When the BBC began releasing Doctor Who on video in the mid-8o’s, they made the (mistaken) assumption that fans wouldn’t mind a few revisions in the stories. And so it was that the first releases in the range were omnibus versions of the stories, removing the cliffhangers and only featuring the opening and closing credits once per story. The BBC eventually figured out that what fans wanted was each serial as complete as possible, including sitting through the opening and closing credits for each episode of the story.
Possibly the worst victim of the early range of VHS releases when it came to editing was “The Brain of Morbius.” Not only was it released in the omnibus format but the initial release had thirty minutes of the story excised.
I’ll admit that I never purchased the original release of the story on VHS because of these edits. But I can’t help but wonder what the edited version of this story might have looked like. With the BluRay releases of the seventh Doctor’s era including expanded versions that were released on VHS as an extra for the story they’re associated with, I can’t help but wonder if the eventual release of season thirteen won’t include the edited version of “The Brain of Morbius” so I can finally see it.
I bring this up because I can’t see how the serial can be cut down much without losing a lot of what makes it so special and such an essential part of the Tom Baker era of Doctor Who.
Though if Terrance Dicks’ original script was produced, we might think of this one a bit differently. According to the DVD extras, Dicks’ original script was a “Frankenstein” in reverse sort of story with a robot collecting parts to assemble a human being. Without a guide to by, the newly assembled human would be a bit monstrous in appearance. Whether or not the person being reassembled was connected to the Time Lords isn’t clear (at least not to me). Dicks turned in his script and then went on holiday, only to find that script-editor Robert Holmes had rewritten the entire story, putting in the mad scientist, his Igor-like assistant, and the Sisterhood of Karn. Dicks was not happy about the rewrites and asked his name to be removed from the serial, even going so far as to tell Holmes to put any old “bland” name on it. And so it was that Robin Bland receives on-screen credit as the writer.
Even under the pen name of Bland, Holmes’ fingerprints are all over this one. From the use of double-acts to the escalation of the gore and violence in the story to Holmes’ continued revision of the Time Lord’s history and place within the series.
In the Pertwee era, the Time Lords sent the Doctor on missions with more altruistic motives in mind. But as the fourth Doctor’s era begins, their motives become a bit more self-serving — eliminate the Daleks in “Genesis of the Daleks” or investigate rumors that one of their greatest (and most powerful) criminals is still alive and working on a comeback. Looking at Holmes’ contributions to the program, it’s easy to the seeds being sewn here for the decisions and actions the Time Lords would undertake and then try to coverup ten or so seasons later in “The Trial of a Time Lord.”
It’s easy to point to “The Deadly Assassin” as the story that radically reimagines the Time Lords. But, Holmes was playing a longer game and setting them up as corrupt long before Goth created an alliance with the Master. And while many will point to “Genesis of the Daleks” as a seed for modern Doctor Who’s time war storyline, it’s not the only story from that era to sew those particular seeds.
With the decision to send the Doctor in to deal with Morbius (whether he can handle it or not), we see that the Time Lords are in many ways just as bad as the Daleks when it comes to manipulation on a galactic scale.
“Morbius” shows the Time Lords’ penchant for sending the Doctor to clean up their messes, all while keeping the ability to deny they’ve sent him should he fail. At least he was given some hints at what he should do in “Genesis.” Here he’s thrown into a situation that finds him not only facing one of the most powerful criminals Time Lord society has produced but also potentially alienating an ally in the Sisterhood. It’s a no-win scenario for the Doctor, as he ping-pongs back and forth between Solon’s castle and the Sisterhood’s shrine. (Of course, you could argue that Time Lords sent him to ensure their supply of the elixir remains intact. But that may be a side benefit from defeating Morbius and ensuring he doesn’t return to enact revenge).
It was during this time in Doctor Who history that that series comes under scrutiny for upping its level of gore, grimness, and violence. (The DVD release even has an Easter egg with a young fan bringing this to Holmes’ attention and then Holmes’ response). In many ways, “Morbius” is a turning point for the era, whether it’s the macabre sets, the mishmash of parts that make up the Morbius monster, or the gore when various cast members meet their gruesome fates (the biggest being Condo, who is shot a short-range by Solon in episode three). Yes, “Assassin” is infamous for the reaction of Mary Whitehouse, but I can’t imagine she was happy with what was on-screen here.
“Morbius” is all about Holmes steering hard into his vision for the series — one that he’d started to put in place as far back as “Carnival of Monsters.” Indeed, there are monsters on display left and right — not just the potpourri of parts that Solon as sewn together in his lab to house Morbius.
A lot of what makes this so effective is that everyone is completely committed to playing it absolutely straight and serious. The fourth Doctor’s approach to many of the monsters he faced was one of respect tinge with just a bit of irreverence to keep everyone on their toes. Watching the scene once Morbius is resurrected and comes looking for the Doctor, you see the Doctor walking a fine line between being truly scared of what could be unleashed upon the universe and finding ways to poke at Morbius’ ego in order to goad him into the mind-bending contest.
There’s a grimness to the Doctor here, fully on display from the opening moments. Putting aside the infamous ad-lib of a glass of water, the Doctor’s reaction to and relationship with Solon is particularly fascinating. The scene where Solon has the gall to offer the Doctor more wine after drugging him so Solon can remove his head shows the dark, serious, don’t-mess-with-me side of the fourth Doctor at its absolute best. It also shows just how good Tom Baker could be when he was properly restrained and directed in the role. (Juxtapose this with his reaction to Erato in “The Creature From the PIt” a few seasons later, for example. It’s also on display in the Doctor’s interaction with Maran and the Sisterhood, who take him a prisoner multiple times. (Indeed, I can’t help but wonder if some of this running back and forth between locations might have been what was cut on the VHS release).
Which brings up to Solon and Condo, a Holmes double-act easily as good as Glitz and Dibber or Jago and Lightfoot. A lot of this success comes down to casting. Philip Madoc as Solon is a pure delight, offering the right reading of every line. He makes Solon sarcastic and threatening, but also a bit of an object of pity. As much as he holds Condo in disdain, lying to his assistant at every opportunity, he’s as much of a reject. He’s devoted himself to the lost cause of bringing back Morbius, to the point that he’s become a footnote in medical history instead of the innovator he could have been.
He’s even corrupted Condo — who you can’t help but think was once a gentle soul, driven to his actions by his desperation to get his arm back. The scene when Condo realizes the depths of his betrayal in episode three is a thing of beauty, as is his sacrifice to save Sarah from the Morbius monster.
Of course, any discussion of this story has to address the continuity element in the room — the mind battle between the Doctor and Morbius. Indeed, the last two seasons of new Doctor Who have been all about explaining the sequence. Ironically, the scene lasts less than five minutes but it’s become a debating point for fans for years since.
Are there Doctors pre-Hartnell? New Who tells us, yes.
I’m not sure where I stood on this before Chris Chibnal weighed in. Part of me was ready to dismiss it as something the production team put in as an Easter egg and in-joke for the team because they couldn’t imagine that fans would rewatch and put the episodes under as much scrutiny as we have the last thirty or so years. Part of me also conjectured that Morbius realized the Doctor only went back four incarnations and then was showing us (and the Doctor) his history at this point.
I’m not going to convince you either way. But it’s certainly interesting to see how influential these few moments have become on canon.
Whether or not that’s a good thing, I leave up to you.
I do find myself wondering why BBC America didn’t roll out repeats of this one after “The Timeless Children” aired as they rolled out repeats of “Genesis of the Daleks” after “The Magician’s Apprentice” in series nine.
I only say this because I think there are segments of new Who fandom who might appreciate this episode and its impact on canon. It’s certainly a prime example of just how good classic Doctor Who could be in one of its best eras.