Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius

Doctor Who Story 084 – The Brain of Morbius

Solon speaks with The Brain of Morbius
Source: The AV Club. Copyright 1976 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Robin Bland (well, Robert Holmes)

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah arrive on the planet Karn—against their will. The Doctor believes The Time Lords have placed him there to do their bidding once again. But he soon becomes the object of two antagonistic forces: the Sisterhood of Karn, which believes he is a Time Lord agent sent to steal their Elixir of Life, and Solon, a brilliant surgeon whose secret agenda involves the resurrection of a Time Lord war criminal which can only be accomplished if he can claim The Doctor’s head.

On its surface, The Brain of Morbius is a retelling of Frankenstein—owing more to the movie versions rather than Mary Shelley’s classic novel. In this capacity, The Brain of Morbius works magnificently. It gives us the mad scientist and his less-than-intelligent assistant; it gives us a creature stitched together from different bodies (and in Doctor Who fashion, these are different alien bodies); and it even gives us a torch-bearing mob that chases the creature to his death. It is a clever retelling, all things considered.

But deeper in the story is a brilliant tension between gothic horror and morbidly dark comedy. This tension is balance perfectly by Philip Madoc, who played Solon the Victor Frankenstein homage. Solon is devoted to resurrecting Morbius in bodily form, but he is also devoted to his work. Pardon the language, but I really can’t think of a better way to convey how I feel: Despite being a brilliant surgeon, Solon is truly bat-shit insane. And I absolutely love this! It would be easy to see plot holes in this story: Why doesn’t Solon use Condo’s body? Why not use The Doctor’s body instead of the patchwork body Solon has been creating for years? Because the man is insane. Because he genuinely believes this is a good plan. Personally, I love viewing Solon this way. He is a brilliant surgeon, but he is completely and totally cracked. He has spent years piecing together this mongrel body, and he isn’t going to be swayed away from it just because a better specimen has turned up.

On top of all that, Solon has the best lines in the story:

  • “What a magnificent head!”
  • “You chicken brained biological disaster.”
  • “Don’t lie to me, Condo! You’ve been looking for that arm again, haven’t you?”
  • “I’ll see that palsied harridan scream for death!”

Until I can write insults as well as Robert Holmes, I won’t consider myself a successful writer.

In the midst of all the horror and dark comedy, The Brain of Morbius gives us a surprising amount of Time Lord mythology. We learn that the Time Lords rely on The Sisterhood’s elixir from time to time. We learn about yet another evil Time Lord, one who sat on the High Council and attempted to lead the Time Lords in conquest of the galaxy. And in The Doctor’s mental battle with Morbius, we see incarnations of The Doctor which predate the Hartnell incarnation. (Yes, I understand this is a point of contention among fans. This was the original intent, however, and the order of the sequence actually supports this. While I prefer to view the other portraits possible incarnations of Morbius, I cannot deny the intention of writers of this story. Doctor Who is an endless list of earlier concepts being superseded: earlier incarnations of The Doctor; history cannot be written, not one line; Time Lords live forever, barring accidents; Time Lords as godlike beings rather than bureaucrats; and so on.) In some ways, The Brain of Morbius is a foreshadowing of things to come; it is an indication that Hinchcliffe and Holmes are not afraid to play around with Time Lord society where earlier producers and script editors had been cautious how far into Time Lord society we looked.

But enough of that for now. What we have in The Brain of Morbius is a great example of dark comedy and horror homage. This story could have easily been a disaster (and the ending does start to feel rushed and chaotic), but thanks to brilliant acting by the lead and guest actors, as well as excellent set design, this story succeeds.

My Rating: 4/5

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