Doctor Who #420: The Brain of Morbius Part 1

"Superb head." "Well, I'm glad you like it. I have had several. I used to have an old grey model before this. Some people liked it."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD. First aired Jan.3 1976.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS is diverted to Karn, the Frankenstein planet where Dr. Solon is looking for a spectacular head. And the Doctor's might just fit the bill!

REVIEW: The pseudonymous Robin Bland is more Holmes than Dicks, a riff on Frankenstein's Monster taking place on a Gothic planet , but it also adds to the Time Lord mythos, a concern shared by both writers. First and foremost, though, it's Gothic horror. Shadowy, fog-bound Karn is wracked by thunderstorms, Condo is a brutish assistant in the Igor vein, and Solon is trying to build a body for a dead Time Lord named Morbius using what looks like Victorian equipment. The Sisters of Karn are a cult with psychokinetic powers, but their manifestation is right out of a ghost story, blowing doors open and snuffing candles in addition to bigger tricks like transporting the TARDIS in a smokey (and very cool) effect. Even non-threatening characters are monsters in this tale, with the difficult-to-explain appearance of a space-faring Mutt as Condo's violently beheaded victim. (I guess we're far in the future relative to The Mutants, and the Solonians have evolved to the point of using their insectoid phase in more technological ways. The similarity between Solonian and Solon is a coincidence, surely, but odd nonetheless.)

At the center of this tale is Philip Madoc's fun performance AS Solon, a man whose heart skips a beat when he sees  "a magnificent head". His work fills him with both joy and frustration, and his treatment of poor Condo certainly shows him to be most mercurial. When the Doctor and Sarah show up at the castle during a rain storm (delightfully, for "a glass of water"), it's a case of having dinner with a ghoul who just wants to lovingly remove your head. The Doctor gets drunk/drugged, but Sarah either slyly or politely gets rid of her green wine and cleverly fakes passing out along with the Doctor so she can go skulking about. Holmes' Doctor and companion work together very well, intuitively following each others' leads, and it's partly why their pairing is so well remembered.

The other element of interest here (and deep interest, at that) is the story's connection to the Time Lords. They've apparently diverted the TARDIS to this location, but it's one of those cases where they've found it more prudent not to tell the Doctor why. Morbius, the Time Lord criminal of whose cult Solon no doubt is a member, now a ghastly headless creature-in-progress, is certainly at the root of the problem, though maybe some evil CIA agent (and Morbius cult member) is sending his boss a proper head. Is this a mission, or a trap? And we've also got the Sisters of Karn, who share the Elixir of Life with the Time Lords and protect the Flame of Life which is instrumental in its preparation. They have an uneasy relationship with Gallifrey and think the Doctor might be there to steal their stash. It's all very mystical for something connected to the super-science of Gallifrey (but see Theories). Curiousity piqued!

THEORIES: We're never really told how deep the connection between the Time Lords and the Sisters of Karn goes, not on the show anyway. As presented, they appear to be a female version of the Time Lords (aside from Susan's debatable status as a Time Lady, all Time Lords to date have been men), both in gender and in symbolic outlook. The Time Lords are science (the Tarot's Magician who espouses reason and knowledge) and the Sisters are mysticism (the High Priestess who represents intuition, wisdom and mystery). We are even told they are "equals", the Time Lords apparently resistant to the Sisters' mental powers. In one of the first New Adventures novels, Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible, writer Marc Platt, imagines them as a pre-Rassilon Gallifreyan cult (the Pythia) who rules the then-superstitious planet through their mental powers, precognition in particular. When a new scientific faction (Rassilon, Omega, et al.) rose to power, they were expelled from Gallifrey, some of them finding their way to nearby Karn. I can't help but wonder if the Visionary seen in The End of Time isn't a repatriated Pythia, a powerful precog given a seat on the council so it could make use of the cult's abilities. Even if you don't think the novels are canon, you have to admit the old woman in red with stuff painted on her face who predicts the fall of Gallifrey certainly evokes the Sisters of Karn.

REWATCHABILITY: High - One of Holmes' great Gothic stories begins, featuring strong performances and important myth-building too.


snell said...

To posit another analogy, Oans and Zamorans. Discuss.

Siskoid said...

Certainly a similar male/female polarization, though Guardians and Zamarons are more obviously mind/body, which is a more sexist approach than the traditional reason/intuition divide.

But it looks like the makings of a Doctor Who/Green Lantern crossover.

Anonymous said...

I just recently rewatched this and quite enjoyed it. The hints of the Time Lords is fascinating yet obscured as is the Morbius Cult. So many interesting plot threads that an not really picked up again.

Siskoid said...

A consequence of the way Doctor Who was being written and consumed back then. The books and audios do revisit these concepts with more or less success (frankly, less).


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