The first thing that we see in this story is an monster. Not only a monster but a grisly murder. A man sized insect crawls out from the wreckage of its spaceship and is obviously wounded and possibly dying. Doctor Who fans like myself will regognize the creature as a Mutt, from the Jon Pertwee adventure, The Mutants. The story takes on an even darker tone when we see that the monster is being stalked by another monster. A hulking great brute with a hook for a hand appears from the shadows and decapitates the poor Mutt. And worst of all, we hear it all. The scream is horrible.
There is a question there is on everyone's lips at this point, where have the Doctor and Sarah Jane arrived this time? It turns out the planet is Karn, a world not too far away from Gallifrey and we get tied into the Doctor's personal history in a way the show hadn't attempted before. For viewers, this story takes place right in the middle of the early Tom Baker era. The show, at the time, was under the guidance of producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor, Robert Holmes, both of whom wanted to steer the show down a more gothic route, which is, for me, one of the high points from the entire history of Doctor Who. The Brain of Morbius is credited to one Robin Bland. However, Bland doesn't exist, at least not in Doctor Who circles. Now we know it was written by Terrance Dicks though extensively reworked by Robert Holmes. When Dicks found out he was outraged and wanted nothing to do with the story so the pseudonym was created. But the story is a gloriously lurid little gem and could quite possibly be the quintessential story from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. And despite some plot holes, one of the best stories that the show has to offer.
It is an established fact that the lines between science fiction and horror are often blurred as the two seem to often blend into each other, sometimes by accident and sometimes by necessity. But there was no era of Doctor Who which embraced science fiction and horror more than stories between the 1975 story, The Ark in Space and the 1977 story, Image of the Fendahl. While Doctor Who had sometimes strayed into science fiction territory by borrowing from texts like War of the Worlds, Hinchcliffe and Holmes wanted to borrow from horror as well and Hinchcliffe himself has said, "Bob and I wanted to fertilize Doctor Who by borrowing from richer and more well known themes from acknowledged classics."
And between this approach and the performance from Tom Baker, their era of the show was an artistic and popular triumph which not only pulled in viewing figures like the show had never seen before but created tales which are still highly regarded today, not only by fans of the show but critics and the general public. I guarantee you to ask someone who casually watched the Tom Baker era in the 1970s which moment scared them the most and I will put money on it, the moment they chose will be from one of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories.
However, this new approach also brought the show under criticism. Not only from concerned parents who were worried about what their children were watching but the gaze of Mary Whitehouse, someone who had been pestering the show since the very beginning and was just itching for a real chance to attack the show. When Whitehouse finally got her way and Hinchcliffe/Holmes were kicked off the show, it lightened a little too much under new showrunner Graham Williams and it would be a problem which would plague the show till its cancellation in 1989.
Without knowing Hinchcliffe's plan to borrow from established horror movies, viewers must have seen the similarities to the Mummy in Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom take on The Thing. The Talons of Weng-Chiang borrowed from The Phantom of the Opera and The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu. The Brain of Morbius is obviously a Doctor Who take on Frankenstein but there is a lot more going on in the story than just ripping off Hammer Horror.
In fact, the show wouldn't have worked had the stories just been rip offs or pastiches of these movies even if they did work well at the time. The creators rearrange the classics in new and exciting ways that give the show its own unique feel. And The Brain of Morbius doesn't just trade on old movies but actively expands the Doctor's own backstory.
The horror-esque stories probably also wouldn't have worked well had the Doctor not been in the central role. The Fourth Doctor is such a part of these stories that no other Doctor could replace his incarnation in any of these adventures. From his first story, Robot, Baker made the role his own but by Brain, he was in his stride. While the Doctor always had a volatile personality, the Fourth Doctor goes from extreme schoolboy petulance to clowning around to near mystical harbinger of doom, sometimes within the same scenes and possibly the same sentence! If he wanted to, the Fourth Doctor could be whimsical and jovial and on the flip of a coin turn to righteous anger. It is a shame that in the latter end of the Baker era, the producers decided to allow his character to become too energetic and over-the-top for his own good but the early Baker was compelling and magnetic to watch. This also allowed for Hinchcliffe and Holmes to steer the show down the darker path they wanted because they had a hero who could keep things interesting and fun without destroying the creepy atmosphere that had been built up around him.
We quickly learn that the hook-handed killer is called Condo, an Ivor figure from Frankenstein who searches for heads on the order of his master Solon. Unfortunately, the Mutt head won't work for Solon's plans as he needs a specific type of cranium for his side project. It needs to be humanoid or, even better, Gallifreyian. A few moments after Condo hands him the Mutt head, Solon's dreams come true when two specimens come calling, the Doctor and Sarah Jane, when they land just outside his castle.
The Doctor bursts from the TARDIS convinced that some unseen Time Lord forces have taken control of his ship once again to some work for them. And too a certain extent, he is right, though it is never properly revealed that they are behind his arrival. This is a plot point continued on from The War Games which saw the Doctor exiled to Earth and transformed into Jon Pertwee. During the Pertwee era, the Time Lords would often send him on missions. At this point during the Baker era, the Time Lords had only taken control of the Doctor and his friends once, as we saw in Genesis of the Daleks. But the Doctor cuts short his indignant cries when Sarah informs him of a spaceship graveyard she has just found and sure enough, the entire landscape is covered in crashed spaceships, led their by the Sisterhood of Karn. They then stumble across the headless body of the Mutt and hurry to Solon's castle to seek shelter from the rainstorm that begins to lash down on them.
The presence of the Doctor and Sarah doesn't go unnoticed by another faction on Karn, the Sisterhood, a sinister, all female, cult of flame worshippers whose task is to carefully tend to the immortality granting - Elixir of Life. Having led their lives on Karn, they are paranoid and suspicious of newcomers. But they don't know that they have also had a hand in helping Solon by bringing the passing spaceships down with their powers of telepathy. However, they soften their fanatical beliefs in the end and aid the Doctor and Sarah in their quest to stop Morbius and Solon. It is typical of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era that the Sisterhood are a more well-rounded group them the Thals from Planet of the Daleks who were the good guys. The Sisterhood is more morally complex than that as they have blood on their hands and they are a coven of crazy, xenophobic witches, who are always ready to burn newcomers at the stake on the slightest of whims. Had the story not featured Morbius or Solon, they had the power to be the villains of the piece. But I suppose their behaviour is understandable when you take into consideration that are the only people who have been left alive on Karn. Perhaps the Sisterhood were nicer once upon a time, but the war Morbius caused made them suspicious of the Time Lords and made them fear all other strangers.
And the story of Morbius's rampage, trial and execution, while left feeling sketchy and vague, is one of those times the show threw some light on the mysterious Time Lord society. And although the Time Lords had been present since 1969 in The War Games, they had mostly been unseen. Up to this point they had acted from the shadows, using the Doctor as a pawn in some of their twisted games. And the fate of Karn, a planet which is close enough to Gallifrey to be caught up in its politics and problems could be the reason they try not to act directly with things going on in the universe since it was a former member of the high council who went mad and destroyed Karn and numerous other worlds in his rampage.
We also learn that this trial must have occurred at some point in the Doctor's lifetime as he talks about it as if it is history that he has lived through. This also makes the story more personal for the Doctor as he has some stakes in it and also raises the point that maybe Morbius's actions had something to do with the Doctor running away from Gallifrey in the first place.
It doesn't seem particularly accidental that Holmes set the story on a planet near Gallifrey as they society here stagnantly parallels that of the Time Lords which he showed us in The Deadly Assassin. The Sisterhood are certainly gender-flipped versions of the Time Lords who had to this point be portrayed as a stereotypically patriarchal bunch. The only female Time Lord we had seen to this point was Susan, the Doctor's Granddaughter and then we would meet Romana in 1978/9.
Solon is just as stagnant as the Sisterhood who, without a proper head for Morbius, stirs himself into action when the Doctor finally arrives. Much of the story is spent shuttling the Doctor and Sarah backwards and forwards between Solon's Castle and the Sisterhood's cave with only brief moments showing us the Sisterhood's hostility and Solon's need to finish his greatest work while Condo pines for his long lost arm.
Not only does Frankenstein work as a basis for this story there are also references to other movies the script doesn't just reference them but repurposes them and intersects them with each other resulting in a plot full of evil motivations and cross-purposes. The story is basically, The Doctor and Sarah VS Solon VS Morbius VS Condo VS The Sisterhood VS The Time Lords. It is certainly a rich environment and perfect breeding ground for compelling drama and conflict because Holmes has taken inspiration from a number of sources and mixed them together really to see what would happen. The Condo/Morbius fight to the death feels like a reminder of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man as two hulking great brutes duke it out.
The characters are well done in their own right, helped greatly by a terrific cast, particularly the brilliant Philip Madoc as Solon and Colin Fay as Condo. It is brilliant to watch Madoc's Solon, who is so focused on science, get to the point where everything else fades into the background for him. He forgets about Sarah, despite her only being four feet away from him and he calls his theft of Condo's arm, a triviality. And while he complains about having to scavenge body parts from crash survivors but you know that, deep down, he knew that putting a gigantic lobster claw on the body he had built for Morbius was the right thing to do.
But the script isn't without its problems. It feels a little out of character for the Doctor to kill a creature with poison gas. This was probably what set the lack of violence during the 80s run of the series. And it is pretty hard to believe that the Sisterhood would just willingly give Solon the Doctor's head. And it is even harder to believe that the Doctor could trust Solon to dismantle Morbius's body. After all, it has been his life long, singular ambition and then leave him alone to do it. But neither of these issues upset the story for me, they might be rushed and flawed but it they are necessary ways of connecting the story together.
The story leaves us with one lingering question though, during the mind battle between the Doctor and Morbius. We see the previous incarnations of the Doctor go past, including several faces we have never seen before. And while these faces belong to various members of the production team, it implies that the Doctor had a longer life span than we originally thought. Of course these could just be the faces of Morbius' previous incarnations, that is what I think they are. But does this battle mean that when your faces on screen you are loosing? This question becomes more important when you remember that the Doctor's goal was to make Morbius overreach himself and the final several images could easily have been Morbius pushing himself onto victory...