A mad scientist, a brain in a jar, an ancient cult, and Time Lord history collide in “The Brain of Morbius,” the fifth serial from the thirteenth season of “Doctor Who.” Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen continue their famous roles as the fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith in this four-part story which originally aired in January 1976.
Originally conceived by regular “Who” writer Terrance Dicks as the saga of an obedient robot building a new body for its master out of spare alien parts, “Morbius” would eventually be rewritten by script editor Robert Holmes (and playfully credited to “Robin Bland” after Dicks, unhappy with the changes, suggested Holmes use “some bland pseudonym”) as a Mary Shelley-inspired mix of gothic horror and mad scientist sci-fi. The result is a serial packed with terrific performances, silly dialogue, clever ideas, and ridiculous monsters – classic “Who” indeed.
The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive on the planet Karn, apparently at the behest of the Time Lords, who once again demand the Doctor do their dirty work, and who once again opt not to tell the Doctor what his mission might be. Karn is home to the Sisterhood of the Flame, whose ancient fire produces a secret elixir that grants its drinker eternal life. But the fire is burning low and the elixir is almost gone. Only two races know of the elixir: the Sisterhood, and the Time Lords. Maren (Cynthia Grenville), leader of the Sisterhood, fears the Doctor has been sent to steal what’s left of the potion.
Meanwhile, the Doctor and Sarah stumble upon the evil scientist Solon (Philip Madoc), who long ago disappeared after serving the renegade Time Lord Morbius. Morbius was executed years ago, or so it seemed – Solon managed to save the Time Lord’s still-living brain (voiced by Michael Spice), and with the help of the hulkish, Igor-like assistant Condo (Colin Fay), the mad doctor has been piecing together a new body for their master. All Solon requires to finish his mission is the head of a Time Lord. Guess whose curly-topped noggin is deemed perfect for the job?
Like many classic “Who” tales, “Morbius” uses a patchwork of borrowed ideas as its base. “Frankenstein” gives us the creature built from spare parts; H. Rider Haggard’s “She” provides the notion of a woman made eternal by magical fire; even the title villain’s name comes from the 1950s sci-fi favorite “Forbidden Planet.” Yet also like many classic “Who” tales, such a patchwork does not come across as a string of second-rate copies swiped from better sources. The inspirations may be familiar but the resulting story is wildly unique and entertaining.
A product of a series enjoying a status as well-established but still in its prime (it’s tempting to say this serial comes at the peak of “Who,” but then, the 1970s were one long peak for the program – the entire decade is more of a healthy plateau), “Morbius” is comfortable with its elements and allows for a wide range of storytelling tones without feeling cluttered or uneven. Only Baker’s big-grin, winking-fun Doctor could get away with a joke like “Could you spare a glass of water?” while standing in the rain, and only vintage “Who” could get away with placing such frivolity right up next to gothic thrills and chills. Dicks and Holmes make the most of the mad-scientist’s-castle-on-a-rainy-night formula, and then they mix it with the eerie mystery of the Sisterhood storyline to gripping effect. It’s genres in a blender, and it’s fantastic, especially with Madoc and Grenville delivering such solidly serious performances that keeps the more ludicrous aspects of the plot from floating away.
Silliness does threaten to overtake the serial from time to time, especially when Morbius comes front and center. The “talking brain” idea has always been an iffy proposition in science fiction, and while Spice’s voice work does provide the villain with an effectively creepy quality, it’s tough not to giggle whenever Solon starts arguing with a grumpy brain floating in a jar. Later, the script tries to defuse further snickers over Morbius’ body – a “Robot Monster”-esque mishmash of furry body, human arm, claw hand, Tupperware case for a head, giant red stalks for eyes – by having the characters openly mock it (to which the villains defend themselves by suggesting it’s not how he looks that matters, but that he lives again); the earnest drama of the fourth episode is deflated by the goofy costume.
Of course, longtime “Who” fans have come to accept (and even celebrate) such cheesiness, and the ideas put forth in “Morbius” are sharp enough that a willing viewer will have no problem ignoring such monster suit goofiness. After all, the thrills really are thrilling and the chills really are chilling; Sarah Jane’s run-ins with the Morbius creature (both pre- and post-head) are tremendously exciting in the old school monster movie mold, and both Solon and Morbius serve as wonderful nemeses for the Doctor, who always shines best when facing a mental equal.
A note for the picky: This is the serial which introduces us to the “Morbius Doctors,” a batch of pre-First Doctor faces that may or may not be earlier incarnations of the Doctor. During the final episode, Morbius scans the Doctor’s brain as part of a “mind-bending contest” and sees images of Doctors past. Scanning the faces, Morbius shouts, “How far, Doctor? How long have you lived?” Fans have spent decades debating this mystery. Is it a continuity gaffe? A hint at character history never later studied? Are they instead faces of Morbius’ own previous regenerations?
My explanation: It doesn’t matter. The “mind-bending contest” is an awkward attempt to make literal use of the “battle of the minds” in which the Doctor often engages. As drama, it’s a weak out for the story – it’s just the Doctor and Morbius standing around grunting for a while, after which somebody gets to be the “winner.” The writers seem to realize this, eventually giving us a far more satisfying finale later (complete with an angry mob!).