Season 13 – Story 84
“This will be no crude butchery. A head such as this, a head that will soon command the universe, must be taken with care and skill… This will be my great triumph” – Solon
The Tardis is dragged a thousand parsecs off course, presumably by the Time Lords, to the inhospitable Karn, home to a powerful Sisterhood dependent on an elixir of life, which has almost run dry. Long ago on Karn, the Time Lords executed Morbius, a war criminal from their own race. His brain, however, was preserved by Solon, a cult follower and neurosurgeon who has since created a monstrous body for his master. He now hopes to use the Doctor’s head to house the brain but, when this plan fails, he opts for an artificial braincase. Sarah, who’s been blinded by the Sisters, is forced to help Solon in his gruesome resurrection of Morbius…
Part 1 – Saturday 3 January 1976
Part 2 – Saturday 10 January 1976
Part 3 – Saturday 17 January 1976
Part 4 – Saturday 24 January 1976
Studio recording: October 1975 in TC1 and TC3
Doctor Who – Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith – Elisabeth Sladen
Mehendri Solon – Philip Madoc
Condo – Colin Fay
Maren – Cynthia Grenville
Ohica – Gilly Brown
Voice of Morbius – Michael Spice
Monster – Stuart Fell
Kriz – John Scott Martin
Sisters – Sue Bishop, Janie Kells, Gabrielle Mowbray, Veronica Ridge
Writer – Robin Bland (pseudonym for Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes)
Designer – Barry Newbery
Incidental music – Dudley Simpson
Script editor – Robert Holmes
Producer – Philip Hinchcliffe
Director – Christopher Barry
RT Review by Patrick Mulkern
Decapitation, amputation, people being throttled by a claw, an oaf shot graphically in the guts, a brain bubbling in a tank then splatting onto a lab floor… The horror! The gore! And all at Saturday teatime. Mary Whitehouse and her fellow killjoys in the Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association may have been frothing at the mouth, but boggle-eyed kiddies in 1976 lapped this up.
Who was responsible? Don’t blame writer Robin Bland or even go looking for him. The 1975 hit parade of horror was down to Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe. Holmes commissioned Terrance Dicks to write this four-parter, then completely revised his scripts. A fuming Dicks wrote to his friend asking for his name to be removed, saying, “I’ll leave it to you to devise some bland pseudonym.” Weeks later, he was highly amused when “I got Radio Times and there was The Brain of Morbius by Robin Bland.”
Unfortunately, one radical change, demanded by Hinchcliffe, resulted in a fundamental lapse in logic that should occur even to a child of eight. Dicks’s plot had a robot with no aesthetic taste assembling a body for Morbius. Now we have an Earthman, Solon, fixated on the Doctor’s “magnificent head”.
Surely, he’d discard his hideous, headless Heinz 57 and, more simply, transfer Morbius’s brain into the Doctor’s “magnificent” and complete Time Lord body. You might also ponder why Solon doesn’t consider using the whole body of his servant Condo, a Sister, or even Sarah after the Doctor vanishes.
It’s senseless – in a drama that is obsessed with the senses. Sarah temporarily loses her sight. Condo has lost touch with his left arm. Disembodied Morbius is deprived every sense but hearing. He’s trapped like “a sponge beneath the sea. Yet even a sponge has more life than I. Can you understand a thousandth of my agony?” Others, though, enjoy heightened senses. Maren, leader of the Sisterhood, says, “Our senses reach beyond the five planets,” while the Doctor experiences “a living mental contact – I felt the mind of Morbius.”
Illogic aside, The Brain of Morbius is a mouthwatering treat. Plundering the trappings of Universal and Hammer horror movies (blatantly Frankenstein and She), the production has a penetrating Gothic tone – realised by the designer and director more literally than even Hinchcliffe had anticipated.
Christopher Barry gets the levels of violence and gore just about right, and creates the world of Karn most effectively and entirely at BBC TV Centre; there’s no film or location work. Barry Newbery’s luxuriant, boundless sets benefit from dim and moody lighting. The illusion only falters during a few stark “daylight” scenes with characters clomping across a wooden “rocky” outcrop.
Philip Madoc (scintillating in The War Games, 1969) embodies another unforgettable villain. We register Solon’s fanaticism and thirst for grisly deeds yet he’s charming and oddly likeable. Any insanity is scarcely tangible, despite Sarah insisting, “He’s mad. He must be,” and later, “You’re insane, Solon. You’re mad.”
Whenever he boils with rage, it’s worth pausing to savour Solon’s invective. Condo is called a “chicken-brained biological disaster,” while the Sisterhood are a “squalid brood of harpies”. And “that accursed hag, Maren. May her stinking bones rot… I’ll see that palsied harridan scream for death before Morbius and I are finished with her.” Now that’s funny.
The dialogue is steeped in morbid humour. The Doctor: “Talking of heads, or their absence, we found a headless body lower down the mountain.” His capture by the Sisterhood is hilarious. In full Time Loon mode, he calls Maren “Matron” and, clocking they’ve moved the Tardis, says, “You still practise teleportation? How quaint. Now, if you got yourself a decent forklift truck.”
Seventies Who was such a male preserve it’s a relief to arrive in a world of women. With their Pan’s People twirling and echoing chant (“Sacred flame. Sacred fire”), the Sisterhood are one flap of the veil away from ridiculous. Gilly Brown is intense as Ohica and could beat Tom Baker in a who-blinks-first contest.
Cynthia Grenville was considerably younger than the aged-up Maren. On the BBC DVD, she recalls being cast after her chum Elisabeth Sladen spotted her in the BBC canteen queue and said, “Cyndy, you can play over a hundred…” Grenville: “What a damn cheek!”
Sladen sadly gets little more than the usual chicken-feed companion dialogue, though as ever her quirky inventiveness makes you believe in Sarah as a person. She delivers a master class in “blind acting”, and is at the heart of the action, encountering a new horror in all three terrific cliffhangers.
On balance, the most shocking incident occurs when Sarah and the Doctor are locked in a dungeon. He concocts cyanogen and kills Solon. Not only is this uncharacteristically murderous, it could have been futile and left them trapped for ever.
The text adds depth to Gallifreyan mythology. The Doctor was “born in these parts” and confirms his age as 749. Once leader of the High Council, Morbius is the fourth in a line of power-crazed Time Lords (after the War Chief, the Master and Omega). Also we learn that the Time Lords are not beyond reproach. Previously, the Doctor has found them boring or interfering. Now Solon calls them “spineless parasites” and “pacifist degenerates”. To Morbius, they’re “pallid, devious worms”. In a small way it sets the stage for Holmes’s wholesale revision of the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin later in the year.
Most revisionist of all is the mind-bending contest as Morbius and the Doctor lock horns over a framework that projects images of their former selves. Thrillingly, we see the third, second and first Doctors – then a gallery of faces representing even earlier Doctors. “How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?” gargles Morbius. “Back to your beginning!”
Who were these untelevised Doctors? Would we ever find out? Jaw-dropping stuff in 1976. Many fans have since tried to reconcile this moment with established continuity, suggesting we’d seen faces of Morbius. But the fleeting mugs of middle-aged men, all in eccentric attire, were undeniably the Doctor as we might have known him.
Years later, fans discovered these “Doctors” were posed by production personnel working on this story and the next – Christopher Barry, Robert Holmes, Philip Hinchcliffe, the great Douglas Camfield… hitherto faceless names published in Radio Times from a time long before the Who crew became public figures. There’s also a memo from Hinchcliffe to the Head of Serials referring to the “likenesses of the Doctor in his previous incarnations”. Categorical. Rather marvellous. And, for me, one of the highlights of the 70s.
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Radio Times archive
[Available on BBC DVD]