Body Counts and Contextualization in 'The Brain of Morbius'

By Zepo
21 April 1998

     One of the classic sequences in the television history of _Doctor
Who_ is the mind battle between the Doctor and the great arch-villain
Time Lord Morbius.  The sequence represents one of the keystone elements
of the program and the ultimate test of a hero.  The Doctor actually
defeats the villain with simply the power of his mind and the strength
of his character.  However, as this battle of mindbending takes place we
witness many past incarnations of those at battle on the screen.  Whose
faces are these?  Do they belong to Morbius or the Doctor?  It seems
that they were all meant to be the Doctor.  This article attempts to
investigate this sequence in detail and provide a sense of continuity to
what we see in the story "The Brain of Morbius" and how we should fit it
into the canon of the program's long history.
     The background of this story allows us to set the stage for the
mindbending battle.  The Doctor lands on the planet Karn where he
discovers Dr. Mehendri Solon has saved the brain of Morbius.  Morbius
was the evil Time Lord executed on Karn many years earlier for his
crimes against the Universe.  After first hoping to use the Doctor's
head as a replacement, Dr. Solon  eventually places Morbius's brain in a
braincase of his own invention.  With the evil Time Lord in a surrogate
body made of many different creature's body parts and topped by Solon's
braincase, Morbius is given a second lease on corporeal life.  The
Doctor, determined to prevent Morbius from leaving Karn and starting a
second reign of terror, challenges the reembodied Morbius to a contest
of "mindbending."  The challenge and consequences are issued as such:

Doctor:  Brain getting a little overheated, is it?  Careful, not as
          strong as it was.
Morbius: My brain functions perfectly.
Doctor:  I doubt it, Morbius.  All that time in the tank it's gone soft.
          Do you dare put it to the test?
Morbius: What test?
Doctor:  We have all the apparatus here.  I challenge you to mindbending
Morbius: I am a Time Lord of the first rank, what are you?
Doctor:  Oh nothing, nothing, a mere nobody.  But I don't think you're
          in the first rank anymore.
Morbius: Very well, Doctor.  If that is how you want to die, I accept
          your challenge.
Doctor:  There's a sporting gentleman.
Sarah:   What's mindbending?
Doctor:  Time Lord wrestling.  It's usually a game but it can end in
Morbius: It will, Doctor.  I, Morbius, do not play games.
Doctor:  Neither do I.[1]

The consequences of the battle are explicitly described as being
potentially deadly, and the contestants in this battle intend to make it
a mortal contest.
     As this mind battle continues, we see numerous faces appear on the
apparatus used in the mindbending contest.  The first two faces are
known to us because of the events that transpire during the course of
the show.  We see Morbius's brain in it's new braincase embodiment, and
then the face which first belonged to that brain (as witnessed by the
bust that Solon had in the castle).  The scanner then reveals the
previous faces of the Doctor as we have seen on television.  Going back
through his incarnations we are witness to the aspects of Tom Baker, Jon
Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and William Hartnell.  As we witness this,
Morbius comments, "You're going, Doctor.  Going.  How far, Doctor?  How
long have you lived?"[2]  It is clear that we are witnessing the past 
incarnations of those at battle.
     It is after the faces of the four Doctors appear to us that we are
witness to eight more faces that appear on the mindbending "screen."[3]  
Morbius taunts the Doctor as the battle continues, "Your puny mind is
powerless against the strength of Morbius.  Back, back, to the
beginning."  It seems that Morbius means to imply that he is winning the
battle.  This make one wonder who's faces we are seeing as the war of
intellects continues.
       Research into the novelization of the story, written by the
original author of the screenplay, Terrance Dicks, seems to support the
idea that the Doctor is losing the battle.[4]  The novelization 
describes the action as such:

          The Doctor and Morbius braced themselves,
     gripping the gleaming scaffolding.  Sarah saw
     a swirl of images on the central screen.  A 
     familiar face appeared--the face they had seen
     depicted on Solon's clay head.  Morbius gave a
     cry of rage--clearly the appearance of 'his' 
     face was a sign that he was losing.
          Morbius rallied, and the faces of the
     Doctor appeared on the screen. [5]

It appears that the story's writer supports the idea that Morbius seems
to turn the tide and starts to win the battle.  The novel's description
of the action, however, does not reveal who's faces appear on the screen
after the Doctor's.  However, it seems to follow that they are indeed
the Doctor's faces, especially with the added dialog included in the

          Yet another Doctor appeared on the screen--
     a dark-haired little man with a whimsical 
     expression.  Then another face... a proud-looking 
     old man.  Exultantly Morbius shouted, 'Your puny
     mind is powerless against the brain of Morbius.
     Back, Doctor, back to your beginnings.  To your
     birth--and to your death!'  Sarah had a confused 
     impression of even more faces on the screen.  The
     Doctor was groaning, clutching the scaffolding for
     support... [6]

Interestingly, the element of the other faces is avoided in the
children's novelization of the same story, also by Mr. Dicks.[7] 
     If the appearance of a face on the screen indicates that a
contestant is indeed losing the battle then it would seem obvious that
these faces belong to previous regenerations of the Doctor himself.  In
the story itself, Morbius's brain wiring does explode but he is able to
walk away from the battle, where as the Doctor seems to be the one close
to death.  Only after being given the last dose of the elixir of life is
the Doctor saved.  
     Howe, Stammers and Walker, in the book _Doctor Who the Handbook:
The Fourth Doctor_, place ownership on the faces.  The event that
transpires is described as "They take their places and the battle
commences.  As they fight we see all the past incarnations of, first the
Doctor, and then Morbius appear on the screen."[8]  This contradicts the 
novelization of the story and the seeming corroboration of the televised
story itself.  There is irrefutable televised evidence of the fact that
Morbius taunts the Doctor as we witness the appearance of the other
       The answer to which Time Lord these extra faces belongs rests in
the production team.  When questioned directly about who owns the faces
writer Terrance Dicks answered, "I have no idea who the faces in the
mind battle were.  You would have to ask [co-writer] Bob [Holmes]." [9]
The answer is instead revealed in an interview with producer Philip
Hinchcliffe who commented on the mindbending sequence, "We worked out
what period we wanted each image of the Doctor."[10]  It was production 
team members that were dressed in period costumes to be the Doctor in
photographs used for the sequence.  He also added more specifically:

          We tried to get famous actors for the faces
     of the Doctor.  But because no-one [sic] would
     volunteer, we had to use 'backroom boys.'  And
     it is true to say that I attempted to imply
     that William Hartnell was not the first Doctor.[11]

     Hinchcliffe echoed this concept in yet another interview adding,
"There was no subversion of the mythology of the series intended, but I
just reasoned that it was entirely possible that William Hartnell may
not have been the first Doctor Who.  So yes, as far as Bob [Holmes] and
I were concerned, the other faces were meant to be past Doctors."[12]
     Robert Holmes, the script editor for the show when the story was
made, also supports this as the production teams intention:

          '[The Doctor] is mortal, and has only so
     many regenerations,' he commented in later years.
     'We don't know which one Hartnell was, whether he
     was first or not.  In the phantasmagoric scene
     where they are mind-wrestling, we see the Doctor
     forced back through a number of regenerations.'[13]

It is quite obvious that when the story was made, the faces on the
screen during the mindbending contest were to represent the Doctor.
Many historians of the program's fiction want to resolve how this could
be the case if Time Lords are only allowed 12 regenerations. After all,
with these included faces the total number of Doctors revealed to us
number 12 total at the time of the adventure "The Brain of Morbius." 
Was the production team not fulfilling their duty of keeping a strict
continuity in the program?
     The case of continuity here is a matter of time.  The revelation
that Time Lords have 12 regenerations is only revealed a year later in
Robert Holmes's 1977 story "The Deadly Assassin." Used as a plot device
to return the Master after Roger Delgado's death, Holmes included the
line for the first time in the program thus limiting the previously
immortal life of the Doctor.  The limitation of a Time Lord's life cycle
was as follows:

Doctor: The more I think about it the less likely it seems.
Engin:  What?
Doctor: Well, That the Master would meekly accept the end of his
         regeneration cycle.  It's not his style at all.
Engin:  Accepting.  We must all accept, Doctor.

[Engin hands the Doctor a glass]

Doctor: Thank You. Not the Master.  Well, he had some sort of plan,
         that's why he came here Engin.
Engin:  After the twelfth regeneration there is no plan that will
         postpone death. [14]

With this information, and the revelation that the Doctor regenerated
again from actor Peter Davison to Colin Baker (what would be
regeneration 13) in "The Caves of Androzani," historians of the show are
left to workout a retroactive continuity.  The most difficult element to
resolve in a fictional historian's interpretation is the fact that the
program suffers from 'contextualization.'  This means that what was
intended to be presented on the screen at the time of filming is
completely different from what it might mean in the larger (canonical)
scheme of continuity.  The context (time and place) we observe the show
from presents us with a different interpretation of it.  The continuity
of the show has shifted over the years giving us a new perspective or
history of the events seen in the program.
     If one watches the show on its own, as a one-off viewing, the faces
seen could easily be interpreted, as they were intended to be, as
belonging to the Doctor.  Surely this is how many viewers at the time of
the first broadcast of "The Brain of Morbius" might have added the
events together.  However, in light of the history the program has
established since the time of the original "The Brain of Morbius"
broadcast, the events of the story change under continuity-bound
     To resolve the canonical history of _Doctor Who_, and then approach
the issue of a limited number of regenerations as presented in "The
Deadly Assassin," a new approach to the events of "The Brain of Morbius"
must be taken.  In "The Five Doctors" we learn that Peter Davison is
indeed only the Doctor's fourth regeneration. [15]  So how can the faces
on the screen be interpreted?  It would seem that the source cited
earlier presents the most accepted current canonical interpretation.
"[The Doctor and Morbius] take their places and the battle commences.
As they fight we see all the past incarnations of, first the Doctor, and
then Morbius appear on the screen."[16] Seeing as Morbius's braincase 
explodes at the end of the mindbending battle and he never again says
another word, instead simply grunting like an animal, it could easily be
interpreted that the Doctor in fact won the battle.  The Doctor was able
to destroy Morbius's brain leaving him with only animalistic motor
function, such that it was animal instinct that made him run away from
the flames of the Sisterhood's torches and fall over the edge of the
cliff on Karn.  The cost of such a victory was almost the Doctor's own
life.  The Doctor's self-sacrifice demonstrates what sets a hero apart
from the rest of society.  If we indeed interpret the Doctor as
defeating, or at least having a draw, with Morbius, then the faces we
see are surely those of Morbius.  In fact, the canonical facts of the
show do not reveal who exactly is winning and Morbius's taunts of "Back,
back to your beginning" might simply demonstrate the effort that he
places in the battle.  Morbius may be exerting such determination that
he is not even aware that the battle's tide has turned against him.  The
Doctor is not dead at the battle's end either though he is visibly
exhausted and falls into unconsciousness. Sarah Jane, most probably
without the benefit of any medical training, gives her opinion and says,
"I think he's dying." But the Doctor is not so far from consciousness
that he cannot drink from the sisterhood's elixir either.[17]
     The result of a closer examination of the mindbending sequence in
"The Brain of Morbius" reveals the dynamic of contextualization.  How we
interpret events and continuity can change as the program and its facts
evolve.  In retrospect the facts from the many shows together build a
stronger overall continuity to the program.  "The Brain of Morbius"
almost seems to work better knowing that the Doctor is an exceptional
Time Lord who uses his intellect to truly defeat the enemies of good
rather than losing.  Even though there has been a shift from who was
originally intended to own the eight mystery faces, the story does not
contradict the overall canon of the program thanks to the evolving canon
regarding the program.  Contextualization is one of the wonders of a
long-running cult television program. 

(c) copyright Zepo, 1998.

1. "The Brain of Morbius," _Doctor Who_, (BBC, 1976), NTSC video 
recording (omnibus version). 

2. Ibid.

3. The eight extra faces used in the sequence belonged to George 
Gallaccio (production unit manager), Robert Holmes (script editor),
Graeme Harper (production assistant), Douglas Camfield (another
director), Philip Hinchcliffe (producer), Christopher Baker (production
assistant), Robert Banks Stewart (another writer), and Christopher Berry
(director).  David J. Howe, Mark Stammers, and Stephen James Walker,
_Doctor Who the Handbook: The Fourth Doctor_, (London: Doctor Who Books,
1992), 198.

4. The original idea for the story was from producer Philip Hinchcliffe.  
The original screenplay author of "The Brain of Morbius" was Terrance
Dicks, but the story was seriously rewritten by script editor Robert
Holmes.  Due to the amount of rewrites conducted, Terrance Dicks
requested that his name not be put on the story and instead the
pseudonym Robin Bland was used. Howe, Stammers, and Walker, _Doctor Who
the Handbook: The Fourth Doctor_, 174-176.

5. Terrance Dicks, "Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius," (London: 
Target, 1977), 134.

6. Dicks, "Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius," 135.

7. The children's novelization does not include a description of the 
other faces on the screen but it does include the expanded Morbius
dialog found in the standard novelization.  The description of the scene
is given as: "Yet another Doctor appeared on the screen--a dark-haired
little man with a kind expression.  Then another face... a proud-looking
old man.  Morbius shouted, 'Your puny mind is powerless against the
brain of Morbius.  Back, Doctor, back to your beginnings.  To your
birth--and to your death!'  The Doctor was groaning..."  Terrance Dicks,
_Junior Doctor Who and the Brain of Morbius_, (London: Target, 
1980), 76.  It is interesting to note that the children's novelization
was written three years after it was established that Time Lords only
have 12 regenrations to use, unlike the original novelization.  

8. Howe, Stammers, and Walker, _Doctor Who the Handbook: The Fourth 
Doctor_, 197.

9. Terrance Dicks, "Bland Stand," _In-Vision: The Brain of Morbius_, 
Issue #12, (Borehamwood, Herts, UK: Cybermark Services, 1989), 3.

10. "Production," _In-Vision: The Brain of Morbius_, Issue #12,
(Borehamwood, Herts, UK: Cybermark Services, 1989), 7.

11. Ibid.

12. Adrian Rigelsford, _Classic Who: The Hinchcliffe Years, Seasons
12-14_, (London: Boxtree, 1995), 67.

13. "Production," _In-Vision: The Brain of Morbius_, 7.

14. _Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin_, (New York: Playhouse Video,
1989), original show content 1976, NTSC video cassette.

15. "The Five Doctors," _Doctor Who_, (BBC, 1983), NTSC video recording
(omnibus version).

16. Howe, Stammers, and Walker, _Doctor Who the Handbook: The Fourth
Doctor_, 197.

17. "The Brain of Morbius," _Doctor Who_, (BBC, 1976), NTSC video 
recording (omnibus version). 

return Return to the Articles Index page
return Return to the Earthbound Timelords homepage

The High Council can be reached at
Copyright Notice
Last Updated April 11, 1999