14 Mar 2004The Brain of Morbius, by Paul Clarke
14 Dec 2006The Brain of Morbius, by Frank Collins

I noted when I reviewed 'Robot' that Terrance Dicks is not my favourite Doctor Who writer. Whilst I stand by this comment in general, I regard 'The Brain of Morbius' as the highlight of his Doctor Who career, and the success of this story is perhaps therefore due to the fact that Robin Bland is not, in fact, Terrance Dicks, but Terrance Dicks heavily script-edited by Robert Holmes. 

'The Brain of Morbius' is of course heavily influenced by Frankenstein, and in many respects feels like a homage to Hammer Horror. This results in a distinctly gothic feel to the story, which is unusually horrific even for this period in the series' history. The opening scene of Kriz the Mutt being beheaded by Condo sets the tone, and this is followed by Kriz's twitching head being wired up by Solon, the discover of the headless but obviously living Morbius monster at the end of Episode Two, the revelation of Morbius's brain floating in a tank, Condo's bloody and graphic shooting at the hands of Solon, and the grotesque sight of Solon gingerly cradling Morbius's brain in Episode Three. In addition to which we have the Sisterhood carrying out human sacrifice. This macabre atmosphere typifies 'The Brain of Morbius' and is crucial to its success; the entire story is set on an alien planet, but it could just as easily be set in a Hammer Horror version of Transylvania, with a gothic castle atop a bleak and rocky mountain, a mad scientist, a hunchbacked manservant, and a local coven of witches in the form of Sisterhood. 

The actual plot of 'The Brain of Morbius' is very simple; Solon wants the Doctor's head in order to house Morbius's brain and the Doctor is understandably reluctant to surrender it. Solon thus spends most of the first three episodes chasing after the Doctor, whilst he is alternately hindered and helped by the Sisterhood of Karn. By Episode Four, Morbius once more has a body and the emphasis changes as the Doctor, Sarah and the Sisterhood strive to destroy him. Whilst this plot is sound enough in its own right, what really makes it work is the exemplary characterisation and acting. Philip Madoc almost steals the show as Solon, playing a mad scientist without succumbing to the temptation to go over the top. Whilst Solon is undoubtedly insane, Madoc plays him with such pathos that we see numerous different aspects of his personality. Most overwhelming of course is his obsession with Morbius, and obsession, which has, as he himself notes in Episode Three, forced him to spend years in desperately lonely isolation. His absolute devotion to Morbius drives him completely, everything he does motivated purely by his need to complete his work. As played by Madoc he is nervous and twitchy, impatient to find a head for Morbius's brain, and this results in an air of wild eyed but restrained of mania. But Solon displays other attributes too; he's short-tempered, most notably with Condo, and when enraged he resorts to physical violence, cuffing his servant around the head and eventually shooting him. But he's also largely a coward, and it is thus his obsession with Morbius alone that drives him to desperate measures. When Solon realsies that the Sisterhood have "rescued" the Doctor, he rants and raves, describing them as "a squalid brood of harpies", and when he reaches their temple and discovers that they intend to sacrifice the Doctor, his desperation to obtain the Doctor's head drives him to dare to interrupt the ceremony. However, once his adrenaline rush wears off, he realises his folly and panics; when he pleads with Maren for the Doctor's head he babbles in obvious fear, offering Condo instead out of shear desperation. Indeed, his desperation is such that in addition to endangering himself by risking the wrath of the Sisterhood he comes close to blurting out his reasons for wanting the Doctor's head, thus also endangering Morbius. In addition to his humiliating failure, he also pushes Condo too far, resulting in his near death back at his castle, as Condo angrily pulls a knife on him. With little other option, he is then forced to offer Condo his other arm back, a promise he has no intention of keeping; this further complicates matters for him, as he needs to find a way of stalling Condo as a result. 

It is this deeply flawed persona that makes Solon work so well as a character, and there are other examples throughout. In Episode One, when the Doctor and Sarah first arrive, Solon is at his most charming as he grasps the opportunity presenting itself, but despite the effort he makes, his desperate obsession means that his charm barely covers his grotesque intentions for the Doctor's head and he comes across as decidedly creepy, as Sarah very obviously notices. Ironically, it seems that despite Solon's total devotion to Morbius, Morbius himself has little regard for Solon; Morbius's paranoia and rage whilst trapped in his tank is understandable, but it is worth noting than when he is finally properly installed in his new body, he casually discards the corpse of the newly deceased Solon, despite the fact that he has Solon to thank for his resurrection. It is perhaps fitting that Solon dies just as he completes his life's work. 

Morbius too is well characterised. Whilst trapped in his tank, he sounds desperate and paranoid, and Michael Spice's voice conveys some of the horror of his situation very well. Once Morbius is released however, he changes, becoming both confident and arrogant as he confronts the Doctor in Episode Four. For all that the Doctor and Maren describe the threat posed by Morbius, most of 'The Brain of Morbius' essentially revolves around a very localized threat to the Doctor and Sarah; nevertheless during the brief period in which Morbius is housed in his new body and is lucid, Spice manages to create sufficient charisma for Morbius to make it believable that he could rouse an army to threaten the entire galaxy. Appropriately, Morbius's confidence proves his undoing, as he accepts the Doctor's challenge of a mindbending contest, and pays the price. And the sight of Morbius's brain almost literally blowing a fuse is strangely disturbing as his brain case fills with smoke. 

Contributing to the atmosphere of 'The Brain of Morbius' is the Sisterhood of Karn, who despite ending up on the same side as the Doctor in the fight against Morbius is by no means particularly friendly. Whereas Solon is motivated by his obsession with Morbius to commit murder, the Sisterhood are motivated by their jealous possession of the Elixir of Life to commit atrocities that are at least as bad. So paranoid are they about guarding the Elixir and their Sacred Flame that they drag ship after ship to its doom, regardless of whether those ships are headed for Karn or of what their occupants intend. On first discovering the Doctor's presence on Karn, Maren assumes the worst and decides to burn him alive; in short, the Doctor's only allies on Karn are not nice people, and this adds to the general sense of danger in 'The Brain of Morbius'. As with Michael Spice as Morbius and Philip Madoc as Solon, Cynthia Grenville as Maren puts in a great performance, alternating between imperious and unforgiving in the first two episodes, and later showing a more vulnerable side, as the Doctor's criticisms of the unchanging Sisterhood hit home and she shows the weariness one might expect after centuries of stagnation. The Doctor's effect on the Sisterhood is quite profound, as his constant gentle mockery gradually has an impact not only on Maren but also on Ohica. By the end of the story there is a suggestion that the long-unchanged Sisterhood has been affected not only by Morbius's brief return, but also by the Doctor, and that there is hope that they will, if nothing else, at least stop hijacking passing space travellers and killing strangers without discrimination.

By this point in the season, it almost goes without saying that Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are excellent, but it is worth noting that 'The Brain of Morbius' is a particularly good story for Sarah. Unusually, all three cliffhangers revolve around Sarah instead of the Doctor, and of course she also gets blinded, a situation with allows Sladen to shine as she conveys a sense of barely restrained panic. Sarah is also frequently terrified here, encountering headless monsters and being forced to assist Solon in his brain transplant operation in Episode Four, unable to see and under threat of death. When Condo grabs her by her hair in Episode Three she is again clearly terrified, this giving way to revulsion as Condo shyly tells he likes her. When he saves her from the monster in Episode Four but is killed in the process, she sounds suitably guilty, as she struggles with the fact that Solon's hulking manservant has saved her life at the cost of his own. Of all the supporting characters in 'The Brain of Morbius', Colin Fay's Condo is arguably the most sympathetic; whereas Solon commits atrocities out of obsession and the Sisterhood commit murder out of jealous possessiveness, Condo kills (at least as far as the audience knows) because of Solon's hold over him; Condo wants his arm back. This doesn't excuse him, but in a story filled with characters who are on very dubious moral ground, Condo's actions are marginally more justifiable. His attraction to Sarah also adds to his character, in an amusing nod to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Doctor also shines, on the one hand at his wittiest when dealing with the Sisterhood (to Maren's obvious annoyance), on the other at his most intense when dealing with Morbius and Solon; his decision to resort to using cyanide gas to try and stop Solon is testament to how dangerous he considers Morbius and shows him at his most committed.

Production wise, 'The Brain of Morbius' is exemplary. It's very well directed, the score is marvelously evocative, and the sets are superb, especially Solon's castle. Also worth mentioning is the rocky landscape of Karn, which is one of the series better rocky landscape sets. The costumes are also very effective, from the elaborate flame-decorated robes of the Sisterhood to Solon's understated tweedy suit. The Morbius monster is particularly impressive, managing to look like it is made of alien body parts whilst still successfully looking like a piecemeal abomination rather than an actual alien creature. Overall, 'The Brain of Morbius' is a highly effective if unusual story, and after the dreadful 'The Android Invasion' it marks a return to the generally high quality of the season as a whole. A level of quality that will be maintained for the season finale…

Filters: Television Fourth Doctor Series 13/39

Set on the planet Karn, this is the simple story of renegade Time Lord Morbius and his surgeon friend Mehendri Solon. Solon’s trying to piece Morbius back together as you see he’s just a brain sitting in a tank for the moment and he’s keen to get back out there and rule the galaxy. Also on Karn are the Sisterhood, led by Maren, who was present at the trial of Morbius and saw him executed and believes him long dead. The Sisterhood also worship and maintain the sacred flame that produces an elixir of life, thus allowing them to be immortal. Then the Doctor and Sarah turn up…

Looking at the story from a 2006 perspective, it's holds up remarkably well and offers new and veteran viewers alike a rich palette of ideas and concepts.It's fascinating from a symbolic and psychological perspective as well as being an interesting story redolent with past influences.

To being with, let's take a look at what I think is the core of the story the dichotomy between the head (masculine rationalism) and the heart (feminine emotion and intuition). Morbius is literally torn apart by the dispersal chamber at his execution and this is an apposite act by a society that was threatened by his disruption. His punishment cuts him off from an instinctive free relationship with nature and he becomes an irrational figure who has lost contact with the personal experience of life. 

Solon’s after the perfect head in which to house Morbius’ brain, the Doctor becoming the preferred option. Solon’s obsession about having the perfect head is understandable. Morbius has effectively been castrated and left to his own torment in a dark Underworld devoid of senses. The head is symbolically regarded as the domain of the masculine with the heart being its feminine counterpoint. One can see that the Solon/Morbius relationship is concerned with the dominant male progressing in the world through the application of science. The Sisterhood are the feminine principle of the story, driven by intuition, forces of nature and relying on the mind and matter approach of magic and sorcery. The head is also symbolic of the fully conscious mind, of the full awareness of reality – something which Morbius lacks in order for his masculine ego to be freed from the Unconscious. ‘The crowning irony’ as Solon informs Morbius that his new head will be that of a Time Lord.

Morbius fears the feminine and has no masculine power until Solon can provide him with a new head and body. The Sisterhood fear Morbius and the Time Lords and have an aversion to progress through scientific rationalism. It takes the Doctor to demonstrate that science and magic can be one and the same thing. Hence, his firework aided chimney sweeping of the Sisterhood’s sacred flame, his instant analysis that the elixir could actually be synthesised and his cyanide solution to getting out of the laboratory to stop Morbius. And of course, he will eventually need the elixir himself if he is to survive the ordeal with Morbius. 

Emotionally, there are also things to note. Solon is driven by his work and is obsessed to the point of madness in trying to give Morbius his freedom. His is a life absent of real joy. He only sees the material potential of the bodies around him with no concern for sentiment and feelings. He is all about the disintegration of the personality which leads to schizophrenia whilst he physically is attempting to stop the material disintegration of Morbius. As he feverishly sews up bits of bodies to re-integrate Morbius, he is inside shattering psychologically.

Secondly, a brief discussion of the female principle in the story as formed by the Sisterhood and Sarah. The Sisterhood, through their disavowal of the benefits of science, are impotently immortal. Any intrusion through science – the crashed spaceships on Karn are the result of their handiwork – meets with destruction. Their immortality is a curse, their magic brings them no progress. They are static and isolated even though through their femininity they are able to co-operate with the blind forces of nature. This force is literally evoked through Maren’s temporary blinding of Sarah. Sarah as an active, free feminine influence in the narrative is punished with blindness and isolation because of their fear. She’s the potential of what they could all be (progress) and Maren brings her down a peg or two for rescuing the (masculine) Doctor. In the end, the Sisterhood are as equally isolated as Morbius – they through their fear of the masculine penetration of science and he through the mis-application of science – Solon’s attempts to reanimate his body and the effects of the dispersal chamber. The Doctor is the figure that reconciles all of these elements – he uses a science/magic approach to vanquish Morbius and to hopefully bring progress to the Sisterhood.

Appropriate to this era's supposed use of the Gothic, the story has a number of very visceral and physical elements present within it. Condo's arm is highly symbolic of this. Condo experiences his body directly through pain and because he can see his own arm as an external object grafted onto the Morbius body. It is symbolic of Condo’s humanity and with it he would be a complete person again. It is also the only recognisably human part of the Morbius body, capable of vain gesticulation. Condo’s also capable of feeling and emotion and appreciates Sarah’s feminine beauty and does not understand why it should be destroyed. He recognises the power of his emotions through seeing his promised physicality given to the Morbius creature and through his affection for Sarah but Solon ultimately punishes him for it. For that, it’s an astonishingly brutal story. One particular sequence in Part Three is rather notorious. As Solon prepares Morbius’ brain for the surgery, he faces an angry Condo (Condo has seen his arm on the creature). Solon shoots him, they fight and the brain falls on the floor. It’s at once violent – Condo’s chest explodes very gorily in full frame – and blackly comic – the brain plops out onto the floor rather satisfyingly in a pool of slime. It is hilarious, repulsive and fascinating. It’s a sophisticated range of reactions produced in a short sequence and is highly typical of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes attitudes to overt violence and black homour in the series. Solon is attempting to further disintegrate Condo’s body and expunge the outpouring of feminine emotion and feeling into his isolated male prison of science.

The mental battle betwen the Doctor and Morbius is as much about the apparatus being a mirror reflecting the opposing forces within the psyche. The combatants are as much a reflection of each other, a reverse of each other. The contest is also conducted in reverse in so far as to reach the desired goal it is necessary to regress to your origins e.g. we see all their previous incarnations. The hero must descend into the depths of infancy in order to move on towards maturity. The Doctor’s trick is to get Morbius to gorge on his own Ego, to fly too close to the sun and therefore come crashing down to earth when his brain literally fries. He is overcome by his own narcissistic reflection of himself. The mirror is also earlier a trigger mechanism for the Morbius creature to go on the rampage as he sees his true reflection in the laboratory.

Looking back at the story now, it is worth noting that it’s entirely studio bound, complete with sets representing the exteriors of Karn. Now, admittedly, the construction of those sets does affect our reception of the story. Wood is used to represent stone for the exteriors and you can clearly hear Lis Sladen’s feet clomping about. However, the production’s overt staginess actually doesn’t destroy the illusion but rather contributes to the feeling that this is an entirely closed environment, hermetically sealed. It reminds me of some of the BBC’s studio bound Shakespeare productions of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Let’s also not forget that much of studio based television was still using theatrical modes of presentation at this time. The camera very rarely moves in this story, is fairly static and the lighting, flaring into the lens on occasion, often heightens the sheer theatricality of it e.g. the sun rise at the Doctor’s execution. Barry Newbery’s design is also a huge contribution to this ‘play’ and the sets in Solon’s castle are a bricolage of design styles and the almost Himalayan atmosphere these create is very similar to the pressure cooker environments of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcisscus’. The combination of the ‘hippy Tibetan’ vibe of the Sisterhood’s costumes and make-up, the radiophonic wind chimes and other sound effects for the planet surface and the Nepalese flavour of the production design really build up that effect. There is also a nod to the Expressionist lab designs of umpteen Universal and Hammer horror films too.

As far as influences are concerned, this is ‘Frankenstein’, primarily. But there are also nods to ‘The Island Of Doctor Moreau’, Rider Haggard’s ‘She’, ‘Beauty And The Beast’, ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’, 50’s B movies and Top Of The Pops (the Sisterhood do a delirious Pan’s People number to capture the TARDIS and to sacrifice the Doctor)

Visual effects are on the whole pretty good. The vista of crashed ships is just about acceptable. The brain tank in the cellar with Morbius’ brain is a triumph of physical effects, especially the trembling bit of material that vibrates as Morbius’ voice rants on. One favourite effect is the blast from Maren’s ring directly into camera as Sarah escapes. That would still pass muster today. The ‘monster’ is so self-referentially ridiculed within the context of the story (‘pot pouri’ and ‘Chop Suey’) that there’s really no need to highlight how daft it looks now. The intentional and unintentional humour implied by the monster costume combine to offset some of the more visceral moments – the shooting and the brain on the floor for example as well as numerous strangulations and a burning at the stake.

Tom and Lis are at their best here. It’s a solid relationship of mutual respect and admiration. Sarah is a tad too much of victim here but who can forget that chill up the spine as she advances, blind, toward that big glowing brain and Michael Spice’s delicious, ranting performance as Morbius. Philip Madoc is superb as the twitchy Solon, desperately trying to rescue his own career as a surgeon whilst trapped in the dungeon of Morbius’ own mind.

Filters: Television Series 13 Fourth Doctor