This strange half forgotten serial bears up surprisingly well 50 years later. It is a complex piece with great ideas and moments of narrative tension but a patchwork too – the good moments flicker in and out.
The opening episode is amongst the best that the series has produced so far with unsettling threads to hold our attention. What’s happened on this ship? Why are the astronauts dead-but-not-dead? What’s wrong with John? Who are these Sensorites? What is a sense sphere?
The near crash landing of the ship is marvellously handled and we have no doubt that it IS the Doctor, not Ian or Barbara, that has saved the day. After all the jibes about his piloting of the Tardis it is something of a revelation to see the complete confidence with which Dr Billie saves the day. For the first time perhaps we pull back the curtain on the inspired mixture of wizard, genius and fool that works in a lineage to Matt Smith
Unfortunately this opening episode is somewhat let down by our first glimpse of the Sensorites as one decides to float outside the window flapping its hands around (or not if you look at Episode 2). If Ian looks suitably astonished it is perhaps because he wonders why its outside staring in at them like a goldfish.
If the cliffhanger is a poor introduction to the Sensorite Nation this is because the costumes, when we see them, are good.
Their visage is genuinely alien (no Star Trek ridge furrows in sight) and they look off the chart weirder than anything seen in Doctor Who since a Dalek waved a plunger at Barbara at the end of episode 5. They appear to have no mouths in the conventional sense with a waft of hair rather than lips and ploppy rounded feet. For alien qualities they leave the wet-suited Voord dead in the dust.
But while it is intriguing – and nuanced – of Peter R. Newman to see an alien race through their weak points it is the sheer weight of vulnerabilities that leave them looking ludicrous and improbable.
In short, the Sensorites have somehow evolved to be terrified of everything.
Darkness, noise, authority figures, outsiders, plotters and disease. It’s like a planet where the religious right has evolved to be the dominant species – fear and loathing lurk everywhere within an otherwise prosperous world. God only knows what would happen were a Sensorite to meet a tarantula or a tax inspector.
The Doctor seems surprising willing to bully these poor, weird creatures – he repeatedly shouts at them, despite Susan’s admonishment, and threatens to leave them in the dark. We are uncomfortably drawn in, as they are such perfect victims. Clearly the Doctor has some catching up to do on the UN Convention on Torture or maybe it doesn’t work this far out in the Galaxy. It is interesting that Peter R. Newman’s serious film for Hammer imagined atrocities on both sides.
Perhaps he makes them vulnerable so we understand why they become reactionary?
Into this world of frightened, vacillating leaders like the insipid first elder it is almost a relief to meet the scheming take no prisoners City Administrator who is determined to be completely unreasonable and scheme his way to power.
And can anyone blame the Sensorite-right for being insular when people are eyeing off their Molybdenum (more on that later), crusty Rambo militia’s have gone postal in their tunnels and people are squirting atropine into their water. It is no wonder the hawks want to roll out the disintegrator gun and get tough on border control.
The City Administrator is hardly the brightest tool in the box. Taking plot lessons from the staggeringly dull character of Carol who muses that she doesn’t know how she’d tell the Sensorites apart without their sashes. “I hadn’t thought of that” he says. Hardly Machiavelli then.
Still he seems a different character to the other Sensorites and manages to make them more diverse and real. And what he lacks in brains he makes up for in sheer front.
There is good drama in the scenes where the Administrator threatens the 2nd elder. His promise – “I will lock you in a room where no light can shine and fill it with noise” – is soaked with malice. We believe he’d do it. His motivations seem ultimately instinctual and perverse as Daniel notes.
He is a natural fascist who thrives on misdirection and wins because he dares to employ sudden political violence in a world of oh so reasonable people. When the second elder dies he doesn’t panic – he sees a chance. When the daft ‘’cloak plot”’ unravels he dumps the Warrior Sensorite like a hot brick. Such workplace sociopaths do exist and they often win, for a time, by sheer audacity and bald faced lies. The twist by which the Doctor falls for his misdirection and manages to get his enemy promoted against all their interests is a good device for the story. To see reflections of the modus operandi of the gang who took over Germany is not farfetched.
The notion of telepathy is an interesting one and made more so by the revelation that Susan is telepathic. A society that was truly telepathic could be very interesting and disorientating – with shared memories and a cacophony of voices.
A pity then that the Sensorites telepathy seems to have about as much multitask application as a first generation mobile phone. You need devices to communicate at both ends and there is no pictures, only sound. Wait till they discover smart phones and ubiquitous high speed broadband.
Carol Ann Ford again has a good serial with her short rebellion against the Doctor, even if we are not entirely sure why she would suddenly run off to cohabit with the Sensorites at the end of Episode 2.
Moments of greatness (and silliness):
- There is a mixture of racism, xenophobia, and obsession borne of extremis woven into this piece – even if it is laid on a bit thick. ‘’You all look the same to us’’, says Carol while the mad, ranting militia people who don’t know their war is over come across as deep fried military xenophobes with a touch of David Niven in Bridge over the River Kwai. One gets the impression that Peter R Newman might have seen a lot in his time in Burma.
- We wonder in this episode if the Doctor is actually, well, a Doctor in the medical sense. He seems to know his poisons and his antidotes and loves nothing better than a good bit of medical research as he eliminates the causes of the poisoning one by one. Like many research physicians his patient care is alarmingly hands off. Susan looks suitably bewildered when he casually says of Ian that “if the breathing get shallow just try CPR”. At least his Sensorite med students have learned good old fashioned copperplate.
- Speaking of Ian’s illness, the character development of the Doctor benefits enormously from having Ian flaked out on a couch for an episode. For the first time in the series, we see the wily wizard in full flight concocting cures out of not very much and barging his way through the mind numbing world of sense sphere bureaucracy. Again this is the template for the character we know and love – a touch of the Pertwee Unit fixer-genius here.
- A highlight of the DVD is to discover the lost history of Peter R Newman in the Toby Hadoake documentary ‘Looking for Peter’. What they find is a brilliant, complex but blocked writer with a personal reason to understand the moral vagaries of war.
Side note: The Chemistry of the Sensorites and war … with thanks to the wonder of Wikipedia, some speculation and a dash of childhood fascination with chemistry:
- First, what the heck is Molybdenum? Well it is one of the obscurest elements in the periodic table and an unusual choice for the ‘’value proposition’’ in The Sensorites – its qualities are not well understood and it is not found in nature, except through contact with other minerals. It has biological and metallic useages and came into prominence as a hardening alloy in WWI and again in WWII. It would be intriguing – if very speculative – to muse whether this is how Peter R. Newman – a WWII veteran fighter pilot – came to choose it. A final twist: In a case of life mirroring art more uses continue to be found for this element and natural scarcity of Molybdenum is now being linked to everything from Cancers to the evolution of life on earth. Maybe the Sensorites were right to be protective of their stash.
- And Atropine? It is a medicine and poison: It is used as an emergency treatment against nerve gases, such as tabun , sarin , soman and VX. Troops who are likely to be attacked with chemical weapons often carry atropine which can be quickly injected. Tabun gas was made on an industrial scale by Germany during World War II.
Tenuous Aussie connection:
• The Australian DVD release of The Sensorites occurred mid way through writing this article – so I got to see it in vid fired video and digital DVD.
Craig Wallace is a marketing manager and project coordinator with Nican a national community organisation and has been a community leader with various organisations for more than a decade. He is the President of People with Disability Australia, a leading cross disability rights organisation in Australia and is a member of the ACT BLITS business group.