Doctor Who #423: The Brain of Morbius Part 4

"You can actually see that brain inside it, like a goldfish bowl." "Can you read his thoughts?"
TECHNICAL SPECS: First aired Jan.24 1976.

IN THIS ONE... Morbius awakens and mind-wrestles the Doctor, confusing the regeneration issue forever.

REVIEW: Though by the time the Sisterhood arrives, torches in hand, there's no denying this is the Frankenstein story writ in science fiction, the existential twist is that the monster's body is even more grotesque, while his mind is that of a genius who can fully understand his situation. The amusing, if obvious, irony is that this is the first thing Sarah Jane sees when she regains her sight. And at first, Morbius IS a monster in the usual sense. He growls and rampages and chokes people with his lobster claw. As a Man, he's also reputed to be a monster, a despot warmonger responsible for countless deaths. His moments of lucidity are rare, and the Doctor doesn't give him the time to collect his wits. The mind-bending duel is an odd way to challenge the villain, and it's never really explained what exactly happens or how the game is played, but it is one of the most discussed scenes in Whodom (see Theories). Certainly, each time we get a drop of Time Lord lore, we, as a fandom, get excited and the theories fly. In the end, Morbius will return to a beastly state and fall off a cliff, Wile E. Coyote style. And make no mistake, there's camp in them there hills. Just Morbius' posture alone is worth a smirk and justifies his cartoon death.

There certainly is a lot of death in this finale. Before heading for the great beyond himself, Morbius also manages to kill Condo and one of the Sisters. The Doctor is actually responsible for Solon's death, throwing cyanide into the ductwork. He means to smoke him out, but he must have known it could easily turn into murder. Is that a step too far for the Doctor? At least there's no Bond-like death pun, which is perhaps why a similar (but more brutal) scene in The Two Doctors is reviled, but this one is rarely mentioned. Then there's Maren, who sacrifices her life in a confusing way at the end, giving Ohica and her bizarre eye movements a turn at being leader. It's confusing because Maren might just have stepped down and died of old age, and still allowed the Sisterhood to know "progress" as the Doctor suggested. Instead, she walks into a flame that doesn't seem big enough for it, turns into a younger version of herself, and fades away. Draped in the mystical, it makes for an strange and opaque scene. And the Doctor almost dies too, his regeneration powers inhibited in a story that easily allows it. He restored the Elixir of Life, remember?

The dark and Gothic are counter-balanced by some fun comedy beats and lines from the regulars, thankfully. The Doctor frets over Sarah Jane's need to be calm until he realizes she's calmer than he is. The pair of them settle down to wait a month to see if the cyanide will take effect. The Doctor instructs Solon to sever Morbius' brain and says he'll come back to count the pieces. "Nice to be seen again" is the Doctor's understatement on Sarah's returned sight. Morbius suffering mongrel insults like "Chop Suey, the galactic emperor". As usual, there's great chemistry between the heroes, and it's put to good use filling in any dead air in an episode. And for Nitpickers, you might enjoy looking for the bit where it sounds like Lis Sladen calls the Doctor "Tom", though I'm pretty sure it's the final "-tor" in Doctor. Still, the DVD subtitles think it's a flub.

THEORIES: This won't take long. Many have used the mind-bending contest's use of various unknown, historically-garbed photos (of the production staff) to say the Doctor had other identities before Hartnell. And the production staff may be among those saying it. However, to do so causes problems with continuity, both past and future, and most immediately in the next Time Lord story, also by Holmes, The Deadly Assassin. That story states for the first time that Time Lords can only call on 12 regenerations, making the fourth Doctor actually the 12th! The Three Doctors had established Hartnell as "the earliest Doctor" anyway, and many stories since have used the Hartnell-1 numbering. So it's much easier to justify the characters seen in the mental duel as MORBIUS' other selves. Nothing in the dialog contradicts this, and in fact, if the duel somehow regresses you until you're spent, Morbius' mind is blown as THESE images flash by. It may have been the original intent to suggest previous identities, but they were still smart enough to make it ambiguous. The rest of the canon is quite clear on this, the ambiguity can only be resolved in favor of Hartnell being the Doctor's first body.

VERSIONS: I'm not aware of any significant difference between the episodes and the Target novelization, however, the original (omnibus) video release was pruned to make it more "appropriate" for younger viewers, something criticized at the time. It ran for less than an hour!

REWATCHABILITY: High  - The finale has jokes, action, death, controversy, camp, Time Lord history... all in the space of fewer than 25 minutes.

STORY REWATCHABILITY: High - The Brain of Morbius has the same atmosphere, memorable villains, and companions working well together Pyramids of Mars has, but it's got a tighter plot, better dialog, and some intriguing notions about Gallifrey and the Time Lords. Yes, I'm saying it's the best serial of the season.


Jeff R. said...

Well, they also establish that the Time Lords can grant additional 12*-packs of regenerations fairly soon as well. (*: Or possibly 13-packs. The fact that 507 is divisible by 13 but not 12 argues for the bakers dozens camp.) Which opens the door for the theory that 'The Doctor' is a witness-protection type identity, and that the same time lord had at least one cycle before assuming it...

Siskoid said...

Not sure I'd say "soon", it's still 7 years before The Five Doctors makes that suggestion.

Your exercise in numerology just confuses me though.

Jeff R. said...

The most recent word on the Doctor's limits for regeneration is that the number is 507. (This was from the Sarah Jane Chronicles show, and he was speaking under duress and to an enemy at the time, but if whatever authority allowed the Time Lords to grant additional regeneration packs passed on to the Doctor or the Tardis after the Time War, one could read that as the absolute, physical limit for someone with unlimited access to extra regeneration sets.)

Siskoid said...

Not how I understood the line. It's either very glib, or the Doctor somehow knows how much regeneration energy River gave him in Let's Kill Hitler.

d said...

I always figured those were pictures of Morbius' past lives as well and never understood all the fuss.


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