If I were in his shoes…
I may owe Chris Chibnall an apology.
But maybe not the apology you think.
See, I’ve watched The Brain of Morbius numerous times over the decades. And when it got to that scene, the first time I watched (age 18), well, it was my first ever story that I saw. I knew nothing about the show at all. So seeing the Mind-Bending scene, with all the extra faces, I was clueless. If I had any opinions on the faces then, well, it’s been 41 years, so I don’t remember.
After finding out the show’s history, I eventually saw the story again. When it came to that scene again, I think I was confused. See, I had learned the canon, the established history. So perhaps it was wishful thinking that made me dismiss the extra faces as probably just being Morbius’ extra faces. Perhaps. Hartnell was the first Doctor after all, right?
Or was this another example of us fans’ rigid thinking? At that point in the show’s history, there were no set rules on regeneration limits. The character we knew as the Doctor could have had many incarnations before stealing that TARDIS, and leaving Gallifrey for good.
Sure, I had heard the whole story about the extra faces being the production staff, it being an in joke, etc. Well, I wasn’t really laughing then, and it’s even more difficult to laugh now. In-joke or not, I’m not sure what Philip Hinchcliffe was thinking. For that matter, what was Robert Holmes thinking?
The very next year, Holmes came up with the 12 regeneration/13 body limit for Time Lords. Was this inspired world building or damage control, hoping we’d ignore it? Or had he simply forgotten all about it? Because after all, the “joke” added eight extra faces, making Baker the Twelfth Doctor — at least! The mind-bending apparatus blew up before any more faces were shown.
Flash forward several decades and we’re in the midst of this whole Timeless Child thing. Yes, that’s all Chibnall, with this ham-handed, crazy retcon. But here’s the thing — I rewatched that scene again today. For the longest time, I made like all the extra faces could have easily been Morbius’.
But upon rewatching — sigh — that’s not the case. While the Doctor’s faces are being shown, Morbius is rattling on about “Going back to your beginning…” and asking “How long have you lived, Doctor?” as the new faces are shown. It’s clearly indicated that these are more of the Doctor’s faces. And to tip it in, we start out seeing Morbius’ face and the dude has got a crazy shaped forehead for his giant brain! None of the other faces had that weird dome.
Could Hincliffe have just had Morbius dialoging while they only went from Baker back to Hartnell, making him the “beginning”? Yes. Should he have? Probably, yes, because if the extra faces were just an in-joke, that type of larking about is unprofessional, and it turns out could have big consequences years later. Oops.
Frankly, looking back, the way that scene was particularly written and presented, I’m really a bit astonished that Chibnall was the first one to bring all this up! The mere fact that Morbius has to ask just how long the Doctor has lived is a bit of a clue. When the episode aired, just how many viewers were wondering, “Wait, how old is the Doctor anyway?”
But, but, BUT. Everyone involved with the show left it alone. It wasn’t a big deal for five decades, and it would have continued to be forgotten. So who cares?
Well, Chris Chibnall was just shy of his sixth birthday when part four of The Brain of Morbius originally aired. At that age, he probably only knew Tom Baker in the role. Maybe a tiny bit of Pertwee. So it is possible that the mind-bending scene was the very first look he ever had at the Doctor’s past lives. He probably never heard about the established canon of Hartnell being first — he probably had no clue who William Hartnell was, and why would he? He wasn’t even six yet! In that moment, all those faces shown to him were just as legitimate as Tom, Jon, Pat, and Bill’s.
So in his mind, perhaps for quite some time, he may have wondered just how many faces the Doctor really had, besides those TWELVE he saw when the machine blew up.
Remember how inquisitive you were as a child? A five year old Chibnall probably knew nothing of the “rules” or the numbering of the Doctors. Watching that scene probably stuck with him, and in later years, when The Five Doctors played, or when he kept hearing or reading about the First, Second, Third Doctors, etc., all the time, I wouldn’t be surprised if that scene didn’t come rushing back to him. Maybe prompting the thought, “Aren’t we forgetting those other eight guys? Come on!”
Why show us all those faces if there weren’t a reason? Young Chris had a perfectly logical question there. Put in his shoes, at his age, honestly, I’d be asking the same question. Kids don’t care about some stupid in-joke a bunch of middle aged producers stuck in there. If you love a show, you trust that show. You don’t assume there’ll be nonsensical in-jokes thrown in as misinformation.
No, I can see where a young, intelligent, detail-oriented lad felt the need to try and make sense of it all. To set the record straight. I would have acted the same way, trying to think of a reason behind it all.
All this time, I was thinking that Chibnall didn’t care about anything except putting his stamp on the show. That he was taking a tiny incident and just blowing it up all out of proportion. Wanting to just burn everything down for the sake of ego. Maybe that is the case.
But maybe, in his mind, he’s righting a wrong. He saw something bizarre put in front of him. A mystery. After the regeneration limit was mentioned in The Deadly Assassin, maybe he thought the Doctor only had one life left after Baker! Hey, we were just told the Doctor gets 13 lives, period. “Holey moley! That means he’s near the end!”
Then it was never mentioned again. New producers, regenerations, Doctors, cancellation, rebirth, etc. — and this glaring question mark, this mystery, branded onto his five year old brain was never going to go away. The same production team led us to believe the Doctor’d had at least 12 lives already, and less than a year later, that he only gets 13!
He felt it needed to be addressed. Fair enough. I don’t know if it necessarily had to be, but it is there.
And I imagine there probably would have been different, maybe better ways to explain the mystery, and much better ways to write and execute the grand plan.
But Hinchcliffe and Holmes weren’t perfect. They were goofing around at work! They left a bizarre albatross in the middle of the room. Many many people, including myself, dismissed it as nothing for a long time.
I was wrong and I apologise, Chris.
There’s no question. It is something after all.
A very unusual scene in the heart of the golden age of the show. They did put it out there. And once you start thinking about the possibilities, anything can happen.
In all good conscience, I can no longer chastise you for a 45-year call back.
My inner five year old fan would want answers too.
But you have the big chair, and no one else stepped up, so you have free rein to supply them.