and glorious black-and-white…
The creatures commonly referred to as ‘the Brains of Morphoton’ appeared in “The Velvet Web”, episode two of the 1964 Doctor Who story The Keys of Marinus starring William Hartnell as the Doctor. Unnamed in the story, they were featured only once in the classic series and have so far not been invited back in the revived version. The story was written by Terry Nation, who had recently penned the first ever Dalek story, and for the devious cerebellums of Morphoton he drew imagery from such classic horror films as Donovan’s Brain (1953) and Fiend Without a Face (1958).
In episode one, the TARDIS materialises on a small rocky island surrounded by a sea of acid on the planet Marinus. The Doctor and his grand-daughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), accompanied by schoolteachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), enter an imposing black tower on the island where they meet an unscrupulous lawmaker, Arbitan (George Colouris). He prevails upon them to seek the five keys of the Conscience of Marinus, a giant supercomputer which, when working properly, governs the minds of the populace and prevents evil thoughts. The keys are scattered in hidden locations across Marinus and the TARDIS occupants must find them, a quest which leads them first to the city of Morphoton. In episode two (“The Velvet Web”), the time travellers are greeted by a race of men and women who seem to live a life of idle luxury. The food is abundant, the fruit juice flows freely, and the Doctor and his companions are assured that their every wish can be granted. It all seems too good to be true…
And of course, it is. During the night, the time travellers are placed even deeper under the influence of a mind-altering device that was activated on their arrival, clouding their minds to the truth of Morphoton. Barbara however, escapes hypnosis when the device placed on her forehead slips off. What follows the next morning is a well-directed and quite chilling scene in which Barbara wakes to find that the luxurious chamber of the night before is just a filthy ruin, the fine goblets merely chipped mugs. The sequence is filmed with a subjective camera for Barbara’s point of view, with the camera swapping back and forth between her perception and the Greco-Roman fantasy of the others.
Barbara runs away from her brainwashed friends and discovers that Morphoton is in fact governed by four monstrous disembodied brains with eyes protruding on elongated stalks. The creatures live inside huge bell jars and communicate through an electronic speaker system. “We are the Masters of this place. Our brains outgrew our bodies; it is our intelligence that has created this whole city but we need the help of the human body to feed us and to carry out our orders,” they explain. As you may have guessed from the shameless nominative determinism of Nation’s scripts, it turns out that the residents of Morphoton have been enslaved in their, er, sleep by a mesmeric device called a Mesmeron, which subjugates the will of the humanoids enabling the brain creatures to exploit them for their labour. “The human body is the most flexible instrument in the world, no mechanical device could reproduce its mobility and dexterity,” one declares, with a lipsmacking relish impressive for a creature with no lips. This paean to human bodily excellence is slightly undercut, however, as Barbara attacks the four jars with a spanner but succeeds in shattering just one; luckily the other brains scream, their eyestalks wilt, and all four of them die, so presumably they are a gestalt organism; kill one and you kill them all. (Either that, or Jacqueline Hill was asked not to shatter the bell jars in order to save money.)
The brains and their apparatus were designed by the BBC’s Raymond Cusick and made by Shawcraft Models, a company whom the BBC Props Department habitually hired to handle construction (Shawcraft built the first Daleks, along with other early monsters like the Zarbi).
Transmitted on 18 April 1964, “The Velvet Web” scored a huge audience of 9.4 million viewers, almost three million more than watched Stephen Moffat’s highly regarded David Tennant Doctor Who episode “Blink” (2007). It’s a little known fact that this makes the Brains of Morphoton officially more popular than the Weeping Angels.
The Brains of Morphoton may not have enjoyed a second appearance in Doctor Who – yet – but perhaps they are the same creatures encountered by Captain James T. Kirk in the 1968 Star Trek episode “The Gamesters of Triskelion”?
Other cousins of the Morphoton brains appear in The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) and The Curious Doctor Humpp (1968).
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