“The Sensorites” is a story that in many ways encapsulates the show’s first season. Personally, I don’t find that it stands up as well today as some of the other early serials do, but there is still a lot to like about Peter R. Newman’s six-parter and, more to the point, it showcases many of the classic devices that made the series so successful. First off, the story has ambition. Verity Lambert and her production team weren’t 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 an absolutely phenomenal visual achievement - according to Russell T. Davies, their strange, uniform appearance inspired the Ood over forty years later!! They 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’s just so evil! It’s wonderful to see him interact with the ‘goodie’ Sensorites who are reasonable and want peace. It’s a wonderful Doctor Who device that would appear time and again in classic stories like “Doctor Who and the Silurians” but you saw it here first!
Moreover, “The Sensorites” isn’t chained to one location. We are taken from the spaceship to the Sense-Sphere, the Sensorites’ unique home, which breaks up the six episodes wonderfully. It’s a trick that later production teams would use on their six-parters – serials like “The Time Monster”, “The Seeds of Doom” and “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 absolute best in the role. He is confident, brilliant and forceful. Unusually, this serial 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 in this story. She’s growing up, and he doesn’t like it. There’s also a lovely symmetry in how the Doctor feels at the beginning of the story, and how he feels at it’s conclusion. In “Strangers In Space” he takes the time to comment on how all the crew have become good friends, and then by the end of “A Desperate Venture” he has decided to put Ian and Barbara off the ship! Fantastic!
In fairness, “The Sensorites” isn’t a particularly good story, nor is it one that stands up all that well under modern scrutiny. I like it because it sums up those early, pioneering Doctor Who serials so wonderfully; 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. As I’m writing this nearly forty years later they must have been doing something right.
I'm not quite sure what to think of "The Sensorites". It's certainly the least impressive story from the first season, and it's quite slow going at times. Nevertheless, it's also quite enjoyable for the most part, and it's a reasonable attempt to create an alien race with a believable viewpoint of its own. I think that I see this story as similar to "The Keys of Marinus" in that while the story isn't always as engaging as it could be, there are some interesting situations within the main plot, and the fact that I am interested in the four main characters and how they react to those situations keeps me watching for all six episodes.
The first episode starts out well, picking up right where "The Aztecs" left off. There's a nice scene where the four travelers discuss their adventures and talk about how Ian and Barbara have changed since the trip began. This is followed by a very nicely directed shot where the TARDIS doors open, showing us the bridge of the ship beyond, and the four walk out the door into the bridge with the camera following them. We as viewers so rarely get to follow the crew out of the doors that this moment stood out to me. Another nice shot is the over-the-shoulder view from behind Barbara of the rapidly approaching planet as the ship is plunged towards the Sense-Sphere.
Maitland and Carol aren't the best acted or most consistent characters, but they do their job of explaining the plot in an adequate fashion. John is well-acted, though the actor looks at the camera a bit too often. We learn a little about the 28th century as well, and the mystery of the Sensorites is set up. A lot of atmosphere is created by suggestion and by keeping the aliens unseen. We're told what the Sensorites are capable of and see what they've done to the crew, including the deranged John. The pattern of separating the crew from the TARDIS continues when we see one of them remove the lock from the TARDIS (which shouldn't be possible given the indestructible nature of the ship, but at least it's a novel way to keep the crew out). The threat is well and truly established by the time we finally see one of the aliens and his ugly mug at the cliffhanger to episode one.
Episode two introduces properly the idea that Susan has some telepathic ability, which is interesting and adds a bit to her character. The Sensorites motivation is revealed as the Doctor works out that molybdinum, a valuable mineral, is present on their planet, and that they are afraid of exploitation by humans. The theme of fear and how it affects people pervades parts one and two. Fear motivates the Sensorites, and renders the crew of the ship vulnerable to the Sensorites influence. The Doctor and his companions are effective because they are able to overcome their fear and act. Later in the story, fear and distrust of humans is the primary motivation for the City Administrator, though he wants power as well.
We also get to see the Sensorites properly for the first time as Ian and Barbara encounter two of them in the corridors of the ship. Ian shows his mettle yet again. Clearly afraid of the two aliens, he keeps his nerve and slowly retreats. He shows restraint and is content with threatening gestures rather than an all out attack, though it's Barbara who questions the need to attack at all. The Doctor impresses with his insistence that they need to talk to the Sensorites, though he and Ian are willing to use force to defend themselves if necessary. In the end Susan proves yet again that she's not just a terrified screamer. She agrees to go down to the Sense Sphere in an attempt to protect the others.
Episode three is where much of the hostility with the Sensorites is resolved, and where the story takes a 90 degree turn. With the drama of the first two episodes diffused by the establishment of friendly relations with the Sensorites, we are left with the question of who is poisoning the water supply and the ambitions of the city administrator to carry the plot. Episode three is the weakest of the story, but the remainder of the story picks up again. The machinations of the City Administrator keep things interesting.
Apart from the City Administrator and his accomplice, the remaining Sensorites have to be the friendliest aliens ever. And the most talkative. And none too bright, when it comes down to it. It's obvious within about thirty seconds of discussion about water that the different water supplies are the source of the "disease" that afflicts the lower classes, and yet the Sensorites have not worked that out after years of plague. "It might be a clue" muses the Doctor. Uh, YES. Thank goodness the Doctor came along to figure things out! The Doctor quickly deduces the problem of atropine in the water and finds a solution. With Ian's life in the balance, there is a certain sense of urgency, but we're never really in any doubt that the Doctor will find the answer. And he really does seem to be enjoying himself in this story. He's quite pleased to find the poison in the water and be proven right in his theory, and he is equally pleased that he was right about the nightshade being the cause.
In the end it comes down to three crazy humans in the aqueduct who are poisoning the population, and who think they are "at war" with the Sensorites. They're pretty amusing fellows, led by a commander who calls his subordinate "number one" and talks of "the troops" as if there are more than three of them. It's great fun!
John is cured of his malady, and everyone is sent on their way. The final scene where the Doctor takes offence at a casual remark by Ian and loses his temper is pretty amusing.
The recently released VHS has a very nice VidFIRE'd picture and good sound. Not as good as the DVDs of course, which became apparent to me in watching this story right after "The Aztecs". Still, it's miles ahead of the older VHS releases.
The bottom line: as I said in the beginning, after two excellent opening episodes, the story really drags for an episode while the story changes gears, and then moves right along until the conclusion. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected to. I think watching it over four days rather than all the way through in one sitting helps with the pace. "The Sensorites" falls into last place for Doctor Who's first season, not because it's bad, but because the other stories surpass it in quality. I'd give it 6.5 out of 10.
Without wishing to sound unduly harsh in any way, I think that it is probably fair to say that had The Sensorites been a stand-alone science-fiction serial of the early sixties, and even if it had by some miracle survived complete in the archives on that basis, nobody today would ever have heard of it. There would have been no video release, no novelisation, no reviews on websites on in print media. It is, in short, not one of the finest hours of Doctor Who.
Which is a shame really, as at its heart it has some interesting ideas that in the hands of a more skilled writer, or perhaps simply one who was more enthused about writing for the programme, it could have been a half-decent serial. The entrapment of Maitland, Carol and John at the hands of the Sensorites and that race’s very curious form of psychological torture that is being inflicted upon them is actually quite a chilling scenario, and it does make a change to see the series exploring some new territory, in this case telepathy.
The sad thing is all of this initial promise is muted by the fact that the opening episode is one of the dullest affairs in the entire history of Doctor Who. After enduring it one video it was nearly a week before I could bring myself to watch the subsequent episodes, which do admittedly improve the quality somewhat. (It would be hard to be worse, frankly). There are so many things wrong here – the characters of Maitland and Carol are two of the worse played supporting characters of the era, although admittedly John is quite well done. Characters change their motivations in the course of a sentence and nobody acts in a particularly realistic or believable manner at all. I struggle to remember a natural line of dialogue in the entire episode, and I feel sorry for the regular cast having to put themselves through this after having had vastly superior material in just about every episode that’s gone before this.
That said, the episode does boast one redeeming feature, the cliffhanger appearance of the Sensorite at the window of the ship, which is suitably creepy. One does have to wonder, though, why if they can walk in space with no problem they need any kind of space ship, as it is subsequently revealed that they do have. Once they get on board later on they lose some of their effectiveness, chiefly because of their ludicrous feet – we only see these in detail in one shot in the entire story, so one does have to wonder why it was felt necessary to include said shot.
The one positive aspect of the story that most reviewers seem to pick up on is that it gives Susan something a bit different to do for a change, with her telepathic interaction with the Sensorites and the revelation that she has some sort of latent ability in such areas. There are also some good character moments for the Doctor and Susan as she remembered their home planet, and later on in the TARDIS asks her grandfather if he thinks they will ever get home, a rare – if brief – discussion of their origins at this point in the show’s history.
As I mentioned above, the only member of the human supporting cast who seems to be of any interest if the deranged John, even though his recovery later on does seem to be remarkably swift for someone who had at first appeared to be so deeply psychologically damaged. Also mad as a bicycle but all the more enjoyable for it against a comparatively dull storyline are the three humans hiding in the aqueduct, who bring a touch of enlivening lunacy to things in the final episode, although of course by then it’s far too late to do the story any good.
The Sensorites themselves are a pretty standard bunch of aliens, with a noble leader and subordinates around him who are not quite as trusting of the new arrivals. You do have to wonder, however, why if the Sensorites are as enlightened a race as the First Elder chooses to make out, they are so utterly nasty to Maitland, Carol and particularly John in the time before the arrival of the TARDIS on the scene. Perhaps things are not entirely as they appear, although to be honest I’d be hard pressed to believe that Peter Newman could be quite as clever as that, on the basis of this example of his script writing abilities in any case.
I think the main problem with Newman’s writing is that he was pitching the show at an incredibly juvenile level. Now, there is no great shame in that bearing in mind that this is season one, when the cross-generational appeal of Doctor Who had yet to be fully appreciated. But even giving him that much of the benefit of the doubt, Newman still provides a script that really is Doctor Who at its most basic, and that can surely only have really kept the very youngest members of the audience fully entertained, of any of them at all. Some nice lines of dialogue in places perhaps give us evidence that Newman was not totally clueless, so one cannot help but wonder what could have been produced had he just but some more effort into what he was doing.
Possibly the most ludicrous example of his script writing comes at the very end of the story, when the Doctor flies into a sudden fit of anger with Ian and promises to throw him off the ship at its very next landing, for absolutely no reason whatsoever other than to create a moment of drama at what would otherwise have been a very calm and relaxed end of the story. Rarely can there have been such a signposted and obvious attempt to create ‘drama’ in a Doctor Who story, and why it wasn’t cut out is a mystery to me. Perhaps story editor David Whitaker was having something of an off day when The Sensorites landed on his desk – given the pressure there was to find suitable, affordable scripts for the programme in those early years, it wouldn’t surprise me if this only saw the light of day simply because there was nothing else available to make instead. Sometimes such necessity would pay off for the show, as it did with The Daleks, but in this case you can’t help but wonder if they wouldn’t have been better off just making it up as they went along for six weeks.
In defence of the story, you can say that on its video release it has a very nice looking VidFIREd picture, and in narrative terms the Doctor gets a very nice new cloak to wear… But aside from that and the other few plus points I’ve mentioned in this review, The Sensorites is six episode of Doctor Who that make you wonder how they managed to keep this and lose so many better stories.
I had not seen The Sensorites until the days immediately before writing this review. It had, along with the other videos in the First Doctor pack have gone unwatched since Christmas-ish for this reason or that – so I was quite looking forward to watching a Doctor Who story I had never before seen.
I found I enjoyed The Sensorites; they being the third truly alien species (non-human in appearance) introduced to the programme and the first not to be portrayed entirely as the bad guys. The first two-and-a-half episodes disguise this though and it isn’t until the second half of episode three that we learn a little more about them and their motives.
The story makes an initial statement about commercial exploitation – the Sense Sphere is rich in a rare and valuable ore (called Molybdenum). The Sensorites fear the humans will mine this ore and destroy their world in the process, so they keep them captive in space aboard their ship in a limbo state – upon which the TARDIS crew arrives. The story begins slowly as the tension and suspicion of the Sensorites mounts; themselves remaining threatening third parties outside the action until the end of episode one, where one appears at the window of the space craft. The character of John adds to the creepy atmosphere in this first episode – lumbering blankly after Susan and Barbara, until finally collapsing child-like, his mind broken by the Sensorites, into Barbara’s arms. This menacing introduction of the Sensorites continues in episode two as Ian is stalked by two Sensorites through the ship, who recoil only when he threatens them with physical violence. It is only through Susan’s latent telepathy that communication between the two groups occurs. Fear is the motivator for episodes 1 and 2 – we find the Sensorites are just as frightened of the humans (and the TARDIS crew) as they are of them. The Doctor really takes the initiative here to get through this paranoia – firstly by convincing Maitland and Carol they can resist the Sensorites, and then by convincing the Sensorites what they are subjecting the humans to is wrong. The action then moves to the Sense Sphere, where the main story begins to unfold.
There are two protagonists at work – one which schemes from within and the other from without. The Sensorites are being poisoned off through their water supply, while the City Administrator is scheming first against his superiors – initially through fear of the human visitors and then for his own personal gain. Over the remaining three-and-a-half episodes the TARDIS crew along with the humans assist the Sensorites to deal with both these problems; finally exposing some deranged survivors of a previous human expedition hell-bent on exterminating the Sensorite population (through poison) so the planet’s Molybdenum can be mined and their pockets lined with a percentage of the profits.
There are some great things about this story. Like the three previous stories set on alien worlds, an effort has been made to give a structure, perhaps even a culture or history to the races encountered; even if this is just mentioned and not explored in detail. The Sensorites have a caste system, are attached to family groups and are governed hierarchically by two elders and a City Administrator. They communicate telepathically and have aversions to darkness and loud noise. Perhaps most importantly, they are timid and abhorrent to violence; shown clearly by the First Elder - shocked at the notion that the Second Elder’s murder could be the actions of a Sensorite. The Sensorites look alien enough (particularly with their whiskery faces and circular feet) while still being bipedal; and the City sets assist with giving their world a ‘non-Earth’ feel. Their telepathy is what makes them truly alien – and this is handled well in the story. Having a Sensorite stand and look blankly forward while communicating telepathically would look unwieldy, so they do it by pressing a small prop – almost like the end of a stethoscope – to their forehead when they do. This gives the telepathy a visual side which makes it more effective and realistic.
The acting in this story is quite good, although there is probably not one speaking actor who does not fluff a line. Susan, in particular, is given more scope in this story than previous. I have thought her character melodramatic and sometimes inappropriately used in previous stories, but here she is useful and given more to do than stand around whimpering and crying out for her Grandfather. She is the one who initiates contact with the Sensorites and takes the first step to break down the paranoia between them and their human captives. Her relationship with the Doctor is also shown to be changing – she begins to act more like a teenager growing up than a meek child.
In my view the story carries a strong underlying theme – fear of the unknown. This theme is explored in detail through the first two episodes, where consequences of the Sensorites behaviour is shown in opposition to a civilised norm. The absence of a medium for communication in these early episodes has both parties recoiling from each other – resorting to threats (and the use of) violence to alleviate this fear. It is through Susan’s telepathic link that both sides begin to communicate and work through their fears. In the end, the Sensorites are able to undo their mental crippling of John – and the Doctor is able to help them by finding an antidote to the poison in their water supply and eventually dealing with the problem. This example of the unlike and the like being able to co-operate and work together through communication is thought provoking in itself considering production timing of this story – 1964, in the middle of the Cold War. Now I know there have been enough dissertations produced on how Doctor Who stories have reflected political, social and even religious views over the years so I’ll leave the point there – but in my opinion this is one of the more obvious examples of a Doctor Who story imitating its times.
One criticism of The Sensorites is its pace. It does chug along, but I don’t think it’s a story for the casual viewer. I watched it over a few evenings which was just right – I think even a fan would have a hard time watching all six episodes in one sitting. That said though, the story was written to span six weeks, not three hours – so perhaps this is not a relevant consideration. Then there is the City Administrator impersonating the murdered Second Elder simply by wearing his sash of office alone; the only real insipid part of a sound and cohesive storyline.
In my opinion The Sensorites is a good early attempt at building an alien race and their civilisation and writing a story around them. While it may not be the most action packed, fast paced Doctor Who story – it isn’t slow to the point of boring. To me, The Sensorites is one of those lesser known stories which don’t often draw attention to themselves. It isn’t remembered as one of the worst examples of Doctor Who; but it isn’t remembered as a classic story either.
I have two impressions of fandom’s attitude to ‘The Sensorites’. Firstly, not than many fans have seen it, since it has not yet been released on video (although it has been repeated on UK Gold). Secondly, it is considered to be dull and is notorious for having probably more fluffed lines than any other Hartnell Doctor Who story. I consider the first of these points to be shame, and I disagree with the second (well, except for the fluffed lines). In short, I rather like ‘The Sensorites’.
The best part about ‘The Sensorites’ is episode one, which is marvelously creepy and tense, as the TARDIS materialise aboard a seemingly dead ship, then meet the terrified, captive crew, and are subsequently trapped with them when the Sensorites steal the TARDIS lock. The creatures themselves remain unseen until the end of the episode one, and when they do appear their very alien appearance adds to their impact. They continue to be a silent, ominous threat until in episode two we start to learn more about them. John is also crucial to the creepiness of episode one, as he lurches, zombie-like after Barbara and Susan, his face terrifyingly blank; as with the Sensorites however, we soon learn that he is not as scary as he might first appear, and becomes a figure of sympathy as he breaks down in Barbara’s arms and then defies the Sensorites when they try to force them to make him frighten the women. This character development is crucial to the success of ‘The Sensorites’, as the suspense in episode one gives way to a fascinating study of the timid aliens. Just as they misjudged Carol and Maitland, and later the Doctor and his friends, so we initially misjudge them based on their actions and appearance; once their actions prove to be motivated by fear, they too become sympathetic as we learn of the human-caused plague that is killing their people. Often, when fans discuss “people monsters” (to quote Terrance Dicks) they tend to think of Malcolm Hulke creatiosn such as the Silurians and the Draconians. The Sensorites are the earliest example in Doctor Who, with the gentle and trusting First Elder, the suspicious but ultimately noble Second Elder, and the xenophobic and power-mad City Administrator. Even the City Administrator, the villain of the piece, is motivated by fear, although this later gives way to power lust. The lesser characters are also well presented, including the honourable Chief Warrior who is impressed by human bravery, the curious and philosophical scientists who is keen to learn from the alien visitors, and the City Administrators sadistic accomplice. In addition to their individuality, the Sensorites are also memorable for their alien differences – they are terrified of sound and darkness, both factors that make them as vulnerable as the TARDIS crew, John, carol and Maitland. The Sensorites’ telepathy is also well handled, initially adding to their seeming menace, as it enables them to influence human minds. The large bald head masks used to create the distinctive appearance of the Sensorites are very effective, and with the excellent city sets, the Sense-Sphere is an impressive attempt at creating an alien world. This is further enhanced by what tidbits we are given about their society, with references to the caste system and family groups (in fact, the most question that remains unanswered, is how they reproduce, since they are all seemingly male). And Peter Glaze makes a surprisingly good villain.
As always, the TARDIS crew impress. The Doctor really takes centre stage here, and has the most important role in a story for arguably the first time in the show’s history – whereas previously, Ian and Barbara have shared the limelight with the Doctor, here is responsible for solving almost all of their problems, and the problems of the Sensorites – he quickly takes charge on board Maitland’s ship, showing Maitland and Carol that they are strong enough to resist the Sensorites, and he solves the Sensorites’ poisoning problem, venturing into the aqueduct alone and without trepidation, and constantly seeming delighted at the challenges presented to him here. As the show progresses, the emphasis shifts from the Doctor’s companions to the Doctor himself, but IMO this is the first time that he really takes centre stage.
Susan also fares particularly well here, and is vital to the process of befriending the Sensorites; this is not only because of her ability to communicate telepathically with them, but also her willingness to trust them. Her first ever argument with the Doctor shows how she is changing and it is nice to see her do more than just scream hysterically without, well, screaming hysterically. Barbara is largely sidelined after the first two episodes, in order to give Jacqueline Hill a holiday, but Ian continues to play the role of hero, unhesitatingly going to the Doctor’s aid in the aqueduct despite having just got up off his sick bed after being near-fatally poisoned.
The human supporting cast is adequate, although only Stephen Dartnell (Previously Yartek) as John really impresses, with his broken and pathetic performance in episodes one and two. Maitland and Carol are fairly dull, but this is largely because of their characters rather than a product of bad acting. The mentally ill but greedy and murderous humans living in the aqueduct are well-played and convincingly unhinged, and it is the first time that we have human villains in a Doctor Who story set on an alien planet.
‘The Sensorites’ isn’t perfect by any means; the often derided concept of the City Administrator impersonating the Second Elder by wearing his sash is misinterpreted I think, since it seems to the intention that the Administrator only poses as the Second Elder to Sensorites who haven’t met either of them, which is apparently the case with the Chief Warrior. Unfortunately, he meets the scientist in the same disguise, and the scientist meets both Second Elder and City Administrator a few scenes earlier; this would mean at least that they look enough alike to fool a very casual acquaintance, but since there are differences between the Sensorite masks worn by the actors, I think this is a genuine mistake. I’ll also admit that ‘The Sensorites’ isn’t very action packed once the story moves to the Sense-Sphere. Overall however, ‘The Sensorites’ is a successful early attempt at a character-driven examination of an alien culture, and in my opinion at least it is certainly not dull.