This story in a nutshell: A dead spaceship besieged by terrorising aliens…this story is literally made for those misleadingly exciting DVD trailers!
Hmm: It's often an forgotten adventure but there are some terrific moments for the first Doctor throughout when Hartnell isn’t deliberately trying to make his character doddery and eccentric (sorry, forgetting his lines). The Doctor giggles outrageously as he recalls his meeting with Henry VIII and how he threw a parsons nose at him! What a shame we never got to see that adventure! It's not a particularly well executed gag (Hartnell looks awkward) but I love the idea of the Doctor saying there isn’t an ounce of curiosity in him! The cheek! Oddly he seems willing to simply walk away from Carol and Maitland and only stays because the TARDIS lock has been stolen – not exactly the fighting spirit we would come to expect from him. However when the shit hits the fan the Doctor shoves his glasses on and is entirely engaged with the problem of preventing the ship from landing on the Sense Sphere. He looks for all the world like the sophisticated scientist that Hartnell wants him to be. Hartnell was always at his best when he was either making us laugh or when he grabbed at his lapels and spoke with a position of authority and he certainly scores with the latter when he confronts the Sensorites and demands the TARDIS lock back (‘I don’t make idle threats…’)! He’s furious that these aliens might have driven a wedge between him and Susan but cannot see that this is his own doing by refusing to let her grown up. In these scenes he comes as across as stubborn and very sweet which only Hartnell could pull off so gruffly. This is the beginning of the end for their relationship as he starts to see how much she has matured and it starts in motion the train of thought that leads to him putting her off the ship in The Dalek Invasion of Earth so she can lead her own life without his interference. He is willing to torture the Sensorites if they try any ‘funny business’ proving that he hasn’t quite lost his edge yet. When the Doctor is denied access to the TARDIS and denied the chance to save Ian’s life he is like a petulant child shouting at the Sensorites because he knows it will hurt them. Its Susan who is dealing with this situation with tact. Anybody who agrees with Paul Cornell’s assertion that the Doctor never carries weapons and that he has never taken that stance (usually when condemning the sixth Doctor) should take a look at episode five where he admits he doesn’t like them but they are ‘useful things.’ As as bold faced to the contrary as you can get! Hartnell makes me choke with laughter when he sums up their ‘charming outlook!’ in the last episode when faced with poisoned water and a map with lines that have been jiggered about with! He’s quick off the mark to play along with the psychotic Commander that they discover in the bowels of the aqueduct. At the conclusion the Doctor has one of his wonderful paddys and declares that the ungrateful schoolteachers will be put off the ship in the very next place they land! I wonder where they are going to end up? He’s so wonderfully stroppy, life with him would always be an adventure!
An Unearthly Child: Susan is by far the least developed of the four regulars to this point (beyond the first episode all we have seen her do is scream and whimper…and befriend a young girl in China) and so it is fantastic that she should be afforded such strong material in the early episodes. Her growing independence is forced on her as she is cut off from her grandfather and forced to think for herself for a change. She draws on the experience of her past adventures to communicate with the Sensorites and proves remarkably adept at telepathic communication. Carole Ann Ford seems to enjoy playing a more grown up Susan than usual and you get the impression had she been treated to material this good all the time she might have stayed with the show a bit longer (and moaned a bit less afterwards). Susan is at her best (which admittedly doesn’t happen very often) when her alien qualities are highlighted as they are here. Her decision to leave with the Sensorites to protect the others is a very mature decision to make. She’s sick of her grandfather treating her like a child and not thinking that she can function independently, even the Sensorites can sense that in her mind but the Doctor seems to remain blind to her feelings. As soon as they are down on the Sense Sphere the Doctor takes total control of the situation again but Susan is able to shine once more when she uses her telepathy to guide Barbara to her friends. Susan describes her home planet as being ‘quite like Earth but at night our sky is a burnt orange and the leaves on the trees are bright silver.’ She longs to see it again but a part of her nurtured by her grandfather calls for adventure. Susan admits to the Doctor that she wishes she belonged somewhere but she isn’t unhappy with their life.
Science Hero: Despite having met both sinister (Daleks, Voord) and pleasant (Thals, Sabetha, Altos) aliens, Ian’s first reaction when seeing the Sensorites is to pick up a weapon to defend himself. Mind you he has been subjected to their terror tactics so I suppose that’s only fair. Oddly for a sixties adventure it is the male lead that takes the role of the victim in this story.
Bouffant Babe: You’ve got to love a swift recovery (although to be fair we have no idea how much time has been spent between The Aztecs and The Sensorites) as Barbara dismisses her experiences in Mexico with a brief ‘No I’ve got over that now…’ It would seem that the trade off for having such a predominant role in The Aztecs is that she is practically forgotten in this tale. Jackie Hill is off on holiday and it's unusual how much her absence is felt. I never realised quite how much I used this character as a lynchpin in the first two series. I love the way that everybody keeps apologising to Barbara as the actress is about to jet set off to Ibiza or some other sunny clime! When she does return to the show in the last episode she solves practically every mystery that the Doctor, Ian and Susan have been pondering about in her absence five seconds flat. Where would they be without her? She is described as ‘a very capable human being, gentle yet with strong determination and courage.’
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard and now its turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure!’
- Its worth remembering that every time the Doctor and his companions step out of the TARDIS in this period it is treated like a moment to be afraid of and excited by. Plus I love the way the sets are designed so the camera can literally follow them from the console to whatever is waiting for them outside so effortlessly. It might have been quite a primitive way to make television but it does have its advantages and this thrill of discovery as we depart the ship over the travellers shoulders is one of them.
- The spaceship sets are beautifully designed with plenty of detail and brilliant, revolving airlock style doors (that remind me strongly of the doors that airlocks that DS9 adopted). The whole set up is one that is loaded with tension and mystery; a dead crew in a sophisticated spaceship with a raving lunatic wandering the corridors. Add in attacking aliens (I love the groaning noise the spaceship makes as they approach as if the craftitself is terrified of them) and you have a pretty attention grabbing scenario.
- The shot of ship bypassing the Sense Sphere with Barbara silhouetting the screen is simple but very effective. The director should have employed more visual storytelling like that.
- Barbara and Susan being menaced by John is rather well done because rather than rely on the execution (which is basically him ambling along the corridor after them for ages) it focuses on the performances. Stephen Dartnell imbues John with a pained insanity and Jackie Hill and Carole Ann Ford have perfected conveying fear to the audience. Between them they make these scenes far more claustrophobic and frightening than they have any right to be. John’s indignant exclamations directly to the audience as if we are the ones controlling him have a strangely disquieting effect.
- In the first episode the Sensorites are made to feel like a genuinely invasive force. The execution of the cliffhanger which sees the Sensorite on the exterior of the ship pressing its hand against the window is so much more imaginative and visually stunning than anything else we have seen in the first episode it feels as if this was what they spent the evening filming and the rest of the episode was an afterthought. I’m surprised that the second episode lost viewers because this is exactly the sort of unforgettable cliffhanging image that Doctor Who excels at.
- The look of the Sensorites is a mixture of good (their bald, hairy and sweet looking faces) and bad (those hilariously unproductive circular feet) but the overall effect especially when you take into consideration their aversion to light and sound, their gentle voices and their imaginative telepathic communication, is quite pleasing. They’re not in the same league as the Daleks of course (nor were they meant to be) but they do come across as being genuinely alien as opposed to, say, humans in slick black wetsuits. It's hard to find the Sensorites quite as terrifying as episode two wants us too when a good blast of thought from Susan and Barbara makes them spasm with pain!
- The stock music used in the early episodes is wonderfully bombastic and melodramatic. Pretty much all of the stock music used in the sixties gets a thumbs up from me. I’ll take its atmosphere of doom over some of the experimental nonsense in the seventies (step forward Malcolm Clarke) any day.
- Lets be thankful for small mercies when they try and hurry the pace along in episode four by featuring a montage of clips to show the Doctor furiously working away on a cure. It's all very simply done with a checklist of districts/the Doctor looking puzzled in the lab/Ian clawing at the air in pain but any effort to quicken the middle episodes is a relief.
- The Doctor doing his Hercule Poirot in the Aqueduct comes at exactly the right point where I was starting to snooze off. The lightning at the end of episode four is especially good with the Doctor picked out of the darkness by a harsh beam and a close up on his shocked face as something ghastly screams at him from the shadows.
- It might be a long time coming but the conclusion that features the remains of the first Earth crew to visit the Sense Sphere turning out to be the ones who are trying to poison the Sensorites is quite satisfying. For one thing it's just nice to have a plot twist to come out of nowhere rather than being laboured and set up painstakingly (there is a quick mention of the first crew earlier in the story but that is promptly forgotten about) and it also adds a little weight to the City Administrator’s (or whatever office he is representing these days) case against humanity. Whilst he has been wrongly directing his hatred at the Doctor and his friends he was right that there was a threat to them from outside. John Bailey’s Commander is exactly the sort of wild eyed villain that this story has been lacking and he gives a pitch perfect turn that injects the finale with some real drama. Its rather wonderful that a story that has gone to great lengths to explain that the Sensorites can be evil has been hiding a much greater and far more realistic menace.
- The regulars all standing around the console and listing their adventures in chronological order (sounding for all the world like geeks trying to out-Doctor Who each other at a convention) is a remarkably awkward way to show how far they have come in such a small space of time. We can see that they have softened towards each other and don’t need things spelling out quite as simply as this. David Whitaker displays far more subtle script editing skills in the other adventures of this season when it comes to the characterisation of the four regulars. Perhaps they have the right to comment on how many adventures they have had considering how many times they have dodged the cancellation bullet. The Doctor suddenly snaps out of their nostalgic revelry with a swift ‘lets get back to this problem…’
- The Doctor would never step from the TARDIS again and declare ‘it’s a spaceship!’ in quite such a dramatic fashion again. Aside from the TARDIS we’ve never seen another spaceship in the series before but it does seem to rather labour the point and make him seem a little nave as though he has never been on one before. When they next step aboard an interstellar craft (The Dalek Invasion of Earth) its all been there, done that.
- Lorne Cosette sounds under rehearsed and awkward in his early scenes (in most of his scenes actually). ‘Yes…you…will…have…to!’ he says mechanically in episode one as though he is auditioning for the role of Robbie the Robot in Lost in Space. Compare his with the confident and natural performance of William Russell and he is left severely wanting. Unless all human beings in the future are brain-dead robots and judging by Carol’s over the top reactions to everything that can hardly be the case!
- Pushing the feeling that this is theatre for television we barely leave the same set for 25 minutes and Maitland regurgitates the entire scenario in one massive splurge of exposition. There’s a real feeling that we are being told what this story is all about rather than experiencing it which in dramatic terms is really unsatisfying. The Aztecs did a far better job of making us work out what was going on through action and clever dialogue.
- Perhaps they should have placed the TARDIS in a corridor rather than just off camera in the same room that the Doctor and friends are in because the Sensorite burning of the lock right behind them is like something from a bad pantomime that makes them all look stupid! When Barbara says she can smell something burning the natural thing to do is to look behind you but instead they continue their conversation and then discover the lock is missing a few moments later when they try to leave. Frankly they deserve to be trapped for being quite this dense! Compared to the cavemen kidnapping them, the fluid link being stolen and the temple swallowing their escape route this is quite the daftest ‘can’t get back to the TARDIS’ of the entire first year (even the invisible barrier in The Keys of Marinus was more sophisticated than this!).
- ‘Why couldn’t we have met them in the desert or the mountains?’ Because the budget wouldn’t stretch that far! What a sparse, visually uninteresting place the Sense Sphere turns out to be! Uniform corridors, circular doorways framed by curtains and the odd water fountain (just to show that these are sophisticated people). Say what you will about stretching the budget in The Keys of Marinus (and I certainly did in my review of that story) but any one of those myriad of locations had more thought and illustrative imagination injected into it than this desperately plain neighbourhood. Raymond P. Cusick must have exhausted his inspiration on Terry Nation’s quest story. The one thing that made me sit up and pay attention with the design is the amazing hair curler hat that John has placed on his head!
- Gawd those Sensorites are slow at doing anything, aren’t they? The Daleks simply advance and blast away like the evil sonofabitches they are. Their fuzzy faced alternatives spend an entire scene discussing powering up a gun, whereabouts on the human body they are most vulnerable to attack and when and where they will strike. It rather guts the moment of any spontaneity. This is very indicative of the middle episodes where nothing unpredictable happens because the thin plot is being stretched out as much as possible to fit six episodes.
- Could the virus have been transmitted in any other way than the water after the First Elder points to the Doctor and stops him from drinking it because it is not the executive mineral water that he has? After the complex characterisation and storytelling of The Aztecs it feels like the show has gone completely retarded as it spells out every plot twist quite so childishly. The Doctor even says ‘and never the Elders?’ as though he has already deduced that it is the water that is poisoned (it’s the onlyreason he would say that) and yet he still exclaims the answer as though it has just come to him. Even worse, in the following episode the Doctor is handed a new coat after he ruins his old one in the aqueduct and this is what is used as evidence against him when he is pronounced guilty of killing the Second Elder because that’s how all Sensorites recognise him! Well thank goodness he was given that new cloak a few seconds earlier otherwise we might have thought he was guilty! Dear or dear…
- Everything is (if you’ll forgive the pun) painted in black and white with the First Elder being so helpful and understanding and the City Administrator the epitome of xenophobia and evil. There’s no danger of any ambiguity on the Sense Sphere. Saying that the Administrator is so dastardly (threatening to put other Sensorites into dark rooms and fill them with noise!) that it is easy to let your critical faculties crumble and simply enjoy his evil schemes!
- If you can forgive a moment of hyperbole (from me?) but the moment when Carol states that if they all wore the same sashes they wouldn’t be able to tell them apart because they all look the same is astonishingly racist. It's no different from setting this story in, say, Japan, and saying the same thing! Even worse the City Administrator agrees with her! He then sets his evil scheme in motion on the basis of her casually racist observation! More juvenile plotting and based on a bigoted conceit! Unforgivable… John is screaming ‘EVIL! TRAITOR!’ and the like whilst Carol mumbles ‘I have a feeling he has overheard somebody plotting…’ and I was shaking my head with despair. Was television ever really this undemanding?
- Are we really supposed to give a damn about Carol at the end of episode five? Good riddance, I say! John loses all interest once his sanity is straightened out too. He exhibits no malice at all to the creatures that have driven him out of his mind. They turn out to be the drippiest couple this side of the galaxy and head back to Earth to star in their own ghastly soap opera.
The Shallow Bit: All the regulars are having a pretty stylish period with Ian looking handsome in a black tank top, Barbara sporting a strappy dress and Susan the alien tomboy in dungarees! simple
Result: Such an odd story in that all the essential ingredients seem to be spot on – an intriguing set up, strong characterisation of the Doctor and Susan, a charming and effective alien race and even a pleasingly explained conclusion – but much of it seems to be lost in the awkward execution and elongated running time. You might think it is quite churlish to criticise the direction of this story so damningly considering the circumstances under which this was made but I would argue that if stories like The Daleks, The Rescue, The Daleks’ Masterplan and The Ark from the same era can whip up a science fiction tale quite so smoothly and with such visual appeal then there is no reason that a story like The Sensorites can’t too. It all comes down to the talent of the individual director and not the archaic production values of the time. The first two episodes are trying hard to be cutting edge science fiction but play out rather like an under rehearsed theatre production and yet weirdly in all the static visuals and performance fluffs there are still moments of intensity and effectiveness (especially that cliffhanger). If the opening instalments are your typical Doctor Who with a tense atmosphere of terror and claustrophobia (or at least that is the idea) then the remaining show is more akin to Star Trek with an alien race being humanised and the show boiling down to a talky discourse on politics, space plagues and xenophobia. I’m not sure that we needed quite so many episodes of the Sensorites squabbling with each other (this would have made a much more enjoyable and tighter four parter) but they are quite an agreeably executed alien race for the most part and the show doesn’t lose any dignity for having introduced them (unlike say the Moroks or the Monoids from the same era). It all feels rather primitive and dated in a way that the best of the first season never does but for all its faults (which are manifold and listed above) The Sensorites does have a certain creaky charm about it and features a stellar (if occasionally fluffed) turn from William Hartnell who is always worth watching: 5/10