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.
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.
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.