might all be hybrids.”  Hands down, the best line of the episode, because it’s true.  When you consider that line was spoken in 1965, could they really have predicted how many of us would be integrated with technology.  Whether pacemakers or replacement hips, meshes over hernias or so many of dozens of possible options… it’s hard to conceive.  And that says nothing of the tech we wear, as I sit here typing with a watch that can tell me who is calling, what the weather is, and how fast my heart is beating.  It even has a flashlight!  No joke!  It’s almost a shame they didn’t focus more on that.  There might have been an idea to interest us.  Alas, we found that once again scientists are bad and technology leads to crazy things.  Oh well, we have two episodes to go and I truly don’t recall how it all ends…   ML

The view from across the pond:

When I watch something with the intention of writing about it for the Junkyard, I have a notepad document open on my computer to make a note of quotes and any thoughts that occur to me while I am watching the episode. The amount of notes I make tends to correlate to the quality of the episode. In this instance it was virtually a blank document. What could I possibly have found interesting or entertaining about this episode? Virtually nothing.

I have mentioned before that story ideas that are sci-fi clichés nowadays were not necessarily sci-fi clichés in the 1960s, so I’ve tried not to focus on originality too much when writing about The Outer Limits, but this is a clear cut case. There’s no way that a brain in a jar wasn’t already a tired idea even in 1965. There’s value in taking an old idea and doing something new with it, or at least bringing it to screen with as much style as you can. Doctor Who’s The Brain of Morbius works on both counts. But if you just play the old idea straight, with boring visuals, then it’s all pretty pointless. That’s what makes The Brain of Colonel Barham by far the worst episode of The Outer Limits so far. It has zero ambition.

Speaking of Doctor Who, less than two years after The Brain of Colonel Barham aired, The Tenth Planet showed how to get mileage out of the idea of merging man and machine. The Brain of Colonel Barham is so frustratingly close to hitting on the same idea. Colonel Alec Barham is supposed to be going to Mars, but he has been struck down with a terminal illness that will prevent him from going. The solution is to stick his brain in a jar and send it to Mars along with an intelligent computer, giving the best of both worlds: human ingenuity and computer genius. So you can see how we’re one step away from combining the brain with the computer, and that would have actually made far more sense than just sending the brain in a jar. What’s it going to do when it gets there? It can’t go walking (or slithering) around on Mars, so it might as well be back on Earth giving advice. Alec should have been a Cyberman. Then you’ve got a story.

Instead, what do we have? Let’s face it, Alec is a nasty piece of work. He dismisses most fellow humans as fools, bemoaning the fact that he has been taken ill and not one of the useless people instead, and yet he’s an arrogant and unpleasant man who has treated his wife abominably. This sorry excuse for a human being has his brain taken out and placed in a jar, and some people are actually surprised when Alec goes mad and their plan doesn’t have a happy ending?

It’s not as if Alec makes for a scary villain. A brain in a jar is a visually boring monster, especially a straight-up version of the trope: just a big jar with a model brain and a light in it, and some bubbling liquid. It’s also a completely static villain, so there’s little sense of jeopardy. It can’t chase you down the corridor, and the way it shoots bolts of lightning is just a bit silly.

Once or twice the episode works on the level of a horror story. Alec trying to move when he’s just a brain, in the same way that people who lose limbs can still feel them, is a grim idea, and the way he wakes up in pain in nasty too. But it’s all just a bit unpleasant rather than frightening as such. The Brain of Colonel Barham, isn’t clever, or scary, or original, or thought-provoking, or… well, anything really. It’s just dull. Ironically for a story about a brain, there’s no intelligence here.   RP

Read next in the Junkyard… The Outer Limits: The Premonition

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in Entertainment, Reviews, Science Fiction, Television, The Outer Limits and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Outer Limits: The Brain of Colonel Barham

  1. scifimike70 says:

    One plus this OL episode has is Grant Williams who was The Incredible Shrinking Man. Thanks for your reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ShiraDest says:

    Reminds me a bit of Ira Levin’s book This Perfect Day: that brain, and the ‘donations’ came as a shock to me.
    This, you’re right, doesn’t seem too surprising, particularly coming from what was already a selfish guy, to begin with.

    Liked by 2 people

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