Mad scientist Mehendri Solon is looking for a head to house the brain of the criminal Time Lord, Morbius. When the Doctor arrives on Karn with Sarah, his head seems like the perfect receptacle.
If you’re looking for a story where Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ gothic approach to Doctor Who really hits its stride, look no further than The Brain of Morbius. It owes a debt to Frankenstein, with pretty blatant parallels to the famous work of fiction. Whilst the story might not be the most original, the direction manages to capture the gothic tone that Hinchcliffe and Holmes were aiming for with their run on the show and, despite being shot entirely in studio, presumably due to a lack of budget, The Brain of Morbius really stands up to this day.
The Brain of Morbius could easily be seen to be an example of a low budget story working really well. Whilst the lack of location work is glaringly obvious and at times it is painfully obvious that the action is taking place on a set, it gives a tense and claustrophobic feeling to proceedings that keeps the audience gripped. The story is not terribly original, but it evokes Hammer Horror films effectively with elements like the stormy skies and Solon’s castle. Even the rubber suit that is the final form of Morbius really works well here as he dashes around the surface of Karn. There are some moments that are really astonishing for Doctor Who, namely the shots of the container holding Morbius’ brain shattering and falling to the floor and Solon shooting Condo seem pretty gruesome for the show, making them all the more effective. The mindbending sequence at this story’s conclusion paved the way for the revived series to insert more incarnations of the Doctor prior to William Hartnell, which was the intention at the time of production, and it works quite well even outside of this context.
The villains are where this story really shines. Philip Madoc was probably highlighted to any production team of the classic series as a reliable pair of hands for a compelling villain. He does not disappoint here in his role of Mehendri Solon, believable portraying a brilliant scientist out for revenge on the universe, which has made him slightly unstable but maintaining a degree of charm. Solon was on Karn at the time of Morbius’s execution by the Time Lords, maintaining the criminal’s brain in a jar. Condo, Solon’s well-intentioned and misled assistant, is a mix between Igor and Quasimodo, developing an affection for Sarah, and the relationship between Solon and Condo is quite well realised on screen. The titular Morbius is well voiced by Michael Spice, adding a sense of menace to the disembodied brain in the jar and makes scenes like the one where Sarah Jane heads towards his voice all the more scary. Morbius and Condo’s body’s are both like patchwork, something which the revived series likes to return to, namely with the Clockwork Droids (in Deep Breath) and Auntie, Uncle and Idris in The Doctor’s Wife. This element is suitably horrific
The third party in this story are the Sisterhood of Karn, led by Maren, the High Priestess. Due to historic conflict between the Sisterhood and the Time Lords, she is not quick to trust the Doctor and Sarah, an element which we don’t see a lot of in stories like this. Cynthia Grenville does well conveying the burden of immortality bequeathed by the Eternal Flame, and I like the fact that, despite the Doctor being able to easily solve the problem of the Flame going out, this does not mean the fact that they are immediately allies – the Sisterhood remain sceptical of the Doctor’s claims that Morbius has returned.
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 Fourth Doctor
The central pairing of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen is really good. I feel like I say this every time I review a Fourth Doctor serial, but they have such fantastic chemistry and I can see why they are so many people’s favourite Doctor – Companion pairing. They really are at the peak of their powers here, and I think to a certain extent, Christopher Barry let the regulars get on with it, as Sladen states in her autobiography that she thought that the director was preoccupied by the presence of Madoc. She is great in the scenes where she is blinded by Maren’s ring and when she recovers her sight and she and the Doctor have a great exchange. Whilst Sarah might not have a lot to do here, she reacts as realistically as one would when confronted with this situation. Tom Baker veers between serious sombriety, in his rage against the Time Lords and their tinkering in steering the TARDIS off-course at the beginning of the story, to a more comedic slant when standing outside Solon’s castle on Karn in the pouring rain.
Could you spare a glass of water?The Fourth Doctor
The rage at the beginning of the story really caught my eye, thanks largely to the fantastic podcast, Verity! They are currently returning to stories and re-evaluating them, and in their episode about Genesis of the Daleks, they mention that, as a result of the outcome of this story, the Doctor’s attitude towards the Time Lords and their missions for him changes. Here, he bemoans them pulling his TARDIS off-course, believing that they don’t want to get their hands dirty. His fury is a marked change from Pertwee’s resignation and possibly signals a change in approach towards the Time Lords, paving the way for something more drastic to come in the next season. It is noticeable that Robert Holmes has a different approach to the Time Lords to his predecessor, Terrance Dicks, who liked to portray them as well-intentioned guardians of the universe. The sentence of Morbius shows just how brutal Time Lord justice is, as his atoms were dispersed to the nine corners of the universe. Here it serves to prove just how serious his crimes were, and the Doctor and the Master seem to have got off pretty lightly!
Verdict: The Brain of Morbius is a Hammer Horror influenced story and a lot of fun. It is aided by a memorable turn by Philip Madoc as Solon, a great gothic atmosphere and a good adaptation of Frankenstein to fit the show. 10/10
Cast: Tom Baker (The Doctor), Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith), Michael Spice (Voice of Morbius), Philip Madoc (Solon), Cynthia Grenville (Maren), Colin Fay (Condo), Gilly Brown (Ohica), Sue Bishop, Janie Kells, Gabrielle Mowbray and Veronica Ridge (Sisters), John Scott Martin (Kriz) & Stuart Fell (Morbius Monster).
Writer: “Robin Bland” (pseudonym for Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes)
Director: Christopher Barry
Behind the Scenes
- The story was heavily influenced by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its film adaptations.
- This story introduces the Sisterhood of Karn, who would later reappear in The Night of the Doctor, The Magician’s Apprentice and Hell Bent.
- Terrance Dicks disapproved of Holmes’ changes to his script, leading him to ask for the story to be broadcast credited under “some bland pseudonym”. The main change was to make Morbius’s assistant human rather than a robot due to budgetary constraints, something Dicks begrudgingly came to terms with.
- Philip Hinchcliffe stated that the production team had intended to bring in famous actors as the faces, however, there were no volunteers and so members of the production team were used instead. The faces that appear in the mind battle are, in order of appearance: George Gallacio (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).
- Philip Hinchcliffe confirmed that the intention was always that these faces were previous incarnations of the Doctor prior to William Hartnell. The Timeless Children would later confirm this, although ironically, director Christopher Barry’s photo was not featured in that episode.
- After complaints were received about actors not being used for the “Morbius Doctors”, the BBC paid a sum to the acting union Equity’s benevolent fund.
- This is the second of four stories to receive a complaint from Mary Whitehouse of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, who labelled it as “containing some of the sickest and most horrific material seen on children’s television.”
- The third of four appearances for Philip Madoc, who had previously appeared in The Krotons and The War Machines. He would make his final appearance in televised Doctor Who in The Power of Kroll. He would appear in the Big Finish audio dramas Master and Return of the Krotons.
The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists, dripping like tea from an urn.The Fourth Doctor
Previous Fourth Doctor story: The Android Invasion
Elisabeth Sladen: The Autobiography, published 2011
Sega Genesis of the Daleks – Verity Podcast