We’ve all seen The Brain of Morbius haven’t we? If you’ve not seen it – Why not?! It’s brilliant, by some margin one of Tom Baker’s very best Doctor Who stories. But it does present something of a puzzle for us in the final episode.
In the story we see the Doctor challenge an evil rogue Time Lord named Morbius to some mind-bending. This is the final confrontation and is what the story has been building up to the whole time. It’s a great bit of television but this is the confusing bit: during their battle we see the Doctor’s faces. There’s Jon Pertwee, Pat Troughton, Bill Hartnell… and eight others!!! In the words of producer Philip Hinchcliffe:
"We tried to get famous actors for the faces of the Doctor. But because no one 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."
So does that mean Hartnell is the 9th Doctor? I guess that means Troughton is 10th, Pertwee is 11th and Tom Baker is 12th. This flies in the face of everything we’ve heard since then though with stories like Mawdryn Undead, The Five Doctors, The TV Movie, The Next Doctor, The Eleventh Hour and The Time of the Doctor (to name but a few) all contradicting it and making it unambiguous that Hartnell came first and there’s nobody before him. The introduction of the 12 regeneration limit in The Deadly Assassin comes to mind as well. Whatever the great Philip Hinchcliffe may have tried to imply, Tom Baker remains the 4th Doctor.
OR DOES HE?
Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s time to go into the most controversial thing in all of Doctor Who history. Not the ability of regeneration to change gender, not the 1989 cancellation, not even the fact that I like Colin Baker’s Doctor. It’s time to explore the Cartmel Masterplan! (I never said I was going easy on you.)
The masterplan is named after Andrew Cartmel who, along with Ben Aaronovitch and Marc Platt, set out to introduce a new backstory for the Doctor, played at the time by Sylvester McCoy. The idea was to introduce some mystery back into the programme and so throughout seasons 25 and 26 (which are among my favourites) we get some little hints about the Doctor’s secret past.
There are subtle hints planted that suggest some third presence at the origins of Gallifrey alongside the established presence of Rassilon and Omega. The idea was to reveal that this third presence was the Doctor, but the series being put on hiatus (cancelled in all but name) after season 26 meant that this revelation never came about on screen.
Yep, I’m talking about Lungbarrow. Am I brave or am I foolish? Both probably.
But the Virgin New Adventures range of novels didn’t shy away from this concept. In the novels we get several explicit references to this third part of the trinity – and you thought the divine portrayal of Time Lords was RTD’s fault idea! – known simply as The Other because his name is lost to history. Gallifreyans even have a celebration every year called Otherstide that is held in his honour.
The story goes that he, with Rassilon and Omega, overthrew the corrupt regime of Pythia to bring peace to Gallifrey, but in her dying moments Pythia unleashed a curse to make Gallifreyans sterile. Rassilon came to the rescue creating the looms from which new Time Lords can be created. When Rassilon killed Omega, the Other responded by committing suicide by jumping into the looms himself! In the novel Lungbarrow it is revealed that the Doctor came from the looms and is somehow born of the Other’s surviving genetic material as his reincarnation.
So those 8 extra faces we saw when the Doctor was battling Morbius must be the incarnations of the Other! Whatever you think of The Cartmel Masterplan – me? I hate it – you can’t ignore it because the Other has made that little cameo appearance in the show in that scene from The Brain of Morbius. We haven’t just read about him, we have actually seen him! A full twenty-one years in advance of when Marc Platt’s novel made those revelations, Philip Hinchcliffe allowed us to see the Other.
But to accept this result raises some further issues for us. In Jon Pertwee story The Time Monster there’s a story the Doctor tells Jo about when he was just a boy. In the revived series we’ve seen children of Gallifrey in The Day of the Doctor, as well as child versions of both the Master via flashback in The Sound of Drums (see image above) and Doctor in Listen. This all suggests looming is not what actually goes on. Take this exchange from The Day of the Doctor:
WAR DOCTOR: Did you ever count?If looming was what happened then I doubt there would be 2470000000 children there! The New Adventures establish that looming creates Gallifreyans as fully mature adults, so if looming happened then there would never be any Gallifreyan children, especially not as relatively-late in their history as the Time War.
11TH DOCTOR: Count what?
WAR DOCTOR: How many children there were on Gallifrey that day.
11TH DOCTOR: I have absolutely no idea.
WAR DOCTOR: How old are you now?
11TH DOCTOR: Ah, I don't know. I lose track. Twelve hundred and something, I think, unless I'm lying. I can't remember if I'm lying about my age, that's how old I am.
WAR DOCTOR: Four hundred years older than me, and in all that time you've never even wondered how many there were? You never once counted?
11TH DOCTOR: Tell me, what would be the point?
10TH DOCTOR: Two point four seven billion.
So after all that we haven’t really got anywhere. We still don’t have anything on who or what those faces are and our only possible road to investigate them lead to a dead end when the revived series undermined it.
We could try to say that those faces are previous incarnations of Morbius – he’s a Time Lord too remember – but this falls apart because it’s him who wins. It’s the Doctor that is rendered (temporarily) dead by the challenge, not Morbius. To claim that those faces belong to Morbius is an argument that doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. Morbius even asks in the fight “How long have you lived?!” which implies that these are ancient incarnations of the Doctor or at least not faces Morbius recognises as his own.
The fact is that at the end of the day, The Brain of Morbius doesn’t fit with canon. We have to acknowledge it and accept it for what it is: a weird moment of madness that contradicts everything that came later. Put it on par with the 8th Doctor’s half-human status if you must.
But really, who cares? The Brain of Morbius is still a fantastic story that has held up remarkably well for a BBC production from 1976, whatever you may think about those faces. “Who are they?” is the wrong question. “Is the story any good?” is what you should ask. Yes it is good by the way. It’s very good. It’s excellent. Watch it again today.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.