Saturday 28 April 2012

The Brain of Morbius

Readers of this blog will know that I have a strong dislike of the Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who, which is bizarrely considered by most fans to be the strongest period in the show's history. In my judgment, The Brain of Morbius is the stand-out story of the Hinchcliffe era, the one that truly exemplifies the strengths of this period. The other so-called 'classics' of Hinchcliffe Doctor Who such as Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars and Talons of Weng-Chiang are all marred by very significant flaws. The Brain of Morbius is not perfect, but its faults do not significantly detract from it.

The Brain of Morbius is an adaptation and re-telling of the story of Frankenstein and his monster, with all of the Hollywood trappings of that story. This is not in itself a bad thing. Doctor Who has often thrived on borrowing and adapting other stories. In particular, Brain of Morbius adds some very interesting elements to the story, with the renegade Time Lord Morbius and the Sisterhood of Karn. This delightful borrowing is perhaps overshadowed buy the fact that every other story in this period of Doctor Who was in some way an adaptation of a classic story or movie. For all the brilliance of this serial, it is a reminder of just how much a one-trick pony the Hinchliffe era was.

The title is one of the endless 'something of something' variations, but it is a very arresting one. It's a title that captures the tongue-in-cheek nature of the serial. The Brain of Morbius is a really fun story with some lovely moments of camp humour, such as Solon's delight in the Doctor's head and Condo's fascination with Sarah.

The exterior sets are not very realistic and have a theatrical feel, but I have no problem with that. The castle of Morbius is beautifully designed and creates a delightful Gothic feel. The Brain of Morbius is a story brimming with atmosphere. I particularly like the dance sequences and the oriental flavour of the Sisterhood of Karn. There is a strong sense of Goth Exoticism about them, just like a Dead Can Dance record. The Goth movement in the 80s was often more about the exotic than it was about the Victorian (and things Victorian can get very mundane).

I imagine this story must have been very terrifying for younger viewers, with the story openning with the hideous insect creature (borrowed from The Mutants) and the blind Sarah menaced by the Morbius monster. The serial generated a lot of controversy from Mary Whitehouse. I do think the violence in this story could have been toned down a bit, though I don't see why the brain on the floor was such a fuss- that was an obviously fantastical scene. People who say the Doctor is a pacifist clearly have not seen this story; it is quite striking the way the Doctor is prepared to kill Solon in cold blood, as he does here.

The performances are strong from all the cast here, especially Madoc who really brings the character of Solon to life and manages to make him alternate between ranting maniac to camp charmer. Elisabeth Sladen does some great blind acting. Some reviewers have complained about Ohica's wild-eyed stares, but with the character's lack of interesting lines, the actress had to do something to make an impact.

The story is a little let down by a rather linear plot. It is obvious from the first episode that Morbius will return with Solon's aid and the Doctor and the Sisterhood will need to join forces to stop him. The mind conbat scene feels a little like an afterthought to pad the story out a bit. It does seem a bit surprising that the machine to facilitate this duel just happens to be in Solon's lab.

The faces in the mind-duel have raised a good deal of controversy. It is clear that the production team wanted to drop the hint that the Doctor had several pre-Hartnell incarnations. This is a position I most vehemently reject for five reasons. Firstly, there are clear references to the First Doctor being the earliest Doctor in The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors. Secondly, the First Doctor is strikingly different to the other incarnations in that he has grown old. It is clear that the First Doctor has been around for a good deal longer than the other Doctors. The aging of the the Hartnell Doctor seems to point to his being the original form. Thirdly, despite his aged appearance, the Hartnell Doctor shows the most immature behaviour among the Doctors, leaving aside the instability of the Sixth Doctor. If the Davison Doctor was an old man in a young man's body, the Hartnell Doctor was a teenager in an old man's body. Fourthly, with his oval face, the unidentified Gallifreyan Doctor in the astounding novel The Infinity Doctors has an oval face that suggests Hartnell. There are canonical difficulties with The Infinity Doctors, but if it is accepted as canon, it fits best as a pre-Unearthly Child story. Fifthly, Hartnell being the original Doctor just feels right. We started the show with him. He is where it all began. I would much rather believe that Morbius had a fetish for silly hats than that there were incarnations of the Doctor before Hartnell.

A rather less discussed issue is how this story fits into the chronology of the Time Lords and the exact point of Gallifreyan Mean Time. If the Sisterhood of Karn is contemporaneous with the Time Lords (which the Virgin novels seem to indicate), that would strongly point towards the far future as the date for Gallifreyan Mean Time. Personally, I prefer to see the Time Lords as inhabiting the past (which is why the Doctor feels freer to meddle with future history than with the past) and therefore the connection between the Sisterhood adn the Time Lords must be a bit more muted (the Virgin novels themselves tend to view Gallifrey as located in the past). There is no indication in The Brain of Morbius that the Sisterhood are themselves Gallifreyan. Perhaps the Pythia of Gallifrey founded the Sisterhood, but the other Sisters are not Gallifreyan and inhabit a different time zone to the Time Lords.


  1. "So the ultimate form of combat in this universe is making faces at people?"

    It's a quote from a fanfic commentary. Even though I know better, I felt like I just had to share it.

    Anyway, I personally thought the other faces were meant to be Morbius' past incarnations, since the duel's between the both of them. Ah well, it's still a good episode that's aged fairly well, and a good review too.

    1. I think the intention was to at least imply they were past Doctors.

      However, it is interesting that when the odd faces appear, Morbius rants about how he is winning.

      If they are Morbius, it does indicate that he had a great fondness for silly hats.

  2. Ulysses Gamma-Hose5 July 2012 at 10:12

    Whilst I argee with you when you say adaption of existing movies/books is the biggest crime of Hinchcliffery, you forget that Dr Who itself is very largely based on HG Welles' The Time Traveller. Unless you did say that and I just missed it. Anyway, great review

    1. Thank you very much. I have not read The Time Traveller, so I cannot say.