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Doctor Who: The Sensorites

Review by: 
Black Gloves
Release Date: 
2 Entertain
Aspect Ratio: 
Directed by: 
Mervyn Pinfield
Frank Cox
William Hartnell
William Russell
Jacqueline Hill
Carole Ann Ford
Ilona Rodgers
Bottom Line: 

 When we look back now at those first eight consecutive stories, retrospectively bracketed together as the first ever season of DOCTOR WHO (which ran from November 1963 to the following September of 1964), we tend to let certain big, first-time ‘events’ dominate our attention: our first introduction to the TARDIS interior, now so familiar, still retains that special frisson when we see schoolteachers Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Pierce) stumble into the console room for the very first time during episode one of “An Unearthly Child” - because we know that 1960s family audiences would also have been seeing this happening for the first time ever back in 1963 as well, and must have been just as enchanted and confused as the human protagonists were by the simple mad idea that an ordinary-looking police box could also be a much larger time-travelling  ‘spaceship’ on the inside. The Daleks appeared on-screen, fully-formed and essentially no different in appearance or concept from what they are today, a mere seven weeks after the show started airing. In the collective imaginations of fans, “Marco Polo” is still considered a landmark first attempt at an epic historical tale, with lavish sets and fantastic costumes, even though it was wiped and is no longer available in the archive. Later in the first run, “The Aztecs” saw the historical adventure developing into something more along the lines of the pseudo historicals we have come to know from the later series, with the original educational remit of the show having been all but buried in favour of dramatic considerations. The fact that at this stage, now very recognisable story types and narrative formats and character inter-relationships were all being tried out in the series for the first time -- sometimes taking a startlingly different approach in comparison to the way we’re used to seeing them dealt with today, other times appearing pretty much unchanged – means that generally speaking, “series one” of DOCTOR WHO cannot be watched back without a special attendant thrill emanating from its special weird mix of the familiar and the strange; most of the stories from that first season have become very well-known and are still much discussed.

And yet that’s never really ever been the case with “The Sensorites”. Remember … this is only the seventh ever story in the 49 year-long history of DOCTOR WHO, and only the third storyline at that point to take place on an alien planet and feature a non-human alien race as central players. You’d think that would give this six part tale some traction in fan circles, but no: for one thing, it wasn’t written by a ‘big’ name like Nation, Lucarotti or Whitaker -- in fact the writer of this story never got anything else commissioned for TV ever again, let alone for DOCTOR WHO – the narrative is oftentimes handled with a clumsy primitivism, scripted too obviously as though the story is being ‘written down’ to appeal to an audience of children who don’t know any better. Despite Dalek designer Raymond Cusick creating a striking spaceship interior and some claustrophobic, darkened on-board corridors for the initial episodes in the adventure, and then coming up with an even more ambitious  and modernist-looking curvilinear design for the Sensorites’ home world when the action moves there in episode three, director Mervyn Pinfield sometimes falls into lining up the players across the screen, as they play out lengthy dialogue scenes as though the actors were stood on a theatre stage (when young director Frank Cox takes over in ep 5, the style becomes noticeably more dynamic); and Cusick’s design creativity is consequently often better demonstrated in the DVD’s photo gallery production stills than in the story itself. For most fans viewing this story in the present, “The Sensorites” looks like pretty routine stuff, already repeating a lot of standard plot ideas viewers would have recently seen not long before in Terry Nation’s Dalek story, such as the Doctor’s exploration of an underground cave system where unseen monsters can be heard, supposedly lurking amongst the shadows. There’s no doubt that “The Sensorites” often drags and feels like it’s going through the motions.

But even so, this is an important story in the history of DOCTOR WHO. And even though the plot may be clumsily constructed (sometimes because of unavoidable behind-the scenes production necessities, such as Jacqueline Pierce having to be written out of it for two episodes while she took her scheduled two-week holiday) and it occasionally flags terribly, many cite “The Sensorites” as the story which contains the crucial transition point, in the initial series run, during which the Doctor changes from being just an irascible, mysterious alien with an agenda that was not always entirely knowable or necessarily altruistic, to becoming  the adventuring hero who strives to do the right thing, for no other reason than that he’s fundamentally a good person, but driven by curiosity and altruism rather than self-interest. For this un-revered, overlooked and oft neglected story is also the one in which something quite unexpected and possibly, at the time, unintended happens: the DOCTOR WHO which started broadcasting in November 1963 becomes DOCTOR WHO as we essentially know it today -- or at least something much closer to it than it had been previously.

As though to mark the imminent arrival of this unheralded turning point in TV history, the story starts with the Doctor (William Hartnell), his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) and their two abductee companions Ian and Barbara (Russell & Pierce) reflecting on their adventures thus far as they stand in the console room of the TARDIS. This preamble leads in to a scene which only serves to emphasis to the modern viewer the relative newness of the series at this point, when the Doctor and his companions become confused by contradictory information on the TARDIS scanners, which is eventually revealed to be caused by the ship having landed on a spaceship – something which has happened countless times in the series since and is never a big deal, but here leads to a fair bit of head-scratching and pondering on behalf of the Doctor, before he eventually works out why the TARDIS appears to be both stationary and moving at the same time (although you would think such a circumstance would have happened before during the Doctor’s many adventures with Susan).


In any case, the Doctor and his companions discover that they are aboard a ship with a two person crew from Earth in the 28th Century (also making this the first story unambiguously set in the future from an Earth-based point of view), both of whom at first appear to be dead but who then mysteriously come back to life again and claim that they have been under psychic attack for some time by aliens who keep their ship trapped in this region of space, and themselves in a deathlike form of suspended animation. A third member of their crew has also been driven mad after being subjected to the aliens’ powers of thought control, leading to him now having to be kept locked away in another section of the ship. The tension is ratcheted up admirably well, here, as the unseen Sensorites are made to seem like this scary, malevolent race of beings whose hostility seems unmotivated and unprincipled. There are scenes during the first and second episodes that are genuinely scary and atmospheric as Susan and Barbara become trapped with the mad crew member John (Stephen Dartnell) in the quarantined quarter of the ship. He eventually turns out to be a pitiable wreck who has been terrified by his experience of mental contact with an alien species.

At this stage, though, the Doctor curtly decides that there is really nothing he or his friends can do to help these people, and makes to leave in the TARDIS, pretty much resolving to leave the hapless Earth crew to their troubles! It is only when he discovers that the TARDIS’s lock mechanism has been covertly removed by the Sensorites that he is forced to stay and thereafter decides to help. This is in line with the way the Doctor had often been portrayed in the series up to this point. Although he softened more and more as the first series continued (in the first ever story he was even shown pondering on whether to kill someone with a rock at one stage and had to be restrained by Ian!), he was still essentially someone who wasn’t much interested in helping out others unless this course of action also enabled him to get something he or his companions needed -- usually access to the TARDIS. Here, after Susan becomes psychically linked to the Sensorites and comes to have a special empathy for them, revealing that they have understandable reasons for acting the way they have been towards the crew, even if those reasons cannot be entirely condoned, the Doctor actually starts to turn into the altruistic protagonists we now know. The dynamic between the Doctor and his companions starts to change from this point on, becoming subtly different from that which we’d seen previously. This is the first story in which the Doctor becomes the true instigator of much of the action rather than Ian or Barbara, and it’s interesting that it occurs in the one story in which his Granddaughter, Susan, really comes into her own as an independent character with her own take on things as well. Ian spends most of the time out of action here, after being poisoned on the Sensorites’ home world; while Barbara is left out of the story for two episodes due to Jacqueline Pierce’s holiday. It’s left to the Doctor and Susan to respond directly to events and for the Doctor to work out the cause of the ‘disease’ that’s been devastating the Sensorite population. He does this, even though he doesn’t need to, and at the behest of Susan, who acts as the Doctor’s conscience throughout this story, using her psychic link with the aliens to put their side of the story when the Doctor becomes enraged with their apparent intransigence.


The Sensorites themselves are a typically misguided 1960s attempt to forge an entire sophisticated alien culture with a no money budget, sporting the usual dome-shaped heads and tiny, feeble eyes -- a nice touch, though, being the wispy white beards they all sport – which futuristic aliens were always imagined to possess because of their heightened advanced intelligence making any other physical attributes an unnecessary biological extravagance. Naturally, they’re all clad in the usual uniform of ’60s-designed alien humanoids -- stretch lycra, and a great deal is made of the fact that they’re all meant to look alike to humans, even though a variety of body shapes have been cast so that the viewer can tell each one apart. It turns out that the Sensorites are a peace-loving race but with an intense suspicion of other alien civilisations and cultures, much like China at various points during its history; the Sensorites are operating a closed society with a rigid cast system which is represented laughably crudely in the plot by having them wear various forms of sash or collar to indicate their ranking. The Chief Elder and his caste get to drink their own special water, while the middling and lower castes are content with common or garden communal water, piped in through an underground aqueduct.


This soon becomes a typical and laudable DOCTOR WHO story about the persistence of xenophobia, suspicion of ‘the Other’ and colonialism and greed, then: once the Doctor, Susan and Ian agree to go to the Sensorite planet, the Sense-Sphere, and help the dome-headed aliens cure a plague that’s been ravaging the lower castes, we see that this is not really a tale in which the lesson to be taken from events is that there are good races of people and bad races of people (as was the case in “The Daleks”) but one in which we’re being led to see that intolerance and paranoia on both sides due to xenophobia and (in the humans’ case) colonialism, is at the root of all the problems encountered. The human-hating City Administrator of the Senses-Sphere (played by comic actor and children’s entertainer on “Crackerkjack” Peter Glaze) tries to lead a coup against the rigid hierarchy of the Sensorite Chief Elder because of his toleration of the Doctor and the Earth people accompanying him. At the same time he has good reason to be suspicious, because the Sensorites’ previous experiences of humans has revealed their greed for the planet’s valuable natural deposits of molybdenum, and the Sensorites could sense their ‘dreams of avarice’, as Ian so memorably puts it. The survivors of this first expedition later turn up as a half-insane, raggedy band of cave dwellers who are still fighting a non-existent war with the Sensorites, still dreaming of having total ownership of the planet’s molybdenum supplies and control of the planet through economic exploitation.

Potentially then, “The Sensorites” could have been quite a sophisticated examination of incommensurable values between different peoples leading to suspicion and mistrust and violence. There are similarities in the approach taken as well with Christopher Bailey’s much later fifth Doctor story “Kinda”, in which contact with an alien culture tips the colonial, exploitative mind-set of the human visitors into a sort of paranoid, war-like madness. Unfortunately, at six episodes and with some often fairly unsophisticated children’s adventure plotting, the story never makes good on its potential. But it is nevertheless fascinating to see the Doctor leading the story here for pretty much the first time. His relationship with Susan was possibly never better handled than in this adventure, although it seems to have only come about as the set-up for Carole Ann Ford’s departure near the start of the second series, which is a shame. This increased emphasis on Susan’s alien otherness and her relationship with the Doctor also furnishes us with tantalising insight into their backstory together, especially when we hear of a previous adventure they shared, before they met Ian and Barbara, which took place in the court of Henry Vlll, and Susan talks nostalgically of their (at this stage) nameless home planet and how much she misses it, describing how its ‘sky at night is burnt orange and the tree leaves are bright silver’. Although the story is stretched thin with some fairly amusing performances from the cast members playing the Sensorites often giving it the air of a children’s series rather than a family show, the rewritten Doctor and his enhanced role in events makes this a crucial piece of DOCTOR WHO history, which is now getting due care and attention on DVD with a restored print that makes it look fabulously clear and sharp for the first time.


Extras consist of a commentary moderated by Toby Hadoke in which surviving regular cast members Carole Ann Ford and William Russell are joined by designer Raymond Cusick and a revolving door selection of guest actors and crew members who pop up across the six episodes, including make-up designer Sonia Markham, director of episodes 5 and 6 Frank Cox, and actors Joe Grieg, Martyn Huntley and Giles Phipps. We get a pretty good overview of the production from their combined contributions and it’s nice to hear Carole Ann Ford’s reaction to one of the few stories from her time on the programme that actually gave Susan a well-defined role, and which expanded on her relationship with the Doctor to a significant degree.

The accompanying documentary forgoes the usual ‘making of’ approach, since all except one of the surviving cast and crew are present on the commentary, where they are able to  recount whatever they can still remember from 1964 anyway. Instead, in “Looking For Peter” Toby Hadoke goes in search of the elusive writer Peter R Newman, hoping to find out what the mysterious R actually stood for, and perhaps a few more hard facts about this writer who doesn’t appear to have worked again after his one and only story for DOCTOR WHO. The twenty-one minute featurette takes the form of one of those magazine features you get every weekday night on The One Show, with Hadoke shown searching through records with experts, locating birth certificates and interviewing subjects such as Hammer scholar Marcus Hearn to get the lowdown on Newman’s main previous work, a 1959 Hammer film adapted from a BBC play called “Yesterday’s Enemies”, which was a controversial story based on a true account of British war crimes in Burma in 1942. Eventually, Hadoke and team do manage to track down a surviving relative, Newman’s elderly sister, to get a more personal insight into the life of this least well-known of DOCTOR WHO writers.

A mini feature called “Vision On” is centred on a short interview with 1960s vision mixer Clive Doig who explains what is entailed by the role in the context of multi-camera studio recording. “Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere” sees Doig giving an explanation for some talk-back from the studio gallery, which can clearly be heard on the soundtrack during one scene in episode 5. Finally the usual informative on-screen text production note sub-titles are included. Plus PDF files of Radio Time listings and a photo gallery of production stills, as well as a ‘coming soon’ trailer for the forthcoming “Revisitations 3” box set to round off this intriguing journey back into the very early origins of DOCTOR WHO.

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