The SensoritesBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Daniel Spotswood

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.