Whose were those faces in The Brain of Morbius“? (Non Doctor Who fans may roll their eyes and look away now.)
Today, there’s post-Morbius evidence from the transmitted programmes that David Tennant is playing the tenth incarnation of the Doctor. There also continues to be a popular cultural conception that reinforces this, whether that’s in pub quizzes about the show, or newspaper reports that have mugshots of the actors from Hartnell through Eccleston as “previous Doctors” where the reporter or picture editor doesn’t feel the need to list Richard E Grant, Richard Hurndall, Adrian Gibbs, Peter Cushing, Trevor Martin, Robert Holmes in a funny hat, Joanna Lumley, or (presumably, since last Christmas) David Morrissey. Such a non-diegetic influence on the show is not inconsiderable: if you don’t think that non-diegetic influence matters, think how long after Remembrance of the Daleks it took to lay to rest the myth that Daleks can’t negotiate stairs. In the quiet corner of an unfunny comedian’s set somewhere, they still can’t.
The evidence that Tennant is Tenth is pretty overwhelming. There were nine previous faces in the flashbacks in The Next Doctor. Now one could construct an argument that there are only ten faces shown because that data is based on what the Daleks knew about the Doctor, and they hadn’t met him before the Hartnell incarnation. But The Next Doctor is a story, in part, about who the true Doctor really is. That scene is at the heart of that discovery, and it’s a conscious acknowledgement by the current production team of who the non-fan public will recognise as the Doctor(s). It would therefore be an odd “reading” of that scene to suggest other than that it reinforces the current status quo. In fact, to do otherwise would be like arguing away the “Goodness, so there are five of me now” from The Five Doctors because it wasn’t actually Hartnell who said it: recasting the First Doctor was just a production convention, and it was the intention of the production team that it really was the First Doctor, and not some impostor.
What’s been revealed in Time and the Rani, The Five Doctors, etc. plus the continued non-diegetic reinforcement outside the programme makes this the current status quo: there are ten Doctors, and Hartnell was the first.
The problem is that fans who want there to be a “whole cloth” for the transmitted programmes need to revisit Brain of Morbius to integrate those eight “mystery” faces into the current status quo. To do that means intepreting that 1976 sequence in a way counter to the intentions of the author/editor, the producer, the director, the costume designer who dressed the previous Doctors, and the contemporary logic of the scene as transmitted. And to reinterpret all of that is a post hoc rationalisation. The evidence of the 1976 programme is that the faces are the Doctor, pre-Hartnell.
The production team either didn’t know or didn’t care that there was a one line in the entire show’s previous history (The Three Doctors, three years earlier) that suggested otherwise. And when people like me saw The Brain of Morbius on its first transmission, we thought “ooh, he has more than three incarnations”. A few were a bit cross: “Gasp! That contradicts The Three Doctors!” What I don’t recall was any strong feeling that those were Morbius’s faces. The contemporary status quo (whether one liked it or not) was that they were the Doctor’s faces. It’s the context of those subsequent stories that invites people to reinterpret the 1976 sequence as transmitted, or even to impute unspoken motivations to the production team. My favourite of those that I’ve ever heard is: “the director didn’t like the idea after all, and so directed it to undermine the theory”. No he didn’t. Justin Richards and I interviewed director Christopher Barry and producer Philip Hinchcliffe for our In-Vision issue about The Brain of Morbius. (My second favourite silly theory, incidentally, is: “You wouldn’t catch Supreme Ruler Morbius wearing a hat with a feather in it”.)
It’s hard to explain now what it was like to see that pre-Hartnell Doctors sequence for the first time in 1976, without all the hindsight we have nearly 33 years later that informs or affects our reactions to it.
There’s nothing especially baffling about the way the transmitted scene plays. The picture editing shows a definite sequence, entirely within the conventions of mid-70s multi-camera TV drama. There’s a cutaway from the faces for a reaction shot on Sarah, which does not suggest that the battle sequence has been reversed or that the Doctor is regaining lost ground. It’s a tense, well-directed, nicely-framed set of shots that doesn’t play games with non-sequential logic — when there’s a reversal, you see the reversal (as with Morbius’s “fight back”). For the director (or editor) to subsequently omit a sudden dramatic reversal in the Doctor’s favour seems to me quite implausible.
The dramatic and emotional logic of the scene is that the Doctor’s gamble has failed, and that Morbius must now surely win — until the fault in Morbius’s plastic headgear, flagged earlier in the story by Solon, (literally) blows Morbius’s mind and sends him careering mindlessly away to be driven, like a beast, over the cliff by the Sisterhood. Morbius’s downfall (literal, again) is a delicious combination of:
- The Doctor’s self-sacrifice in exploiting Morbius’s self-pride; we know that’s the kind of thing he would do, because two stories before we’ve seen him facing down Sutekh, another foe much more powerful than himself
- Morbius’s imperious overriding of Solon’s advice about the headgear; we recognise that from earlier in the story, so it’s a physical flaw that echoes his mental fragility
- The Sisterhood’s first journey out of their clandestine hideout; hitherto they have controlled things on- and off-planet with their mental prowess, and now they finally face their enemy in person, as the Doctor has been doing.
Furthermore, Morbius’s dialogue during the duel reinforces the Doctor’s losing streak, and there’s no dialogue and no reaction shots of Sarah or the Doctor to suggest otherwise — neither that Morbius is somehow an unreliable commentator on the scene, nor that the Doctor has any other recourse during the latter stages than simply to survive. The Doctor’s brave gamble pays off, but it seems to be at the cost of his own life, until the elixir (also flagged earlier in the story) is able to save him — a just reward for him earlier bringing the flame back to renewed life.
That’s the contemporary intention of the scene, as written, as directed, as performed. And I think it’s how most viewers would have viewed it (whether it pleased them or made them cross) at the time.
Had the production team, or subsequent producers, built on that intention, one wouldn’t need to reinterpret the sequence. Instead, we’d be finding a way “around” that one line in The Three Doctors. Maybe that was the “first” or “earliest” Doctor that the Time Lords knew about, or the first/earliest that they could reach back to with their limited power, or some other inventive excuse. And excuse it would be, of course: The Three Doctors, as much as any previous story, was informed by the extra-diegetic view that there were, as it says on the tin, three Doctors who travelled in time and space who surely must meet up at some point. It’s an overt 10th Anniversary celebration of the show itself: there have been three, and here they all are.
But the production teams didn’t subseqently follow-up on the pre-Hartnell Doctors. What they did was to ignore it. In the case of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes and Williams/Holmes production teams, plus the Williams/Read/Adams production teams, they neither confirmed nor denied it over the next three years. In the case of the Nathan-Turner production teams (variously script edited), they flatly contradicted it on a handful of occasions over the subsequent decade. Yet even when contradicting it, they didn’t explain away those pre-Hartnell faces in The Brain of Morbius. I think that would have been an unnecessary (and dull) story interlude, even in John Nathan-Turner’s continuity-fascinated era of Doctor Who. And the extra-diegetic reinforcement of “Hartnell was the first Doctor” with each new regeneration added weight to that.
- 1976 status quo: there are incarnations of the Doctor before Hartnell, and we see them on screen
- 2009 status quo: there are only ten incarnations of the Doctor to date.
In the presence of this contradiction but the absence of an explanation, there’s literally nothing in the programme that makes explicit who those Brain of Morbius faces are in terms of the current status quo. We have to find our own interpretation, and select and interpret (and sometimes selectively interpret) contradictory evidence to suit our personal preference.
What a quandary! The answer, it turns out, is that there is no single answer. It remains a matter of fannish interpretation. Meanwhile, the current status quo is: there are ten Doctors, shortly to be eleven. When Matt Smith was announced as the new lead actor in the show, he was acclaimed as “the eleventh Doctor” by the majority. Including me, though I’m one of those who says that those are the Doctor’s faces in Morbius. It doesn’t bother me; I can stand the confusion in my mind, and it doesn’t make my brain pop and fizz inside its plastic headgear.