Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Episode Six – A Desperate Venture

The Doctor and Ian are in trouble. They’ve gone down to explore the aqueduct, but aren’t aware that their map has been doctored (plus their guns are useless). I like the way that when they hear a noise they roll up the map to use as a weapon. Quite how effective a few pieces of paper would have been as a club is something of a moot point.

There’s a characteristic moment when the Doctor burbles on, not heeding Ian’s warnings that they’ve been surrounded! The Doctor and Ian are captured by the survivors of the spaceship which landed ten years ago. They’re a rum lot, to say the least. They’ve spent all this time down in the aqueduct, poisoning the water and patiently waiting for every last Sensorite to die. This single-minded course of destruction has driven them all quite mad, but even though they’ve regressed to a somewhat primitive state (they wield pointed sticks as weapons) it’s interesting that they still retain a rigid hierarchy with a clear chain of command that’s run along military lines.

John Bailey, as the Commander, is able to invest his character with a rather pathetic sense of honour and duty, and he makes quite an impression during the brief time he’s on screen. But Bailey was always a class actor (he returned twice to the series – first as Edward Waterfield in The Evil of the Daleks and then later as Sezom in The Horns of Nimon, where his dignified turn was in sharp contrast to the panto antics from most of the other cast members).

Susan gets a final chance to demonstrate her telepathy and also shares a scene with the First Elder where she reveals a sliver more about her home planet.

1ST ELDER: When I listen to you, you who are so young among your own kind, I realise that we Sensorites have a lot to learn from the people of Earth.
SUSAN: Grandfather and I don’t come from Earth. Oh, it’s ages since we’ve seen our planet. It’s quite like Earth, but at night the sky is a burned orange, and the leaves on the trees are bright silver.
1ST ELDER: My mind tells me that you wish to see your home again, and yet there is a part of you which calls for adventure. A wanderlust.
SUSAN: Yes. Well, we’ll all go home some day. That’s if you’ll let us.

The oddest thing about the conclusion of the story is that we don’t see the City Administrator receive his comeuppance. He just fades away as we’re told that he’ll be banished to the outer wastes. It’s one of those moments, and there are several others during the story, where it’s surprising that David Whitaker didn’t tweak the script a little in order to produce something a tad more dramatically satisfying.

But whilst there are various niggles, overall this is a pretty solid serial. It’s not the most sophisticated or layered tale, but anything with the original TARDIS crew (and indeed, anything with Hartnell) is always going to appeal to me.

Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Episode Five – Kidnap

Ian and Susan rescue the Doctor from the mysterious creature in the aqueduct. The Doctor implies that there’s something strange about the monster (otherwise how could it have ripped his coat to shreds but not touched his skin?). You have to assume that the monster, like the poisoned water, has been arranged by the (as yet) unseen survivors from the human spaceship which landed ten years ago. Quite how they were able to create the illusion of this monster is a mystery though (and if they are responsible, don’t the Sensorites think it’s strange that mysterious creatures suddenly appeared in the aqueduct some years ago? Where had they been before that?)

The Sensorites continue to maintain that they have a perfect society. “Our society is based upon trust. Treason or secret plotting is impossible.” But the continuing plots of the City Administrator (and the fact that he is able to recruit willing helpers) sharply contradicts this. It’s possible to argue that it’s only the arrival of the humans which has caused the Administrator to go off the rails, but this doesn’t quite hold up to scrutiny. Because he reacts so strongly (and with very little provocation) it does seem probable that he would have snapped soon anyway. And if the Sensorite nation is so peaceful and well-ordered, why do they need a Warrior class?

I like the way that that Sensorites are able to run the Doctor up a lovely cloak to replace his ruined coat. It’s hard to imagine that Sensorites themselves wearing cloaks, but maybe they do – otherwise surely they’d get a little chilly in the winter time?!

There’s a few line fluffs in this episode, but Hartnell’s not to blame for once. This is my favourite, courtesy of one of the Sensorites. “I heard them over, over, talking”.

Carol gets a decent share of the action in this episode. She shares some key scenes with the Sensorites, is overjoyed when John is returned to normality (which is a well-acted scene by Stephen Dartnell) and finds herself kidnapped at the end of the episode.

It’s unusual for a non-regular to be the focus of the cliff-hanger, especially as Susan could easily have been substituted for Carol. Maybe it was felt that since Susan was kidnapped at the end of episode five of The Keys of Marinus it would have felt too much like deja-vu had it happened again so quickly.

Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Episode Four – A Race Against Death

Hartnell’s in fine form in this episode. He’s gloriously tetchy when railing against the Sensorites (who refuse to give him the lock of the TARDIS back, which he wants so he can access his equipment to find a cure for Ian). They offer him their own laboratory facilities, which he accepts with very ill grace, but he can’t help himself and raises his voice on several occasions – even though he knows it causes the Sensorites pain.

Therefore it falls to Susan to act as the peacemaker between the Doctor and the Sensorites. It’s a nice, albeit brief, character moment for Carole Ann Ford who is clearly attempting to make the most of the thin material she has (after a strong start to the story, Susan is fading into the background again).

The Doctor’s in his element as he attempts to find a cure (surrounded by test-tubes you feel he’s very much in his natural environment). But the ease at which he does so is another weakness of the story. With six episodes to fill you’d have assumed they could have stretched it out a little longer and even when the City Administrator intercepts the antidote it doesn’t really matter, since Susan simply obtains another dose. Doctor Who and the Silurians has a better example of this type of plot-thread – after the Doctor is kidnapped by the Silurians his formula to stop the plague goes with him, so Liz has to frantically attempt to reassemble it from his notes.

The Doctor’s very pro-active in this episode and therefore quite different from the more self-centered character we saw earlier in the season. He travels down to the aqueduct in order to examine the source of the poison and, leaving his Sensorite guide at the entrance, ventures inside. When the First Elder and the others learn of this, there is general consternation.

1ST ELDER: Other expeditions have tried and failed. Most of our men do not return, and those that do speak of terrible things.
IAN: Well, I’ll have to go myself.
SUSAN: No you won’t.
IAN: We can’t stay here, Susan.
SUSAN: You’re too ill, Ian.
IAN: I’m not that ill.
SUSAN: All right. We’ll need someone to show us the way.
1ST ELDER: I beg you to change your minds. You cannot save your friend.
IAN: We’ll never know till we try, will we?
1ST ELDER: These people have fine qualities. The Second Elder and I have misjudged them, and I will tell him so.

The closing moment of the episode, as the Doctor hears the roar of a mysterious creature is an iconic one and also serves as a good example of Hartnell’s acting abilities. Later Doctors might have used the opportunity of an end-of-episode closeup as a chance to play to the camera, but Hartnell is very restrained. He keeps his face immobile whilst his eyes dash from right to left. It’s a very good indication that less is more and a small example of Hartnell’s class.

Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Episode Three – Hidden Danger

Whilst Barbara remains on the spaceship, the Doctor, Ian and Susan travel down with with John and Carol to the Sense-Sphere. John receives treatment from the Sensorites (helping to undo the damage they’ve created) whilst the Doctor agrees to investigate a mysterious plague which is killing an increasing number of Sensorites.

One of the main problems with The Sensorites is how simplistic some of the plotting is. We’re asked to accept that the Sensorites are a technically advanced race, but they’ve spent the last ten years dying from a mysterious disease for which they’ve been unable to either identify or find a cure for. The First Elder (Eric Francis) mentions that the Elders enjoy special spring water, but Ian, who’s very thirsty, doesn’t want to wait for it to arrive and drinks some of the normal water. He then keels over, which leads the Doctor to deduce that the water supply is poisoned.

If one wanted to be generous then we could assume that, due to the Sensorites different physiognomy, the symptoms of the poisoned water don’t manifest themselves so quickly. Otherwise, if a Sensorite toppled over immediately after drinking the water you’d have thought they would have twigged by now! Even so, testing the air, water, food, etc should have been amongst the first things to have been checked.

Again, if you wish to take a more sympathetic reading of the text, it could be that Newman was attempting to show how an isolationist nation like the Sensorites had partly brought this problem on themselves. Although they are technologically advanced, it’s only the input of an outsider which provides them with a solution – therefore their fear of aliens had prolonged their suffering.

But if this section of the story doesn’t quite convince, we also have some interesting exchanges between the Sensorites themselves. Although rudimentary, this dialogue serves to remind us that whilst they are nominally the “monster” of the story, in their own eyes they regard themselves as the heroes and it’s the humans who are the potentially threatening force.

2ND ELDER: In one degree I confess I am anxious. These creatures, these Earth people, are loud and ugly things. Why could we not have met them in the desert or in the mountains?
1ST ELDER: It is a failure of all beings that they judge through their own eyes. To them, we may appear to be ugly. What we must create between us is trust. That is why I have invited them to my palace.
2ND ELDER: But are we sure these Earth creatures are beings as you say? There are animals in the deserts and mountains, but we do not invite them in to our palaces. Perhaps these Earth creatures are animals too?

There’s also a brief insight into how their nation is ordered. “The Elders think and rule, the Warriors fight, the Sensorites work and play.” The Sensorite goes on to tell the Doctor, Ian and Susan that all are happy, but Ian’s ironic misquoting of Orwell (“some are happier than others, eh?”) helps to suggest that there may be chinks in their well-ordered society.

And although the Sensorites may look alike, they don’t possess a hive mind. This is made clear by the bitter words of the City Administrator (Peter Glaze) who regards the outsiders with resentment and fear. And it’s his low-level villainy that will provide the jeopardy over the final three episodes.

Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Episode Two – The Unwilling Warriors

It sometimes feels as if Carole Ann Ford has spent the last fifty years complaining how underdeveloped Susan was. According to Ford, Susan was to be an active, Avengers-type girl with psychic powers, so she was later perturbed to receive scripts where she was called upon to play a character who appeared to be little more than a frightened fifteen year old girl.

Quite how much truth there is in the concept of a super-Susan is hard to establish. I’m not aware of any draft scripts that present the character in this way (and Sydney Newman, who more than anyone can be called Doctor Who‘s creator, was always clear that Susan was to be the audience identification figure – a normal teenage girl).

When the first story was being written, there was some talk about making her an alien princess, but it does seem that very quickly it was decided to keep her pretty much as an ordinary girl (even though it’s established that’s not the case). It was a constant source of frustration for Ford and led to her desire to leave the series at the earliest opportunity – although she was possibly unaware that the production team were equally keen to dispense with her services.

One remnant of super-Susan is touched upon in this episode – a skill with telepathy. Her ability to connect with the Sensorites causes her to act as their intermediary – which concerns the Doctor. It gives Ford a little more than normal to work with, which is welcome, and it allows us another brief look at the unearthly child from the opening episode.

Ian spends part of the episode being stalked, rather slowly, around the ship by the Sensorites. Frightening though they appear, the Sensorites aren’t aggressive – although they do insist that everybody has to come down to the Sense-Sphere to live with them, which doesn’t sound like the best proposition ever. The Doctor, as might be expected, isn’t happy. “I don’t make threats. But I do keep promises. And I promise you I shall cause you more trouble than you bargained for if you don’t return my property!”

Another remnant of the early aim of the series to educate as well as entertain is touched upon when the Doctor discusses how they might gain the upper hand with the Sensorites.

DOCTOR: It’s a fallacy, of course, that cats can see in the dark. They can’t. But they can see better than we humans, because the iris of their eyes dilates at night. Yes.
IAN: What are you driving at, Doctor?
DOCTOR: Oh, it’s all perfectly simple, Chesterton. You see, the Sensorites eyes are the exact opposite to that of a cat. The Sensorites eyes were completely dilated, that is, enormous, in light.
IAN: The conclusion being that they would contract in darkness.
DOCTOR: Exactly. And that is our best weapon. The Sensorites will be frightened of the dark.

There’s not a great deal going on this episode, apart from giving us our first proper look at the Sensorites. But it ends with a jolt – as Susan prepares to journey down to the Sense-Sphere alone (even if, as so often, the cliff-hanger is negated in the opening moments of the next episode).

Doctor Who – The Sensorites. Episode One – Strangers in Space

It’s fair to say that The Sensorites is something of an unloved story amongst Doctor Who fans (often regarded as nothing more than an excellent cure for insomnia). I think this is a tad unfair (it’s never been a story I’ve struggled with too much). Yes, some of the plotting is a little simplistic, but then the series was still feeling its way during this point, so a little slack needs to be cut.

Probably the most notable part of the serial is that the Sensorites aren’t mindless monsters – they have an ordered society and their decision to imprison Maitland’s ship in an endless orbit is revealed to be an exercise in defence, not attack.

This possibly shouldn’t come as a surprise for anybody re-watching season one in order. We’ve yet to get to the point where non-humanoids are regarded as evil by default. So far only the Voord (underdeveloped as they are) match the template of a monster who desires to dominate others (later to become a familiar Doctor Who trope). Even the Daleks in their first appearance aren’t interested in conquest – survival is the only thing on their minds.

Quite a few six-parters employed a 4-2 or 2-4 format (good examples are The Seeds of Doom and The Talons of Weng Chiang). The Sensorites does something similar – episode one and two take place on Maitland’s spaceship whilst the remainder relocates to the Sense-Sphere. Although here it’s done for more practical reasons, as the studio was too small to house all the sets.

We open with a mystery – the TARDIS materalises inside a spaceship and the Doctor and his friends find two people – a man and a woman – who are both apparently dead. They’re just about to leave when the man stirs and shortly after he explains that they’ve been put into a deep sleep by the Sensorites, who live on the nearby planet.

Lorne Cossette (as Maitland) gives a strange and unconvincing performance, so it’s a blessed relief that he doesn’t travel down to the Sense-Sphere with the others later on. But there is a line of dialogue which suggests he’s been deeply affected by the Sensorites, so that might explain that Cosette isn’t just indulging in a spot of bad acting (although I’m not convinced). Ilona Rodgers (as Carol) has equally earnest dialogue but manages to make a slightly better job of things.

The Doctor’s still in full run-away mode – after a brief chat with Maitland and Carol, he decides there’s nothing he can do to help. So if the Sensorites hadn’t stolen the lock of his TARDIS he’d have been quite happy to nip off and leave them to their fate ….

But once circumstances force him to take action, he does so with gusto – elbowing Maitland aside as he takes control of the ship. Newman gives Hartnell some lovely lines, such as “it all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.” My favourite comes a little later in the episode. “I learned not to meddle in other people’s affairs years ago. Now, now, now, don’t be absurd. There’s not an ounce of curiosity in me.”

Barbara and Susan meet the third member of the crew, John (Stephen Dartnell). Dartnell, who had played Yartek, leader of the Alien Voord in The Keys of Marinus, gives easily the best performance of the three crew-members. John was the most deeply affected by the Sensorites’ mental attacks and it’s left him in a very fragile state. Maitland believes that he’s potentially dangerous, although the reason for this is never explained. We later learn that the Sensorites have control of John’s mind – had they ordered him to do something violent prior to the Doctor’s arrival? If so, it seems rather out of character for the Sensorites, since it’s stressed that they haven’t actually hurt the Earth people.

The scenes of the zombie-like John stalking Susan and Barbara are effective, although it’s all done very slowly. But when he eventually does run them down it’s clear he poses them no threat – Barbara cradles him as a mother would a child.

The reveal of the monster at the end of episode one would become a familiar Doctor Who staple. We’ve already seen it happen in The Daleks and it happens again here. After an episode of discussing them, things would have fallen rather flat if they hadn’t convinced. So it’s lucky that our first glimpse of a Sensorite is eerie and unsettling.