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Doctor Who: The Brain of Morbius (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Brain of Morbius originally aired in 1976.

How did you get her here, by the way?

The power of the Sisterhood.

Really? What, you mean you still practise teleportation? How quaint. Now, if you got yourself a decent forklift truck–

Doctor, you have but a little time left. Will you waste it prattling nonsense or confess your guilt.

What do you mean, I have but a little time left?

Before you die.

But I’m only seven hundred and forty nine. Life doesn’t begin until seven hundred and —

At the next sun. That is agreed.

Not by me, it isn’t. I haven’t even been consulted.

– The Doctor, Ohica and Maren are clear on a few things

The Brain of Morbius continues the trend of phenomenally strong episodes in Baker’s sophomore season. Barring The Android Invasion, it’s a fairly stellar run of adventures, and I think that it’s these stories that a lot of people (casual follower and hardened fanatic alike) think of when they remember Tom Baker’s celebrated tenure in the role. Producer Philip Hinchcliffe continues his “gothic adventures… in space!” trend from Planet of Evil, this time offering a futuristic take on a Hammer-Horror-style Frankenstein. And the results are as fun, as wonderful and as grotesque as you might have imagined.

They did the monster mash…

In fairness, the script (written by Terrence Dicks and revised by Robert Holmes under the collective pseudonym “Robin Bland”) isn’t channeling Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus, instead opting for all the gothic tropes and clichés that one might expect from the Universal movies starring Boris Karloff. The Brain of Morbius has all the core ingredients: a mad scientist in Solon; a grotesque medical experiment to construct a body from “spare parts”; a deformed man-servant in the form of Condo; locals with flaming torches to pursue the creature; a heavy atmosphere; and an old gothic castle that looks to be falling apart.

I’m not sure if Hinchcliffe had a (relatively) larger budget to work with than his predecessors or successors, but his stories have aged relatively well. The original series never had the money to build a truly convincing alien world, but instead always looked sort of stage-y. I think the reason that Hinchcliffe’s era has aged so very well is because it was a lot more conscious of that. Karn doesn’t look like a real place. Instead, it looks like the set of a horror movie. Hinchcliffe’s production design always seemed to have that sort of level of awareness, and I think that’s why they look better today than a lot of the other sets during the show’s history. They were designed to convey mood rather than to create a concrete sense of place. If that makes sense.

The brains of the operation…

So Karn looks good. And the creature itself looks pretty terrifying as well. In later scenes, as we see more of it, it’s obviously a man in a suit, but the cliffhanger to the first episode – as Sarah Jane pulls back a curtain to reveal a headless monster with a sharp claw snapping at the air – is great stuff. It looks grotesque and disturbing. I can see why Mary Whitehouse might have complained, as the show builds not only a genuine sense of horror, but also one of peril. Unlike the awkward banter in Stones of Blood, I believe the Doctor’s at risk of actually being sacrificed here. It’s fantastic. People like Whitehouse might claim that it’s too much for children, but that’s nonsense – emotional engagement is the basis of good drama, if you ask me.

While still talking about the serial’s superb production design, I even like the brain in the jar – it reminds me a lot of Star Trek, but with more sinister undertones. While Morbius is talking, the camera focuses on bits of tissue stretched over metal – those more aware children in the audience would probably have deduced that Solon has created external vocal chords for his master. It’s little touches like this (and the deflating brain as the moister escapes) that make the adventure work so well and secure its place in fond memory.

One way of getting a head…

It helps that both the collaborative script and Baker’s performance are seasoned with a lot of wit. This is Doctor Who shamelessly stealing from Frankenstein, so it really wouldn’t do to be entirely serious about the whole thing. Baker’s wit is still under control here, but he’s very much playing the clown. However, there’s enough skill in Baker’s performance to convince the audience that there is a danger here. Unlike some of his later stories, his humour comes across as a little defensive, rather than completely arrogant and anchored in the fact that the character doesn’t feel any sense of risk at all. Though the Doctor never seems scared, he’s concerned enough about Sarah Jane’s blindness to take her to the only medical practitioner on the planet, even if Solon is a murderous sociopath, and the character never really seems to be in a position of power.

I get the sense that Holmes’ revisions might have contributed a lot of the subtext about the Time Lords, as the characterisation of the aliens here feels more in line with his upcoming The Deadly Assassin than it does with Dicks’ earlier The War Games. Much like Genesis of the Daleks, and feeding off the early off-world missions they’d dispatch the Doctor to during the Pertwee era, we get the sense that the powerful race are using the Doctor to do things they don’t necessarily want traced back to them.

The show always had a cult following…

Indeed, Baker’s Doctor – an iteration of the character who seems quite paranoid about anybody usurping his right to self-determination – believes that the Time Lords hijacked his TARDIS and brought it to Karn. “What?” he asks Sarah Jane. “Do you think I don’t know the difference between an internal fault and an external influence? Oh, no, no, no. There’s something going on here, some dirty work they won’t touch with their lily white hands. Well, I won’t do it, do you hear?” Of course, Morbius is effectively a Time Lord problem, a former ruler of the race who was executed for his crimes, and quite thoroughly from the sound of it. “His body was placed in a dispersal chamber and atomised to the nine corners of the universe,” Ohica explains.

Solon describes the Time Lords as “spineless parasites”, which is a rather strange observation about a race that was as powerful as we’d seen in The War Games. The script hints that Gallifrey is not quite as powerful and independent as viewers had been led to believe, and they are shown to rely on the Sisterhood of Karn for the elixir of life. Having dealt with the Time Lords for years, the Sisterhood certainly don’t treat them as an old and wise race acting for the greater good. When the Doctor suggests the Time Lord’s have acted to protect the Sisterhood in the past, Maren is quick to challenge his assertion, “The Time Lords acted then as they do now, from self-interest. They too feared Morbius. They too depended on the Elixir of Life for their survival.”

Boom or bust?

In fact, it seems like the Doctor is only involved so that the Time Lords can have plausible deniability. The Sisterhood imply that they’re familiar with such tactics, and seek a confession from the Doctor, insisting, “With your spoken confession, the Time Lords can never deny they plotted against the Sisterhood.” So the Doctor doesn’t even get the courtesy of a briefing like he did in Genesis of the Daleks. He’s simply deployed like a weapon. This feels far more in line with the presentation of the race at the peak of their hubris in The Deadly Assassin rather than the all-powerful demi-gods of The War Games.

Still, The Brain of Morbius works because it’s just a very well put together example of gothic horror, featuring all aspects of production on top form. It gleefully wallows in its gothic stylings, with its old laboratories and ancient cults, human sacrifices and immoral scientific experiments. It’s easy to see why this era of the series is treated so fondly. It’s just really good tea-time telly.

That is why his head is so perfect. From one of your own race, from one of those who turned up on you and tried to destroy you, you get a new head for Morbius. The crowning irony.

Fool!

I’m sorry, the pun was irresistible.

– Solon and Morbius, which sounds like a sitcom waiting to happen

You might be interested in our reviews of the thirteenth season of the classic television show:

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One Response

  1. Reblogged this on Mr.Feathers.

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