The Sensorites has long been regarded by many Who fans as a bit of a miss – Neil Perrymen on the Adventures with the Wife in Space blog jovially remarks “67% fail halfway through this story” when attempting to watch the series from the very beginning. Whether this comment is true or not is irrelevant. It cements the group-culture idea that it is not a ‘good’ serial.
Yet it has certain elements which make it tremendously good fun to watch. Some of the performances are excellent – Peter Glaze, Stephen Dartnell and John Bailey are particularly good – and the central ideas of xenophobia, and the dangers of war, are strong. It is the script and direction here which let the story down. Much like with Nation’s script for The Keys of Marinus, the central idea, whilst a good one, is let down by plodding unnatural exposition. Peter R Newman’s script works at times, and at others slows everything down too much. Mervyn Pinfield’s direction at times is stylistic and filled with flair – such as at the beginning of episode 1, as the camera tracks from within the TARDIS onto the deck of the spaceship – but at other times feels clunky and uninspired. When Cox takes over for episodes 5 and 6, the whole affair feels slightly tighter, and episode 6 is one of the strongest, but part 5 still feels hindered by poor scripting and so still lags.
As the serial starts, the TARDIS crew are nonchalantly regaling their high adventures through time and space, with Barbara dismissing the Aztec affair with a wave of the hand, saying that she’s “over” that. The whole group feels lovely and tightly knit, tactile and jovial as they discuss their past tales. There is a lovely sense of unity amongst the travellers here, one which we’ve never really felt before. They have become a family unit, one which audiences could no doubt have identified with strongly. Once they step through the TARDIS doors, with a tracking shot reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, there is a heightening of tension. As they discover the two ‘dead’ bodies of Maitland and Carol, there is a feeling of adventure, heightened by Norman Kay’s incidental music. The music feels rather patronising, with heavy clangs on words like “death!”, but all in all this entire first episode gradually ramps up the pressure nicely. As Maitland and Carol are revived from their catatonic state, and deliver background story information to the crew – and therefore us, the viewers – we are treated to possibly the worst existing case of poor peripheral sight in all of Doctor Who’s history – stood a mere few metres from the TARDIS, whilst commenting about a burning smell, they fail to see the hand of the unseen Sensorite plunge into the screen, attempt to remove the lock by hand (just like the Voord a few weeks earlier) and then return with some sort of cutting device, removing the entire mechanism.
This is, of course, a staple of the early Doctor Who stories – the crew are forced away from the safety of their ship, and thrown into the danger. In past stories they have had failed mercury links, stolen keys, force fields and tomb walls separating them from the safety of the TARDIS. Here, the threat becomes somewhat more perverse – the TARDIS is shown to be penetrable, destructible in some way. Rather than being the indestructive force we later see, the ship has been attacked, and damaged – it has been vandalised.
So, the crew are forced to help Maitland’s ship – as it is drawn careering towards the Sense-sphere, and the Doctor has never been so proactive. He saves the day, managing to draw the ship out of the influence of the unknown Sensorites, but the threat continues, as it is hinted that something is walking the corridors of the ship – behind the door which Susan and Barbara have unknowingly crossed the threshold of. An amusing side-note is the way in which Susan exclaims “That’s funny!” about the door mechanism, opening based on motion – in exactly the same way the doors worked within the Dalek city on Skaro – the Daleks must have had the same carpenters as this expedition. The reveal of John, wondering about maniacally mumbling about voices in his head are superb, and Dartnell’s performance is incredibly convincing. His looks to camera don’t seem out of place, as though beseeching the unknown forces to silence the endless droning, making the audience feel uncomfortably aware that it could be coming from anywhere.
Whilst the music is good, the moments during which this first episode is most effective are the eerie silences – particularly as the crew stand around, in expectation, waiting for something to happen – anything at all. And then, from the corner of the window, creeping up; it’s a Sensorite! And it’s waving! At least, it is in the cliff-hanger of episode 1. The reprise for episode 2 has been reshot, and instead of the creeping, ominous feeling we get as it works its way up the window, it is just a man in a costume, stood around outside a window. It is these little touches which let the production down. Interestingly, part of the brief provided for this serial from Sydney Newman was that he wanted the show to portray normal jobs in a favourable light. He knew that a high number of children wanted to grow up to be doctors and scientists, yet the uptake into engineering was limited. Here, we see the practical application of science wonderfully.
Carole Ann Ford’s performance as Susan is incredibly strong throughout this serial – indeed, whilst The Aztecs was Barbara’s adventure, this is Susan’s, and she steps up completely. The suggestion of her own psychic ability, and her mature performance as she stands up to her grandfather are excellent.
Once the TARDIS crew leave the ship and head down to the Sense-Sphere (minus Barbara, who is sadly missed due to Jacqueline Hill’s holiday) everything seems to slow down. The ratcheted tension of the previous two episodes stops almost completely, as we are given high levels of jerky unnatural exposition between the Sensorites. I must say, whilst the Sensorites get some grief over the costume – principally for the plates on their feet making them walk all over each other – it is nice that they are so well designed. What is a shame, however, is that each and every one of the masks is unique. Typically, in Doctor Who, costumes and masks are identical – indeed, sometimes even using old costumes as new aliens, like with the Chrynoids. Here, however, each one is expressive and unique – which would be brilliant, were the plot not hinged on the fact that they “all look the same”. Much like the clone armies of the Sontarans in later serials, great weight is put into the fact that they are identical and almost impossible to tell apart – even the Sensorites themselves cannot differentiate, although this is justified by the script. But as with Sontarans, the crew have not even attempted to hire actors of simply stature and frame. Peter Glaze is about a foot shorter and 4 stone heavier than any of the other Sensorites, yet is easily mistaken for any of the others. Likewise, the scripting does not aid us in our understanding, as no character is given individual names – rather, they are ranked – Elders go from First to Second, whilst all other Sensorites, many given titles such as Administrator or Scientist, are relegated in the credits to First to Fourth Sensorite. Added to this, the confusion which then arises as some play multiple parts, whilst others are promoted, and it becomes relatively confusing to follow.
Episode 3 ends with what is, in hindsight, quite a clever cliff-hanger; when Ian first coughs, the audience might be forgiven that it is unscripted, but not worthy of a retake – since The Sensorites contains an uncountable number of fluffs and messed-up lines, it would be forgivable. But then he coughs the second time, as the Doctor mutters “a clue!” and all of a sudden, he’s down on the floor convulsing as the end credits roll. That the water is poisoned is relatively clear from their heavily led discussion about it, which is why it is a shame that much of episode 4 is spent testing water – which we know will be contaminated – whilst the subplot involving Glaze’s Administrator continues. There are some nice directorial flourishes here, such as the cross-fading between vial-testing and Ian, stricken in bed with poisoning. In the subplot, there is a lovely scene which further highlights the plot of xenophobia, as the Administrator raves that humans are untrustworthy simply because they have “no badge of office” by which to differentiate them. To him, they all “look the same”, and so when Carol makes this identical ‘astute’ observation to him, a further plot device is revealed – subterfuge and disguise.
What is refreshing about episode 4, plot-wise, is that it shows yet another side to the Doctor. Until now, they have always ‘saved the day’ (or not, in the case of The Aztecs) and then left. Here though, even though the Doctor has completed his end of the bargain and found a cure, he isn’t ready to just walk away. Rather than simply discovering the cause of the poisoning and creating an antidote, he is determined to head down to the aqueduct to discover the cause, above and beyond what was expected of him. He is no longer only acting for the selfish desires as he did in earlier serials – now he is proactively involving himself in events. Quite where this sits with his thoughts on involvement and interference is unsure. As I mentioned in The Aztecs, it seems that involvement in alien affairs is all well and good, but one simply cannot meddle with Earth’s history.
Episode 5 sees a new director – Frank Cox – stepping in to complete the serial, and there is a quick change in style. Cox uses deep focus, framing the action nicely between scenery and other characters to great effect. Sadly, episode 5 is also the dullest from a narrative perspective, and there is only so much a director can do with such dire exposition. The scenes involving the Administrator blackmailing the Second Elder are nicely done, although the threat to his “family group” is a tad repetitive. Likewise, the scene with the accusation of the Doctor as a murderer is so quickly unravelled it is ridiculous – the Sensorite making the accusations digs himself a deeper hole by the second, as he is uncovered within about 45 seconds of his accusation. The “Kidnap” of the episode title doesn’t happen until the final 5 seconds of the instalment.
Episode 6, meanwhile, is strong – this serial seems bookended by two tense and dramatic episodes, with very little happening in the filler between. Bailey’s appearance as the Commander is wonderfully played – a frightfully British chief, determined that his men make the best of a bad lot, appearing dishevelled and filthy but insisting that “they’re a good bunch”. With the emergence of the Commander and his men as the poisoners, Newman’s xenophobic discussion reaches a new point – highlighting that racism and intolerance in war only harms those trapped in the middle. Both the Administrator and the Commander are wrong to be acting as they are doing; whilst each believes they are doing the right thing, it is those caught between that really suffer. Once again, each of Bailey’s men are reduced to numbers, rather than individual character names.
The serial comes to a close with Carole Ann Ford at her very best, reminiscing of her home world – still unnamed for now – discussing the burnt orange skies and silver leaves on the trees. Never has she appeared so alien as this, a young girl with no fixed abode, travelling the skies with her grandfather, and it is an evocative delivery which has been referred to since in Doctor Who mythology.
So, if it is true that 67% of people fail during this series, I can feel pleased with myself that I am in that top 33%. Next up, though, is Dennis Spooner’s historical The Reign of Terror, which has 33% of the story missing – and has not yet been released with the animated missing episodes. Could this challenge be my downfall...?