Posts Tagged ‘Season 13’

I think there are a couple of little phrases I shall have to prohibit myself from using when I write about vintage TV from now on, first and foremost ‘nothing like this would ever be shown for the same audience today’ – that probably goes without saying, on reflection, in that it’s true that every programme, from the news downward, is operating to a different set of values and priorities than it was even twenty years ago. Things change; such is life.

But even so, sometimes you are smacked in the face by just how different things were in years go by. Watching The Brain of Morbius again, nearly 40 years on from its original broadcast, one is almost instantly struck by a crunching one-two of things that would be inconceivable on modern TV.

The first one is how inescapably shoddy the production looks, by modern standards. Proceedings open in a studio-bound mountainside set, which appears to be made of finest polystyrene, and crawling about is a man in a second-hand rubber insect costume. The cheapest of cheap shows for very tiny children looks more polished than this, today. But then, within a handful of minutes, it is made clear that this story is going to deal with subject matter so ghastly and unpleasant it would only appear post-watershed these days, and even then probably only with a prefatory warning [Apparently not: subsequently shown on the Horror Channel during daytime with barely a disclaimer in sight – A]: the poor old insect gets his head chopped off, and we later see his severed bonce being experimented on by the story’s resident mad scientist, Solon (Philip Madoc). (It suddenly occurs to me that Solon’s first name, Mehendri, doesn’t seem to appear on screen, so I wonder where it came from. Is it in the novelisation? Hmmm. [Wrong again – I think I heard it in Episode One – A])


I don’t mention these things because I think The Brain of Morbius is an embarrassingly primitive or outrageously depraved story, but simply because one of the over-riding impressions one gets watching these great old Doctor Who stories nowadays is the sense of how they are products of an utterly different culture. Perhaps that’s why I love them so much, and am so indifferent to virtually everything made for TV today.

This isn’t even a particular favourite of mine, nor indeed a story held in the highest of regards. It was originally transmitted in 1976, and behind the innocuous writer’s credit of Robin Bland lies the closest the series ever came to a collaboration between two of its greatest writers, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes.

The TARDIS lands on the devastated planet Karn, perhaps better known these days as the place of the eighth Doctor’s demise, apparently sent there by the Time Lords. Living on Karn are the Sisterhood of the Flame, a quasi-religious order dedicated to protecting a mysterious flame which produces an elixir of everlasting life, and Solon and his servant, who are dedicated to a rather darker pursuit. The Sisters have got into the habit of telekinetically shooting down any passing spacecraft just to be on the safe side, which dovetails rather well with Solon’s need for a constant supply of fresh body parts. But what does all this have to do with Morbius, a now-deceased Time Lord despot who was executed on Karn, and whose little grey cells feature so prominently in the title of the tale?

It would be fascinating to get one’s hands on the original Dicks scripts for The Brain of Morbius and see just how significant Holmes’ redrafting was. The story certainly has the rock-solid underpinning of structure that one would expect from Dicks, not to mention the fascination with Time Lord mythology and history (he’s allowed this, he did co-create them, after all), and he displays the sort of casual, total¬†understanding of the Doctor’s character you would expect. But on the other hand, the story also sticks very closely to the narrative template Holmes deployed numerous times during his tenure as script-editor: the story is occurring in the aftermath of a cataclysmic conflict, the instigator of which is trapped somewhere underground in a debilitated form. Various servants are trying to release him, which generally happens towards the end of the final episode: that’s Morbius in this story, but also Sutekh, the Master, and Magnus Greel elsewhere – give or take the odd detail. The character of Solon also feels authentically Holmesian and is one of the things that makes the story sing: there aren’t many performers who can match Tom Baker in terms of sheer presence, but Madoc manages it here.

That said, this isn’t quite a story from the first rank, as it relies a little too much on plot devices appearing out of thin air for it to function – the convenient gun Solon whips out to blow a hole in Condo’s guts, for one thing, but more importantly the mindbending machine which features so prominently in the climax – Chekhov’s Gun dictates this should have been set up in the previous episode, at least.

(One of the incidental sadnesses of the recent Moffatisation of Doctor Who is the ironclad declaration that the Hartnell incarnation was definitively the first, which does render the procession of pre-Hartnell Doctors displayed here rather baffling. Even my own inclination to disregard everything from The Time of the Doctor onwards doesn’t help, given there’s that ‘all twelve of them’ moment in the fiftieth anniversary… Never mind.)

More importantly, perhaps, there’s the fact that the story’s nature as a pastiche (primarily of Frankenstein, obviously, but not without a dash of Haggard) is essential to it working. This isn’t always the case with the Holmes-Hinchcliffe pastiche stories – you don’t need to be aware of Forbidden Planet to enjoy Planet of Evil or Face of Evil – but unless you understand that Holmes (and we can be pretty sure it is Holmes, rather than Dicks) is playing games with Mary Shelley, the whole thing unravels into a heap of niggling plot holes, despite the writer’s valiant efforts – why doesn’t Solon plan to just transplant the brain directly into the Doctor, rather than all that messing about with head-swapping which seems to be on the cards? Why bother building the composite body at all? (One can also engagingly speculate on how removing the brain of a Time Lord interacts with the regenerative process, and exactly how much damage it would take to stop the process working.)

So this is a story which functions first and foremost as a gothic pastiche, containing many of the most prominent tropes of this period of the programme (there’s even a knowing gag about how many times Sarah finds herself believing the Doctor is dead, which does happen rather a lot). You could probably make a decent case that The Brain of Morbius is the most representative story of all the things this particular production team are famous for, even if the studio-bound nature of proceedings inevitably make it less effective than it could be. I will be honest and admit that this story isn’t a particular favourite of mine, but – given its conception and the circumstances in which it was made – there’s not very much wrong with it at all.


The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Bit

The Brain of Morbius is one of those stories which offers virtually no clues as to its setting, spatially or historically, and the few clues we are given are either heroically unhelpful or invite more questions than they answer. Solon is apparently Terran in origin, which at least seems to suggest a setting some time after the 22nd century, but this would seem to indicate Earth was involved in – or at least aware of – Morbius’ rebellion, which is curious.

It’s one of those slightly odd facts that Earth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had at least some knowledge of the existence of Time Lords as individuals, but there is no suggestion of any formal relationship between any of the later Earth Empires and Gallifrey (and Gallifrey does seem to maintain a form of diplomatic relation with other powers – the Third Zone government, for instance, disregards requests from the Time Lords to discontinue their time experiments in The Two Doctors).

This is all doubtless a result of the fact that the Morbius rebellion is one of those apparently-major events which is only referred to in one TV story. Not being familiar with any of the spin-off stories dealing with it in more detail, I can’t help but wonder at Terrance Dicks’ original idea – is Morbius another figure out of legend for the Doctor? Or did his reign happen during the Doctor’s own lifetime? What effect did it have in shaping his own outlook? It’s irresistibly tempting to draw the conclusion that the Doctor’s unique reference to the circumstances of his own birth is in some way significant… but, as I say, there are many more questions than answers here.

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