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Doctor Who: The Sensorites (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Sensorites originally aired in 1964.

There’s one thing about it, Doctor. We’re certainly different from when we started out with you.

That’s funny. Grandfather and I were talking about that just before you came in. How you’ve both changed.

Well we’ve all changed.

Have I?

Yes.

Yes, it all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a, quite a great spirit of adventure, don’t you think?

Yes. We’ve had some pretty rough times and even that doesn’t stop us. It’s a wonderful thing, this ship of yours, Doctor. Taken us back to prehistoric times, the Daleks.

Marco Polo, Marinus.

And the Aztecs.

Yes, and that extraordinary quarrel I had with that English king, Henry the Eighth. You know, he threw a parson’s nose at me.

What did you do?

Threw it back, of course.

– Ian, Susan, Barbara and the Doctor discuss character development

The Sensorites feels like a bit of a mess of an episode. It’s a six-part adventure, but one that feels quite a bit longer than it should be. The trip to Skaro in The Daleks ran for seven episodes, but it never felt quite as padded as this. There are some decent ideas and some nice character moments to be found in The Sensorites, if you’re willing to look hard enough, but there’s also quite a lot of padding, quite a lot of nonsense, and some plot developments that feel just a little bit convenient or contrived. This isn’t Doctor Who at anything approaching its best, but there’s still some measure of potential here.

Using your head...

Using your head…

As quoted above, the first episode in the serial has our bunch of travellers reflecting on how far they’ve come since they first met in An Unearthly Child. It’s hardly the most subtle of moments, and it does feel like the writers are bludgeoning the audience over the head a bit, but it does demonstrate that there is some form of character development at work here. It’s interesting to look back at the First Doctor when you’ve spent a great deal of time with his successors.

With the (very arguable) exception of the Sixth Doctor, the First Doctor is the least heroic interpretation of the character, and he began An Unearthly Child as something of an anti-hero, long before the term was in vogue. It’s still a bit surreal to see the Doctor preparing to smash a cave man’s brain in with a large rock. In the fifty years since, the character has come a long way, and that’s evident by the time we reach The Sensorites. He’s a much more heroic figure here than he was in An Unearthly Child, The Daleks or The Edge of Destruction.

"Now which one of us looks stupid?"

“Now which one of us looks stupid?”

That said, he’s still somewhat prudent, and still very much concerned for the well-being of his granddaughter above all else. Stumbling across a mysterious space ship whose crew appear to be dead, a more modern Doctor would at leas be curious. Here, the First Doctor is still remarkably prudent as he tries to herd the team back to the TARDIS. “I think it would be wise if we returned to the ship and left these people,” he explains. “There’s nothing we can do for them.”

The character is still staunchly conservative and withdrawn. Well, at least he likes to think he is, even if the realities belie that assertion. “No,” he replies when Barbara wonders if there’s anything they can so. “No, Barbara. I learned not to meddle in other people’s affairs years ago.” Ian giggles at this. There’s a sense that Ian (and probably Barbara) sense that the Doctor might not be the most self-aware of people. Still, he does try to leave pretty quickly, even when it turns out the crew of the rocket are still alive. “Well, it seems to me that there’s nothing else I can do. Goodbye, my friend. Bye, bye, my child. Come along, Susan.”

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Indeed, the opening episode of the serial is actually quite decent, as the Doctor takes Ian and Barbara somewhere remarkably alien to them. There’s something strangely affecting about Barbara’s realisation that, on board this rocket trapped in Sensorite space, there’s no way to give the bodies the type of respectful send-off that she stakes for granted. “We can’t even bury them,” she observes, and wonderful way of illustrating just how far outside her terms of reference all of this is.

Unfortunately, the adventure comes off the rails quite quickly. The six-parter follows a format that many a later six-part adventure of Doctor Who would adopt. It is structured like a two-parter and a four-parter. The opening two episodes take place on the rocket, while the remaining four parts are set on the Sense Sphere. It is a smart way to try to prevent a six-part serial from dragging too much, but the problems with The Sensorites stem from the fact that the split seems pretty radical.

Doctor's orders...

Doctor’s orders…

The Sensorites themselves are introduced as all-powerful telepathic creatures. They can reach into the minds of the human crew and make them do or think things. It suggests and intelligence strangely alien to our own – indeed, the Sensorites inspired the Ood in the revived series, with the Sense Sphere getting a shout-out in Planet of the Ood. The implication is that they must be entirely alien to us, and the opening two episodes do a decent job establishing just how creepy that sort of alien must be – one that can pry into your mind.

Unfortunately, once we reach the Sense Sphere, the Sensorites become any other scheming and plotting race. They all communicate verbally to one another. Since a voice-over wasn’t beyond the capacity of BBC production in 1964, we must assume the fact that the creatures move their jaws means that they are speaking aloud. It seems very strange for a culture based on telepathy. There’s also the fact that their society seems organised in a very human way, with a hierarchy and a structure that seems very logical to us. The Sensorites really cease to be as compelling or interesting as we journey to the Sense Sphere.

Outside looking in...

Outside looking in…

More than that, though, the biggest problem seems to be that the script treats these characters as if they are human, despite the fact that their biology and abilities are anything but. For example, the City Administrator’s eeeeevil plan hinges on the fact that all Sensorites look alike to us. “I wear your sash of office,” he boasts to the captive Second Elder. “Who is to know that I am not the Second Elder now?”

Let’s ignore that we can tell the difference in body shape between the Administrator and the Second Elder. Let’s also ignore the fact that there’s all sorts of reasons to believe that – even with weaker eyesight (the Sensorites have much more difficulty with darkness) – it’s still more likely that a Sensorite can distinguish different Sensorite features than a human in the audience. Kinda like an extra-terrestrial version of the cross-race effect.

No sense in violence...

No sense in violence…

The script lazily tries to dismiss the holes in his scam. “You must remember that the First and Second Elders are well known only to those in powerful positions,” the Administrator advises his partner in eeevil. “The people see them rarely, and mostly at a distance.” I think I could still recognise Barack Obama, Enda Kenny or David Cameron, despite the fact I’ve never met them. The plot logic of The Sensorites runs on this sort of pantomime villainy and strange character actions.

For example, the plot conveniently has the Doctor and his colleagues only deduce that the Administrator is eeevil after they help him ascend to a higher office. It’s the kind of twist that could be handled well for drama, but just feels clunkily executed here. There’s no reason for the Doctor not to figure it out sooner, so it feels like things are happening simply to pad out the story to the requisite six episodes.

In darkness dwells...

In darkness dwells…

There’s also the fact that Ian seems strangely ready for violence here. It’s quite surreal – he seems to be frothing at the mouth. “Why no violence?” he asks, after Maitland suggests that the group should wait before trying to murder the Sensorites. “Surely we’ve got the right to protect ourselves?” The Doctor, evidence of character growth, finds himself advocating for a peaceful resolution, “My dear Chesterton. It’s our minds that they take over, so we must presume that the brain is all important. Now let our own intelligence be our own defence, and attack.”

That one incident is fine, but it really seems like Ian just wants to crack some alien skulls here. “Ian, no,” Barabara instructs when she finds Ian ready for some good old-fashioned hyper-violence. He seems incredibly frustrated. “Why not?” he moans, as if she’s ruined Christmas. “How else can I keep these creatures off?” Barbara has to talk him down again, “Well, do you need to keep them off? Have they actually attacked you? Come on, John. Lock the door.” It feels strangely surreal, especially given how the early serials were fond of casting Ian in the role of the dashing hero.

Ian's feeling faint...

Ian’s feeling faint…

There are some half-decent science-fiction ideas contained here, even if none are really developed as well as they should be, and the whole thing descends into little more than a pantomime. “It’s suspicion that is making them enemy,” Susan argues of the Sensorites, and it’s nice to see the show accept that just because something looks alien doesn’t mean that it’s inherently evil. After all, some of the subtext of The Daleks had been undermined by the fact that the good guys looked human and the bad guys looked alien.

We also see some nice growth for Susan. Indeed, it seems to point quite strongly towards her eventual departure in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, as she tries to grow into her own woman. “Stop treating me like a child!” Susan warns her grandfather. It’s a big moment, as the Doctor explains to the Sensorites, “In all the years my granddaughter and I have been travelling, we have never had an argument. And now you have caused one.” Of course, this isn’t their fault, but the attempt to project the blame on to them feels perfectly in-character.

Truly alien...

Truly alien…

Indeed, the episode itself goes out of its way to make it clear that Susan’s attitude was not the result of any science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, but honest-to-goodness character development. “Susan set him off, didn’t she?” Ian remarks to Barbara, enjoying the opportunity to gossip about their travelling companions. “The Sensorites must have hypnotised her in some way.” Barbara is a bit more astute than that, and a bit more knowledgeable on human (or even Timelord) nature. “No, I don’t think so. She’s just growing up, Ian.”

There’s a whole host of small and nice touches to The Sensorites. I believe, for example, that the opening scene includes the first reference to an off-screen adventure, the kind of thing that would later form an entire expanded universe around Doctor Who. The show also gives us a nice “Doctor does science montage” decades before CSI would elevate that into an artform. Unfortunately for The Sensorites, it’s the smaller elements that are noteworthy and fascinating. The larger plot is dull and plodding, contrived and awkward.

Outside the Doctor's Sphere of influence...

Outside the Doctor’s Sphere of influence…

It’s a shame, as the earlier episodes in the first year had been fairly solid, but The Sensorites really feels like the weak link in this chain of serials. Ah, well.

You might be interested in our other reviews of the first season of the classic Doctor Who:

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