The Sensorites [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday and Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #281)

The Sensorites

Starring William Hartnell as the Firsts Doctor.
Companions: William Russell as Ian Chesterton, Jacqueline Hill as Barbara Wright, and Carole Ann Ford as Susan.
Written by Peter R. Newman.  Directed by Mervyn Pinfield (episodes 1-4) and Frank Cox (episodes 5-6).

Format:  6 episodes, each about 25 minutes long (individually named Strangers in Space, The Unwilling Warriors, Hidden Danger, A Race Against Death, Kidnap, A Desperate Venture)
Originally Aired:  June-August 1964.

The Sensorites is the last complete First Doctor story that I had basically never seen before (except for some of the first episode, but I wasn’t really paying attention), so it was kind of exciting for me to watch. I was especially interested as I really love Doctor Who‘s original cast, and thus the prospect of seeing more Ian and Barbara is definitely appealing for me. However, my impression of the story from whatever I’d heard wasn’t very high, so I didn’t know whether I’d actually enjoy it.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Sensorites is a story with a lot of neat ideas. Maybe too many, though–by the time you get to the end, you’re not really sure what the story was about and whether any of its concepts have been given the development they were really due.

The story kicks off as a bizarre mystery–the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan find themselves on a spaceship that is empty except for a couple of dead people…who turn out to be bizarrely alive! They are fearful of an attack by an unseen menace that they don’t understand, and they have a secret hidden behind a door that they don’t want to give away. The whole thing is eerie and unsettling, like an episode of The Twilight Zone. The cliffhanger at the end of episode 1, when Ian sees the Sensorite floating outside their cockpit window is so unsettling (in spite of its staged appearance) that one really eels like we’re in for a good, creepy psychological thriller.

However, then we actually meet the Sensorites, and they turn out to be not very villainous, and not very threatening even if they wanted to be. Before long we are on their planet and the story morphs into this sort of social exploration and political drama about the conflicting reactions different Sensorites have about the presence of outsiders. Now, this is only the second non-human looking races that the show had created, after the Daleks, (unless one counts the Voords, who never amounted to much), so hats off to the production team for attempting to create an alien culture, and not just a bunch of monsters. Indeed, this is something the show rarely ever attempted, so it may be that the Sensorites are one of the better developed alien civilizations that classic Doctor Who has ever presented.

But still this doesn’t make them particular interesting, which is a pity because this is where the story spends most of its time. We get to watch Sensorites arguing with each other about how much they should trust the outsiders, and then certain ones (notably, the City Administrator) get up to all sorts of tricks to sabotage them. Maybe he would have been more interesting if he’d been better at achieving his goals–he tries to prevent the Doctor from curing a disease that Ian has, but the Doctor seems to do it anyway off-screen; he tries to frame the Doctor for killing a Sensorite, but the Doctor and Ian quickly prove the accusation is a lie; he forces a prisoner to write a forged letter but the deception is easily seen through. All this makes the drama of this longer, middle section of the story kind of lackluster.

What does sustain interest though is the ongoing question of what exactly is in the aqueduct. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get really dealt with until the last episode, at which point the story introduces this other intriguing idea about a group of desperate and half-crazed humans who don’t realize that they aren’t at war with the Sensorites. There is a sense of threat as Ian and the Doctor must navigate the trickiness of the situation, but it’s all over far too quickly.

It’s a fascinating idea that really deserved greater exploration, but the story simply didn’t have any more time for that. I can’t help but to wonder if things would had been stronger if it had gone straight from the first part on the ship to the third with the survivors in the sewers, and then after taking more time with that, ended with an abbreviated depiction of the Sensorite society itself.

On a positive note, this is a particularly interesting story for Susan, a companion who often didn’t have much to do. Here, she finds latent telepathic powers coming to the surface, which offers a rare hint for the time at her and the Doctor’s backstories. She also has an interesting argument with her grandfather, showing her growing independence and hinting at later developments when it was time for Susan to leave the the series.

The design of the Sensorites certainly show the limitations of the time, but also the story’s ambitions. There is a game attempt at making these guys look seriously alien by covering up their faces. But of course it’s not as successful as the Daleks were at selling the illusion that we are looking at an new species. Still, one of my daughters seriously loved them, and described them as “humanoid telepathic axolotls with sensory issues.”

So, it’s unlikely that The Sensorites will probably never be a favorite story, but where before I would have been tempted to ignorantly dismiss as it as cheap, failed science fiction, now I tend to think of it as an ambitious and thoughtful story that just couldn’t quite hit the mark it was aiming for.

Incidentally, the DVD for The Sensorites features an interesting special feature called Looking for Peter, a 20 minute documentary in which long-time Doctor Who presenter Toby Hadoke sets out to learn about Peter R. Newman, the writer of The Sensorites, and up until then something of an enigma to Doctor Who fans. His search turns out to be unexpectedly successful and to turn up some surprising discoveries. It was fascinating to watch.

One thought on “The Sensorites [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. The Sensorites are a reminder of how much Doctor Who’s non-humanoid aliens would significantly differ from Star Trek’s. Thank you for sharing this.

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