The Sensorites starts off with a great deal of promise, with a tightly plotted first episode in claustrophobic surroundings. If you watch this as part of a marathon viewing of the first season, getting closer to how original viewers would have experienced it, the contrast with The Aztecs is quite stark, moving from an Aztec temple to a spaceship in the future. But there are a couple of shared themes.
Firstly it is important to remember that the first season of Doctor Who is less than two decades after the breakup of the British Empire. India only gained independence in 1947. So when we have stories that show us humans interfering in foreign or alien cultures we have an obvious and reasonably topical comparison to make, and both The Aztecs and The Sensorites show that interference in a negative light. Which brings us to…
Secondly, the “villains” of the story are, at least to some extent, the ones who are in the right. The Sensorites have suffered a human invasion before, and in fact they are remarkably tolerant to put up with the human (and humanoid) interlopers here without killing or incarcerating them immediately, in light of what has happened to them.
But the Sensorites are peaceful people for the most part and that is both the story’s strength and weakness. It is a more interesting concept than the usual meany alien invader Doctor Who tends to show us, and it is no surprise that a related race of aliens was created by Russell T Davies. The Ood are also inherently peaceful and vulnerable to attack or exploitation, but we will get to that in another review very soon. But I said it was their strength and weakness, and the weakness is that it is much more difficult to sustain a plot with a race of pacifists; the story has to go down the route of showing us exceptions to the rule, and struggles to sustain six episode with that.
So, like several other Doctor Who stories, we have a fabulous first episode and then it all tails off. The first cliffhanger is very creepy and memorable, although unfortunately the re-shot reprise employs a different Sensorite who just bobs up in front of the screen (he might as well be doing jazz hands), and a weaker delivery of his line from William Russell. Such is the fine line the production team trod each week between trying and succeeding, perfectly demonstrated by the two takes of the same scene.
Barbara and Susan’s first meeting with John is a great moment, and Stephen Dartnell puts in by far the best performance of the cast, instilling fear and sympathy at the same time. Carol and Maitland are weaker characters and come across really as a pair of wimps.
The Sensorites gets steadily duller as it progresses, particularly from the fourth episode onwards, and does not live up to the promise shown in the first. All logic goes out of the window: we are expected to believe that the Sensorites cannot tell each other apart, but this only occurs to the City Administrator when Carol points it out. And that is such a shame when the designers had actually made the effort to make the Sensorite masks reasonably individual. Besides, they should be able to tell each other apart by the different sizes of their beer bellies.
All in all there is far too much standing around and talking. Susan at last gets a strong storyline with her telepathic abilities. But her relationship with her grandfather is a massive problem because he is deluded and a bully, and that’s bad for Doctor Who at this stage. He seems to think this story represents their first argument but we have seen them do little other than argue; such is his authoritarian approach that he is even fooling himself about their relationship. He shoots her down, she caves in completely, and he puts her back into her box as little girl companion when she threatens to become something more. His promise to work on her telepathic abilities in the future is half-hearted and another form of dismissal, because they both know it’s not going to happen. This is why it was ultimately for the best that Susan left the series early on, because the writers didn’t seem to be able or willing to handle the transition between:
(a) A grandfather with a granddaughter in his care, whom he must look after
(b) Adventurer in space and time with his independent, intelligent adult female relative travelling with him.
So Susan is not allowed to develop and the Doctor cannot yet become the thrill-seeking adventurer bombing around the universe with his friends that he was destined to be. Because he has to look after a little girl who he assumes is wrong about everything and has no opinions that count. It’s no wonder Carole Ann Ford had enough. RP
The view from across the pond:
The Sensorites – an alien race that looks like identical old men with big bald heads, beards and damned big feet! So identical, in fact, that they can’t tell one another apart without their sashes! So bald, in fact, that they have to put something against their forehead to send messages telepathically (and to have something to do with all that cranial real estate)! So big, in fact, that they can periodically be seen standing on each other’s feet!
Sadly, coming off The Aztecs, this story feels weak. There are some subtle touches that make it better, to be fair. For instance: Susan locking the TARDIS as the crew walk out. The near perfect scene where the Sensorites first rise up in front of the view port – intensely creepy end to episode 1, and brilliantly executed! And the theft of the TARDIS lock is alarming to the audience (though totally shoots down what the Doctor explained not 2 stories earlier about the lock: that it is so advanced, putting a key into it the wrong way would destroy it!) And it has some outstanding lines, one of which adorns our banner: “It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.” (Another of my favorites is when Maitland is talking about how someone’s hair was almost white; the Doctor replies defensively: “Nothing wrong with that!”) The fact is that the story itself is not a bad one. The crew go down to the planet, Sense-Sphere, and investigate what’s causing so many of the inhabitants to die. Ian gets sick, upping the stakes… It’s a good mystery and the cast is as strong as ever. Of the supporting cast, the character of John stands out. He is so damaged mentally that he becomes immediately sympathetic and likable. Susan, finally, is seen as more than the screaming wretch that we’ve had to deal with, and we learn that she is mildly telepathic. Sadly, this will never be developed more. (Maybe it would have been developed if she returned home, to Gallifrey, as the Doctor suggests!)
To further illustrate some of the finer touches, there is one brilliant line that centers around the Sensorites. Remember, these are telepaths; loud sound hurts them since they communicate primarily through thought. At one point, they threaten to throw someone into a dark room and fill it with noise! It’s a simple line, but it makes sense for their species; good writing indeed. By contrast, the city administrator that never realized that all of his species look identical without their sashes… “less good now” (to quote Nardole)!
Doctor Who is a series that can go anywhere and do anything… it has a super-adaptable format that makes it very close to immortal, as shows go. As long as there are stories to tell, the TARDIS can get us there. The downside of such range is that episodes can contrast severely. The perfect historical followed by a weaker futuristic sci-fi mystery really makes the divide seem so much greater. The Sensorites is still Doctor Who and does comprise a part of the first season from which it all started, so it’s worth a look. But the pace is just a bit too slow to make it a classic.
And let’s face it, they probably had to keep the pace slower so those poor telepaths wouldn’t trip over each other’s feet! Lessons learned from the Voord! ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Reign of Terror