Classic Doctor Who - The Brain Of Morbius

Season 13
Original TX: January 1976

Set on the planet Karn, this is the simple story of renegade Time Lord Morbius and his surgeon friend Mehendri Solon. Solon’s trying to piece Morbius back together because you see he’s just a brain sitting in a tank for the moment and he’s keen to get back out there and rule the galaxy.

Also on Karn are the Sisterhood, led by Maren, who was present at the trial of Morbius and saw him executed and believes him long dead. The Sisterhood also worship and maintain the sacred flame that produces an elixir of life, thus allowing them to be immortal. Then the Doctor and Sarah turn up…

Looking at the story from a 2007 perspective, it's holds up remarkably well and offers new and veteran viewers alike a rich palette of ideas and concepts.It's fascinating from a symbolic and psychological perspective as well as being an interesting story redolent with past influences.

To begin with, let's take a look at what I think is the core of the story the dichotomy between the head (masculine rationalism) and the heart (feminine emotion and intuition). Morbius is literally torn apart by the dispersal chamber at his execution and this is an apposite act by a society that was threatened by his disruption. His punishment cuts him off from an instinctive free relationship with nature and he becomes an irrational figure who has lost contact with the personal experience of life.

Solon’s after the perfect head in which to house Morbius’ brain, the Doctor becoming the preferred option. Solon’s obsession about having the perfect head is understandable. Morbius has effectively been castrated and left to his own torment in a dark Underworld devoid of senses. The head is symbolically regarded as the domain of the masculine with the heart being its feminine counterpoint. One can see that the Solon/Morbius relationship is concerned with the dominant male progressing in the world through the application of science. The Sisterhood are the feminine principle of the story, driven by intuition, forces of nature and relying on the mind and matter approach of magic and sorcery.

The head is also symbolic of the fully conscious mind, of the full awareness of reality – something which Morbius lacks in order for his masculine ego to be freed from the Unconscious. ‘The crowning irony’ as Solon informs Morbius that his new head will be that of a Time Lord. Morbius fears the feminine and has no masculine power until Solon can provide him with a new head and body.

The Sisterhood fear Morbius and the Time Lords and have an aversion to progress through scientific rationalism. It takes the Doctor to demonstrate that science and magic can be one and the same thing. Hence, his firework aided chimney sweeping of the Sisterhood’s sacred flame, his instant analysis that the elixir could actually be synthesised and his cyanide solution to getting out of the laboratory to stop Morbius. And of course, he will eventually need the elixir himself if he is to survive the ordeal with Morbius.

Emotionally, there are also things to note. Solon is driven by his work and is obsessed to the point of madness in trying to give Morbius his freedom. His is a life absent of real joy. He only sees the material potential of the bodies around him with no concern for sentiment and feelings. He is all about the disintegration of the personality which leads to schizophrenia whilst he physically is attempting to stop the material disintegration of Morbius. As he feverishly sews up bits of bodies to re-integrate Morbius, he is, inside, shattering psychologically.

Secondly, a brief discussion of the female principle in the story as formed by the Sisterhood and Sarah. The Sisterhood, through their disavowal of the benefits of science, are impotently immortal. Any intrusion through science – the crashed spaceships on Karn are the result of their handiwork – meets with destruction. Their immortality is a curse, their magic brings them no progress. They are static and isolated even though through their femininity they are able to co-operate with the blind forces of nature. This force is literally evoked through Maren’s temporary blinding of Sarah.

Sarah as an active, free feminine influence in the narrative is punished with blindness and isolation because of their fear. She’s the potential of what they could all be (progress) and Maren brings her down a peg or two for rescuing the (masculine) Doctor. In the end, the Sisterhood are as equally isolated as Morbius – they through their fear of the masculine penetration of science and he through the mis-application of science – Solon’s attempts to reanimate his body and the effects of the dispersal chamber. The Doctor is the figure that reconciles all of these elements – he uses a science/magic approach to vanquish Morbius and to hopefully bring progress to the Sisterhood.

Appropriate to this era's supposed use of the Gothic, the story has a number of very visceral and physical elements present within it. Condo's arm is highly symbolic of this. Condo experiences his body directly through pain and because he can see his own arm as an external object grafted onto the Morbius body. It is symbolic of Condo’s humanity and with it he would be a complete person again. It is also the only recognisably human part of the Morbius body, capable of vain gesticulation.

Condo’s also capable of feeling and emotion and appreciates Sarah’s feminine beauty and does not understand why it should be destroyed. He recognises the power of his emotions through seeing his promised physicality given to the Morbius creature and through his affection for Sarah but Solon ultimately punishes him for it. For that, it’s an astonishingly brutal story. One particular sequence in Part Three is rather notorious. As Solon prepares Morbius’ brain for the surgery, he faces an angry Condo (Condo has seen his arm on the creature). Solon shoots him, they fight and the brain falls on the floor.

It’s at once violent – Condo’s chest explodes very gorily in full frame – and blackly comic – the brain plops out onto the floor rather satisfyingly in a pool of slime. It is hilarious, repulsive and fascinating. It’s a sophisticated range of reactions produced in a short sequence and is highly typical of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes attitudes to overt violence and black homour in the series. Solon is attempting to further disintegrate Condo’s body and expunge the outpouring of feminine emotion and feeling into his isolated male prison of science.

The mental battle betwen the Doctor and Morbius is as much about the apparatus being a mirror reflecting the opposing forces within the psyche. The combatants are as much a reflection of each other, a reverse of each other. The contest is also conducted in reverse in so far as to reach the desired goal it is necessary to regress to your origins e.g. we see all their previous incarnations. The hero must descend into the depths of infancy in order to move on towards maturity. The Doctor’s trick is to get Morbius to gorge on his own Ego, to fly too close to the sun and therefore come crashing down to earth when his brain literally fries. He is overcome by his own narcissistic reflection of himself. The mirror is also earlier a trigger mechanism for the Morbius creature to go on the rampage as he sees his true reflection in the laboratory.

Looking back at the story now, it is worth noting that it’s entirely studio bound, complete with sets representing the exteriors of Karn. Now, admittedly, the construction of those sets does affect our reception of the story. Wood is used to represent stone for the exteriors and you can clearly hear Lis Sladen’s feet clomping about. However, the production’s overt staginess actually doesn’t destroy the illusion but rather contributes to the feeling that this is an entirely closed environment, hermetically sealed. It reminds me of some of the BBC’s studio bound Shakespeare productions of the late 70’s and early 80’s.

Let’s also not forget that much of studio based television was still using theatrical modes of presentation at this time. The camera very rarely moves in this story, is fairly static and the lighting, flaring into the lens on occasion, often heightens the sheer theatricality of it e.g. the sun rise at the Doctor’s execution. Barry Newbery’s design is also a huge contribution to this ‘play’ and the sets in Solon’s castle are a bricolage of design styles and the almost Himalayan atmosphere these create is very similar to the pressure cooker environments of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘Black Narcisscus’. The combination of the ‘hippy Tibetan’ vibe of the Sisterhood’s costumes and make-up, the radiophonic wind chimes and other sound effects for the planet surface and the Nepalese flavour of the production design really build up that effect. There is also a nod to the Expressionist lab designs of umpteen Universal and Hammer horror films too.

As far as influences are concerned, this is ‘Frankenstein’, primarily. But there are also nods to ‘The Island Of Doctor Moreau’, Rider Haggard’s ‘She’, ‘Beauty And The Beast’, ‘The Hunchback Of Notre Dame’, 50’s B movies and 'Top Of The Pops' (the Sisterhood do a delirious Pan’s People number to capture the TARDIS and to sacrifice the Doctor)

Visual effects are on the whole pretty good. The vista of crashed ships is just about acceptable. The brain tank in the cellar with Morbius’ brain is a triumph of physical effects, especially the trembling bit of material that vibrates as Morbius’ voice rants on. One favourite effect is the blast from Maren’s ring directly into camera as Sarah escapes. That would still pass muster today. The ‘monster’ is so self-referentially ridiculed within the context of the story (‘pot pouri’ and ‘Chop Suey’) that there’s really no need to highlight how daft it looks now. The intentional and unintentional humour implied by the monster costume combine to offset some of the more visceral moments – the shooting and the brain on the floor for example as well as numerous strangulations and a burning at the stake.

Tom and Lis are at their best here. It’s a solid relationship of mutual respect and admiration. Sarah is a tad too much of victim here but who can forget that chill up the spine as she advances, blind, toward that big glowing brain and Michael Spice’s delicious, ranting performance as Morbius. Philip Madoc is superb as the twitchy Solon, desperately trying to rescue his own career as a surgeon whilst trapped in the dungeon of Morbius’ own mind.

'The Brain Of Morbius' BBC Video VHS (BBCV4388 Cert PG - now deleted)
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