There’s a story about The Brain of Morbius we all know so well we could probably sing it. When writer Terrance Dicks found his scripts for this story extensively re-written by script editor Robert Holmes, he angrily took his name of it and told Holmes he could put it out under some bland pseudonym. And so he did: Robin Bland, to be precise. Ho ho, all good fun.
(Funny thing is, it didn’t stop Dicks adopting Morbius as his own in the years since. He wrote the novelisation, then the junior novelisation and then several original novels as sequels to this story. Far from being ashamed of it, seems like Dicks has recognised how well the story he once denied authorship of turned out. Well, who would begrudge one of Doctor Who’s great masters that?)
In Dicks’ retelling of this writerly fracas, he says his original version of the story had a robot trying to reassemble the body of its master from the remains of spaceship-wrecked casualties but failing, because it didn’t know what a human being looked like. Dicks has claimed that once Holmes changed that robot to the character of Dr Solon (Philip Madoc), an expert surgeon, the plot no longer made sense.
I see two problems with this argument. Firstly, while it’s true that Solon has a full understanding of what a humanoid should look like, he’s assembling a patchwork monster body for Morbius (Voice: Michael Spice) not out of ignorance but desperation: he has no other option. As his bulky dullard of a servant Condo (Colin Fay) says, humanoids just don’t come to Karn. Secondly, isn’t it reasonable to assume that as Dicks had sold the production team a story the previous year where a man made a robot, that a story where a robot made a man may have not exactly filled them with anticipation?
In any case, it’s not the major logical flaw in The Brain of Morbius. No, that has to be that when the Doctor (Tom Baker) turns up in a fully intact Time Lord body, why Solon doesn’t just change his plan to transplanting Morbius’s spongey brain into it? Maybe he’s just grown too fond of the big meaty brute he’s stitched together for his master and can’t bring himself to discard it. But then, there are many unanswered questions about Solon.
In one sense, he’s your standard mad scientist, that extensive role of dishonour which includes nutters like Professors Zaroff and Whittaker, who want to do crazily destructive acts on a grand scale, for some misguided reason or just because they can. In Solon’s case there’s the added motivational factor of fanaticism, as he was at one time part of the cult of Morbius, which goes some way to explaining the extraordinary lengths he goes to to try and resurrect this tyrannical Time Lord. Without that, he really just is a delusional brainbox like all the others. But I’m grateful to @si_hunt on Twitter for pointing out to me there’s one thing which makes Solon stand out from this parade of white-coated loons: he’s funny.
Madoc infuses Solon with a dryness which, combined with the melodrama of the dialogue, raises many a smile. There are overt lines such as his “irresistible pun” about Morbius’ crowning glory, but also more understated gags, like when the Doctor first arrives and all Solon can do is look avariciously at the Doctor and say, “superb head!” My personal favourite is when he stops Condo from gently stroking Sarah’s (Elisabeth Sladen) arm, with a curt, “That’s enough, she doesn’t like it. Now get out!”
This humour makes Solon an unusual villain for Doctor Who, where the bad guys are generally not allowed to bring the funny. Especially if they are as violent as Solon; at one stage he shoots Condo at close range, straight in the stomach. If you have a funny villain in Doctor Who, like say, the Monk, they generally don’t kill people at close range. In fact, with this combination of villainy, charm, the odd quip, a Nehru jacket and goatee, isn’t there someone else he reminds you of?
The next story Holmes wrote after this is The Deadly Assassin, which brought back the Master after an absence of three years. I wonder if he was thinking of the Master when he was re-writing Dicks’ story and if so, where he thought he might fit into The Brain of Morbius. Looking at the options, the Master could take the place of either Solon or Morbius in the narrative – either the maniacal Frankenstein or his tortured creation. Given the emaciated form Holmes eventually chose for him, it seems more likely he would have made the Master the brain in the jar.
As intriguing a creation as Morbius is, I can’t help but think this would have raised the stakes in this grim little tale. Morbius, we’re told by the Doctor and local mystic Maren (Cynthia Grenville) is an infamous badass, whose return to the land of the living we should dread. Problem is we’ve never heard of the guy; sure he’s got a scary voice and all but we never see him commit the crimes everyone’s so appalled by. If it were the Master, we’d get it straight away, and when that brain slaps gruesomely on the floor, we’d know exactly what sort of wicked thoughts were once running through it. Plus, it could also kind of make sense of Solon’s cosplaying of the Master and copying of his vicious but wisecracking ways – he’d be doing nothing grander than indulging in a bit of hero worship.
On the whole, I think another re-write’s in order. For a story which has gone around the block as often as this one has, that shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve even got a bland pseudonym you can put it out under. I can see it now: The Brain of the Master by Johnny Spandrell.
POTENTIAL SPIN-OFF: Tidying up with Manservant Condo.
Follow the ConMannie method of tidying up to bring calm and order to your life. Tidy items in categories: first, dismembered limbs. Then mind-wrestling equipment. Then surgical equipment. And finally, miscellaneous items around your gothic castle. Careful not to leave anything around which might be turned into a lethal chemical gas and used by your morally superior Time Lord adversary to murder you with. Hold each item in your hook, and if it doesn’t spark joy, throw it over a cliff.
LINK TO Vengeance on Varos: controversial violence
NEXT TIME: Were you born that miserable or did you have to work at it? We’re heading for Desolation to gaze upon The Ghost Monument.