Doctor Who – “The Brain of Morbius”

The Time Lords have taken control of the TARDIS, sending the Doctor and Sarah Jane into dangerous territory.

On the graveyard planet of Karn, the eternal Sisterhood fights to keep the sacred flame alive. High in the castle, the brilliant surgeon Mehendri Solon conducts gruesome experiments on living flesh. And as a storm approaches, an evil from the depths of Time Lord history plots its return to the land of the living.

Tom Baker is the Doctor in The Brain of Morbius.

X X X X X

Cast

Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Voice of Morbius – Michael Spice
Solon – Philip Madoc
Maren – Cynthia Grenville
Condo – Colin Fay
Ohica – Gilly Brown
Sisters – Sue Bishop, Janie Kells, Gabrielle Mowbray, Veronica Ridge
Kriz – John Scott Martin
Morbius Monster – Stuart Fell

Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Writer: Robin Bland
Director: Christopher Barry
Original Broadcast: 3 January – 24 January 1976
Trailer – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9kXGh3pzg0

X X X X X

The Brain of Morbius is another high-water mark for the Philip Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who. Drawing heavily from Frankenstein as well as several other sources, a superb script and top-notch performances from the entire cast combine with two unique villains and several memorable and shocking moments to give viewers some incredible thrills, as well as handing the moral guardians a thing or two to complain about.

Amidst a clap of thunder and a flash of lightning the Doctor and Sarah Jane land on the desolate planet Karn, though not by the Doctor’s choice. Was it the work of the Time Lords who may want the Doctor to investigate the nearby laboratory of Doctor Solon, physician and surgeon of great renown? Perhaps the TARDIS was pulled here by the Sisterhood of Karn, who ensure all passing spaceships are brought down to ensure their secret to eternal life remains theirs and theirs alone. Both Solon (and his assistant Condo) and Maren, leader of the Sisterhood, want to make sure the Doctor doesn’t leave Karn alive. But where Maren wants to burn the Doctor at the stake to keep the Time Lords away from the Elixir of Life, Solon wants nothing more than the Doctor’s extraordinary head. It would fit so well as the crowning piece for the creature he’s been building…

Holding a keen interest in the science-fiction aspect of robotics, Philip Hinchcliffe decided to commission a story from Terrance Dicks, author of…well, Robot, Tom Baker’s debut episode. Instead of a mechanical antagonist, Hinchcliffe and Dicks focused on a different aspect of the relationship between man and machine. In the case of The Brain of Morbius, Dicks drew heavily from the classic story Frankenstein, complete with a robot servant and a creature constructed from the body parts of various alien races. Dicks submitted the completed script just before leaving the country on holiday. During that time however, Robert Holmes realized that the script veered away from the horror elements that defined the Universal and Hammer versions of Frankenstein and that the robot servant would be too expensive to properly realize. With Dicks’ permission, Holmes performed a rewrite of the submitted script that removed the robot servant and replaced him with a mad scientist and his disfigured assistant. When Dicks read the new script, he felt that the lack of the robot hurt the story he had been trying to tell. While he understood the necessity for the rewrite and held no ill-will towards te situation, he requested his name be removed from the story and for Holmes to “devise some bland pseudonum.” To which Holmes, much to Dicks’ amusement, credited the serial to one “Robin Bland.”

The “drama,” as mild as it was, does absolutely nothing to harm what Dicks and Holmes had crafted. The Brain of Morbius is one simply one of the best scripts in the history of Doctor Who. It’s not just Frankenstein that the script draws from. The presence of the Sisterhood of Karn conjures up images of Rider Haggard’s 1886 literary classic [She about a society deep in the heat of Africa ruled by a mysterious queen in a novel that single handedly developed the “Lost World” genre. The actions Solon takes to keep the titular brain alive could have come right out of the HP Lovecraft story Herbert West – Reanimator and the influential 1942 novel Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak. By effortlessly blending the genres of adventure, science fiction, and horror, the concepts and themes from all four of the above stories weave together to form a rich story that contains several incredibly unique characters.

We start with the Sisterhood of Karn, an insular cult led by a powerful mother figure who could have walked right out of She.  Aside from ensure the viewer will never forget the whispers of “’sacred fire, sacred flame,” the Sisterhood represent two particular groups – the paranoid torch-wielding mob who will bring about the monster’s destruction after one of their own has fallen to its hand and the mystical witches who provide a balance to the mad science going on.  Dicks and Holmes add a bit to Time Lord mythology with this story by setting Karn a jump to the left and a step to the right from Gallifrey, a planet turned desolate by the battles between the Time Lords and Morbius.  It’s indeed the Sisterhood who are responsible for the spaceship graveyard that litters Karn.  Their sole purpose is to worship and protect the Elixir of Life, a product of Karn’s ecosystem that not only renders immortality upon those who imbibe it but can provide assistance to the regeneration process of a Time Lord should something go wrong (as seen in The Night of the Doctor).   But they’re not the “good guys” by any stretch of the imagination.  They have the blood of countless space travelers on their hands thanks to their isolationist xenophobia and have no problems killing the Doctor to “protect” themselves from Time Lord meddling.  Cynthia Grenville as the leader of the Sisterhood, Maren, and Gilly Brown as Ohica (along with ballet dancers filling out the cult in order to provide a sense of grace to the dancing, spinning, and twirling) provide a nice mix of the paranoid of the old and the fanaticism of the young.  What makes the whole thing amusing to me is that for all the mystical aspects of the Elixir of Life boil down to a few chemicals from Karn’s planetary crust, and that the Doctor’s solution to its impending cut-off is simply to open up the chimney and clear out the soot using firecrackers.

The Frankenstein pastiche, mixed with a loving dash of Herbert West – Reanimator, comes to us through the brilliant Dr. Mehendri Solon and his disfigured, hook-handed assistant Condo.  Living in a musty old Gothic castle on the surface of Karn, Solon is forced to pick through the remains of aliens that Condo brings him, choosing the most appropriate pieces in order to build a body for the renegade Time Lord Morbius.  Condo assist him with the promise that once Morbius’ body is completed, Solon will replace Condo’s hook with his original arm, which was removed as punishment.  There’s no doubt Solon is Victor Frankenstein, Condo is Igor, and the castle contains a laboratory housing a soon-to-be-animated body.   Colin Fay does an outstanding job as Condo, the beleaguered and not-quite-bright assistant who lumbers from job to job, putting up with Solon’s abuse, except for those moments where Solon goes too far and Condo reminds him just who the brawn of the operation is.  There’s also a touch of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as Condo shows some emotional towards Sarah Jane throughout the serial – just enough to make it believable when he’s finally had enough of Solon’s machinations.


Philip Madoc will play several villains throughout the history of Doctor Who in stories such as The Krotons, The War Games, The Power of Kroll, and the Big Finish audio Master.   His turn in The Brain of Morbius is a triumph and easily one of the most memorable villains in the show’s history.  To him, everything revolves around the completion of his work, and nothing will stand in his way of getting the Doctor’s head and using it to bring about a new galactic reign of terror under the mercies of Morbius.  Sure, Solon is charming and suave, but note how he loses his cool for a moment as soon as he lays eyes on Tom Baker’s cranium.  Any interest in hospitality or civility go out the window as Solon appraises beauty of the Doctor’s head until he realizes that by being civil and hospitable, he could poison the Doctor and take his brain for himself.  Everything Solon does, even trying to convince the Sisterhood to burn the Doctor but save his head, revolves around his long-held ambition.  Even going so far as to settle for grafting a freakin’ LOBSTER CLAW onto Morbius’  body is just furthering his scientific agenda.

Madoc is a delight every time he’s on screen, commanding every scene he’s in.  But his equal is the loud, screaming, megalomaniacal Morbius.

Michael Spice (who will also play Magnus Creel in The Talons of Weng-Chiang is on point as the vanquished Time Lord who has been reduced to nothing more than a brain in a jar. Once the leader of the High Council, he led his followers on a path of destruction and conquest, promising them eternal life in return for following him.  He was sentenced to death after a trial on Karn, but Solon managed to steal his brain before his body was turned into its component atoms.  For being a plot device from Donovan’s Brain, Spice is almost as amazing as Gabriel Woolf from Pyramids of Mars in conveying the rage and anger of Morbius with nothing more than his voice, with an assist from the production crew in making his brain glow and the liquid its suspended in bubble and trouble during his rants.  To be completely honest, Morbius final body is a bit silly…

…but its helped that stuntman Stuart Fell keeps the construct lumbering about and smashing its way through the castle, including a violent fight to the death against Condo.  Because hey, if you’re not going to have your story’s two big brutes go at it, what’s the point?

So into this mix of She, Frankenstein, Re-Animator, and Donovan’s Brain wander the Doctor and Sarah Jane, arriving right when everything is building to a climax.  The script for The Brain of Morbius contains three top-notch cliffhangers, each one involving Sarah Jane as she confronts the increasingly grotesque Morbius.   First, she comes across the inanimate body behind a curtain.  Then, while blinded thanks to an attack by the Sisterhood, she comes across Morbius as he’s revealed to be nothing more than a brain in a jar.  And finally, she regains her eyesight just in time to be confronted with his lumbering, fully operational body.    But even though Sarah Jane gets thrown into peril throughout this story quite a bit, she’s still given plenty to do, including rescuing the Doctor from the sacred fire of being burned at the stake by the Sisterhood!



By this point in Baker’s run, the gallows humor and alien nature of the Fourth Doctor has clearly been established.  But there’s another side to this Doctor – a little bit of obfuscating stupidity.  He hides it behind a wide grin as he goes about his business drinking Solon’s wine and trying to tell the Sisterhood that he hasn’t landed on Karn for them.  What this does is allow for Baker to provide a few moments of wry humor that break the tension of the moment without completely ruining it which prevents The Brain of Morbius from descending into pure B-movie farce.  It also allows him to flip the switch and inform the viewer when the moments is dire, which he does to driving home the threat of Morbius.  We also see a bit of desperation on the Doctor’s part as he does what he can to try to stop Solon from reviving Morbius in the final episode – making poison gas to suffocate him in his laboratory.  It’s so weird to see the Doctor willingly kill someone, but longtime viewers know he does so when there’s no other option, and it’s entirely believable thanks to Baker to think that the Fourth Doctor has reach that point with regards to Solon and Morbius.

It might have been the Doctor making poison gas that really pushed Mary Whitehouse over the edge.  And at least with this story I can kind of see where she’s coming from.  The Brain of Morbius is not only atmospheric and creepy, but violent.  Getting away from Condo killing an alien for their head or the patchwork body of Mobius, this story contains a scene that actually made me go “wow, how did they get away with that during afternoon tea time?”  It’s not Solon shooting Condo, complete with an impressive display of squib work and fake blood.  It was the scene where the jar containing Morbius’ brain gets knocked onto the floor.

This is a very good shot from the cameraman but it made me cringe at seeing it, which might have been the intended effect.   Needless to say, Mary Whitehouse would go on to proclaim that The Brain of Morbius ”contained some of the sickest and most horrific material every seen on children’s television.”  Regardless…

Cygnia – CAULIFLOWER BRAIN!

Yep, that is THE number one memory I have of “The Brain of Morbius”.  But I loved this story growing up.  The Gothic atmosphere, the Sisters and their torch-wielding mob at the end, poor Condo (which I always misheard as “Condor”), even Morbius’ mutant lobster claw.

But seriously, CAULIFLOWER BRAIN!

I hope to rewatch this story soon, if only to get the bitter aftertaste out of my mind as to how Moffat twisted the Sisters of Karn into his own smug mouthpieces.  I liked them in “Night of the Doctor”; they worked there.  But there was NO point to them being in “Hell Bent”.

In fact, what could have been used in their place was more CAULIFLOWER BRAIN!

I love Doctor Who, but I’m hesitant to call it art.  But if I had to pick one story to hang on the wall of the Space Museum, it would be this one.  The Brain of Morbius does everything right – unique locations (the production crew deserves high praise for their set work), wonderful acting, a script that highlights the tones of several different genres, and two memorable villains.  What could have easily been a silly episode with a ridiculous monster instead turns out to be one of Tom Baker’s best stories.  Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended.

Random Thoughts
– In order to save money for the series finale, Hinchcliffe asked Dicks to ensure the entire story could be shot in a way that no filming away required. Hence, The Brain of Morbius is the first entirely studio-shot Doctor Who serial.
– Big Finish did a four-hour audio play based on the novel for Frankenstein with Arthur Darvill as Victor.  Its very well done and I heartily recommend it.
– I have to admit, every time I see The Brain of Morbius I keep hearing “THE BRAIN OF MOBIUS!” from Fallout New Vegas: Old World Blues.
– According to Cynthia Grenville, Tom Baker was almost severely burned during the scene where the Doctor was burned at the stake because he waited until the very last moment to jump from the flames!
– During the final mental duel between the Doctor and Morbius, pictures of the Third, Second, and First Doctors appear on screen, followed by several more faces.  Some people assumed them to be incarnations of the Doctor PRIOR to William Hartnell, while others proclaim that they’re pictures of Morbius’ incarnations before being killed.  Myself?  It’s the production crew dressing up in costume to provide a moment of drama to the duel, nothing more.  Remember, Doctor Who is one of the few franchises where you can damn near pick your own canon and be correct…
– For the record, which stories WOULD I consider art?  The Brain of Morbius, City of Death, The Caves of Androzani, Blink, Heaven Sent.

Cobi’s Synopsis – A Gothic tale involving a mad scientist, a hunchbacked assistant, a patchwork monster with the brain of a madman, and a reclusive group of mystics, The Brain of Morbius is simply one of the best Doctor Who stories ever.

Next up – Members of the World Ecology Bureau discover a centuries-old seed pod buried deep in Antarctica’s permafrost. It seems to be still alive, growing without soil…

Tom Baker is the Doctor in…The Seeds of Doom

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About cobiwann

A guy who's into a niche fandom of a niche fandom - the Big Finish audio plays of "Doctor Who." Also into the show itself, both old and new, plus pop culture and a smattering of human insight.
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