Taking place largely in a decaying castle on a dark and stormy night, 'The Brain of Morbius' is the most Gothic story in this very Gothic season. It is also completely bonkers, utterly over the top and enormously silly. And that is why I love it so much.
It is well documented that the stories from this era were heavily influenced by Gothic literature, horror films and classic sci-fi movies. Sometimes this influence was subtle. Other times it was not. 'The Brain of Morbius' is one of those times when it was not. From its inception, this story was intended to be a take on Mary Shelley’s (out of copyright) horror classic Frankenstein, although the final product is more influenced by Universal's 1931 film adaptation by James Whale and the OTT Hammer Horror films of the 50s and 60s, than Shelley's original novel.
Terrance Dicks' original version of the script only used the novel as a starting point. He incorporated elements from his stage play, Doctor Who and the Daleks in the Seven Keys to Doomsday. In early drafts a criminal named Morbius crashed on a planet and needed to have a new body assembled for him by his robotic servant from parts of other aliens, despite their vastly differing physiognomies. When the robot proved too costly for the production team, Robert Holmes was forced to radically re-write the story while Dicks was out of the country. Dicks was not happy with these extensive changes and requested that his name be replaced by some 'bland pseudonym'. Hence Robin Bland, which amused Dicks greatly.
Among the changes that Holmes made were to tone down the sci-fi elements, ramp up the Gothic atmosphere to glorious effect, and to make the Frankenstein references more overt. Instead of the mad Baron we have Solon, a brilliant but slightly unhinged scientist with an unsettling brain fixation to rival both Doctors Hfuhruhurr and Necessiter. He's assisted by
Who are the Sisterhood of Karn, I hear you ask? Well, they are the ones standing in for those pitchfork wielding villagers. They're an all female cult who worship a flame and really, really don't like Morbius. To be honest, the Sisterhood is the only part of the story that I'm not that fond of. Cynthia Grenville puts in a good performance as their leader, Maren, but their constant chants of "Sacred flame, sacred fire" just get on my nerves.
While Lis and Tommy B are on top form as ever, it is regular Who villain Philip Madoc who is the true star of this show. Madoc really goes for it as Solom, devouring the scenery with unapologetic relish. He is such a great villain that Morbius himself pales in comparison. For much of the story Morbius is just a ranting brain in a jar. When he is finally given a body he is still just a ranting brain in a fish bowl with a body attached to it. All he does is ramble on about how powerful he is, how merciless his revenge will be, etc. Typical bad guy stuff we've heard a billion times before.
One of the most shocking things about 'The Brain of Morbius' is that we actually get to see the Doctor willingly and deliberately kill someone for the greater good. Is Morbius, even in his current condition, really so much of a threat that he is willing to set aside some of his most valued principles? I mean, the guy's no Sutekh. Shocking as it was, this is not really one of the Doctor's smartest plans. There is nothing to stop the cyanide gas from blowing back into the basement and killing him and Sarah, and if Solon and Morbius are killed who is going to let them out? It is possible the Sisterhood could save them, but they are shown to be none too fond of the Doctor, even after he restores the sacred flame, and would happily leave him die.
Notes and Quotes
--The creature Condo kills at the start of Episode 1 is a Mutt from 'The Mutants'.
--The Sisterhood of Karn is now the name of an LGBT science fiction fan club.
--Question, question, question: Why did Solon have to settle on the home planet of one of Morbius' most deadly enemies? Why doesn't Solon just put Morbius' brain into the Doctor's head? And how do Solon and Condo not spot Sarah when she is hiding in that hallway in Episode 1? I know it was dark in that hallway, but it wasn't that dark.
--Solon shooting Condo is surprisingly bloody for Doctor Who. I'm sure Mary Whitehouse wrote a strongly worded letter of complaint about that. Which I'm sure Robert Holmes threw in the bin after Philip showed it to him.
--The Karn sets look a lot better at night, than during day.
--During the mind bending battle you can clearly hear Elisabeth Sladen say "Tom".
--During the mind bending contest we see the Doctor's past incarnations and then a load of other faces. While it is possible these were images of Morbius' previous regenerations, there has long been speculation that these were earlier incarnations of the Doctor. The faces were those of various members of the production team: George Gallaccio (Production Unit Manager), Robert Holmes (script editor), Graeme Harper (production assistant), Douglas Camfield (director), Philip Hinchcliffe (producer), Christopher Baker (production assistant), Robert Banks Stewart (writer), and Christopher Barry (director).
The Doctor: "Do you think I don't know the difference between an internal fault and an external influence! No, no, no, there's something going on here. Some dirty work they won't touch with their lily white hands!"
The Doctor: "I thought I recognised the stars."
Sarah: "You've been here before?' "
The Doctor: "I was born in these parts."
Sarah: "Near here?"
The Doctor: "Well, within a couple of billion miles, yes."
The Doctor: "The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn."
The Doctor: (Sees the TARDIS) "How did you get her here, by the way?"
Maren: "The power of the Sisterhood."
The Doctor: "Really? But, you mean you still practise teleportation? How quaint! Now if you got yourself a decent forklift truck..."
The Doctor: "You thought I was dead, didn't you?"
The Doctor: "You're always making that mistake."
The Doctor: "You can't really go on calling yourself Morbius. There's very little of Morbius left! Why don't you think of another name? Potpourri would be appropriate!"
Sarah: "Or how about Chop Suey!"
The Doctor: "Chop Suey, the galactic emperor!"
Three out of four bland pseudonyms.
Mark Greig has been writing for Doux Reviews since 2011. More Mark Greig.