Without wishing to sound unduly harsh in any way, I think that it is probably fair to say that had The Sensorites been a stand-alone science-fiction serial of the early sixties, and even if it had by some miracle survived complete in the archives on that basis, nobody today would ever have heard of it. There would have been no video release, no novelisation, no reviews on websites on in print media. It is, in short, not one of the finest hours of Doctor Who.
Which is a shame really, as at its heart it has some interesting ideas that in the hands of a more skilled writer, or perhaps simply one who was more enthused about writing for the programme, it could have been a half-decent serial. The entrapment of Maitland, Carol and John at the hands of the Sensorites and that races very curious form of psychological torture that is being inflicted upon them is actually quite a chilling scenario, and it does make a change to see the series exploring some new territory, in this case telepathy.
The sad thing is all of this initial promise is muted by the fact that the opening episode is one of the dullest affairs in the entire history of Doctor Who. After enduring it one video it was nearly a week before I could bring myself to watch the subsequent episodes, which do admittedly improve the quality somewhat. (It would be hard to be worse, frankly). There are so many things wrong here the characters of Maitland and Carol are two of the worse played supporting characters of the era, although admittedly John is quite well done. Characters change their motivations in the course of a sentence and nobody acts in a particularly realistic or believable manner at all. I struggle to remember a natural line of dialogue in the entire episode, and I feel sorry for the regular cast having to put themselves through this after having had vastly superior material in just about every episode thats gone before this.
That said, the episode does boast one redeeming feature, the cliffhanger appearance of the Sensorite at the window of the ship, which is suitably creepy. One does have to wonder, though, why if they can walk in space with no problem they need any kind of space ship, as it is subsequently revealed that they do have. Once they get on board later on they lose some of their effectiveness, chiefly because of their ludicrous feet we only see these in detail in one shot in the entire story, so one does have to wonder why it was felt necessary to include said shot.
The one positive aspect of the story that most reviewers seem to pick up on is that it gives Susan something a bit different to do for a change, with her telepathic interaction with the Sensorites and the revelation that she has some sort of latent ability in such areas. There are also some good character moments for the Doctor and Susan as she remembered their home planet, and later on in the TARDIS asks her grandfather if he thinks they will ever get home, a rare if brief discussion of their origins at this point in the shows history.
As I mentioned above, the only member of the human supporting cast who seems to be of any interest if the deranged John, even though his recovery later on does seem to be remarkably swift for someone who had at first appeared to be so deeply psychologically damaged. Also mad as a bicycle but all the more enjoyable for it against a comparatively dull storyline are the three humans hiding in the aqueduct, who bring a touch of enlivening lunacy to things in the final episode, although of course by then its far too late to do the story any good.
The Sensorites themselves are a pretty standard bunch of aliens, with a noble leader and subordinates around him who are not quite as trusting of the new arrivals. You do have to wonder, however, why if the Sensorites are as enlightened a race as the First Elder chooses to make out, they are so utterly nasty to Maitland, Carol and particularly John in the time before the arrival of the TARDIS on the scene. Perhaps things are not entirely as they appear, although to be honest Id be hard pressed to believe that Peter Newman could be quite as clever as that, on the basis of this example of his script writing abilities in any case.
I think the main problem with Newmans writing is that he was pitching the show at an incredibly juvenile level. Now, there is no great shame in that bearing in mind that this is season one, when the cross-generational appeal of Doctor Who had yet to be fully appreciated. But even giving him that much of the benefit of the doubt, Newman still provides a script that really is Doctor Who at its most basic, and that can surely only have really kept the very youngest members of the audience fully entertained, of any of them at all. Some nice lines of dialogue in places perhaps give us evidence that Newman was not totally clueless, so one cannot help but wonder what could have been produced had he just but some more effort into what he was doing.
Possibly the most ludicrous example of his script writing comes at the very end of the story, when the Doctor flies into a sudden fit of anger with Ian and promises to throw him off the ship at its very next landing, for absolutely no reason whatsoever other than to create a moment of drama at what would otherwise have been a very calm and relaxed end of the story. Rarely can there have been such a signposted and obvious attempt to create drama in a Doctor Whostory, and why it wasnt cut out is a mystery to me. Perhaps story editor David Whitaker was having something of an off day when The Sensorites landed on his desk given the pressure there was to find suitable, affordable scripts for the programme in those early years, it wouldnt surprise me if this only saw the light of day simply because there was nothing else available to make instead. Sometimes such necessity would pay off for the show, as it did with The Daleks, but in this case you cant help but wonder if they wouldnt have been better off just making it up as they went along for six weeks.
In defence of the story, you can say that on its video release it has a very nice looking VidFIREd picture, and in narrative terms the Doctor gets a very nice new cloak to wear
But aside from that and the other few plus points Ive mentioned in this review, The Sensorites is six episode of Doctor Who that make you wonder how they managed to keep this and lose so many better stories.