Wednesday, November 11, 2015

"The Brain of Morbius"

Aired Jan 3 - Jan 24, 1976

4 Episodes

Story 84

Written by: Robin Bland

Directed by: Christopher Barry


The Doctor and Sarah arrive on Karn, a desolate planet that seems to be a magnet for crashed spaceships. Karn is also home to a mysterious Sisterhood, a group of women who guard a sacred flame that produces an elixir of life. Also on Karn is renegade scientist Mehendri Solon, who is there performing secret experiments in an attempt to construct a new body for the living brain of Morbius, a Time Lord criminal believed to have been executed.

Upon meeting the Doctor, Solon is convinced that his head is the perfect receptacle for Morbius' brain, and begins making plans to obtain the Doctor's head and transplant it onto the body Solon has cobbled together from spaceship crash victims. The Sisterhood meanwhile, believing that the Doctor has been sent to Karn by the Time Lords in an attempt to steal the final drops of elixir produced by the dying flame, attempt to burn the Doctor at the stake. Though he's rescued by Sarah, she is temporarily blinded while doing so.

The Doctor drinks Sarah to Solon to see if the scientist can help her, but Solon tricks the Doctor into believing her condition is irreversible. In desperation, the Doctor returns to the Sisterhood in the hopes that the elixir will help, but the Sisters cannot spare any as the flame is dying. Meanwhile, as Sarah's sight slowly returns, she uncovers Solon's plan to create a monstrous new body for Morbius and unleash his evil across the universe once more.

The Doctor successfully restores the flame, which will now begin producing elixir in earnest, and returns to Solon's laboratory, but only succeeds in being captured in the cellar alongside Sarah. Solon has by this point begun the procedure to transplant Morbius' brain into a synthetic brain case and attach it to the body he has constructed. The Doctor manages to use the chemicals at hand in the cellar to create cyanide gas, and wafts it into the ventilation system. While Solon is killed, the now ambulatory Morbius survives.

Morbius then challenges the Doctor to a Gallifreyan psychic battle, and though the Doctor proves victorious, the contest extols a heavy cost to both. The insane Morbius wanders onto the planet's surface, where the Sisters drive him off a cliff to his death. The injured Doctor is revived by the elixir of Karn, and he and Sarah leave with the gratitude of the Sisterhood.


The original story for The Brain of Morbius was written by Terrance Dicks, and according to legend concerned a robot building a hodgepodge body for Morbius. It was sort of like Frankenstein, but what if Igor had to build a creature for the good doctor. When Dicks proved unavailable for re-writes, script editor Robert Holmes did them himself. Upon his return, Dicks found that the subsequent scripts were both radically different from what he had submitted, and also not at all to his taste. In a good-natured but somewhat angry letter to his friend Bob Holmes, he asked for his name to be removed and replaced with, "some bland pseudonym". And that is the story of how Robin Bland came to be.

Without a doubt, The Brain of Morbius is one of the definitive stories of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, for both good and bad reasons. The good reasons are more than enough to justify its status as a classic, though the bad ones are troubling.

The script remains an obvious pastiche of Frankenstein, and Christopher Barry emphasizes the gothic qualities of the script, directing the story with a wealth of atmosphere, pace and style. The plot is almost ludicrously simple, but somehow Barry makes the runaround nature of the studio-bound production work beautifully. Holmes' script manages to make every character interesting and full of flavour, even the Sisterhood, which is the least compelling aspect to the story. Morbius becomes almost pitiable in how much he longs to simply feel something once again, Condo (the Igor substitute) is similarly strangely endearing, though his simple-minded fascination with Sarah is cliched.

But then we come to Philip Madoc as Solon. He had already delivered a classic guest turn in the series as the War Lord in The War Games, and even in something as forgettable as The Krotons he was still interesting. But it's as the obsessed, unethical and strangely charming Mehendri Solon that Whovians will remember him forever. It's a scene-stealing turn. Madoc always makes the most interesting choice, bringing a life to Solon that makes him far more interesting than your typical mad scientist. As a result, both Baker and Sladen raise their game throughout the story, with Baker in particular turning in a fantastic performance.

But, there are some flaws. Firstly, and most famously of course, is why Solon is so obsessed with using his patchwork monstrosity when he could simply transplant the brain into the Doctor's body. It's such an obvious flaw that it sticks out like a sore thumb. Also, in my opinion, the production team went too far with the violence and scares in this episode. It's clear by this point that Hinchcliffe and Holmes were actively trying to push Doctor Who towards a scarier, more adult feel than it had been in some time, if ever. And while I think that has reaped great benefits so far, even in this very story, there are times here when it crosses the line. The violent shooting of Condo, complete with exploding bloody chest wound, probably doesn't belong on a show like Doctor Who. And I have nothing against violence, even in this series. But the violence in The Brain of Morbius is not fantastical or operatic, which provides distance, but realistic and brutal, which is too much.

Still, even with these flaws, you can't deny that watching The Brain of Morbius remains an exhilarating and thrilling experience, and it's a story that deserves its high standing in one of the strongest single seasons of the programme's history.

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