Chop Suey, the Galactic Emperor!
To address the obvious: Robin Bland’s “The Brain of Morbius” (Story Production Code 4K) essentially recreates Shelley’s Frankenstein by way of Hollywood and Hammer Films, down to the dramatic lightning strikes, a stumbling Igor, a stitched-together monstrosity, and a torch-waving mob ushering in the monster’s end. But Bland—a pseudonym for long-time Doctor Who writer and script editor Terrance Dicks—spices up the otherwise tired tale with an impressive amount of ephemera regarding the Time Lords, adding interest to the surprisingly effective horror trappings on display.
The TARDIS materializes on the foggy planet Karn, guided there, according to the Doctor, by the Time Lords. He’s certain they’ve summoned him yet again to carry out their “dirty work,” and he refuses to help them, declaring, “I’m just going to sit here and do nothing.” Sarah attempts to get the Doctor interested in the plot at hand, remarking on all the crashed space ships nearby. Even the discovery of a headless alien, killed after escaping one of the wrecks, piques the Doctor’s interest only mildly. So Dicks whips up a sudden rainstorm to drive the time travellers to take shelter in a nearby structure, helpfully silhouetted on the horizon by blue lightning.
Inside, Solon and his hook-armed assistant Condo argue about the usefulness of the alien head Condo has recently procured using said hook; when the Doctor and Sarah arrive, seeking respite from the elements, Solon cannot help but remark upon the perfection of the Doctor’s head, a creepy comment that the Doctor takes in stride. The storm has knocked out the power in Solon’s abode, allowing these scenes to be shot with low lighting to amplify the ominous feeling. The audience already knows that Solon occupies the “mad scientist” role, leading to an odd sense of gullibility about the Doctor, who senses no danger when he and Sarah succumb to a drugged glass of wine.
Solon needs the Doctor’s “magnificent” cranium as a receptacle for the brain of Morbius, who formerly led the High Council of the Time Lords before being disintegrated for attempting to take over the galaxy, as often happens. But the Doctor is spirited off the operating table just before the head-removal procedure by the Sisterhood of Karn, who possess telekinetic powers. The red-robed novitiates aren’t trying to save the Doctor, though—they just want to be the ones to kill him…
Long allied with the Time Lords, the Sisterhood of Karn now fears that the Doctor has been sent to steal their dwindling supplies of the Elixir of Life. Created by the interaction of a “sacred flame” with a rock peculiar to Karn, the elixir halts the aging process and is used by the Time Lords in situations where regeneration falters. The flame has begun to wane, however, and the Sisterhood has reached the end of its elixir reserve. Seeing (and recognizing) the TARDIS, they assume the Doctor has been sent to take the remainder from them, so they intend to kill him as a warning to the Time Lords.
This multi-faceted plot, with two competing factions pulling the Doctor hither and yon, brings back some needed nuance to a show that has increasingly been simplistic in its conflicts—or, at least as much nuance as is possible from dancing pseudo-witches facing off against a crazed neuro-scientist. Given that the Doctor is always going to survive, particularly in a story featuring a life-restoring potion, Dicks keeps the stakes interesting by bouncing the Doctor between the two groups, first as prisoner, then as associate, then as prisoner again, making the “how” of the escapes and interactions more significant than the “if” of the escapes. (One assumes Dicks at work here, though that remains uncertain, as he is reputed to have taken his name off the script due to tension regarding changes made by Hinchcliffe and Holmes.)
Leaning heavily into the trappings of horror, “The Brain of Morbius” continues the violent streak of the last several stories, with gunshots, bloody wounds, knife fights, stake-burnings, and more than one person clawed to death on-screen by the re-animated Morbius. Some moments do undercut the tension through humor, as when Morbius’ brain plops onto the floor, causing Solon to fret about damage done and dust it off, though it’s hard to tell if the humor is intentional. Broadly, though, the story sets up the horrific and violent moments with appropriate set and sound dressing, so it doesn’t feel quite as out of place as in other, equally violent Fourth Doctor stories.
The relationship between the Sisterhood and the Time Lords provides an interesting glimpse into these heretofore hazy figures, and it makes sense that the combination of Dicks, Hinchcliffe, and Holmes elaborate upon them here. One doubts that the production team would allow “outsiders” to meddle with this crucial bit of Doctor Who lore. Only in “The War Games” and “The Three Doctors” have we yet gained any real sense of the Time Lords’ internal workings or background; here, we learn that they do form alliances, and, judging by the Sisterhood’s reaction to the Doctor’s appearance, they are not necessarily the most trustworthy of partners. From the Meddling Monk and the Master, renegade Time Lords have long been established, but Morbius, defeated on Karn by the Time Lords and the Sisterhood years prior, held a position of great power before he attempted to conquer, well, something—the full scope of his intergalactic crimes is only vaguely hinted at.
Combined with the Fourth Doctor’s barely disguised disgust with the Time Lords, a sentiment shared by the Second and Third Doctors, the picture is not one of an upstanding organization; rather, they’re presented as both powerful and petty, needful of the Doctor’s assistance when distasteful deeds must be done while acting above the fray. The narrative decision to put the Doctor outside of the Time Lord hierarchy, arguably established back in the First Doctor’s era with vague intimations about being a scofflaw, has paid dividends, here giving the Doctor a moral and ethical foil without the Time Lords even being on the screen. Given their continued ability to influence the TARDIS, they provide not just an easy plot mechanism to get the Doctor to where the story takes place but also an overarching—and interesting—worry for him to address.
The Doctor continues to vacillate between determined action and utter frivolity. His sangfroid while being nearly roasted by the Sisterhood compares strangely to his repeated trust in Solon to help Sarah (blinded by the Sisterhood while rescuing the Doctor) and, later, to independently disconnect Morbius’s brain from the patchwork monstrosity—all this after being drugged and nearly beheaded by the man. This behavior feels like stupidity in the service of plot, and while it’s refreshing to have that particular role not played by the companion for a change, the narrative feels lazy and out of character. Notably, one would never imagine any prior regeneration acting in this dunderheaded fashion.
Ultimately, the Doctor solves the problem with the Sisterhood’s dying sacred flame—soot build-up, easily cleared with a match—and defeats the embodied Morbius through “mind bending,” a form of Time Lord wrestling, in the Doctor’s words. For unexplained reasons, a mind bending rig sits in Solon’s dungeon laboratory, and the Doctor and Morbius face off.
Almost literally face off, in fact, as the Doctor’s past faces appear on a screen in between them. Tantalizingly, faces appear after that of the First Doctor; one could surmise that these are Morbius’ earlier regenerations, but the plastic-headed Time Lord cries out, “How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?” and then, “Back, back, to your beginning!” as these unknown visages flit on the screen. Combined with the Doctor’s earlier assertion that he is 749 years old, the implication seems to be that the Doctor has had far more regenerations than we know of. Later stories will sweep this notion aside, but it remains a fascinating moment in the series’ history, and reminds contemporary viewers that much of “accepted” Time Lord mythology remained quite fluid up until roughly “The Deadly Assassin” in the forthcoming season.
Disoriented by his defeat in the mind bending rig, Morbius stumbles away, chased up and off a cliff by torch-wielding Sisters of Karn in proper Frankenstein’s monster fashion. The Doctor, meanwhile, hovers near death, saved only by the single drop of the Elixir of Life that had coalesced since he re-started the sacred flame. And then, just like that, he and Sarah pop off to their next adventure, leaving, as ever, unanswered questions and unsatisfying resolutions.
Tom Baker seems to have a blast with this story, switching between action and deadpan bon mots with aplomb. The Fourth Doctor does engage in yet another uncharacteristic killing, sending cyanide gas through a vent to kill Solon while he operates on Morbius, but the shock at such behavior is lessened somewhat by the general violence in the story. He also shows incredible concern for Sarah, putting himself at risk to attempt to cure her blindness. He’s less sympathetic towards the Sisterhood, even after its ancient leader sacrifices herself to give the Doctor the sole drop of the Elixir of Life, having previously stated that she’s had her turn and it’s past time for the Sisterhood to evolve.
Far from being distressed at the TARDIS materializing somewhere other than London, Sarah Jane jumps into this story with gusto, urging the Doctor on when he’s content to sit on a rock. Elisabeth Sladen receives a good deal of screen time separate from Tom Baker, and with old Doctor Who hands guiding the story, it’s evident they have confidence in the character of Sarah Jane. She even rescues a tied-up Doctor for the second story running.
In all, “The Brain of Morbius” advances the series as a whole while providing a solid horror story. Particularly in light of the prior stories in the Fourth Doctor’s run to date, this story stands out as an engaging romp with genuine tension, not so much in the outcome as in the complicated execution of the Doctor’s inevitable success. The choreography of the Sisterhood, with their rhythmic dancing choreographed by Geraldine Stephenson, calls to mind the work of Roslyn de Winter in “The Web Planet,” another example of the series attempting to depict the alien and the strange as much through movement as through set dressing and sound. And though he’s given some laughable lines, Philip Madoc shines, depicting Solon as a bafflingly amoral villain, mesmerized more by his own genius than by the outcomes of his morbid experimentation. Perhaps the Doctor trusts him because he sees just a bit of himself there?
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Post 87 of the Doctor Who Project