Anyone who watched Doctor Who as a child will understand what I mean when I say that it can be difficult to appreciate certain stories without looking at them through the prism of childhood. Just as we love some stories against out better judgement due to the memory of enjoying them as a child, there are also some stories that we can recognise are impressive, but can’t ever really love. Mostly for me the stories that fall into that category are the ones that are darker, edgier, maybe a bit violent and depressing, stories like The Brain of Morbius.
I have often mentioned how foolish it is for showrunners to forget the family audience remit of Doctor Who, particularly with reference to the Colin Baker and early Peter Capaldi eras. On both those occasions Doctor Who was being made in a way that appealed to teenagers and adults primarily. Morbius, with the gunshot wound and other body horror, falls into the same category, but gets away with it because the whole thing is made with such style and so well acted (mostly). Never was an acting performance more significant to the success of a story than Philip Madoc as Solon. I’ll explain why I say that.
So this started off as a Terrance Dicks script, about a robot servant assembling a body for his master after crash landing on a planet, ignorant of aesthetics and just trying to get the job done. Robert Holmes rewrote it for all the right reasons, but rewrote it badly, leaving bits of plot as relics from the original script. This left the story with as many holes as a sieve, such as Solon’s obsession with using his ridiculous Frankenstein body and then deciding he wants to stitch the Doctor’s head on top of it, when he could just perform a transplant of Morbius’s brain into the Doctor’s head (the exact same species as Morbius!) Like most of the flaws in the story, it can be rationalised. The reason is probably that Solon has devoted his life to creating the monster and has engineered it to be superior (in his eyes) to the human form. However, this is never explained in the story, and could have been fixed quite easily with an extra couple of lines of dialogue.
Then we have the sisterhood, whose sacred flame is dying until the Doctor does a Dick van Dyke and sweeps their chimney for them.
OHICA: The Sacred Flame! We are saved, High One!
DOCTOR: Soot, that’s all. There’ll be no charge. Of course, you won’t get any Elixir for quite a while yet. This rock’s got to warm right through.
MAREN: And so now, Doctor, you expect us to show gratitude?
…er… yes? He’s just restored their sacred flame and, in doing so, saved all their lives. On reflection, a bit of gratitude would be suitable at that moment! The actions of the sisterhood in betraying the Doctor are bizarre to say the least. Seriously, they just give him to Solon after he has saved them all. He should have come back with a fire extinguisher.
So faced with what appeared to be a mess of a script, as much of a stitched together Frankenstein’s monster as Morbius, Uncle Terrance took his name off it. And he was quite right. His judgement was sound, as we would expect from one of the greatest ever Doctor Who writers, and one with far fewer turkeys to his name than the man who was editing his script. On paper this looked like it was going to be a trainwreck, and that’s exactly what it would have been, if it wasn’t for the casting of Philip Madoc.
Take a step back from this and imagine Solon played by one of the other actors who have taken on similar mad scientist characters. Imagine Solon played by Joseph Furst, doing a Zaroff with him, or Lewis Fiander, doing a Tryst, or even just a flat performance such as Patrick Ryecart’s Crozier. I suspect The Brain of Morbius would be considered the turkey of the season. Luckily, Madoc is stunningly good as Solon, managing against the odds to make a silk purse out of the pig’s ear of a script he was given. It’s an incredible performance, one of the best you will find in Doctor Who.
Although the script does not cohere terribly well, it is a mashup of the writing skills of Dicks and Holmes, so of course there are lots of interesting ideas here. The Sisterhood provides a contrast with Solon, and it’s a female/male, magic/science, natural/unnatural vibe. The Doctor waltzes in as somebody who exists equally in the realms of magic and science, and shows the error of the extremes of both. The Sisterhood has stagnated as a society, allowing their flame to die by rejecting any scientific enquiry, and he brings some simple science to fix their problem. Solon is using science in a way that is devoid of morality, and the Doctor helps put a stop to that. He restores the balance.
So that’s it. Article written. What’s that? What about the mind bending competition. Oh. Yes. Well, I suppose it can’t be avoided. After all, anyone who wants to write about Doctor Who does have to sign a contract that says “I promise to write about the mind bending competition”.
The question that everyone tries to answer is whose are the faces shown after the Third, Second and First Doctors? We need to look carefully at the evidence to make a judgement. The first face we see is that of Morbius, and then we have Doctors 4, 3, 2 and 1. Morbius says “how far Doctor? How long have you lived?” at which point the faces of Pertwee and Troughton are still on the screen, so we can happily dismiss that as evidence for incarnations before Hartnell. The tricky bit is this: “back, back to your beginnings,” at which time the mystery faces are on the screen. Evidence for earlier incarnations? I don’t think so. Let’s forget about authorial intent for a start, because that will lead us down many a blind alley in Doctor Who.
The most sensible explanation is that the Doctor is forcing Morbius “back” at this point and the faces we see are his earlier incarnations. Morbius could just as easily be expressing his intention to send the Doctor “back” rather than what is actually occurring at that point in time, ignorant of how many Doctors there have been. There’s no reason why a competitor can’t trash talk while he’s losing. In any case, Morbius is going completely mad, so we can hardly take that one line as indication that the Doctor had regenerated before Hartnell’s incarnation, something that conflicts with the vast majority of evidence throughout Doctor Who’s history.
So this really is a case where K.I.S.S. applies. Every theory I have seen that tries to rationalise those faces as belonging to the Doctor gets into the realms of tortuous retconning of just about everything. Personally, the first time I saw this story, free from any knowledge of the significance of the scene, I thought nothing of it beyond the Doctor getting the upper hand in the battle. For me, that is what comes across on screen, maybe with the nagging impression that there is some kind of a fluffed line in there that makes the scene feel slightly wrong. It wouldn’t be the only one:
There might be a struggle and the brain could suffer irreparable damage. It must be in perfect condition.
That’s the Doctor’s brain Solon is talking about, the one he is intending to throw in the bin and replace with Morbius’s. I think the word he was looking for is “head”. But there’s a better one:
Condo, take their clothes.
Forget the bullet wound, that really would have been an adult approach to Doctor Who. RP
The view from across the pond:
…And speaking of classic Universal Horror movies, Doctor Who was keen to keep the tradition alive with its own fantastic version of Frankenstein in The Brain of Morbius. I’m probably biased. My dad and I watched a lot of horror and science fiction during my youth so seeing Frankenstein made into a Doctor Who story was outstanding. Even though Doctor Who was one of the few shows we didn’t watch together, it inevitably gave me something to remind me of our movie watching experiences. I’m sure my dad and I watched The Brain that wouldn’t Die (1962), Donovan’s Brain (1953) and Reanimator (1985) together; all of which are strongly reminiscent of The Brain of Morbius. I am certain that my dad was ultimately responsible for my love of gothic horror and The Brain of Morbius included such things as the isolated castle, creepy witches, and a Frankenstein’s monster that had to be seen to be believed, so it’s no wonder I loved this story. While the aesthetics really play a big part, it goes beyond that too. Let’s face it, the cast was perfectly chosen. Philip Madoc will forever be Solon. In everything else he’s done in Doctor Who alone, for me, he is always Solon. Ironic, since Karloff experienced a similar notoriety with Frankenstein. No other actress ever quite becomes Maren, no matter how much we like the Sisterhood from the modern era. Condo is the Igor of the piece, again, perfectly cast. (And honestly, Ohica struck me as beautiful but we never saw a good looking Sister again. Karn just doesn’t produce much beauty…) In fact, that was another thing that made such a compelling story: the planet itself is a “Bermuda Triangle” for ships, even crashing a Mutant ship (The Mutants) and giving us the rare piece of continuity within the Doctor Who universe when we see the Mutt crawling from the wreckage. Then there’s the main setting: that castle on the hill was outstanding. There is such thickness to the walls that it’s one of the most enjoyable sets in classic Who. I can easily accept this being the stronghold of a mad scientist intent on resurrecting the dead.
The notion of resurrecting a dead guy too… I mean Frankenstein is probably the most iconic of those images, but as a fan of H. P. Lovecraft I know how many times that’s gone wrong in one way or another. I know Shelley got there first, but Lovecraft had a number of great moments with brains inside cases too. Ask the Mi-go. In The Whisperer in Darkness, brains can be kept in canisters indefinitely. Herbert West wasn’t the only one bringing the dead back to life, though in movie form he probably had one of the most controversial scenes of any of these poor creatures. Morbius lives with some great icons of horror fiction!
But Morbius also does create a bit of trouble for fans. The story does have some weak points, although one would not be realized for decades: if the sacred flame keeps the Sisterhood alive forever, where is Ohica these days? Ohila is the Sister we meet during Paul McGann’s regeneration, but that means Ohica should still be around, since they live forever. Or is it a democracy and people can be voted off the Sisterhood? “Too good looking for the Sisterhood… off the island, off the island!” Or is the Elixir of Life now made with aspartame and the effects cause aging and weight gain? I know Hostess cupcakes are nowhere near as good as they were in my youth; maybe the same applies to the Elixir? Then the idea of a renegade who wants to conquer the galaxy is not unheard of in Time Lord society. There is always in-fighting on Gallifrey; like Geico, it’s what they do. (“As long as there’s in-fighting on Gallifrey, Geico can save you 15% or more…”) But when he was executed and saved by one of his followers, it makes me wonder: how exactly did he have followers? He was a Time Lord intent on overthrowing the universe through military conquest. It’s like knowing someone wants to take over your country and siding with them because, what, they have a nice head that would be good for sculpting? What does that say about Solon! He’s supposed to be a genius so why remove Morbius’s brain before the execution? And how did the Time Lords miss that? “Gee, he’s being very quiet… and drooling on himself. Morbius never does that at home! He’s probably not in his right mind, due to the execution.” (“He wasn’t in his left mind either, unless you meant to say he left his mind…”) But that’s not even the worst of it, by a long shot. The real issue comes from the battle between the Doctor and Morbius. This is often cited as representing that there are Doctors pre-Hartnell. But there is no evidence of this beyond what Hinchcliffe had intended but failed to make stick.
Let’s look at that fight. It starts off with Morbius with fishbowl, then without. Then goes to the Doctor played by Baker. Then it flashes to Pertwee. The camera cuts away and we go back again to Baker, Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell. We then get eight faces in a row as Morbius says “back, back to your beginning”. (We know now that those faces were production crew.) What we see on the screen does not represent a backward progression any more than The Five Doctors scene represented any specific order. In that special, Davison is under the control of Borusa. His former selves reach out and connect with him to overthrow Borusa. The camera looks at each of them too. There’s no significance to that order other than fan service. In the battle with Morbius, it seems very likely that those faces could just as easily represent Morbius, summoning his former selves and trying to usurp the Doctor but failing. His side is taxed and it explodes, resulting in brain damage. In fact, in many ways, the Doctor is so much younger than this mad renegade, it’s not surprising to see Morbius lose to a younger adversary. The fact is, regardless of the intent of the time, the “discrepancy” can be explained away easily enough. While Morbius is trying to push the Doctor back, he may be looking for a weakness that was never there. He summons his own younger selves looking for what it will take to beat the Doctor, but never finds it. And it should be noted that Baker’s face, prior to the explosion, is not one of worry or defeat; he’s at ease. I believe he was winning the whole time and knew it. The exploding equipment may have jarred him, but prior to that, he has the upper hand.
Now maybe this is me defending a story that ultimately makes me think of a very happy time from my youth with my dad watching old horror movies and I submit: there’s nothing wrong with that. But I suppose I should be fair and critique something about the episode. Amazingly, it’ll be Sarah Jane, who I normally adore. Her blindness scene is so goofy and her acting for her blindness is so bad, one wonders if she’s ever encountered an actual blind person in her life. That said, I still love Sarah Jane and have such extremely fond feelings about this story that I can easily turn a blind eye to that silliness.
(If you didn’t see that coming, you might have been hit by the light from someone’s ring…) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Seeds of Doom