Disjecta Membra: The Brain of Morbius and the Intertextual Body
This essay began as a chapter of Parlare the Carny but as I worked on it – appropriately enough – it took on a life of its own. Whereas the main essay assumes no prior knowledge of Bakhtin and his work I’ve taken that for granted this time: if you are new to dialogism I suggest you read Parlare first. The essay was initially inspired by Michael Holquist’s Bakhtinian analysis of Frankenstein in Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World (1990) but takes Bakhtin’s ideas in a new direction. I hope you enjoy it!
“Did I request thee, Maker from my clay
To mould me man?
Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?”
– John Milton, Paradise Lost (X.743-5)
The way that carnivalesque crowning and dethroning, grotesque realism and Bakhtin’s dialogical conceptions of language, identity and authorship interact can best be demonstrated through an exploration of one of the series most grotesque stories, The Brain of Morbius.
The Brain of Morbius opens with the death and dismemberment of an insectoid alien resembling – since it uses the same costume! – a Mutant from the 1972 story The Mutants: the Doctor identifies this alien as a ‘Mutt’. The Mutants is set on the planet Solos, of course, a name echoed by the name of this story’s second, non-eponymous antagonist, Solon: for the seasoned Doctor Who viewer, we are already in intertextual territory. What’s more, this butchery is carried out by a being who is himself fragmented and incomplete: Solon’s hook-handed servant Condo. Intertextuality and and its relationship to the fragmented, grotesque body will become a recurrent theme of this story.
We learn early on that the Doctor and Sarah have landed ‘close’ to the Doctor’s home planet (‘Well, within a couple of billion miles, yes.’) – the closest he’s been since his origin was revealed in The War Games. ‘Origin’ is a theme we will return to.
We are also informed that the Doctor has been sent here against his will:
DOCTOR: Come out, meddlesome, interfering idiots. I know you’re up there so come on out and show yourselves! Messing about with my Tardis. Dragging us a thousand parsecs off course.
SARAH: Oi, have you gone potty? Who are you shouting at?
DOCTOR: The Time Lords, who else? Now, you see? You see? They haven’t even got the common decency to come out and show their ears.
SARAH: They’re probably afraid of getting them boxed, the way you’re carrying on.
DOCTOR: It’s intolerable. I won’t stand for any more of it.
SARAH: Oh look, why can’t it have just gone wrong again?
SARAH: The Tardis.
DOCTOR: What? Do you think I don’t know the difference between an internal fault and an external influence? Oh, no, no, no. There’s something going on here, some dirty work they won’t touch with their lily white hands. Well, I won’t do it, do you hear!
Nevertheless, the Doctor has no choice but to follow the role assigned to him by the archetectonics of answerability: he has no alibi in existence.
The Brain of Morbius‘ most obvious intertext is Mary Shelley‘s Gothic novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus – or, more accurately, the various film and theatre adaptations of that novel with which Morbius shares significant (centripetal) similarities and (centrifugal) differences. Both Morbius and Frankenstein tell the story of a scientist who transgresses the laws of nature by (re)creating life from the scavenged body parts of the dead. Solon and Victor Frankenstein are very much Romantic conceptions of the scientist, and Michael Holquists’s ‘dialogical’ analysis of Frankenstein is worth considering here:
”Victor Frankenstein embodies (with all the irony that attends the use of the word in the novel) the principle of uniqueness: he is the quintessential Romantic artist”
– Michael Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World
For Frankenstein the secret of imparting life to dead flesh marks him as unique since it is ‘one secret which I alone possessed’. Solon is not shy about boasting of his unique achievements either:
SOLON: I’ve made so many discoveries. I have mastered new techniques no other man has even conceived. I can transplant limbs, organs. I can create life. And all against the most appalling difficulties.
MORBIUS: Yet I am still here! I can see nothing, feel nothing. You have locked me into hell for eternity. If this is all there is for me, I would sooner die now.
SOLON: There is so much at stake. I cannot afford to take a risk. Every step is an advance into new fields of surgery. Every step has got to be tested.
MORBIUS: Solon! You desire to be know as the creator of Morbius, rather than his servant.
Frankenstein and Solon’s ‘uniqueness’ are, however, thrown into question both intertextually and intratextually.
Intertextually, the novel’s subtitle, The Modern Prometheus, belies the ‘uniqueness’ of Victor Frankenstein by alluding to literary precedent: Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the Gods. Solon is modeled on Victor Frankenstein and therefore embodies not only Frankenstein’s own literary ancestry but all of his hundreds of theatrical, literary, film and television descendants.
Like Victor, Frankenstein’s monster – an articulate, literate creature in the book – also makes claims to uniqueness and loneliness – and these claims are also expressed in intertextual terms:
”No sympathy may I ever find. When I first sought it, it was the love of virtue, the feelings of happiness and affection with which my whole being overflowed, that I wished to be participated. But now that virtue has become to me a shadow and that happiness and affection are turned into bitter and loathing despair, in what should I seek for sympathy? I am content to suffer alone while my sufferings shall endure: when I die, I am well satisfied that abhorrence and opprobrium should load my memory. Once my fancy was soothed with dreams of virtue, of fame, and of enjoyment. I falsely hoped to meet with beings who, pardoning my outward form, would love me for the excellent qualities which I was capable of unfolding. I was nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion. But now crime has degraded me beneath the meanest animal. No guilt, no mischief, no malignity, no misery, can be found comparable to mine. When I run over the frightful catalogue of my sins, I cannot believe that I am the same creature whose thoughts were once filled with sublime and transcendent visions of the beauty and the majesty of goodness. But it is even so; the fallen angel becomes a malignant devil. Yet even that enemy of God and man had friends and associates in his desolation; I am alone.”
– Mary Shelly, Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus
Perhaps no character in Doctor Who suffers the carnivalesque degredations of Morbius:
MORBIUS: Trapped like this, like a sponge beneath the sea. Yet even a sponge has more life than I. Can you understand a thousandth of my agony? I, Morbius, who once led the High Council of the Time Lords and dreamed the greatest dreams in history, now reduced to this, to a condition where I envy a vegetable!
There are obvious similarities between the Creature’s self-pitying speech about the unfulfillment of his ‘dreams of virtue’ and Morbius, ‘who once … dreamed the greatest dreams in history’ and his envy for the life of a sponge – yet despite their claims to a unprecedented suffering both allude to Satan, the ‘fallen angel’ of Milton‘s Paradise Lost from which Shelley’s novel also takes it’s preface.
As we’ll see both Milton’s poem and the myth of Prometheus provide as much an intertextual background to The Brain of Morbius as Mary Shelley’s novel does.
Just as Solon intertextually embodies all the literary precedents and antecedents of Victor Frankenstein, so the Morbius creature embodies a thousand Frankenstein Monsters. As Holquist says of Frankenstein’s monster:
”Frankenstein’s monster springs from the library as much as he does from the charnel house and laboratory: he is made up not only of other bodies from the past, but, like Mary Shelley’s novel, from other books from the past”
-Michael Holquist, Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World
He is made from parts of other texts as well as bodies, from the disjecta membra of literature. The Brain of Morbius borrows from film and theatre adaptations of Frankenstein as much as from Shelley’s novel.
There are significant differences between Frankenstein and The Brain of Morbius, however, not least in each monsters’ relationship with language. Frankenstein’s monster begins as a mute but over the progress of the novel he enters the chain of existence through his acquisition of language: for a brief while he is even able to trick the blind De Lacey into thinking he is human. Morbius’s trajectory, however, is in the opposite direction. Morbius begins the story as a disembodied brain, deprived of all human characteristics other than speech: he is constituted entirely in language (and what an eloquent speaker he is! He must have been a fearsome orator among the High Council.) For a moment the blinded Sarah too believes she is talking to a human being. It is only in the closing moments of his life that he is rendered speechless, divorced from the chain of existence, regressing literally a state of infancy (the word is derived from the Latin, infans, meaning ‘unable to speak’ or ‘speechless’) .
Intratextually, Solon an Morbius, and Victor and the Creature, operate as doubles of each other: indeed, there is constant slippage between their roles as master and creation (in fact, a Mystery and Imagination adaptation of Frankenstein for ITV in 1968 even had Frankenstein and the monster played by the same actor, Ian Holme). ‘You are my creator’ says Frankenstein’s monster, ‘but I am your master’; a sentiment echoed by Morbius’ ‘You desire to be known as the creator of Morbius rather than his servant’ quoted above.
The Brain of Morbius is further complicated because Solon (the Romantic scientist) and Morbius (the Renegade Time Lord) are also doubles of the Doctor. Solon, at least, sees both Time Lords as partly interchangeable – through the intertextuality of the body:
SOLON: That is why his head is so perfect. From one of your own race, from one of those who turned up on you and tried to destroy you, you get a new head for Morbius. The crowning irony.
Frankenstein and Solon are also united in their revolt from their intratextual antecedents: they both had their scientific ambitions cruelly mocked. ‘My dear Victor, do not waste your time on this; it is sad trash’ Frankenstein’s father chided him on discovering his arcane reading matter; Solon left Earth under a cloud: ‘Malice. Academic jealousy. I just had to get away.’ Again, this echoes intertextually Prometheus and Milton’s Satan who rebelled against the Gods (or God).
Frankenstein and Solon share a suspicion of women: contemplating creating a mate for the monster Frankenstein worries ‘she might become ten thousand times more malignant than her mate…she might turn with disgust from him to the superior beauty of man’. Solon is even less sympathetic to the women of Karn as shown in this virtuoso display of billingsgate:
CONDO: Doctor gone.
SOLON: I can see that, you chicken-brained biological disaster, but how? And where? That drug. Did you put it all into the wine?
CONDO: Yes, master. All little bottle in big.
SOLON: Then he must still be unconscious. He can’t have moved. That squalid brood of harpies, the Sisterhood. That accursed hag Maren found I was holding a Time Lord and rescued him. May her stiking bones rot! I’ll see her die, Condo. I’ll see that palsied harridan scream for death before Morbius and I are finished with her!
Frankenstein and Solon have usurped women as well as the gods as creators of life and renewal – but the Sisterhood of Karn have sacrificed this role themselves:
DOCTOR: Fascinating. And the heat from the flame causes oxidation of the chemicals in the rocks, and then, no doubt, a chemical reaction with rising superheated gases and you have your Elixir. The impossible dream of a thousand alchemists dripping like tea from an urn.
MAREN: Do not try to understand mysteries beyond the reach of the mind.
DOCTOR: Oh, I wouldn’t think they’re beyond a decent spectrograph, Maren. One could probably synthesise that stuff by the gallon, though the consequences would be appalling.
OHICA: What do you mean?
DOCTOR: What? Everyone trying to live forever? No. Death is the price we pay for progress, you know.
MAREN: You speak in riddles, Doctor. The Time Lords were glad enough of the Elixir.
DOCTOR: Only in rare cases. When, for instance, there’s some difficulty in regenerating a body. We don’t take it regularly like you, otherwise we’d fall into the same trap.
MAREN: And what trap are we in?
DOCTOR: Immortality. You must have been old when the Elixir was discovered. How many centuries have passed while you have remained unchanged. How long since anything here changed?
MAREN: Nothing here ever changes.
Here the story taps intertextually H Rider Haggard‘s novel She: A HIstory of Adventure in which the white queen, Ayesha – ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed’ – white queen of the lost kingdom of Kôr, had achieved immortality by bathing in the Fires of Life. Like Ayesha, Maren is ultimately consumed by the flames which gave her life
Stasis is the antithesis of the carnivalistic transformation; it is a monological. If the grotesque body is a symbol of the body politic then the unchanging body is the symbol of stagnation and control. Morbius’ intertextual body becomes the site of a struggle of meaning and authorship between Solon and the Morbius. Morbius seeks freedom from the fate the Time Lords have condemned him to, a liberation from chance and circumstance, ‘free of intervention of the other, characterized by the absolute stasis of identity that guarantees the higher reality of a god’ (Holquist on The Great Gatsby). Morbius seeks authorship of his own selfhood – but there’s a paradox here. Morbius seeks stasis – a state of Being without Becoming – but can only only even attempt this through the spontaneous Becoming of metamorphosis. This is a struggle between the centripetal force of stasis and the centrifugal forces of change and metamorphosis which we are all condemned to repeat as subjects constituted in language characterised by those very same forces. But Morbius’ ambitions are thwarted by their ontological absurdity: one cannot be a ‘narrative without time’, a ‘Being without Becoming’.
We see Morbius’ struggle with the concept of transformation during the Mind Bending duel with the Doctor: in one of the show’s most disturbing sequences we see images of the Doctor regressing through time even before Hartnell’s Doctor. (Modern fandom often attempts to deny what we see here and claim these faces belong to Morbius but there is little evidence within the story to support their theories – we are still a season away from The Deadly Assassin, which limits Time Lord regenerations to twelve, and it is not till the Fifth Doctor that he ever numbers his predecessors. Retconning, is, of course, a monological project.)
But the Doctor survives the duel because of his openness to change. Morbius has embraced stasis and cannot accept change – even by regressing. The Doctor allows himself to regress. Morbius is a failed sign – he is a monster trapped in the body of a monster.
At the end of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein’s monster departs into the desolate wastes of the Arctic to conclude his own narrative:
”But soon…I shall die, and what I now feel be no longer felt. Soon these burning miseries will be extinct. I shall ascend my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or, if it thinks, it will not surely think thus.”
– Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus
In The Brain of Morbius it is not the monster which immolates itself; rendered mindless and inarticulate by the Mind Bending contest Morbius flees the flaming torches of the Sisterhood – a cruel parody of the Promethean myth – and tumbles to his death. It is ultimately the aged Maren who sacrifices herself to the flames of transformation and renewal, a flame earlier relit in a Promethean act by the Doctor.
The Brain of Morbius offers up a perfect metaphor for the power of a story to escape it’s creator’s intentions – Terrance Dicks even disowning it himself and asking for it to go out under ‘some bland pseudonym‘.
Fitzgerald, F Scott (1925) The Great Gatsby
Haggard, H Rider (1886) She: A History of Adventure
- Hills, Matthew ‘Gothic’ Body Parts in a ‘Postmodern’ Body of Work? The Hinchcliffe/Holmes Era of Doctor Who (1975-77)
Holquist, Michael (1990) Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World
Shelly, Mary (1818) Frankenstein: Or The Modern Prometheus