Sheer Poetry (The Brain of Morbius)


It's January 3, 1976. Despite the fact that we have jumped three weeks into the future, Queen remain undisturbed at #1. It doesn't move from number one during the next four weeks. Also charting are David Bowie, ABBA, Michael Oldfield, Barry White, and Greg Lake, the latter with "I Believe in Father Christmas," which I would like to point out is easily one of the five best Christmas songs written by popular musicians in the latter half of the 20th century. Seriously not a bad four weeks for music there.

During the few weeks in which Steven Moffat's Philip Hinchcliffe's bold new idea of a midseason break for Doctor Who have played out, also known as Christmas, Carlos the Jackal and others kidnapped delegates at an OPEC meeting in Vienna, and a bomb at LaGuardia Airport in New York kills eleven and does not lead to a decade of pointless war for the United States. While during this story's transmission, the trial of members of the Red Army Faction begins in Germany, the first commercial Concorde flight takes off, and the Scottish Labour Party is formed.

While on television, we get a classic. I mean, a bona fide, proper one - another one of the stories that people rave about as one of the best Doctor Who stories. The Hinchcliffe era has a lot of these. But here, I've got to admit, I was definitely under the spell. I had the irritating cut down hourlong version of this that came out on VHS, and on the one hand could tell it was great, but on the other could tell that something was missing. And I remember being absolutely thrilled when the full version came out, and devouring it. I must have watched this one a good half dozen times over the course of two years between the two edits. This would have been... ooh, 1993-94. So this is another one that's a tentpole of both Doctor Who and my childhood.

In many ways, this story is where the Hinchcliffe era to date comes together - in a story with as much density and power as Genesis of the Daleks, only better written and not reliant on nostalgia for its evocative power. It is another story that raises the bar for what the show is capable of. It is utterly and completely fantastic. So let's just talk about why. And then maybe towards the end we'll try something ambitious like declaring what the entire point of Doctor Who is.

First of all, there is the writing. This story benefits from extraordinary fortune in the scriptwriting stage. Terrance Dicks pitched a script based on the idea of doing a reverse Frankenstein story in which the scientist was a hideous monster who creates a perfectly normal-looking human. Then, after delivering the scripts, he went on vacation. Looking at them, Robert Holmes observed the same problem any script editor worth his salt (Dicks, no doubt, included) would have noticed: a story in which the impressive monster appears at the start and the big reveal is an ordinary person has some serious structure problems. And unlike The Android Invasion, he stepped in an fixed the problems this time, doing a massive rewrite on the script that flipped it back to a more traditional Frankenstein setup. The result is a script that has the structural zip of a Terrance Dicks script and the delightful characterization of a Robert Holmes script.

Then there is the acting, in which three things stand out. Baker, as always, is marvelous. Over the past chunk of stories he's been increasingly developing ways to simultaneously show that the Doctor is genuinely scared by the things he's fighting and to show the Doctor's steadfast refusal to take the villains seriously. Here he has something of a breakthrough, figuring out how to play the Doctor as someone who clearly genuinely believes these villains might kill him, but who is more annoyed at his pathetic a death that would be than scared by it.

Sladen, on the other hand, finds new highs for her character. The scene in which she engages in hysterical banter with the Doctor after she is blinded is absolutely jaw-dropping, providing a better depiction of someone's terror at hostile circumstances than anything seen in a "serious" drama like Survivors. In particular great is the way in which she manages to simultaneously convey anger at the Doctor for dragging her into this situation and awareness that she's always known that this sort of thing could happen. It is, simply put, one of the greatest acting performances the series has ever seen, not just up to this point but ever.

And then there is Philip Madoc as the main villain of the piece. This is just a sensible thing to do. In general, the answer to "should I hire Philip Madoc" is "Yes." In this case, he does a phenomenal job of turning a generic mad scientist into an interesting character, managing to nail the megalomaniacal speechmaking ("You chicken-brained biological disaster!") while still giving the character a wealth of subtle inflections and turns of phrase that keep him unpredictable and charming. He manages to swing gamely from raving lunacy to genuine menace, and is utterly compelling the whole time. The scene in which he apologizes to the eponymous brain of Morbius for making a bad pun is, in particular a highlight of the season.

All of this, of course, is just surface matter - another case of Hinchcliffe starting from the raised baseline of quality he inherited from Barry Letts and successfully pushing one or two elements to the point of being fantastic while maintaining Letts's skill at avoiding major screw-ups. This, in other words, is no more than what we got in Pyramids of Mars - a story whose bid for classic status amounts to doing nothing terribly wrong and several things very right. The Brain of Morbius, however, is miles ahead of Pyramids of Mars. The Brain of Morbius is much closer to what we'd have gotten if everything in Planet of Evil had actually worked right.

Back in the Pyramids of Mars entry, I talked about how that story opened a door that would be taken advantage of later. Here's the advantage. Pyramids of Mars came up with the idea of injecting the Doctor into an existing story. The next obvious step is to merge this with the genre collisions experimented with in Terror of the Zygons and Planet of Evil. And here we accomplish that with no fewer than four distinct and coherent narrative logics in play.

First, of course, is Frankenstein. The Brain of Morbius is a straight homage to that story, and, as ever, to the Hammer adaptations of it. Already there is a marked difference with Pyramids of Mars. The mummy stories that Pyramids of Mars retold were simply horror standards. Frankenstein, on the other hand, is both a classic of British literature and arguably the first real work of science fiction. This is territory with a deep and mythic resonance for Doctor Who, in other words. Miles and Wood suggest that this story has the tone of Lord Byron showing up and checking on how everyone has been doing since he died, and that's not entirely inaccurate, even if it does reiterate an unfortunate sexism of Byron's era given who it was that actually came up with Frankenstein.

The effect of this is to turn up the volume on the inevitability that comes from juxtaposing the Doctor with an existing story. Putting the Doctor in a mummy story is an exercise in contrast. But in a real, albeit mildly ineffable sense, The Brain of Morbius puts the Doctor in a situation he is oddly suited to. This may be a story that is fundamentally about magic, but it's rooted in one of the earliest modern explorations of the implications of technology. Frankenstein is, in many ways, the original "blur the lines of science fiction and fantasy" story, and as such really is perfect for the Doctor. This means that the danger of the story is enhanced, especially because of a deft sense of what to use as cliffhangers. The story's three cliffhangers are, in order, Sarah Jane being menaced by Morbius's body, Sarah Jane being menaced by Morbius's brain, and Sarah Jane being menaced by Morbius in toto. By opening with Morbius's body, there becomes a Chekovian tension to the whole thing - a continual knowledge that there is nothing the Doctor can possibly do to prevent Morbius's return as such. And this is fitting. This is a story that the Doctor actually fits into perfectly - one that actually makes a credible case for being able to impose its narrative logic on him, instead of, as we are used to, the other way around.

Let's move on to the second narrative logic - the beautiful cynicism of Robert Holmes. It has been some time since we have really seen this Robert Holmes. The irony of his tenure as script editor is that the bulk of the scripts he wrote while in charge were the ones that are the least like what he is most remembered as being. But here we are given the delightful spectacle of a struggle to stop the most feared war criminal in all of history from rising from the dead in which the main characters other than the regulars are: 1) An old woman who is literally dying of dullness. (For the record, you will never convince me that the Sisterhood's tendency to, at seemingly random moments, begin hissing "Sacred fire! Sacred flame!" is not intended to be as hilarious as it is.) 2) A mad scientist who seems continually uncertain whether he cares more about raising his war criminal master or just doing terrible things with bodies. (Let's face it, the only reason the line "To know death, Condo, you must fuck life in the gallbladder!" does not appear is because it was BBC1 at teatime, not because it wouldn't have fit. If you have no idea why this parenthetical comment exists, go play with Google for a bit.) 3) His idiot assistant who is mostly obsessed with pretty girls and getting his hand back. 4) His war criminal master's disembodied brain, which is suicidal and envies vegetables. And which gets dropped on the floor.

It is classic Robert Holmes - a set of characters, none of whom are on their own merits even remotely a problem for the Doctor who happen to be set up just right to pose a massive threat. And against this bunch of ludicrous characters is our hero, a madman with a box who is simultaneously capable of selling that this is a terrible threat to the entire universe and that he is surrounded by idiots. This gives the entire story a jolt of social realism. This is one of Holmes's biggest skills as a writer - he is extremely good at making a world that feels authentically absurd. It's a strange sort of realism - managing to be as screwed up as reality. But it's also by far the most compelling sort of realism. Far too often being "realistic" means shaving off the odd and the fanciful, an account of reality that is irreconcilable with actual human experience.

On to the third narrative logic. In which we're going to have to return to an aspect of production design again. Because The Brain of Morbius is a masterpiece of how to do design and effects work on a BBC budget. The decision here is clearly to make a couple of things - Solon's castle, the inner sanctum of the Sisterhood, and the Morbius outfit - look very good, and to just let the rest look like cheap BBC studio sets. And why not? I, Claudius looked like cheap BBC studio sets. This story is a textbook example of taking your bubble wrap seriously, and it does so with beautiful bravado. It is unapologetically an epic science fiction story done as a BBC television play on a Saturday at teatime. It makes no apologies for this. It just gets on with it.

There's a fire to this. When I talked about Terror of the Zygons, one of my more astute commenters, William Whyte, pointed out that the aesthetic I described there comes perilously close to just being a "so bad it's good" aesthetic. And he's right that we're in territory that resembles that, and that no shortage of science fiction series have fallen down badly attempting to get low budgets to stretch to epic stories. But that's not quite what Doctor Who does, and this is the story where we can really see that clearly. The story isn't "so bad it's good." Rather, it's at peace with the fact that it is going to continually juxtapose the ridiculous and the sublime. We can see here how these narrative logics start to piece together, in fact. The dodgy low-rent universe of Robert Holmes, in which epic threats to the universe are suicidal vegetable enviers, is one that lends itself to this approach. At its core, what Doctor Who is doing here is not the cult aesthetic of "so bad it's good," but rather the forming of a new aesthetic that merges the epic grandeur of Space: 1999 with the affordable maturity of I, Claudius. This is the story to point to in refutation to every claim that doing sci-fi epics on a BBC budget is embarrassing or a bad idea. And the answer is this: Doctor Who doesn't do epic sci-fi on a BBC budget. It does BBC television theater on an epic sci-fi scale.  And it's bloody brilliant.

Finally, then, we come around to the fourth narrative logic. Much is made (and I look forward to making even more) of Robert Holmes's dramatic reinvention of the Time Lords in The Deadly Assassin. And while The Deadly Assassin is indeed radical, it is far too easy to overstate the degree to which it in particular marks a reinvention of the Time Lords. Quite frankly, a lot of the reinvention happens here. It is easy to understate the significance of finding out, for instance, that there exists a matriarchal sect of immortal psychics who the Time Lords consider equals and have a peace treaty with. And, for that matter, it is easy to understate the significance of finding out that somebody like Morbius exists.

Miles and Wood observe that a large number of the Hinchcliffe stories deal with the return of a thought-dead enemy. This is the third big example of this. The first was Revenge of the Cybermen, in which the dead threat was one drawn from the show's own history and legend. The second was Pyramids of Mars, in which the dead thing is a powerful being from another story who thus offers a real threat to the Doctor's story. Now we have a third variation. Morbius is a threat from within the series - the most feared renegade Time Lord ever. He is presented, in other words, as a dark and twisted template for the Doctor.

The most obvious thing to compare this to is Omega. But Omega was presented to us as legend - as something out of stories. Morbius is stranger - presented to us as the ancient history of the Time Lords. We have never really been asked to think of the Time Lords as having history, as opposed to merely having legend. Previously our image of them has been as the sentinels of history. Now they seem subject to that which they previously ruled over. Or, rather, to that which they previously guarded. (It is perhaps here worth thinking of nothing so much as the oddly powerful impotence of the House of Lords. But more on that in The Deadly Assassin, I should think.)

But even as the Time Lords are bound into history and regional politics here, they are also given a new sort of power. For it is also easy to make far too little of the moment in which the Doctor suggests that the Sisterhood of Karn's use of psychic powers to transport matter is a sort of primitive system that the Time Lords have outgrown - a moment that seems to set what the Time Lords do not as advanced science (as it at least pretended to be in The Three Doctors) but as magic. This may seem a small change, especially given that this blog has been tracking occult and magical elements of Doctor Who since day one. But it's usually been a persistent subtext. Here it begins to break decisively into the realm of the explicit.

So even as the Time Lords become subject to history, they acquire a magical power. But we also see this magical power condemned. The Doctor eviscerates the Sisters of Karn for being unchanging, and thus for never progressing. He implies that in some fundamental sense this is why their precious Elixir of Life is drying up - that they do not progress. And we are told that death is the price of progress. Death being a concept that has always been associated with the Doctor, both in positive magical connotations and in the terrible ruin he leaves in his wake.

So those are the four narrative logics: Frankenstein, Holmes's cynicism, the theatrical tradition of the BBC, and this mythic rewriting of the Time Lords. This does not set some kind of record for the number of narrative logics going on in a story simultaneously. But past stories that have juxtaposed a laundry list like this have done it through rapid shifts - changing tones constantly, whether deliberately or through sheer incompetence. Here, however, all four narrative logics wed tightly to one another, producing a strong overall effect.

In short, there is a line of history that leads to this episode. Starting from Frankenstein in 1818 and the gothic romanticism that gave birth to science fiction, and stretching forward through the Victorian science magic that Doctor Who descends from, through right into the thinking that created the BBC and the idea of television theater, and then right into Doctor Who. A real and meaty strand of history that is carefully built up through this story. All of the component parts are explicitly laid out. And they're laid out in a way that is at once epic and firmly grounded in a sense of reality - of the mundane viscera of history. The story shows all of this. It goes out of its way to point it out, and to stress the importance of social progress - of moving forward. 

And through all of this, we know, because of the fact that it is rooted in Frankenstein, a story that is conspicuously well known, that Morbius is going to return. The one thing that is guaranteed - that not even the Doctor can possibly stop - is that this terrible threat from ancient history that the Doctor is terrified of, and rightly so because he is at once the once the original renegade Time Lord, and thus the template for all that the Doctor is, and the most monstrous criminal in history will rise again. In the end, the Doctor is going to have to face Morbius and defeat him.

The Doctor even knows this. Watch how he leaves Solon, who is obsessed with raising Morbius, unattended with the instruction to kill Morbius. This is either the single most stupid thing that Dicks and Holmes have ever had the Doctor do, or it is the moment where the Doctor accepts that he will have to face Morbius. Certainly when the Doctor does face him, the Doctor seems ready for him, already having figured out how he will fight him. The Doctor is in full on Troughton mode here, goading and manipulating Morbius, bullying and hectoring him into a trap the Doctor has figured out. 

And then they lock minds. And the story makes a staggering retcon. It is, of course, a retcon that has, by general consensus, been retconned out itself. Morbius regresses the Doctor through his previous incarnations. We see Pertwee, Troughton, and Hartnell. And then Morbius shouts about sending the Doctor back to his very beginning, and we get a cascade of other faces. Modern convention is that these faces are Morbius's past incarnations, but the implication in the episode is, as has been pointed out by many before me, that they are pre-Hartnell versions of the Doctor. 

In other words, Frankenstein - positioned as the story from which all of Doctor Who has flowed, gets into a fight with Doctor Who and successfully deals a mortal wound to it. In its own way, this is a version of Moffat's oldest question in the universe being "Doctor Who?" Morbius breaches the boundary of the Doctor's story. He breaks free out of Doctor Who. And in a truly staggering comment on the nature of history and narrative, he does it by breaking out the back door - by pushing past the beginning of the story into the unknowable fathoms beneath it. (The faces, incidentally, are various production crew. One is Graham Harper, then a production assistant, who would go on to direct two stories in the 80s, and then be brought back again by Russell T. Davies to direct multiple stories from seasons 2-4 of the new series. In other words, this moment rivals Peter Davison's daughter who played the Tenth Doctor's daughter having a daughter with David Tennant, who grew up with Peter Davison as his Doctor as the single most inadvertently meta moment in Doctor Who history.) 

The result seems to kill both. This makes sense for the Doctor, given that his own story has been attacked and punctured. But Morbius? Clearly it is essentially fatal for him. There is an explosion around Morbius's head, and smoke pours out. He runs away, screaming madly, and is driven off a cliff by the Sisterhood of Karn. This is a wonderfully bold statement. Doctor Who and Frankenstein, when they face each other down and try to destroy each other's fundamental narrative structures, fight to a draw.

Only they don't. The Doctor faces Frankenstein, dies, and then... sneaks away. He survives. He has one more trick up his sleeve. The Elixir of Life. And here we come to the one last detail that makes everything fit together. The Elixir of Life. Which for once I don't even have to stretch for. I mean, it's obvious what's going on there. A bunch of chemical reactions that create an elixir that grants immortality. Or, as the Doctor describes it, "The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists dripping like tea from an urn."

We now come to the moment where I make a definitive statement of what it is that this blog argues - in which I finally lay my cards down and make my thesis statement. In which I stick my neck out and say "This is, in the end, what Doctor Who is about."

We have already been told, after all, that the flame is drying up because of a lack of progress and change. Which means that the goal of alchemy - a concept that we have, to say the least, discussed before - can only be achieved via the progression of history, which we have been taught by the show to consider as a social phenomenon? We are told that the actual chemical synthesis is easy - that getting the Elixir under a spectrograph would be sufficient to crack its secrets. That's, it seems, the easy part. The tricky business is this stuff about death and progress. The show has never actually said this before. It feels in every sense like the culmination of everything that the show has been doing for twelve years now. Of course this is the real answer to alchemy. Of course. What else could it be? 

And this is not just trotted out as a moral. This is distilled out of ninety minutes (or three weeks) of television. No. More than that. This is squeezed out of over 150 years of literary progress. This is a statement that is not simply made as a moral, but something that is positioned as the inevitable teleological consequence of the arc of history itself. Not only is it a literary argument. Yes, Doctor Who is being presented as the most powerful evolution of a hermetic spirit that has been animated within literature from the very beginning. But this is not the only source of power it has. It is also powerful because it stems from a specifically British cultural tradition. But no. It is even bolder than that. This is being presented as part of the BBC tradition of television theater - one of its oldest traditions. And the BBC is a public institution - something that is conceived of as performing a service for the country on the grounds that it is a just and moral thing to do. And it is with all of that laid on the table, all of that acknowledged and accepted as a necessary part of what it is the show does, that it delivers the secret to alchemy.

And it doesn't deliver it merely as a part of that duty - as if to say "Oh, yes, if a BBC producer happens to understand alchemy they should really put that on the air." It is far more than that. The secret of alchemy is shown to spring inevitably from the entire cultural and intellectual logic that underlies that duty. Out of the very moral and intellectual forces that turn the BBC from some broad philosophical statements to a living, breathing entity with a moral duty. From those centuries of intellectual, moral, and cultural heritage comes at last this message:

The solution to the problem of the alchemists is material social progress.

Damn, what a show.


SK 6 years, 5 months ago

I'd date Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus to 1818 rather than 1823, myself (well, that's the text I read, as it's the one Oxford World's Classics uses).

This has been an anticlimactic first comment.

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Steve Hogan 6 years, 5 months ago

Well done!

Real life wound up extending the meta-ness to severely incestuous levels when Georgia Moffett wound up giving birth to David Tennant's daughter.

Good thing his Doctor kissed Davidson's ass in that charity clip!

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Elizabeth Sandifer 6 years, 5 months ago

SK - This is, at least, an interesting correction. I'm not entirely sure where I looked it up and got 1823, but further research shows that 1823 isn't quite wrong - it was published anonymously in 1818, and then under Shelley's name in 1823. Still, 1818 seems more right.

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SK 6 years, 5 months ago

I understand that the 1823 text is popularly supposed to have been redrafted with Percy's help, while the 1818 version is more authentically Mary's work, but I'm no expert in the Romantics.

(I have, however, always thought there's mileage, if we must do celebrity historicals, in a story set by the shores of Lake Geneva during that rainstorm, where the explorations of a bunch of dilettantes and their medical friend across the boundary of life and death turn out to be not entirely the province of fiction.)

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Aaron 6 years, 5 months ago

"(I have, however, always thought there's mileage, if we must do celebrity historicals, in a story set by the shores of Lake Geneva during that rainstorm, where the explorations of a bunch of dilettantes and their medical friend across the boundary of life and death turn out to be not entirely the province of fiction.)"

So, this has happened. It's Mary's Story, by Big Finish, the last episode of Company of Friends.

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SK 6 years, 5 months ago

Oh. Well, I suppose it's not entirely bad that Big Finish have ruined all every single obvious idea. Makes everyone have to work harder.

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7a1abfde-af0e-11e0-b72c-000bcdcb5194 6 years, 5 months ago

It's actually been done quite a few times. I remember seeing at least one comic book story with that premise.

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Adam B 6 years, 5 months ago

damn, what an entry.

very interested to see how your thesis applies in certain eras to come.

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David 6 years, 5 months ago

"Terrance Dicks pitched a script based on the idea of doing a reverse Frankenstein story in which the scientist was a hideous monster who creates a perfectly normal-looking human."

Is that true? Terrance has always said in documentaries and the like that his story was about a robot creating a (monstrous) body for the brain, trying to create a body that could adapt to anything (hence why it has a human arm, a giant claw, the lungs of a whatevermajibbit) and not knowing Morbius would rather just look like a normal person because it's a robot and it doesn't know any better. And the robot got junked as it would be too expensive (says Terrance, perhaps jokingly). Terrance mildly criticises the story for not making sense due to Solon being, well, human.

Also, Brain of Morbius is more Universal's Frankenstein than Hammer.

But, nitpicking aside, Morbius is so much better than Pyramids. Never liked Pyramids much, especially when it fizzles out in part 4. But Morbius is wonderful for all the reasons you list. A real highlight of the era. Also, as you demonstrate, a lot more important in its own way than I gave credit for - some interesting points made!

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Steve Hogan 6 years, 5 months ago

I always heard that BoM was based in part on Dicks' script for the "Seven Keys to Doomsday" stage show, but I don't know where the overlap on that is.

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David 6 years, 5 months ago

I think Seven Keys was set on a planet called Karn, and the monsters in it were the Clawrangulars who bore more than a superficial resemblance to the Morbius monster.

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WGPJosh 6 years, 5 months ago

Bravo, Phil. A magnificent entry on what was already one of my favourite episodes of Doctor Who. What can I say other than you've nailed it and "Brain of Morbius" is exactly as wonderful as you said it is for exactly those reasons? I really don't have anything to add to that analysis.

I've always loved the Morbius Faces scene. It blew my mind the first time I saw it, asserting as it did that William Hartnell's was *not* the first Doctor, not by a long shot, and having the audacity to completely rewrite the show like that. it seems highly fitting that a story so centered around coming to grips with what Doctor Who is about and firmly placing itself as the culmination of a certain intellectual tradition, that it would also give us the first concrete look at The Doctor himself and his own history.

I will argue passionately to this day for viewers to not disregard this scene because, to me at least, it's never explicitly contradicted and it's far more beneficial to keep it then to render it "non-canon" because of later episodes. I know there's the part in "The Five Doctors" where Hurndall does that "The Original, you might say" bit, but if anything the Cartmel Masterplan seems to render it once again fully within the realm of possibility and eve the New Series hasn't yet tried to undo that (although Moffat seems to be trying). I tend to approach "canon" extremely loosely because this show is so good at rewriting itself. I'm anxious to hear what you have to say about the "12 Regenerations" mess that starts with "The Deadly Assassin".

Fanwank aside, to me anyway it's a far more interesting concept to conceptualize The Doctor (any given Doctor) as the current incarnation of an incalculably long-lived muse than it is to have his entire life story written out in a meticulously detailed biography. I love having an element of mystery and hearsay about his character and this is the first time since Troughton (and arguably one of the last until McCoy) that becomes an explicit part of the story. It seems to me a very logical and appropriate conclusion to this story and very definitive to the essence of Doctor Who.

I still think "Pyramids of Mars" is shite, but here I'm completely on the same page as you ;-)

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William Whyte 6 years, 5 months ago

I think you mean "one of my *many* astute commenters".

As everyone else has said, bravo. This is a very nice description of what's great about Brain of Morbius, although I think you slightly understate the gloriousness of the cheap pleasures -- no dialogue riper, no scene knowingly underplayed.

One thing about the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era that your discussions have brought out is the difference in how Tom Baker's Doctor reacts to the world compared to the others. Where Hartnell and Pertwee were irritable and self-important, and Troughton was fussy and cowardly, Baker doesn't bring any personal vulnerabilities or concerns to the role. He seems to be entirely outward-looking, unconcerned with himself: burnt free of ego. As you note, he walks here, as he did in Pyramids of Mars, into a situation that means almost certain death. None of the other Doctors did that before Planet of the Spiders; maybe Hartnell at the end of Dalek's Master Plan, but that's it. Note that in the very similar scene at the end of the Web of Fear, where the Doctor gets something attached to his head and has his VERY BEING sucked out by the Big Bad, Troughton has already messed with the controls. He knows there's an out. Here and in Pyramids, Baker doesn't. Baker's Doctor just accepts that defeating great enemies requires a great risk. Doctor Who was written by a lot of people over a long period of time and they didn't all pay attention, but there is a real sea change in the Doctor's attitude between Pertwee and Baker and it flows naturally back to the cleansing he goes through at the end of Planet of the Spiders.

There's a story of Eastern spiritual enlightenment here. And yet, although Tom's by some way less aristo than the Doctors that came before him (though equally posh), he's also perhaps the most explicit portrayal of specifically British virtues: Dunkirk spirit, not making a fuss, lovable eccentricity. (Hartnell and Pertwee, by contrast, illustrate the corresponding British vice of making a huge fuss about trivial shit because you can't do anything about anything that matters). That great Terrance Dicks joke about foreigners in Robot is a springboard for this new approach, a Doctor who's comfortable in the Britain of Private Eye and Monty Python without being cynical in the same way.

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William Whyte 6 years, 5 months ago

And this is the crazy thing: to you, me and everyone sensible, this is one of the highlights of Hinchcliffe/Holmes and of all of Doctor Who. Yet in poll after poll, Pyramids beats this, Deadly Assassin, and Ark in Space. Why?

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William Whyte 6 years, 5 months ago

Oh god I can't stop commenting.

FWIW, on "so bad it's good", my problem with your defence of Terror of the Zygons was that it seemed to be a defence not just of the production values but of the whole approach -- "critique of the Pertwee era" is next door to "pisstake of the Pertwee era" is next door to "can only be enjoyed 'ironically'". But I applaud the way you turned this into a fantastic defence of the way the production team, from here to the end of Horror of Fang Rock, chose to go about their work.

But more importantly. Even before the twelve lives palaver comes into it, the crazy thing about the retcon of the Doctor's faces is that it's clearly intended to imply the Doctor's being pushed back into his history, and that as such it clearly breaks the implication of the early Hartnell era that the Doctor is very new to adventuring (you've already addressed this, but as evidence: in the first four stories he nearly dies of banal diseases twice; in The Edge of Destruction, the TARDIS doesn't recognise or trust him, nor he it; in The Reign of Terror, with his friends in mortal danger, he can think of nothing better to do with Robespierre than lecture him in unspecific terms). I reconcile this with the heads scene by concluding that whatever the Doctor did that precipitated his flight from Gallifrey, that killed Susan's parents and wiped Susan's memory, also split his timelines, and what we're seeing here is past Doctors that never were or future Doctors that could have been.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 6 years, 5 months ago

Surely the simpler explanation, if you want to stick with the implication of Brain of Morbius, is simply that the Graham Harper Doctor never left Gallifrey, or only did so via officially sanctioned travel in a sort of company fleet of TARDISes, no?

As for "so bad its good" and Zygons, as I said at the time, the critique of the Pertwee era it's trying to perform really can only work if you do it in the course of also putting together a top notch Pertwee story. Terror of the Zygons works because it plays completely fair - it never lets the reason the Pertwee era is shown to be flawed be because it's being badly done. Instead it does everything well and by the book, but then shows that there are still ludicrous problems with it.

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Spacewarp 6 years, 5 months ago

I think this ranks as your best post so least IMO (as the kidz say on the interweb).

The appearance of the "Morbius Doctors" blew me away as a kid, showing me that the series that I loved and thought I knew all about, could still offer me more and exciting possibilities. A door seemed to open...a door that unfortunately was decisively slammed shut (and dead-locked) by "The Deadly Assassin".

However I have always felt that the issue of the Morbius Doctors hasn't been fully closed. Rather it's been buried under the patio in a shallow grave. All it needs is someone who's already resculpting the garden to dig it up and do something interesting with it. That person wasn't Russell T Davies, but it might be Steven Moffat...

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Wm Keith 6 years, 5 months ago

Almost sensible point first:

Doesn't the Mind-Bending Contest complete the work begun by the Planet of the Spiders regeneration? By the time that the Doctor dies on the floor of the laboratory, his fight with Morbius has stripped away all remaining traces (Moffat would say memories) of his former self/ves. The Doctor is no longer tied by his past. He is ready to return to Gallifrey.

Completely silly point second:

It's notable that the elixir of life tastes of:
nectar - the drink of the gods
apricot - the "golden apples" for which Hercules tricked Atlas*
and, of course, custard.

As Henry Lincoln would say, this clearly proves that The Doctor is a god who tricks others into constantly recreating the world for him.

*in the alternative, you're welcome to make something of Diderot dying after eating an apricot.

None of this explains why the Sisterhood of Karn wear hats with a chimney on the top.

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David 6 years, 5 months ago

Just read the "story about a monster making a perfect being" comes from About Time 4, though I've no idea if that's the script Terrance actually ended up writing as I can't remember it being mentioned as his script on the Morbius DVD extras. So maybe that was his original idea but then he abandoned it and went with the robot one, and then that got more heavily Frankensteined afterwards?

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Jesse 6 years, 4 months ago

I saw a fan site once that speculated that the pre-Hartnell Doctors were incarnations of the Other. This may be the Platonic ideal form of the Fan Theory: a thesis that (a) is consistent with the evidence*, and also (b) could not possibly be what the production team actually had in mind.

(* Well, at least I think it's consistent with the evidence. I haven't read the tie-in books and only know the Other stuff second-hand.)

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WGPJosh 6 years, 4 months ago

@ Spacewarp, Jesse

I really, really don't want Moffat to go and tie up all the mystery about The Doctor's character, up to and including the Morbius faces-that would just ruin him for me. I am adamant he should always be a mysterious, contradictory and guarded figure and works best when scripts play to that aspect of his personality. I certainly don't want Moffat to attempt it himself especially as I'm none too pleased with him and the direction he's taken the series. I think the person, or persons, you are looking for were honestly Andrew Cartmel, Ben Aaronvitch and Mark Platt. Jesse's right in conjecturing the Cartmel Masterplan resolves the Morbius Faces problem, handily sidesteps the deadlock of "The Deadly Assassin" and was absolutely intended by the production team. I don't want to go into too much detail about it right now and will save my proper gushing until we get to the McCoy era proper, but suffice to say you're on the right track because this team had one hell of a story arc planned.

But even those writers almost got themselves into the trap of revealing too much about The Doctor: The best thing that ever happened to the Cartmel Masterplan is that "Lungbarrow" was never made into a serial and replaced by "Ghost Light": As a result we have two whole seasons of mysterious, hushed speculation that just makes McCoy's Doctor seem so eerie and fascinating. Sure, we can piece certain things together and come up with theories, but in the end the mystery about who he is and where he came from still remains and I find that wonderful. Mysteries stop being interesting once they're solved.

Of course, Platt had to go and ruin all that by turning "Lungbarrow" into a bloody great tell-all autobiography for Virgin thus spoiling the whole thing, and then mucking up the end of "Thin Ice" for Big Finish so it tied in with his book to boot. However, if you pick and choose the bits of the story to accept and reject you can avoid the issue and build up your own wonderful canon interpretation yourself.

In sum, "Brain of Morbius" is entirely consistent with both what came before it (like "The Mind Robber") and what's going to come after it (like "Remembrance of the Daleks", "Battlefield" and "Ghost Light"). It's exactly on the path Doctor Who should be on both "canonically" and intellectually and does a bang-up job reaffirming what that even is. Hinchliffe and Holmes should be praised to no end for it, and if their entire run had been like this serial there'd be no contest as to what was the most successful era of the show.

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Jesse 6 years, 4 months ago

Josh: I'm sure Moffat knows better than to "tie up all the mystery about The Doctor's character." I say that as a Moffat fan, but even if you don't like what he's doing with the show you have to give him enough credit to recognize that he knows better than to drain all the mystery from a figure like the Doctor.

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WGPJosh 6 years, 4 months ago

@ Jesse

I certainly hope so. I was just really taken aback by that "ultimate question that needs to be answered is Doctor Who" bit at the end of "Wedding of River Song". It bothered me for a couple reasons: one because it seemed overreaching and presumptuous of Moffat to think he could answer that, two that he seems to think it's a good idea at all to even attempt and three because it's grammatically incorrect: "Doctor Who" is a placeholder, not a question. That's why it doesn't have a question mark at the end. Little things like that annoy me.

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Jesse 6 years, 4 months ago

I don't believe it was said that it "needs" to be answered...

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WGPJosh 6 years, 4 months ago

@ Jesse

Oh no, I didn't mean to imply that's what YOU were saying. I was responding entirely to the last two minutes or so of "Wedding of River Song", just using your comment as a jumping off point. You're absolutely correct: You said nothing of the sort. Sorry if I was unclear.

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Jesse 6 years, 4 months ago

No, I got what you meant. I'm saying that the episode didn't declare that the question needs to be answered. It said it "must never be answered." And yes, it said more than that too, but given the self-referential context ("Doctor who?" as the first question in the universe, a.k.a. the show) that very phrase suggests to me that Moffat knows that a full answer to the question would be bad for the series.

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WGPJosh 6 years, 4 months ago

@ Jesse

It seemed awfully vague to me, which I guess was the point. I get the whole self-referential context, I do, but to have the phrase "Silence will fall when the question is asked" and then Dorium issue a challenge for The Doctor in the closing moments...That seemed an awful lot like the setup to a new story arc where "Doctor Who" as a question is going to be very prominent and something The Doctor is going to have to address explicitly. I grant Moffat is most likely a far more clever writer than I'm giving him credit for, but that whole scene really made me bristle a bit. It's like the old fantasy cliche: "You're tampering with forces you have no business tampering with".

Also, considering what Moffat has said about the show in the past, who he cites as his favourite Doctors (and who he's been pretty vocal in slamming), the direction he feels the show should be going and my general displeasure with this year's arc as a whole...It just feels to me like the evidence is continually mounting the show will very soon go in a direction I'm not terribly looking forward to and that Moffat and I have two wildly irreconcilable notions about what the show even is and what we want out of it.

Oh well, it's all part of being a Doctor Who fan. That's what makes the show so great.

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William Whyte 6 years, 4 months ago

@ Philip: You can of course look on the Graeme Harper (sp) Doctor as someone who lived and died quietly on Gallifrey. My theory, however, has the twin advantages that (a) it's consistent with Brain of Morbius and with all the later references to twelve lives, to the fifth Doctor being the fifth, and so on, and (b) it's insane. But, at the same time, not. How come the Doctor's the only Time Lord we ever see meeting his past self?

(I'm not familiar with the spinoff literature at all, so this could well be contradicted by everything out there).

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Heather 6 years, 3 months ago

I, too, saw Whale's Frankenstein movies while watching this serial, but then again, I've never seen Hammer's versions, so I have no idea as to which this is more likely to be referencing.

Actually, what I saw most was Mel Brooks. Young Frankenstein came out in 1974. Whether it had any influence, I have no idea. It's entirely possible that both Brooks's film and Brain of Morbius are independently parodying the same source material. But I completely agree that this serial certainly is more a parody of Frankenstein than anything else.

Your comment about Madoc's performance is dead on. I was surprised that you didn't bring up his appearance as the War Lord in The War Games. I was impressed with the quiet magnetism he brought to that part at the time (I kept repeating to myself, "Who IS that guy?" as I watched it), and I'm even more impressed now to see him portray mad-doctor Solon. It's delightful to see him in such a different role.

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Nickdoctorwho 5 years, 4 months ago

Regarding grammatical incorrectness: "Doctor Who" works as both a question and a placeholder.

Here's why--in our world, where the Doctor is a TV character, there's a superstition that movies and TV shows will fail if there's a question mark at the end. So you get things like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (no question mark) and "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" (also no question mark).

But in the Whoniverse, "Doctor who?" is a variant on the age-old question: "Who WAS that masked man?" It also ties into Homer's "Odyssey" ("My name is Nohbdy," he said to the Cyclops), to Verne's "20,000 Leagues under the Sea*" (Captain Nemo = Captain "No Man"), and to the legendary "Man with No Name," who rides in, fights evil, and rides away.

Also, "answering the question" sounds to me more like "the Doctor has to answer the question ''for his own benefit''."

"Who am I?" is more in the sense of "What is my identity?" and "What do I stand for?" "A Good Man Goes to War" and a couple of previous stories saw him teeter dangerously close to Valeyard territory, so he MUST answer the question, or else he'll fall off the precipice.

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Nickdoctorwho 5 years, 4 months ago

I don't know about the "Other" stuff, but I like to think that half of the faces are of a younger First Doctor, and the other half are Morbius.

Here's how regeneration works in my mind. You are born, you grow up, you go to school and earn your degree. When you earn your degree, you are "whammied" with twelve/thirteen extra lifespans. So, when dear old Uncle Bingo comes to collect, you can give him "the finger" and grant yourself another hundred or so years.

BUT, what happens is, your lifespan restarts from the point at which you received it. In relatable terms: I'm 25 right now, so if I were a Time Lord, and I died, the regen would reset my body-clock to 25, but my chronological age would remain constant as I'm not technically "dead."

In theory, you COULD live thirteen whole lifespans. In practice, the Doctor burns through regenerations faster than the average Time Lord.

Which brings me back to the Morbius Doctors: Age brings about changes in looks and styles. It's not hard to imagine a pre-Hartnell First Doctor (that is, before he looked like Hartnell) trying on a Western look for a while, then switching to three other ideas before getting old and living the rest of his life in an older man's clothing.

Again, the problem is, the Doctor regenerates faster than he can try on several different looks.

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orfeo 3 years, 7 months ago

"We have already been told, after all, that the flame is drying up because of a lack of progress and change."

Well no, we haven't. We've been told that it might be drying up because of tectonic movement, then we're told that actually it's drying up because no-one's cleaned up the soot. The Doctor specifically DISAVOWS any kind of mystical or spiritual reason for the flame dying, and says the reason must be a physical, scientific one. In stark contrast to the deep meaning you're trying to give it.

In fact, he says that the flame and the elixir is CAUSING a lack of progress and change. The flame is the cause, and the impeded progress is the effect. Whereas you're claiming the reverse, with the lack of progress as the cause and the flame being affected.

So while your thesis sounds terribly impressive, it's the exact opposite of what the Doctor actually says.

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