Companion: Sarah Jane Smith
Written by: Robin Bland (a.k.a Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes)
Directed by: Christopher Barry
Background & Significance: Season 13 of Doctor Who is perhaps one of the best seasons of television the show ever experienced. After a season of stories coordinated by the previous production team, this new start allowed Holmes to sculpt the show into whatever he wanted it to be. As we've discussed previously, this resulted in a season full of horror pastiches and sendups. Mummies, mutant plants, shapeshifters, body snatchers...
"Brain of Morbius" comes at the exact halfway point of their era and represents the pinnacle of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes vision for the show. Originally written by Terrance Dicks (the original version had an aesthetically-challenged robot that cobbled together a body for the wrecked Morbius based on its own warped view of human anatomy), it was eventually almost completely re-written by Robert Holmes, so much so that Dicks asked his name be removed from the writing credit. As such, it's really a Holmesian contribution to Doctor Who and to say otherwise is massive, massive self-deception (as we'll discuss) because... well... it's a Holmes story, isn't it?
So let's get to it!
What I love about this is… based purely on its design and production aesthetic this reminds me about why this era is one of my favorites ever. No other era gets exactly what they’re going for so exactly right. There is no ambiguity or second guessing with any element of anything in this story so far. Compare it to the Pertwee or Williams eras and you can tell. In those stories you’d have sets and corridors that were terribly generic. Sci-fi has a sci-fi look. Here, though, it’s terribly terribly different. And what Hinchcliffe/Holmes churn out is impossibly unique. Look at what Sarah wears: it’s terribly terriby Gothic in the way that this era tends to skew Gothic. And yet it feels like an outfit that’s from the future. It’s true Gothic sci-fi, isn’t it? And there’s not anything around that does such an incredible job of blending two such broad styles into something impossibly esoteric.
That’s this whole episode though. We’ve talked about every other story in this era (hell, every 4th Doctor story except this one) and this one comes with… confidence that the others don’t have. That’s not to say other stories aren’t confident. There’s plenty from this era that are (“Ark in Space” and “The Deadly Assassin” come to mind), but where those stories ARE confident they’re somewhat… lesseneded(?) by the way the almost showmanship and running around. The first episode of “Ark in Space” is nothing but a showman tour of an empty space station starring nothing but our three leads. And that’s fine, but you can almost see Holmes working to keep you entertained. Same with “The Deadly Assassin”. Awesome episode with an awesome cliffhanger, but it does nothing but mark time until the breathtaking cliffhanger.
And again, that’s why this episode is so brilliant. At no point does it feel showmanesque. At no point does it feel like Robert Holmes is TRYING to get your attention. The same can’t be said about just about any other story this season. No. This episode makes it clear when it opens with a cold-blooded murder that isn’t played fast or quick, it’s played for the slow horror of Condo stalking his weakened prey and decapitating it once he gets the drop on it. Any other story would have played it with much more mystery. More focus on the creature. More focus on its hunter. But the thing about Condo (and we learn it almost right off) is he’s a man with a vicious hook for a hand and ain’t nothing going to stop him using that hook, especially because he knows how to use it.
It’s a stellar episode, and I’m sure I’ll say more, but twenty five minutes in and I can’t wait to pound out the rest of these. There’s nothing I don’t love about this. Nothing. And I’m impossibly sad because I know that in just three short episodes time I’m going to leave behind the Most Gothic Mark on Doctor Who this side of anywhere. And I don’t want to. I just want to stay here, in these sets, dealing with these problems, forever. It’s.. god, it’s wonderful. Yes. I know I can come back later. Of course I can come back later and re-watch it. But if this feeling, this world, this planet was a season? Christ almighty it would be my favorite season.
Oh and there’s a giant, headless, crab body. So something to keep track of. Oh wait! Headless! And Solon is looking for heads! Whaaaaat!
Planet of Evil” didn’t have location shooting. But it did have ornate sets and special effects.
Here, Brain of Morbius HAS no effects. There’s the power ring of the Sisters’ High Priestess Maren giving a small blue beam, but other than that there’s nothing. Just fire. But that’s something we’ve managed to make for VERY cheap nowadays, and it couldn’t have been that much more expensive in the mid-70s than it is nowadays. And in terms of sets? There’s the one set for the sisters, a set for the exteriors, and then a few sets for Solon’s castle. But really, that’s only three locales, isn’t it? And the whole story bounces between the Sisters and Solon’s castle with some “exteriors” of the cliffs to transition between the two.
What’s interesting about this episode, though, is that scenes are allowed to be long, and extensive. Solon meeting with Maren and bargaining for The Doctor’s life is something that seems to take a while, doesn’t it? Hell, The Doctor and Maren discussing the history of Morbius and how dead Morbius surely must be is essentially six minutes of argumentation, split up by a minute or two of Solon and Condo walking down to the Sisterhood’s lair. And it’s impossibly compelling. Remember how in “The Two Doctors” Holmes did a massive six minute scene towards the start of episode two? What’s interesting here is that Holmes is basically doing the same exact thing, but making it interesting by focusing on the characters and the urgency of what’s happening with the plot.
And isn’t that “isn’t” the compelling bit of everything? What if the evil guy isn’t dead like you thought he was? You see it in science fiction and genre stuff all time, don’t you? This once-vanquished foe returning from beyond the grave is incredibly exciting. And yes, we hear nothing but hearsay in this. But it clearly means something. Clearly the Time Lords did send The Doctor here and clearly the Sisterhood is here for some reason (they have a treaty with Gallifrey so they must be important). And they have great power. And The Doctor and Sarah are caught between these two extremes: on the one side a mad scientist and on the other a tribe of female mystics.
I love that the two extremes are not really right. Solon is clearly the bad guy here, what with his genetic experiments and mad scientist ways and poisoning The Doctor. But neither is the Sisterhood on The Doctor’s side. Yes, they consider Morbius their mortal enemy and are allied with The Doctor on that, but they also string him up and expect him to burn for his supposed crimes. It keeps the Sisters wrapped in an enigma and a big fat question mark moving forward. We’ve no idea where it’s going with them, but because they’re one of the only elements in the story (the other being Solon, Condo, and Morbius himself) it points to the notion that they are not superfluous. Nor would they be. And that’s… key.
Then we have the stuff with Solon and Condo and Condo’s demanding that Solon return his arm. I love the chink in the armor, here. That Condo is already turning on Solon points to the fact that their relationship is on the outs and perhaps has been for some time. Not only that, but Condo has a power over Solon that he perhaps doesn’t recognize. He threatens Solon with his life and Solon knows that Condo will make good on that promise. But the two need each other. Condo needs someone who can carry him through difficult challenges that he’s not mentally equipped for while Solon desperately needs muscle/an assistant who can help him when he needs help.
It’s a wonderful dynamic and yet another Holmesian double act within the story. Only Solon bridges the gap two ways. How often does Holmes do a servant-character who’s a proxy for the disfigured, unable-to-interact with the world character? The answer is somewhere in the range of “often”. And (as we learn in this episode) Solon is Morbius’s proxy (because Morbius is a brain in a jar). But so too is Condo Solon’s proxy for the outside world. Condo is constantly going out and hunting down whoever crashes on Karn and bringing them back to the castle. It’s a nice touch, but Condo is also horrific and disfigured (if there are standards for such things) while Solon is good looking and handsome. So we have something of an inversion of the traditional Holmes role, don’t we?
Here’s my question, though. And perhaps we can answer this later, but what does the story gain from making Sarah blind here? Yes, it means the shocking reveal of Morbius’s brain relegates the brain reveal to an almost extreme dramatic irony. Other than that, though, I don’t know the point we’re making here. Is it about sight and seeing? Are other characters thematically or metaphorically blinded? Solon, surely because his quest to restore Morbius blinds him to everything else, or Maren and how her devotion to the sisterhood blinds her to reason? Perhaps they’ll do something with it. As of now, though, it’s relegated to a plot that sends The Doctor back to the Sisterhood and Solon to prep for The Doctor’s head again. Which is not bad. I just want a thematic tie to it.
That, though, is the epitome of a minor quibble. So clearly I’m loving this. And I am. So much.
This episode continues much the same as the previous ones, only here The Doctor doesn’t bounce back and forth. Or at least, not really. He arrives at the lair of the Sisterhood and stays there until almost the end of the episode, at which time he is carted back (caravanned back?) by the Sisterhood. And that’s an interesting choice, but necessary. Because while The Doctor is stuck at the Sisterhood’s lair we have Sarah Jane stuck at Solon’s castle. And structurally, that’s brilliant because Holmes manages to tackle both extremes of the narrative at the same time. So it’s quite clever, and it allows The Doctor to settle what’s going on with the Sisterhood while terrible things happen over at Solon’s castle.
The Sisterhood storyline is interesting (yes, I’m not done with it) because it features The Doctor mending a bridge the Time Lords had previously burned. This elixir of theirs has magical healing properties that allows the Sisterhood immortality and aids Time Lords suffering from post-regenerative trauma. But the flame is dying and the Sisters have used the last of the elixir, as their flame which produces it is going out. The Doctor manages to restore the flame to its former glory (which he does by turning a firecracker into a chimney sweep) and all is right in the world. The Sisterhood trust him now. And it’s… good.
Now I think on it, isn’t that just Hestia? I mean, from Greek Mythology. Isn’t Maren just Hestia with a backstory? Hestia’s whole job on Earth is to protect and tend the flame at the top of Mount Olympus that it might never go out. That’s her whole job. And that’s what the Sisterhood are doing. They aren’t really paying attention to the world at large. If any ship comes near them they smash it to the planet and leave it there. They just want to be left alone and anything that distracts them from their goal they treat with disdain and order it expunged. Hell, the only reason they leave Solon alone is because he does nothing to bother them.
Yes. Morbius. At the end of the last episode we learned that Morbius was just a brain in a jar, but Sarah Jane didn’t learn that because she’d been blinded. But this here. This is the stuff. This is where we have Solon and Morbius talking and candidly about what they’re to do now that the time is running out. Solon is concerned because he doesn’t have The Doctor’s head, but Morbius is more concerned that a Time Lord is near his vicinity. Morbius, it seems, is more scared of The Time Lords than anything else, and what they did to him scared the ever loving crap out of him. And it’s fantastic to see Morbius so impossibly scared by such a seemingly simple thing. What would the Time Lords do to a brain in a jar, I ask? What would they possibly do?
The result is the phenomenal reveal at the end of the episode that pays off what we saw in the first. Hell, the cliffhanger to this episode is a synthesis of the first and second cliffhangers. The first reveals the body. The second reveals the brain. The third is the brain and body coming together as Morbius rises to attack Sarah Jane. It’s gob-smackingly elegant and powerfully effective. Morbius becomes a monster incarnate. What was before monstrous in its scale (Morbius reduced to naught but a brain) is given life in a horrific creature of marvelous design. It’s Frankenstein taken to its logical conclusion: a hodge podge of different bodies and parts making something truly monstrous. Hairy legs, Condo’s arm, a massive crab claw, feet with paws. It’s just… glorious. Truly glorious.
He’s so mad, in fact, that he murders (or appears to murder) Condo in cold blood. Yes, it’s self-defense, but at the same time it’s really… dark, isn’t it? And not just because the actual shooting is horribly horribly graphic what with its squibs and the like, but Condo hardly deserved Solon’s ire. All Condo wanted was his hand back. All he wanted was to be less monstrous. It’s a stark contrast to Morbius, who wants to be monstrous, who will stop at nothing to have his body back, a body, any body. Condo is disctonent with his hook for a hand, because while it makes him a badass, it also makes him less human. Morbius, clearly, cares not for his humanity.
It’s really quite excellent. And in a more-of-the-same kinda way. What’s not to love, really? The scenes are long but it never drags. And it leaves us in such interesting places.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before (my god, at this point, this close to the end, what haven’t I mentioned before?), but I find that sometimes I find it easy to forget that the writers I idolize, the ones I look up to and respect for having rich narratives with deep emotional and psychological gravitas, intricate thematic complexity, the ability to make me laugh, elate, cry, despair, and the entire gamut in between are also giant massive nerds. It took me a while to realize it, but I always thought that the reason the Faith/Buffy showdown at the end of “Graduation Day Part 1” was intense because it was a buildup of two rivals over the course of a season. It’s a relationship built on jealousy and passion and far be it for me to cram in some eighteen episodes of buildup for this paragraph, I’ll just say I missed the really exciting, excellent point of the scene.
And it’s not the same thing as when Buffy fought Kendra in "What’s My Line? Part 1". Because there the point is we had no idea it was Kendra or that we were watching a Slayer Fight. But in “Graduation Day” it’s different. The immediacy of the fight is in every second of the buildup and the sudden rush up to them as the fight starts is nothing but geek catharsis. And that’s the thing about Joss Whedon that I love about him: he’s so good at the emotional and story stuff that I can often forget how much he loves the simple pleasures of a story. The Slayer fights, the rocket launchers, seeing Reavers taking on The Alliance. They’re the things that are… terribly populist, I suppose. It’s mass appeal and entertains while the other moments (specifically the emotional catharsis of those moments) shine through under the radar.
This isn’t a huge surprise. Or it shouldn’t be. This is the guy who brought together Jago & Litefoot in the closing minutes of a story and ended on a pig-cyborg firing a massive laser cannon at The Doctor.
So too, here, Holmes unleashes his inner fanboy. He’s telling a Frankenstein story. So what do you want from a Frankenstein story? Well clearly you want a savage monster traipsing through and about the wilderness. It doesn’t matter if that was in Shelley’s original vision or not (it wasn’t, but like I said it doesn’t matter) because this is the cultural perception of Frankenstein we’re dealing with. And so Morbius traipses. And we have Morbius (Frankenstein) slaying an innocent Sister of the Flame (virgin) and the town rising up against in response.
Spar they do. The Doctor and Morbius against each other in a game of Time Lord mind wrestling. Which is exactly what you want, isn’t it? And to make it more fantastic he seems totally sane and totally verbally capable of sparring with The Doctor (which is not easy). It’s perverse, and Barry does an excellent job of keeping Morbius at a distance to not over emphasize the character. It’s a stark contrast from the intimacy with which Barry shoots Morbius when he’s in his feral, animalistic state at the beginning of the episode and it makes Morbius seem that much scarier and more intimidating. The Doctor and Sarah are keeping their distance in a way they hadn’t previously. Before it was Morbius without tactical thinking. What happens now that he has that higher reasoning?
Oh right. The townsfolk running Frankenstein out of town. With torches.
But that’s not enough. Holmes takes it one step further by having the locals of Karn be the Sisterhood, or, if you wanna get really crass about it: the witches of Karn. So the witches run the monster out of town with their torches in hand. It’s… god is it good. And it’s exactly what you want from this story. All of these things are. So Holmes is delivering the things we want, the things we need. But he’s doing it in such a way that it feels narratively cathartic rather than just fanboyishly cathartic. It’s fantastic to see The Doctor go up against Morbius and it feels right to see the Sisterhood banish their great foe once and for all. It’s just (again) cherry on top that it fits into the framework of a Frankenstein story.
Really, it’s kind of a great end for The Sisterhood, or at least, a great grace note on them. They fulfill a purpose and mend a bridge (in this case, coming to a Time Lord’s aid in a time of need) and Maren is allowed to die because she has seen her ultimate foe vanquished and does not feel the need to carry on. Hell, as she says at the end, “some things must be allowed to end.” It’s the lesson, really, and something she has to learn. It shows that her and Solon were not so different at the start: both were continuing traditions long past (in Solon’s case: Morbius’s life) and their unwillingness to let things go led them to near ruin (Maren’s holding to tradition almost led her to executing The Doctor, in other words, her own actions almost brought about her own destruction).
And like a magician, The Doctor disappears in a bang and a flash. Is there a more fitting end to a story than seeing that? No. Not really. I mean. The Doctor is something of a magician and he blends technology and science (Solon) with the wonder and mysticism of the Sisterhood. Why not go out with a bang and a flash, a bit of atom and some thunder as he calls it? That’s why he’s the best. Because he has the qualities of the good and the evil and bridges them into something truly remarkable.
Truly, truly remarkable.
Final Thoughts?: This is one of the great 4th Doctor stories. And when I say "one of the greats" I mean one of the greats.
Most of that is down to Hinchcliffe/Holmes. This is right in their wheelhouse and it's not hard to see why. The content of the story matches the feel of it so impossibly well that it makes other eras and other stories look worse by comparison. Even the Williams era never had so good a story that so specifically mixed its oeuvre as much as this matches this. Or at least... this is much more esoteric than those stories ever could've been. Solon's lab has to look a particular way. The hook on Condo's hand is perfectly jagged. Morbius himself is exquisitely cobbled together from bits and pieces to look as hodge-podge as he needs to. It's Frankenstein turned up to pure, complete horror.
Now... this is funny, because here we are talking about the last Tom Baker story we have left to cover and I've come completely around on him. It's not that I ever actively hated Tom Baker [in public] but it's closer to the fact that I just didn't get it the first time around. But watching this I see why he's everyone's favorite Doctor. And why wouldn't he be? He's fantastic in every moment and he eats up this script like he does with few others. And that's not... bad. He eats up other scripts too, but it's clear here that he's on fire and really jiving with what it is Holmes is serving it up. He's The Doctor here and, because I seem to always like it more when Tom Baker is a bit more internal and subdued, this is really him at his best. I'm always trying to figure out what the best story for any given Doctor is and I'll be honest? This gets my vote.
A triumph in every sense of the word, and even then probably in senses that aren't even possible to convey. I am in awe and I'm coming back to it again and again. A top five Tom Baker story and absolutely deserving of all the praise and gushing I'm dishing out right now. That it's not more well-liked than "Seeds of Doom" or other stories in this season is laughable in the best of ways. What's not to love? It's, for lack of better term, nearly god damn perfect. And if that's not the highest praise I can give it, I don't know what is.
Next Time!: 3rd Doctor! Wolf-like creatures! A story within a story! An eyepatch! Fascism! And a parallel universe! Our final Jon Pertwee story is "Inferno!" Coming Next Tuesday!