Brain of Morbius is a silly story.
There. I have said it.
There is a storm; there is some of the fakest fake lightening you have ever seen. There is the maddest mad scientist you ever saw in your life. He has a lab, full of flasks and retort stands and valves and dials and gas lamps. He has a servant called Igor. I am sorry, did I say Igor? I meant Kondo. Kondo has been sent out to foray for corpses. Solon, the scientist, is angry because Kondo the servant, has brought home the head of a “mutt” — a giant humanoid insect — when what he really wanted was the head of a human being. At which point, right on cue, the Doctor and Sarah arrive at the door. Solon adopts a positively Basil Fawlty level of obsequiousness. “What a magnificent head!” he says as the Doctor takes his hat off.
“Thank you very much” says the Doctor. “I’ve had several.”
Solon is constructing a Monster out of the bodies of dead travellers; and he is preparing to bring it to life. When he berates Kondo for bringing the wrong head we all recall the moment when Igor brings Frankenstein “a criminal brain” to put in his monster. The scene comes, not from Mary Shelly’s novel, but from James Whale’s iconic movie. Most of us probably know it better from Mel Brook’s parody in which Igor steals a glass jar clearly marked “Do not use this brain.” (It belonged to someone called Abbey Normal.)
Brain of Morbius is almost completely uninterested in the text of Frankenstein. It isn’t very interested in the Boris Karloff movies. Frankenstein provides the story with its aesthetic, much as Karloff’s Mummy provided Pyramids of Mars with its upholstery.
It is however, very much interested in criminal’s brains.
We are not in nineteenth century Transylvania, but on the planet Karn. Solon is not a Victorian madman, but a brilliant microsurgeon from the far future. Sarah Jane, who is up on her Egyptian mythology, has apparently never read Frankenstein. If she had said “oh, this reminds me of something in a horror film I once saw” the game would have been up. And the Doctor is never tempted to say that he once recounted the legend of Solon to a charming Victorian girl who needed an idea for a ghost story. The Doctor has visited lots of historical settings and met lots of famous people, but a Doctor Who / Mary Shelly cross over has never been tried, and probably never will be. //IRONY//
The First Doctor encountered an animatronic version of a Boris Karloff at a futuristic theme park, although he presumably still believes that he was in an alien dimension where people’s fears took on solid form.
If this had been Star Trek, Solon would have been a cargo cultist who had consciously based his science on late night schlock horror broadcasts from planet Earth. In Brain of Morbius, we are just asked to take him for granted. It’s an alien planet in the the far future where they still use candles and gas lamps. Solon is the foremost microsurgeon of his day and he uses hacksaws and needles and thread to cobble patchwork monsters together.
Of course he does. Do you have a problem with that?
But we have only scratched the surface of what an odd story Brain of Morbius is. On the same planet, within walking distance of Solon’s castle, a second story is going on. And the second story is cast in a completely different narrative register from the first. Where Solon thinks he is in a Hammer Horror movie, the Sisterhood of Karn are very well aware that they are in a BBC costume drama. They enunciate their lines; they roll their Rs; they do strange Greek-chrous style rituals just as the specially credited movement director tells them to. (SAY! KRED! FLAME! SAY! KRED! FIRE!). They act as hard as they possibly can, but it is quite clear that they don’t have the first idea of what is going on.
The Sisterhood are immortal feminist witches who worship fire (SAY! KRED! FLAME!) and guard the Elixir of Life. They are fantasy characters and they do not belong in this gothic pastiche. They are, like everything else in the story, a plot device: a brilliant, beautiful, plot device.
Frankenstein only really gets under way once the creature is animated. The story is about Frankenstein’s treatment of his creation, and how how his creation took its revenge. Sarah catches her first glimpse of Solon’s monster at the end of episode one. It is a pleasantly disgusting creation, as if a lump of rotting butcher’s meat was about to stand up and walk around the shop. But it is not finally brought to life until the final seconds of episode three. Something has to fill the time before we reach this inevitable climax.
The Sisterhood are there to provide the necessary plot wrinkle. Solon needs the Doctor’s head as the final component of his Monster. The Sisters think the Doctor has come to Karn to steal their Elixir. So — using their feminist mind powers — they teleport him to their cave, stalling Solon’s plans. Sarah infiltrates their lair and rescues the Doctor. But during the escape she is zapped with the chief witch’s magic ring. This makes her overact even more than usual, and also renders her temporarily blind.
Back in the castle, Solon convinces the Doctor that Sarah’s eyes can only be healed using the Sisterhood’s magic healing McGuffin, so back he goes; and dutifully gets captured again. That pretty much fills the time between Sarah seeing the Monster and Solon finally resurrecting it.
Frankenstein Versus the Witches could have added up to a perfectly good piece of Saturday night horror. But there is a third element which turns Brain of Morbius into a major piece of Whovian mythmaking.
I want to stay focussed on the story as a story: as a very good example of the thing of which Android Invasion was a mediocre example. It is most unlikely that Robert Holmes woke up one morning and said “I know. I will entirely redefine the mythological backstory to Doctor Who. But just to wrong-foot people, I will embed it in Boris Karloff pastiche.” Quite clearly, he said “I need a literary device to connect the Sisterhood of Karn with Solon’s experiment, and to bring the Doctor into conflict with both of them. An off-stage Time Lord war criminal would be an elegant piece of plot machinery.”
Robert Holmes was the past master of lorebabble. Lorebabble, a word I just invented, is the technique of referring to a backstory which does not exist. “I was with the Filipino army at the final advance on Reykjavik” (from Talons of Weng Chiang) is pure lorebabble: it sounds evocative, it conveys the idea of a history that the Doctor knows about and we don’t, but it doesn’t really refer to anything. A lot of the mystique and charisma of the Sisterhood comes from lorebabble of this kind. “Our senses stretch beyond the five planets....” “Even the silent gas dirigibles of the Hoothi are felt in our bones” “Since the time of the stones we have shared the elixir with them.” We get the message very clearly that the Sisterhood are old and wise and know a lot of stuff that we don’t. But a question like “Which are the other four planets” and “Do the Hoothi have any quiet dirigibles” fall outside the scope of the narrative. If you want to know the answer then you haven’t understood the question.
The legend of Morbius himself is a rather different kettle of sea-devils. It comes out in fragments, but we are left with a very coherent impression of the unwritten story to which the Brain of Morbius is an epilogue. The story is much more evocative because we have to piece it together and flesh out the details in our minds’ eyes. If Big Finish or someone decided to actually tell the story they would only spoil it.
When the Doctor arrives, he mentions that Solon was rumoured to have been a member of the cult of Morbius; and notices that the clay head Solon has been working on looks like Morbius’s face. Then Solon soliloquises that Morbius offered the Time Lords a greatness which they rejected. The leader of the Sisters tells the Doctor that Morbius was executed by the Time Lords for crimes which he committed on Karn. As the story rolls on, more and more fragments come out. Karn is a wasteland because of the war to defeat Morbius. Morbius’s plan was to steal the Elixir from the Sisters. Morbius was at one time president of the High Council of Time Lords.
“For years, the Time Lords have extended their friendship towards the Sisters. When Morbius and his rebels overran this planet, who was it saved you?”
“The Time Lords acted then as they do now, from self-interest. They too feared Morbius. They too depended on the Elixir of Life for their survival.”
We have to assemble these fragments in our heads. You might almost say that we have to stitch them together to recreate Morbius.
This back story changes what the Time Lords are and how we can talk about them. None of the mythology introduced in the story is ever mentioned again. The Doctor never engages in Time Lord mind-wrestling with the Master. You might imagine that the “cult of Morbius” would be referenced when the Doctor goes back to Gallifrey next season, or that he would turn out to have had some connection with the new figure of Rassilon. The new ideas are not retconned or overwritten: they are simply ignored. They don’t have any effect on the stories around them and we don’t really expect them to.
And yet. For the first time, the Time Lords have a history. There were evil Time Lords and rebel Time Lords. There is a position called “president”. They have followers on other planets and form alliances with cabals of Shakespearean witches. This is new. This is not who the Time Lords were even two stories ago.
Again: Holmes knows what he is doing. The Time Lords have taken the TARDIS off course because they want the Doctor to do something for them, and the Doctor is cross with them. He childishly sulks and pretends to Sarah that he is not going to get involved in what is happening on Karn. These are still the Time Lords of Genesis of the Daleks and the Three Doctors and the Auton Invasion, aloof and godlike. The Doctor addresses them by looking up at the sky, as someone might talk to their God or a deceased relative. But by the end of the episode we are being told that these same Time Lords had to make alliances with the Sisterhood of Karn to get access to their potion of immortality. They aren’t gods at all, although they have more powerful Psi Powers than “even” the Sisterhood. Holmes has reminded us what the Time Lords used to be like so we can be surprised that the Time Lords are not like that any more.
The Universal Pictures version of Frankenstein ends, famously, with a mob of peasants with burning torches chasing the Monster and eventually cornering him in a burning windmill.
Brain of Morbius ends with the Sisterhood chasing Solon’s monster and eventually forcing him off the edge of a precipice. This brings the plot, the sub-plot and the backstory together in a highly satisfying conclusion. Morbius tried to steal the Sister’s elixir of life; Solon tried to raise Morbius from the dead; now the Sisterhood have destroyed the re-born Morbius. And although we have stepped out of Solon’s gothic castle we are still in the world of Karloff’s Frankenstein. The Sisterhood, like the peasants, are armed with burning torches.
The Sisterhood of Karn have been created purely to facilitate that scene. Everything about them is associated with fire. They wear cool flame coloured robes; they worship a SAY! KRED! FLAME! and they twice try to kill the Doctor by burning him at the stake. (An interesting reversal, incidentally: it’s normally men who burn witches.) Morbius is destroyed with flaming torches because he is a living reenactment of Frankenstein and that is how Frankenstein’s monster dies; he dies by fire because he is the enemy of the Sisterhood and the Sisterhood are all about fire. The audience sees the connection: it is ontologically impossible for anyone in the story to do so.
We can extend the line further backwards. If the function of the Sisterhood is to destroy Morbius, then Morbius has to be their enemy; so they have to have something he wants. The Elixir plays very little part in the story. But it is crucial to the backstory. The Sisterhood control a magic elixir which makes them immortal. Morbius came to Kan because he wanted to steal the elixir from the sisterhood.
But this generates a new narrative problem. The Time Lords have placed the Doctor into the middle of a story which he is not strictly part of. It is narratively and historically appropriate for the Sisters to kill Morbius. So what is the Doctor’s role in the story? What is he there for?
Holmes’ solution is incredibly clever. Of course, the story is mostly a silly pastiche of Frankenstein, and of course the hybrid monster containing Morbius’s brain gets to go on the rampage, damaging the scenery and terrifying everybody. Sarah and the Sisters both confront the Monster as a Monster; Sarah playing the role of the damsel in distress; the Sisterhood standing in for the mob of peasants.
But the Doctor faces Morbius as Morbius. He faces him as a fellow Time Lord. The Frankenstein pastiche has become almost irrelevant. As with Sutekh and the Anti-Matter Monster, he is battling someone on his own level; someone arguably more powerful than him. And out of nowhere comes the idea of a Time Lord Telepathic Wrestling Match.
Now: if Holmes had not been terribly careful, this could have been a massive anti-climax. The Doctor and Morbius stare at each other and Morbius falls over. So Holmes does two very clever things.
First, the Doctor appears, unexpectedly, to lose the duel. He is left mostly dead; and Morbius escapes, to be pushed off the cliff by the Sisterhood. This is perfectly good plotting: the hero sacrifices his life in an epic struggle with the villain. The villain, thinking he has won, staggers out of the room in a weakened state, and the subsidiary goodies deliver the coup de grace.
But that is not a big enough climax to such an epic story. So Holmes hits the audience with a genuinely unexpected surprise.
Fans have been much too prepared to look at the mind-bending competition in terms of the show’s lore. But Doctor Who isn’t nearly as interested in lore as Doctor Who fans are. This particular piece of mythology was overwritten six months later, and it is highly unlikely that any writer will ever refer to it again. //IRONY//
It is much more profitable to look at it is a narrative device: as a theatrical effect in the total theatre of Brain of Morbius. How is a telepathic conflict between two Time Lords to be represented? By a series of pictures of the Doctor’s face. How are we to see that the Doctor is struggling, but losing? By showing that face turning back into previous versions of the Doctor — a sort of reverse regeneration. Baker turns into Pertwee, Pertwee turns into Troughton, Troughton turns into Hartnell. What could be more dramatic than that? The process reaches its logical end point with a picture of the “First” Doctor, and then continues, though Doctor Minus One and Doctor Minus Two, right through to Doctor Minus Eight. This isn’t a new piece of information or a change of backstory. It’s the breaking of a taboo for dramatic effect. We have been taken back before the beginning, into a time which logically can’t exist.
Morbius understands this. The very scary ancient renegade Time Lord is freaked out. “How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?” he cries out, and “Back to the beginning!”
We don’t have time to think about any of that: because at the end of the contest the Doctor drops down, apparently dead. We’ve gone back before the beginning, but we’ve also reached the end. What happens next?
The story is named after a physical organ which was removed from the body of an executed criminal: the brain of Morbius. Morbius sought to infinitely prolong his physical life by stealing the Sister’s elixir: that’s what makes him evil. Solon is trying to prolong his physical existence in a much more obviously grotesque way: by keeping the brain alive in a vat, and by transplanting it into a body that he is sown together from bits of dead aliens. But the final scene is not about brain wrestling, but about mind wrestling. It is the mind of Morbius which made him evil, and it is the mind of Morbius which the Doctor has to defeat.
It is hardly a year since Tom Baker first appeared on our screens; and it is already very hard to imagine anyone apart from him playing the Doctor. Right at the beginning of the story, he cracks a joke about how he used to wear a different face entirely, and the story ends with a cavalcade of all the faces he has ever had. The audience needs to be reminded that the Doctor regenerates; that change is part of the nature of the Time Lords. Morbius’s scheme to make himself immortal with a magical formula is a fundamentally un-Time Lordly thing to want to do.
Perhaps that is how we should read the mind-bending contest. The Doctor destroys the mind of Morbius, leaving the Sisters to destroy his brain. The fight on the cliff is the climax of the front story, the story about Solon and his hybrid monstrosity. But the fight in the lab is the climax of the backstory, the story of Morbius rebellion.
The Sisterhood are the antithesis of the Time Lords. Like Morbius, they seek to infinitely prolong their lives without changing. They use supernatural mind powers which the Doctor regards as primitive; and they treat perfectly explicable natural phenomena with religious awe. But the story ends with the Masculine Scientific Ever Changing Time Lords and the Feminine Magical Never Changing Sisterhood reaching a kind of synthesis. The Doctor gives his life to defeat Morbius; Maran sacrifices her life to save the Doctor.
Brain of Morbius has been stitched together from two different storylines; and from several contradictory ideas. It’s a strange thing; an unwieldy, ridiculous thing. Chop suey and potpourri. But there is something holding it together; animating it; and making it work. Not the brain of Morbius; not even the mind of Morbius. But maybe, somehow, the idea of Morbius?