The SensoritesBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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 materializes 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.