Doctor Who: The Trial of Morbius!

Doctor Who and the Trial of Morbius!

A special post to celebrate the single calendar month until Doctor Who’s return! As the Doctor’s new adventures will once again visit the Sisterhood of Karn – first seen in a Tom Baker classic and last seen propelling the Eighth Doctor into the Time War – it’s the ideal time to look at the random rogue whose history is entwined with theirs. That insufferable and eternally unlucky Time Lord dictator Morbius. He remains shrouded in mystery despite occasional return visits to him over the years – visits that have varied markedly in quality. So, time to cast the verdict on the temporal despot – From The Brain of Morbius to novel Warmonger to Big Finish’s Vengeance of Morbius.

Let the Trial of Morbius commence!

SERIES NINE OF NEW DOCTOR WHO IS NEARLY UPON US, AND THE TRAILERS HAVE BEEN UNLEASHED TO SWIRL EXCITEMENT LIKE THE FIERY SKIES OF KARN. Ah yes, Karn. Beyond the maybe-Tharils, multi-generational Daleks, guitar solos and hmm, trips to Skaro showcased by the trailer, a few things escaped the web of secrecy early. And one was the intriguing return of that neglected planet and its famous Sisterhood!

Early Submissions: A trip to Karn

“It’s so rare that anyone arrives here on Karn…”

The Sisterhood of Karn, the mystic, matriarchal coven that fastidiously and sometimes fatally guards the Sacred Flame first appeared in the classic Fourth Doctor Frankenstein riff, The Brain of Morbius. What a name and what a story – one that features as Exhibit A. Two decades later, Virgin’s New Adventures, the series that did many things for Who not least allow many of today’s show-shapers have their first stab at the Time Lord, took a closer look at the Sisterhood. Within the first few books Marc Platt had uncovered their history, something he would return to at the end of the range in the Gallifrey illuminating Lungbarrow. Before Karn, they were the former matriarchal over lords of the Doctor’s home planet only to be driven from the planet by Rassilon. There would later come oblique glances to this Gallifreyan old religion over at Big Finish, particularly in the 50th release Zagreus. Overall, it’s proved a satisfying backstory, one that’s enhanced their position in The Brain of Morbius, building on the predominantly patriarchal Time Lords of science, the Sisterhood’s rum deal on the nearby backwater planet of Karn and the peculiar, yet light, symbiotic and untrusting deals between the two telepathic civilisations.

40 years after their television debut, the Sisterhood turned up to provide the catalyst for the unexpected. Not only did they facilitate a directional regeneration for the Eighth Doctor, but finally brought the errant Time Lord into the Time War. It was an act that, from hindsight, would define new Who and particularly the 50th anniversary. Expect big Time Lord revelations whenever they appear, but this court hasn’t been convened for the Sisters of the Flame. It’s to address the treatment of their sometime neighbour, the Time Lord dictator who wouldn’t leave them alone, and who their fate is often entangled with. One of Gallifrey’s most evil sons. Morbius. And with a name like that…

Character Reference: Morbius

“You see nothing was ever beyond my genius.”

Morbius is bad, really bad. We know that as he was the first of their own kind that the Time Lords sentenced to death. We also saw the bust of his most imperious face, which couldn’t be cast more like a warlord of ancient Earth civilisation. But then, one nation’s warlord is another’s glorious leader. Unless it’s a society dulled through millennia of stagnation and entropy. He inspired followers when alive, and acolytes in his death. He was a phenomenal tactician, charismatic leader and a virtually unstoppable force – a force that could only be halted by an immense alliance and fatal measures. Even the Time Lord prison Shada couldn’t contain this bad guy. Yes, on Gallifrey we’ve seen skulduggery and political machination ever since Robert Holmes’ The Deadly Assassin. But when Morbius appeared a season before that he was already a different type of Time Lord, albeit one we could only view through the slightly more God-like Time Lords the audience had so far seen in the show. Morbius is unlike most of the Doctor’s bi-hearted, time-traversing antagonists. Neither a figure form Gallifrey’s distant past like Omega nor one of the Doctor’s teachers as we’d later find with Borusa, nor one of his classmates at the Academy in the mould of the Monk, master or Rani. Morbius was a contemporary war criminal. A rise and quashing that quite plausibly happened after the Doctor’s flight from his home planet. The Doctor and Morbius didn’t know each other and the Doctor hadn’t been involved in that particular Time Lord crisis. Or so we thought…

Exhibit A: The Brain of Morbius (Season 13, 1976)

“Other times, other faces”

Legendary scribe Robert Holmes had tinkered around with Time Lord society in the mid-1970s, gifting them the creation of the Master and staging some comical Time Lord appearances, such as near the beginning of Terror of the Autons. But it was while he was script editor of the show during it’s incredible mid-1970s high, with Tom Baker becoming indispensable in front of the camera and producer Philip Hinchcliffe a perfect and daring accomplice behind, that he defined the Time Lords as an antiquated bunch.

When putting together stories for the show’s 13th series, the classic horror film enthusiast had suggested a Frankenstein inspired tale that had met an enthusiastic response from his young and rather fearless producer. The season would eventually host compelling twists on the Thing from Another Planet (The Seeds of Death), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Planet of Evil) and The Mummy (Pyramids of Mars) and as Holmes and Hinchcliffe suggested, these homages stood as original in the bold worlds of Doctor Who that they were increasingly stretching to appeal to adults.

Holmes’ predecessor Terrance Dicks was commissioned to write this Frankenstein pitch, and soon blended Shelley’s allegorical tale with a concept more in line with early-1970s eco-science-fiction films. Where a dead Time Lord is patched back together by a doting robot with little idea about humanoid physiognomy. It was a novel twist but far removed from the finished article. A clash of humour and motivation may be behind it, but when Holmes found that Dicks’ scripts weren’t quite fulfilling the potential he’d hoped and Dicks was uncontactable on holiday, the script editor’s rewrite was dramatic. Most importantly, out went the robot and in came the deranged Mehendri Solon, the mad scientist to ram the roots of the story home.

Much to the Doctor’s annoyance, the TARDIS is directed the Time Lords to the ravaged world of Karn, a junkyard for spacecraft. Solon, a famous micro-surgeon and seemingly only member of the Cult of Morbius is near stitching together a body for the brain of Morbius – the only and mysteriously remaining part of an intergalactic despot whose body as vaporised on the planet. Running between Solon’s strangely placed castle and the nearby Sisterhood of Karn, holders of the sacred flame and the life-extending elixir that comes from it the Doctor fails to stop Morbius’ brain being placed in a patchwork monstrosity… But thanks to some Time Lord mind control and the rallying Sisterhood, the tyrant is killed once again. This time falling into one of the planet’s deadly ravines.

Morbius is a classic in that brilliant and mildly flawed mould. Dicks found the central concept of the master surgeon Solon crafting such a ridiculous and hideous beast indefensible when compared to his misguided robot. There’s no doubting that the simpler conceit may be slightly more horror than science-fiction, but is an affecting nightmare. Effectively and darkly cast in an entirely studio-bound set, it’s a classic of its day, with incredible acts of violence and superb casting elevating it still further. In particular, who can argue with the sublime Philip Madoc as Solon shouting “Condo! Condo!”?

What’s particularly interesting is where it comes. This is the exploration of a despot far beyond his best. Literally disembodied, Morbius has ironically lost his mind or so we have to think. His actions are guided by hate, let alone prey to minor accidents and rationed body parts that are a far cry from the effective commander of armies of mercenaries that Maren, leader of the Sisterhood, describes. But of course, and worth bearing in mind later, there’s no way that many earlier parts of his story could have made it on a television budget.

Also, the Time Lords are happy to involve the Doctor, while they clearly weren’t before, no doubt before his trial and the Holmes fuelled Season 6(b) theory. Brain is perhaps most importantly a key piece of evidence, self-fulfilling evidence, in Holmes’ later repositioning of the Time Lords as “spineless parasites”. That would appear to be the lasting legacy after this finite adventure of the finite years of this force for evil.

Verdict: An unbelievable Draw. It’s brilliant, utterly brilliant, but is carried along in a way that overlooks many of its flaws. An incredible rewrite among many, quickly put together over one month exactly 40 years ago this August. Defeating death is impressive for this Morbius, but when you’re stuck in a Frankenstein adaptation poor brain coordination comes as standard.

Exhibit B: Warmonger (Doctor Who Past Doctor Adventures, BBC Books, 2002)

“He has dedicated his life to that wretched despot’s memory”

Warlord is an extraordinary book. Actually, on occasion, it’s jaw-dropping.

26 years after Terrance Dicks’ script was changed beyond all believe and wryly accredited to a “bland pseudonym” the author pushed this book onto an unsuspecting world with barely a hint that it was both a prequel and sequel to The Brain of Morbius. The rest, really, is history. Published as part of the BBC’s Past Doctors range, a series of varying quality it must be said, it might stick out as the strangest and possibly the worst Doctor Who novels have to offer.

Starting with the flying dinosaur attack that near severs Peri’s arm, with only legendary surgeon Mehendri Solon springing to the Doctor’s mind as a way to save her, it ends with a spray-tanned Fifth Doctor leading an alliance of Sontarans, Cybermen, Humans, Time Lords, Draconians and others against the deposed Time Lord High President Morbius’ army of Mercenaries. The same mercenaries in fact, as seen to clumsy effect in Season 18’s Meglos. Yes, the Fifth Doctor, arch warmonger.

Warlord is either a cunning, savage and knowing revenge on Robert Holmes for butchering Dicks’ proto-Wall-E, a satire on mid 1980’s script editor Eric Saward’s reign of brutality and mercenaries. Or both. The undeniable result is an atrocious piece of fan/slash fiction that it’s impossible to peel eyes away from. It’s diffficult to knoww where to start.

Perhaps the rape dialogue or the exploitation and ultra-sexualisation of Peri. Maybe the malicious militarisation that laughable pushes the Doctor to the front of a war armada with the title ‘Supreme Coordinator’. Perhaps that his alliance includes flattering and well behaved Cybermen or the truly incompetent stylings of Solon, here indulging in the kind of cowardly manipulation and truly pathetic zombie plan (Yes, called Project Z) that banishes all memories of Madoc’s deranged and irascible performance.

So, let’s just stick to the irrational setting and time displacement. For the Doctor, not only does Peri’s freak injury make him immediately jump his time line to meet a younger Solon than the one he killed in his previous incarnation, but he disguises himself to ally with Time Lords no doubt more concurrent to the time stream of his first incarnation. A baffling situation caused by that one early decision to break the laws of time. Quite why Dicks chose the Fifth Doctor, surely the most likely incarnation to lead this armada is inexplicable and can only be a dig at the 1980s era. The Sixth seems an easier fit, if any. Still, by using any future regeneration, thereby getting around the Fourth Doctor’s lack of knowledge without the use of memory loss (although not quite confronting Morbius’ memory issues), Dicks ends up with a time farce of epic proportions as the Fifth Doctor is constantly having to align events so he can avoid a personal and universal paradox. It’s unfortunate that athis particularly highlights the need for Solon to pilfer Morbius’ brain; a detail of the story best left in mystery. No wonder crossing one’s own timestream is frowned upon. It’s bloody tiring.

And when it comes to Morbius, Dicks’ true intention is surely uncovered. This is more an attack on the despot than Holmes. A swaggering combination of previous descriptions, he inevitably comes across as far less than the sum of his parts. In fact, as much as he’s the Napoleon of the Time Lords, and what a freak of the gene loom that was, he comes across a lot like a swaggering version of Streetfighter’s M Bison.

Perhaps, after all, it’s not Dicks’ attempt to correct the flaws he found in the re-written The Brain of Morbius, but avenge them as Warmonger somehow succeeds in diminishing every aspect of that earlier serial. That’s a difficult trick to pull off. It manages it.

Verdict: Fail. Delving into the wide and open history of Morbius is not a redeeming feature for Warmonger. In one foul swoop it manages to dent the show’s imperious thirteenth season and take pot shots at any redeeming features left by early 1980s Who. It’s hard to list every fault apart from the above. Leader of space vagabonds, defeated by the fifth Doctor, vampire acolytes, a cult that arose before his miserable demise, that his vaporisation of his brainless corpse was in a hospital – that’s all the least of it. Never mind. A definite fail.

Exhibit C: The Vengeance of Morbius (Eighth Doctor Adventures 2.8, Big Finish Productions, 2008)

“A dead Time Lord dictator, a maniac who wanted to take-over the universe”

Turning to Big Finish’s Eighth Doctor Adventures and the mid-point of the Lucie Miller years. These were heady days, as the Big Finish dramatizations had adopted a feel far more akin to the rejuvenated television series with shorter, self-contained hour long episodes broadcast on BBC radio.

But it was lucky that Morbius was dug up once again by these prolific storytellers. In fact it’s all down to Nick Brigg’s producing, directing and writing an eloquent adventure that manages to confront a lot of Warmonger’s problems while mercifully never even acknowledging any of those events. Thanks Big Finish, Morbius needed you.

It’s a story of two halves of course, with Sisters of the Flame forming a compelling build-up which centres on a Doctorless Lucie. Times have changed and the Sisterhood, while as wary and fatalistic as ever and still demonstrating incredible but mysterious powers, have left Karn after falling foul of a the capitalist expansion of dodgy magnate Zarodnix. Soon revealed as the leader of the Cult of Morbius, with an impressive museum to prove it, Zarodnix is chucking all his considerable resources at his highly expensive and rapid progress on temporal and genetic experiments; lead the Time Lords to desperately employ the Time Scoop made famous by The Five Doctors in an attempt to lock-down all Time Lords and eventually pulling off what Lucie terms the Jurassic Park trick of reanimating Morbius .

It’s all action stations come The Vengeance of Morbius. Briggs powers through the story with some well-judged set-pieces. Big Finish has made a concerted effort to build on Time Lord society, something increasingly left to them after the new series return, and it’s fair to say that their approach has wandered a little too far into incomprehensible time-ram powered complication. Here, the light and sinister touch works well though, as the Time Lords sink into hibernation and isolation, their weak and hands-off attempts carried through two lesser Lords of incompetence. And as time plays such a big role, it’s the misuse of it that plays the most significant roles. After a chilling communication from Morbius to Gallifrey, the Doctor arrives to stop the tyrant a decade late.

On the way, the lean script riffs on the joke idea of Frankenstein and the hokey but effective premise of Brain. Even vampirism, such a touchy subject when it comes to to Time Lords, is handled the right way here – the spliced Morbius drinking the life essence of the unlucky but entertaining Straxus to stay alive. But Vengeance‘s true masterstroke is two-fold. In the build-up, there’s no crazed doctor or lack of resources to fit uneasily with the Cult of Morbius. The power of Zarodnix applying capitalism to buy Morbius’s regeneration and even dethrone the Sisterhood is far more effective than a science led approach. An acolyte able to buy the skills, but never understand them, rather than a genius who becomes obsessed with the despot.

Then there’s the characterisation. In a few short scenes we realise two things about Morbius. One, that he truly was a legendary Time Lord, in terms of scientific genius as well as strategic warfare. Now he has Zarodnix’s army of augmented Trells – a nice development of the original army of mercenaries he commanded – and more than capable under his brilliance. And far less likely to answer back. Morbius has his WMD in the form of a Stella Manipulator and within a decade soon an unstoppable empire, unimpeded by the Time Lords. But on his return from crushing Earth we also see the wear, tear and general damage this reincarnated Morbius carries. He lives for the odd challenge this universe can throw at him, but is haunted by his demise many years before. This is Morbius at the very peak and also the lowest, having already died twice and never really able to leave the pull of Karn. It’s another tiring existence and one soon reversed, although not before Morbius has returned to his inevitable ravine tomb, this time locked in combat with the Doctor. Nemeses of a sort.

This is an epic tale of might that’s sparsely told; authentic dialogue perfectly matched by a superb score and superb cast. Star Trek alumnus Alexander’s Siddig to Star Wars alumnus Kenneth Colley to name just two. And then Sam West as the villain himself. Well, As Paul McGann says, he has that voice.

Verdict: A win. A palpable win. Samuel West was inspired casting for an all too fleeting appearance. But then, how much can you do with a despot? Even the Master had friends once… The ending forces a Moriarty parallel with the Doctor which there isn’t quite the substance for. But this is the finest stab at displaying the dictator without gratuitously showing his original highs. For all Morbius’ cruel methodology, power to inspire and technological and tactical brilliance Vengeance highlights that few villains have such an inescapable, inevitable end in one place. A fixed point indeed.
Overall verdict: A draw, a miss and a hit, it all seems rather convenient. The vaporisation chamber is on standby, sentence deferred. We just have to hope that, if and when Morbius next appears, someone keeps an eye on his brain…
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