THIS STORY TAKES
PLACE BETWEEN THE TV
STORY "THE AZTECS"
AND THE BIG FINISH
PETER R. NEWMAN
MERVYN PINFIELD &
The TARDIS arrives in
a lifeless spaceship.
The Doctor FINDS THE
bodies of the crew
slumped over their
stations, THE VICTIMS
OF A mental attack
that keeps them
prisoners in space.
Using THEIR telepathic
SKILLS, the Sensorites
have managed to STOP
the mineral wealth of
their world, BUT Now
the TARDIS crew also
find themselves AT THE
MERCY OF the Sensor-
20TH JUNE 1964 - 1ST AUGUST 1964
1. STRANGERS IN SPACE 2. THE UNWILLING WARRIORS
3. HIDDEN DANGER 4. A RACE AGAINST DEATH
5. KIDNAP 6. A DESPERATE VENTURE
The Sensorites is a serial that in many ways encapsulates the show’s first year. Though I find that it doesn’t stand up as well today as some other early serials do, there is still much to like about Peter R Newman’s six-parter and, more to the point, it showcases many of the classic devices that would ultimately make the series so successful.
First off, the story has ambition. Verity Lambert and her production team were not afraid of landing the TARDIS on the deck of a 28th century spaceship no matter what constraints they had in terms of money or time. I mean, just look at the Sensorites! They might not look much in the face of modern prosthetics and make-up techniques, but for 1964 they are a positive trimph. Indeed, according to Russell T Davies, the Sensorities’ strange, uniform appearance inspired the Ood over forty years later!
The Sensorities are also an interesting race in terms of their motives and their actions. The evil Sensorite who becomes the Second Elder is a wonderful Doctor Who baddie – he is just so childishly evil! It’s a joy to see him interact with the ‘goodie’ Sensorites, who are all reasonable and want peace. It’s a wonderful Doctor Who staple that would manifest time and again in classic stories like Doctor Who and the Silurians, but you saw it here first.
Moreover, The Sensorites is not chained to just one location. We are taken from the above-mentioned spaceship to the Sense-Sphere, the Sensorites’ unique home, which breaks up the six episodes wonderfully. Again it is a device that later production teams would use on their six-parters – serials like The Time Monster, The Seeds of Doom, and of course The Invasion of Time all have the four episode / two episode divide to help maintain the pace. Once again, it dates right back to here.
This story also sees
William Hartnell at his zenith. Here his Doctor
is confident, brilliant and
forceful. Unusually, The
Sensorities also sees
Hartnell have to do a bit
more emotionally - The Dalek Invasion of Earth aside, the tension between Susan and the Doctor has never been higher than it is in this story. She’s growing up, and he doesn’t like it one bit. There is also a lovely symmetry in how the Doctor feels at the beginning of the story, and how he feels at its conclusion. In Strangers in Space he takes the time to comment on how all the crew have become good friends, yet by the end of A Desperate Venture he has decided to put Ian and Barbara off the ship! Fantastic.
In fairness though, The Sensorites is not an especially compelling tale, nor is it one that stands up well under modern scrutiny. I like it because it typifies those early, pioneering Doctor Who serials so beautifully. In those days they weren’t scared of anything, they just
did their best with a few quid; a cramped studio; some wonderful actors; and a bucketful
of imagination. And, as I’m writing this over forty years later, they must have been doing something right.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
The Sensorites is an unfairly maligned story. OK, so it is a bit awkward in places, but you find me a Doctor Who story that doesn’t have a few moments where – like a theatre production going horribly wrong – you are sitting there awkwardly wondering if they will be able to recover from an embarrassing effect, a trite piece of dialogue, or even an abysmal performance. There are a fair number of guffs in this story, but there is much to enjoy as well.
This is the story that sums up the great difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek for me. For my money, Doctor Who is about scary monsters, witty scripts, tons of atmosphere, and a powerhouse performance from the actor playing the Doctor. Star Trek, on the other hand, is about a bunch of people standing around in a very theatrical manner discussing some seriously interesting issues. Now I’m a huge Star Trek fan – especially Deep Space
9, which is the only television show that even comes close to the sheer diversity of genres
it touches upon as Doctor Who, but it still pales in comparison because it often commits
the ultimate sin: it takes itself far too seriously. And it doesn’t have the multiple cliffhangers, regularly shifting regulars, fantastic monsters, breadth of storytelling, and the sheer gall of trying to achieve effects way beyond its budget…
What is this fool talking about? I hear you cry... well, the shift in quality between the first and last three episodes of this story reveal the Doctor Who / Star Trek divide in monochromatic style. The first half of The Sensorites is classic Doctor Who, whilst the last three episodes are most certainly Star Trek. The story opens on a mysterious and spooky spaceship under siege by scary-looking but ultimately peaceful aliens; a very Doctor Who concept. Once we move away from the spaceship we enter into talky discourse about xenophobia, diseases, and the story starts to become a heavy morality tale about overcoming prejudice and making peace with those that are different. Very Star Trek.
The Sensorities’ unfortunate
reputation might have some-
thing to do with the strength
of the historicals in Season 1,
having to make excuses for
itself whilst The Aztecs and
Marco Polo stand proud as examples of Doctor Who at its finest. However, this story does try at least with an unforgettable first episode cliffhanger which slowly pans across the spaceship towards the window looking out to space before the terrifying looking Sensorite paws at the glass. Although they get somewhat repetitive, the scenes of Barbara and Susan trapped away from the others and at the mercy of a deranged man inject some chills into the story.
Now I’m not saying the whole thing falls apart when we move away from the claustrophobic spaceship to the Sense Sphere, but it doesn’t hold the attention in quite the same way - the same way an episode of Star Trek: Voyager wouldn’t hold your attention the same way that even a middling episode of Doctor Who would. The mystery of the water is sign-posted far too obviously (as Ian goes to drink the First Elder screams ‘Stop... you must have the crystal water...’; they are all about subtlety on the Sense Sphere, you see) and the direction is quite bland compared to the creeping tension in the first half of the story which is due to the loss of the director from those episodes.
If you watch it in three instalments of two episodes you might be able to see beyond the dull secondary characters, slow plot, and underdressed sets and instead focus on the principal attraction here, William Hartnell. What a commanding performance. He can fluff as many lines as he likes as I just could not take my eyes off him throughout. I suppose it’s time that I revealed my love affair with Hartnell as his Doctor can do no wrong in my eyes, whether he’s mysterious and moody, cuddly and cheeky, or forgetful and snappy I always find his Doctor such a fascinating creation. The job came at exactly the right time in Hartnell’s career, and you can see that he absolutely adores his newfound popularity amongst the children. It’s an intoxicating performance. His explosive temper proves constantly amusing and his intense ranting that keeps you glued to you set. The image of him lit up by torchlight amongst the water system with those terrified eyes as creatures growl in the darkness is extremely vivid.
The thing that shocked me most though was The Sensorites’ mature use of Susan, an often neglected character who is given chance to do more than scream and throw tantrums here. Carole Ann Ford’s performance is actually rather good as she finally gets some material to work with. I love it when she stands up to the Doctor and tells him that she is leaving with the Sensorites; you get the sense of the little girl becoming a woman and her telepathic abilities once again give her the spooky angle that made her so compelling in An Unearthly Child. For entire scenes here, Susan is understated and even... watchable. Colour me impressed.
The Sensorites work as faceless monsters to a point and the early scenes of them stalking Ian through the spaceship are memorably scary. Once we head for their planet their menace evaporates and we’re left with a bunch of politicians and scientists to flesh the race out. The design is ingenious and some of the concepts such as thought transference and their class system make them stand out from your average Menoptera. The Chief Administrator never really convinces though; he has a great line in Doctor Who bad guy dialogue 101, but never really comes across as a threat especially with daft moments like the one where he looks
at the camera and exclaims “I never thought of that!” to the suggestion that if he swaps his sash with another Sensorite’s, then nobody would know who he is! Oh, and they should’ve abandoned the circular feet idea which was neat in theory but impractical and embarrassing in practice.
The other huge sin that this story commits is writing out Babs for two episodes. A fortnight’s holiday for Jacqueline Hill means we have to cope with her absence during the dullest of the six episodes! When she reappears in A Desperate Venture I was whooping for joy!
Nonetheless, I don’t feel that The Sensorites is given enough praise. It’s not six episodes of pure genius but it’s full of clever ideas, three episodes of great scares and some marvellous character work between the Doctor and Susan (in a period where character development was as important as the plots themselves). The concluding half doesn’t really catch fire like the first half, but it is still reasonable science-fiction nonsense. Watch it for Hartnell, there are some of the best Billy fluffs on show here and he commands your attention throughout.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
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