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Doctor Who XIII.5 : The Brain of Morbius

February 8th, 2008 (04:56 pm)

1970s Doctor Who made occasional detours into its own mythology, normally to expand the backstory of the Doctor and the Time Lords rather than (as seemed to happen too much in the 1980s) submit each story as a continuity exercise, as if they were to be marked against some vast concordance which gave priority, for the most part, to the oldest broadcast stories. The Brain of Morbius is the last story where the Time Lords are treated as a near-perfect society, though this is at least the fourth megalomaniac which they have produced, the Doctor is landed by them in a situation without a brief (closer to Colony in Space than The Mutants, then) and the pointers to The Deadly Assassin's apparent rewrite of Time Lord culture are already there.

I'd not seen The Brain of Morbius for years and years before a viewing by the usual suspects last night, and while it's not the best of season thirteen - and all stories from this period work best if seen episodically - it holds the attention. The plotting is akin to Solon's insanity - he is unable to plan very far, moving from A to B to C and presumably unwilling to scrap his monster when the Doctor turns up because he can't see that he can leap to Z by transplanting Morbius's brain into the Doctor's head. (Perhaps there would be regenerative complications.) Solon's credibility as a character is largely down to the performance, judged by Philip Madoc in such a way that his paranoid maniacal ramblings appear perfectly natural rather than over the top; and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen react accordingly. There are a lot of back-and-forths between the shrine of the Sisterhood of Karn and Solon's lair. Much is made of this story's Gothic design, but it's heavily overlaid with south and south-east Asian or even African motifs. The Sisterhood appear Asiatic in costume (though only one of them seems to be played by an actress of Indian descent) and there are giraffe patterns on the doors (as calliope85 noted). The death of Maren (or 'Matron' as the Doctor calls her) is a visual nod, though not an exact one, to the climax of the Ursula Andress She. Unsurprisingly for a story rewritten by Robert Holmes, there is a colonial subtext popping up now and then, with the Time Lords and Solon cast as colonisers, and the Sisterhood as the colonised, although in 1970s style, they appear rather dim, for all their eternal youth and telekinesis; who needs a secret passage when the Sisterhood can burn one through space with a smoky electronic effect?

A pity that Morbius manifests himself so late; he gains full consciousness in his monster form only for the Doctor to challenge him to 'Time Lord wrestling' with some apparatus that Solon just happens to have lying around, the point of which seems to be to emphasise the Doctor's ancientness in such a way that both the producer and the script editor, as well as their friends and colleagues at BBC Drama, can dress up and play the Doctor in still photographs. Then Morbius goes mad again, and is despatched by the Sisterhood.

At some point - whether when I watched the story for the first time, at broadcast, or when reading the novelisation later (initially from the library, with the vignette version of the cover illustration, rather than the less interesting all-yellow version
which is the one I actually have somewhere - I wondered if Sarah was going to leave and join the Sisterhood full-time. I was always looking for immortality for Sarah Jane Smith, one way or another, and I'm glad that she has The Sarah Jane Adventures now. We followed up The Brain of Morbius with School Reunion, about which much has been said; but I recently picked up Doctor Who and the Face of Evil from the fairly well-stocked shelves of Target novelisations at City Organiser on Turl Street, and noted that Terrance Dicks has the Doctor miss Sarah, and then decide that he was right to leave her on Earth and make her return to her human life. There's a bit of foreshadowing of the approach taken by School Reunion to the Doctor's relationships with his companions there, if you look for it.


(Deleted comment)
Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 8th, 2008 07:14 pm (UTC)

He's got one claw and one human hand all the way through - it's a plot point, as Solon has kept his servant Condo in line by promising to reattach his lost arm, and it's then revealed that it's been attached to the Morbius monster all along.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 8th, 2008 10:59 pm (UTC)

You were right about the claw catching fire, though - there are no visible burns, however, in post-flame scenes.

Posted by: viala_qilarre (viala_qilarre)
Posted at: February 8th, 2008 07:21 pm (UTC)

Ohhh, the Brain of Morbius strikes right at the base of my skull - that was one of the classic childhood viewing experiences for me, after I became a fan but before I became precious about it. I would have been ten when it was broadcast. I remember poring over the Target novellisation with the kind of concentrated, uncritical attention that you can give things at that age. I was heavily into identifying with Sarah Jane, and I loved it when she was rendered vulnerable. And the whole idea of another Time Lord thrilled me even then.

Nothing really much has changed, come to think of it.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 8th, 2008 07:40 pm (UTC)

I remember that by part four I was terrified enough of proceedings to hide in my parents' bedroom (I was five), and was called downstairs for the mind-wrestling sequence, of which I caught most, including all the pre-Hartnell faces.

Posted by: daniel_saunders (daniel_saunders)
Posted at: February 9th, 2008 11:01 pm (UTC)

To be honest, I feel that much of season thirteen is over-rated (although I have an irrational fondness for The Android Invasion that even I can't explain), but The Brain of Morbius is the only story that didn't even impress me much as a child (in novelisation form; again, the all-yellow cover, not the one with the yellow fringe for added 'bad CSO' effect). I'm not sure why, as at that age I did not wonder why Solon didn't keep the Doctor's body intact, nor did it occur to me that things would have been easier for the Doctor if the Time Lords had given him a proper briefing.

Philip Madoc is great, though, and 'Robin Bland' (ahem) was clearly enjoying writing memorably over-the-top dialogue for Solon and Morbius, something that clearly 'influenced' Robert Holmes (funny that) when writing most of his subsequent scripts for the series. Previously, only Sutekh in Pyramids of Mars and perhaps some of the characters in The Time Warrior spoke like that in a Holmes script; subsequently, loads of his characters do, from the decaying Master of The Deadly Assassin right down to the Valeyard in his work for the conclusion of The Trial of a Time Lord, not to mention Holmes' version of the sixth Doctor.

Posted by: parrot_knight (parrot_knight)
Posted at: February 10th, 2008 11:53 am (UTC)

I wonder whether Robert Holmes's characters always spoke in over-the-top dialogue, and it's only about now that he is let off the leash, without Terrance Dicks to script-edit him (I think that Philip Hinchcliffe closely edited The Ark in Space once Holmes took it over completely from Lucarotti.)