What can I say? Work has been busy lately, and sometimes even Doctor Who gets put on the back burner while other things take priority. I know—the sheer humanity of the thought is almost too horrible contemplate, so I’m hitting the reset button, and starting over with The Sensorites. Now let’s see, where were we? Oh that’s right…
The TARDIS has materialized, but Ian and Barbara immediately notice the look of concern on the Doctor’s face as he checks and rechecks the controls: they have arrived somewhere, but the instruments indicate they’re still in motion. Perhaps they’ve landed on top of something, Ian suggests, or, as Barbara speculates, inside something…
The Sensorites is one of those stories that no one ever seems to be in a big rush to watch again any time soon: it’s certainly not bad, and it’s not even especially forgettable, either, though it’s true that Strangers in Space is not quite on par with, say, The Dead Planet or The Temple of Evil in terms of opening episodes, but this has more to do with the direction than the story itself.
That said, if The Aztecs (for me at least) has always felt like a season opener, then the opening scene of Strangers in Space could almost serve the same purpose: the Doctor, Barbara, Susan, and Ian recall their (mis)adventures on prehistoric Earth, encountering the Daleks on Skaro, meeting Marco Polo, searching for the Keys of Marinus, and, of course, their recent travails with the Aztecs, as well as observing how much they’ve all changed since beginning their journey together. “It all started as a mild curiosity in a junkyard,” the Doctor comments, “and now it’s turned out to be quite a spirit of adventure, don’t you think?”
It’s a strange scene, almost as though writer Peter R. Newman wasn’t quite sure how to begin his own tale, but it makes an important point: the time travelers have changed, both as a consequence of their own adventures together, and as a narrative necessity. The show would be nearly unwatchable, for example, if the Doctor had retained his original characterization that we saw from An Unearthly Child all the way through The Edge of Destruction, and script editor Anthony Coburn and producer Verity Lambert wisely softened the Doctor to warmer, more grandfatherly figure, while still retaining his irritability and tetchiness. By this point, the characterization of Ian, Barbara, Susan, and the Doctor have more or less fully-formed, and it’s these characters whose adventures we will follow from now own—even if we don’t know everything about these people yet (or ever—spoilers!).
Of course, despite the growth of the characters, certain aspects of their personalities have remained remarkably consistent (even if they were a little inconsistent to start with). Take Barbara: she’s prone to worry, and is always extremely protective of Susan and her well-being. This aspect of Barbara’s personality is the reason the series began in the first place—Barbara was concerned about Susan’s home life. And it’s easy to understand why: in the TARDIS family, Barbara is the mother who fusses and worries, Ian is dad, the Doctor is (literally) grandfather, and Susan is the so-called (unearthly) child. Even John, the crewman who has suffered a nervous breakdown at the hands of the Sensorites, looks to Barbara for nurturing and comfort, and regardless of her misgivings, she reaches out in compassion and kindness, and promises to take care of him.
From the standpoint of The Sensorites, and specifically Strangers in Space, the compassion and “goodness” of the time travelers—and, by extension, Maitland, Carol, and John, the astronauts we meet on the spaceship—is juxtaposed against a backdrop of fear and suspense. Truthfully, director Mervyn Pinfield doesn’t do a particularly good job creating this sense of foreboding, but once again we given an interesting question to ponder: what is fear? What is the nature of fear? Is fear an illusion? And most importantly, how do we come to terms with and face the things that frighten us the most?
The Sensorites, whom we don’t see until the very last moment, are apparently masters of using fear as a means of control (did Newman get in touch with Terry Nation?), which is made even more powerful through their ability to control the minds of the human astronauts. They also have the ability to control the humans’ ship by remote control, another tool at their disposal to manipulate Maitland and his crew, going so far as to make them all believe they’re going to crash on the Sense Sphere, the planet of the Sensorites. The question is: why? There’s no apparent reason the Sensorites are keeping the humans, and yet they are determined not to let them leave—even the TARDIS crew are trapped after a Sensorite removes the Ship’s door opening mechanism, leaving it permanently locked.
We don’t get an answer, but the Sensorites, unseen, are all around the humans, watching them, manipulating them, and finally there is nothing left but an overwhelming silence that fills every available mental space. And then, peer though the viewport, a Sensorite, shocking and more alien that even the Daleks, observes the humans…
In terms of direction, Mervyn Pinfield is no Waris Hussein—and can I just reiterate my plea to Steven Moffat here to bring Waris back to direct the fiftieth anniversary story, please?—and it feels a little lackluster, truth be told, when the story arguably calls for something a little darker and far more claustrophobic. But we are treated to one of the best visual effects sequences in Doctor Who’s first season here in Strangers in Space, as we watch in horror with Barbara as the Sense Sphere rushes closer and closer and larger and larger on the viewport, before the Earth vessel regains control thanks to the Doctor’s intervention (see number five below). It’s an almost forgettable few seconds, easily overlooked by modern viewers, but it must have looked spectacular in 1964. (It’s in the trailer, by-the-way, in case you missed it.)
Daniel is the owner and Managing Editor of Time and The – !. He's been a fan of Doctor Who since watching Tom Baker regenerate into Peter Davison on his local PBS station as a kid. He launched Time and The – ! in 2011 after having the bright (?) idea to watch every Doctor Who story from the beginning and blog about it. (Yeah, he's way behind.)