10/10/12 “The Sensorites”
“It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it's turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”–The Doctor
“The Sensorites,” in received fan wisdom, is one of the Hartnell clunkers, boring and far longer than it merits being. They say it hasn’t dated well and perhaps wasn’t even good on original broadcast. I beg to differ. Despite, or because of, all these perceived attitudes, I quite enjoyed “The Sensorites.” It does lag a bit in the middle, but I infinitely prefer it to a Pertwee six-parter. Interestingly, what dates this story more are its depictions of the humans and the TARDIS crew; the aliens, the Sensorites, are rather more interesting and timeless. It is quite suspenseful in places and suggests an alien culture that is worth getting to know in detail, in contrast to the drivel I experienced earlier in “Death to the Daleks.”
Although you can feel the budget stretching in every scene during this story, nevertheless it opens in quite a strange and shocking manner. The TARDIS crew—the Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara—arrive in a spaceship and appear to see two dead bodies at the control. This appears too serious a way to begin an episode of 1960s Doctor Who, but the Doctor is insistent: their watches appear to suggest they have been dead for more than 24 hours. However, just as they begin to head back to the TARDIS, the humans at the controls revive. After being introduced as Captain Maitland and Carol Richmond, from the 28th century and orbiting the Sense-Sphere (which, despite its poetic, rather Miltonic name, is just a planet), they tell our travelers a very strange story of the inhabitants of that planet, the Sensorites. Not only are they kept imprisoned in this way, unable to leave and unable to get any closer to the planet, they are often knocked out in this way, while the Sensorites still maintain them. Throughout this story, you notice people going to extremes, being put in situations that nothing on Earth could have prepared them for. How do they cope? It’s one thing to be in combat situations, but the situation of the astronauts, as well as other characters we will encounter, is a very strange one. I have always maintained that Steven Taylor’s isolation on Mechanus, as well as Vicki’s bizarre imprisonment on Dido, should have produced characters with emotional scarring from their unusual conditions. We don’t really ever see that on screen, but I keep it in the back of my mind when I think about them.
Maitland and Carol certainly act a little strangely, but the amount of stress they’ve been under evokes the claustrophobia and second-guessing of “The Edge of Destruction.” It is fairly impressive that Carol is even allowed to exist in this script; the Sensorites, as we will see, echo most other Doctor Who stories in being a race comprised completely of males! (As far as we can tell and as far as we are shown. We don’t find out how Sensorites procreate, whether they have sexes as we understand them, and so on, but the fact they are all played by male actors suggests this.) Nevertheless, with Barbara and Susan connected to the action and shown to act bravely even when relegated to domestic tasks, we at least get more of a female presence than in “Death to the Daleks.”
I do believe a certain amount of brilliance must be awarded for the fact the Sensorites sneak onto the spaceship and remove the TARDIS lock. How is that for an excuse to keep the TARDIS crew on board and in this story for the next six episodes? Sometimes I do think the Doctor arrives and makes things worse, but in definable ways he makes a difference for good here. The Sensorites take control of the minds of Maitland and Carol (apparently their fear has made them susceptible to mind control) and try to cause the spaceship to crash into the Sense Sphere. The Doctor’s level-headedness helps prevent the crash. There is something very filmic about this story, as we get quite a few long close ups of people like Ian and Barbara. Perhaps there was no alternative, given to the general shabbiness of the set. Nevertheless, it somewhat increases the sense of unease which culminates with Susan and Barbara being trapped in the crew quarters with John, a crewmember who has been so deranged by the Sensorites that the others haven’t seen him in weeks. There’s no telling what he’ll do to Susan and Barbara! (Hints of rape more subtle than in “The Time Meddler”?)
John looks a bit like David Tennant during one of his more manic moments and sometimes even his acting style is reminiscent of Tennant’s. He eventually collapses practically into Barbara’s bosom as she soothes him. He isn’t a villain, he seems like a veteran with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Ian, the Doctor, Carol, and Maitland don’t know this, though, because as they try to cut through the door, a Sensorite appears. It is interesting that John is allowed to be the male hysteric in “The Sensorites,” while Susan and Barbara quite capably confer on Susan’s previous telepathic experiences and drive the Sensorites away by thinking “We defy you,” and that Maitland is as affected by the mind control as is Carol—and as helpless as she is. Released by Ian, Maitland, and the Doctor, Susan, Barbara, and John escape from the Sensorites. Ian spearheads an effort to understand that the spaceship crew are being trapped because John found out the Sense Sphere was rich in a mineral. As this is ascertained, the Sensorites advance.
There are some quite powerful images of latent violence. The Sensorites wordlessly move forward, as Ian threatens them with a hammer. We don’t know whether to side with Ian or the Sensorites. They are not quite Sydney Newman’s little green men, but they are certainly little, have impressive whiskers, and are wearing sort of “White Heat” type overalls. If Doctor Who had been broadcast in color, perhaps they would have resembled the aliens that later appeared on Star Trek. Susan’s latent telepathy, developed a little bit in “The Daleks,” comes to the fore here when the Sensorites contact her. The image of her walking off with them to the Sense Sphere as everyone tries to come to a nonviolent solution is rather a haunting one. Susan has a lot of power here, and perhaps her burgeoning independence, explored more in episode 3, is what causes the Doctor to have such an aggressive response to the Sensorites, which he continues to have as the story progresses.
The Doctor theorizes that the Sensorites might be rendered helpless in the dark, and this theory is put to the test when they refuse to return Susan. The Doctor and Susan argue about her apparent defiance. The Doctor takes a long time in this story to understand and come to grips with the Sensorite point of view, which highlights in a way, his youth and inexperience (in the long term; at the time it was made it probably just proved he was old and crotchety!). Nevertheless, the Sensorites agree that Barbara and Maitland will stay on the ship while the others go to the Sense Sphere to talk to a Sensorite Elder. Carol, it has been revealed by now, wants to marry John and is eager for him to be cured, as the Sensorites suggest they can do. (All the stuff that’s shoved under the rug is fascinating to me. Surely, under the duress and worrying about their lives and not having seen John for so long, might Maitland and Carol have succumbed to a one-night stand? And what will Barbara and Maitland be doing for the several days the rest of them are on the Sense Sphere? I know it’s all for practical real world reasons, but I like to try to make it make sense in story terms.)
Naturally, the Sensorites do not agree what should be done. The First Elder believes in trust and wants to give the humans a chance. The Second Elder is not quite as optimistic, and the City Administrator is positively xenophobic about loud, ugly humans. He wants to disintegrate them as soon as they arrive. The suggestion that the Sensorites might have met the humans in the mountains might have looked amazing if it could have been afforded; instead, we have fairly stock sets of a clean, white utilitarian city. Susan is at the side of the Doctor and Ian as they go into negotiations with the First Elder; the City Administrator is thwarted in his attempt to disintegrate the humans, but his (very good?) friend and co-conspirator joins him in his campaign to get rid of the humans, no matter what the cost.
In the next scene, a cliffhanger is introduced (Ian has a seemingly incurable disease) and the central conflict for the next three episodes comes to the fore. They don’t know it yet, but the Sensorites’ drinking water has been contaminated. (There are some very strange scenes between Ian and Susan here.) The Doctor, obviously, wants to try to cure Ian, but is not allowed to go back into the TARDIS—he is provided with laboratory equipment on the Sense Sphere. Fair enough, though the Doctor acts very childishly. He rants and raves even though it’s obvious the Sensorites can’t stand raised voices; Susan constantly has to remind him how to be diplomatic. Yet the Doctor works swiftly with the Sensorite scientists to test water from around the city and to create an antidote to cure Ian—and perhaps all the afflicted Sensorites, too. This is where the Doctor’s interference was demonstrably for good, as the byproduct of his trying to save Ian caused him to help save the Sensorites (one hopes they would have eventually figured it out, but who knows). The City Administrator is still doing all he can to thwart them, to the point of eventually impersonating other Elders, imprisoning the Second Elder and, if his threats are to be believed, his Family Group, bullying the Second Elder and eventually causing his death. This is pretty serious and shows just how far some people will go in their mania, all the while believing they are doing the right thing.(Of course, there are great leaps in logic here, given that the Sensorites don’t seem to be able to tell each other visually apart other than by their sashes of office.)
The Doctor next goes to the city aqueduct, the source of most Sensorites’ water, but has to go on his own due to his guide’s extreme fear of the dark, noise, and rumors of monsters. This in fact the best cliffhanger, as the Doctor does seem to be menaced by a beast as his light goes out, and is only recovered in the next episode by a still-shaky Ian and a brave Susan. The Doctor’s frock coat has been torn to pieces (this doesn’t all totally make sense according to what we learn later) and bewildered, he is allowed to be led out of the aqueduct, though he did learn that deadly nightshade grows within. I find myself quite curious about the aqueduct; such an important part of the city’s infrastructure, yet how is it maintained if all the Sensorites are too scared to go and examine it? How did they build it in the first place?
The First Elder thoughtfully gives the Doctor a replacement for his coat, though I fear it is more of an Important Plot Point rather than a character-building moment. This helps expose the City Administrator’s best friend, whose slander against the Doctor eventually gets him caught to be “interrogated” by the City Administrator. The First Elder is slowly coming around to the idea that he cannot trust all of his people and that vice cannot be eradicated. The Doctor and Ian want to go back to the aqueduct to continue investigations into the poisonings, but rather stupidly they want Susan to stay behind and be looked after by Barbara (who will have just returned from vacation—the actress, I mean). Carol and the cured John have been reunited—like the Prince who was the Beast, John is much less interesting when he is whole and hale—and at last the humans have figured out that the City Administrator is their Sensorite enemy. Ian and the Doctor have already gone on their merry way, and when Carol went to find them and her mouth was covered by a hand, I actually gasped.
Things are a bit unnecessarily complicated during the first half of the final episode, as Carol is held hostage but only threatened with death. Meanwhile, Ian and the Doctor are tricked by the City Administrator into getting totally lost in the tunnels, and the most interesting thing yet happens. They find more humans in the tunnels: the men from the previous mission who have been living there in isolation for years. Raggedy and obviously deranged, they have got it into their heads that there is a war between humans and Sensorites and for this reason, they have been poisoning the Sensorites. It’s chilling, and the Doctor and Ian can’t help but agree. They have to maintain their cool, however, and are eventually aided by the arrival of Barbara and John. The Commander is, like Sanders in “Kinda,” is obsessively and madly sticking to his duty, to the point that he is utterly insane. I feel a great deal of pity for these men but they are also quite horrifying.
Nevertheless, it more or less seems to be a story where almost no one dies. The Administrator, at last caught, is locked away for punishment; the disturbed humans are being taken back to Earth for help. Carol and John, we assume, will get married. We don’t know what happened to Maitland as he has disappeared off our screens. The Sensorites give the TARDIS lock back to the Doctor, and after a very long ordeal, the travelers are on their way again.
My favorite part of the story is when Susan talks about her own planet, with its burnt orange skies and blades of silver grass; I was totally unprepared for this and did not realize the lines from “Gridlock” were taken almost verbatim from this speech. It gave me the same frisson as when the Second Doctor talks to Victoria about those who sleep in our minds, or when Lady Peinforte says, “Have you never wondered, who he is?” To think, it was Peter R. Newman who gave us that lovely line of poetry.