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…
Susan, the so-called unearthly child who, in many ways, was the impetus that lead Ian and Barbara to the TARDIS and the Doctor, was always meant to be more than what she ultimately became on screen: more or less relegated to the sidelines, as if the production team and writers weren’t quite sure what to do with her. Terry Nation gave us a few tantalizing hints in The Daleks that Susan might be more than what she seems, but the tread was never explored further, and it’s no surprise that Carole Ann Ford became increasingly dissatisfied with Susan’s development or lack thereof.
Here in The Unwilling Warriors, however, Susan (and Carole Ann Ford) is finally given a more active role in a story while utilizing the character’s original brief of being at least a little telepathic. In fact, this is central to the story, and she is very quickly established as a liaison between the Sensorites and the humans. The Sensorites, for their part, seem to trust Susan more than the others precisely because of her telepathic abilities.
Interestingly, it also appears that John, the ship’s mineralogist, is at least partially telepathic, too. The Sensorites communicate with him directly through thought transference. At this point in the series, we don’t know that Susan is any less human than John, but it seems feasible that this constant telepathic contact was at least possible for his breakdown—regardless of any innate abilities, it just may be really difficult for humans to use these skills. The Sensorites want him to frighten Barbara and Susan; there’s no indication of what they may have demanded he do to Maitland and Carol.
For their part, the Sensorites don’t seem to be quite the terrible threat Maitland and Carol seem to think they are, and when we finally encounter them directly—and for all the build up in Strangers in Space—it’s clear that they’re rather timid and bureaucratic, civil servants who seems to be unable to act on their own without first consulting with their superiors on the Sense Sphere. Furthermore, their eyes are, according to the Doctor, the exact opposite of those of a cat: they cannot see at all in low light. Ultimately, the Sensorites are not particularly intimidating, despite their telepathic abilities, and to their credit, they have no desire to harm the humans—just prevent them from revealing the presence of molybdenum, a valuable ore available in abundance on the Sense Sphere, which the Sensorites fear the humans would plunder their world for. (In all fairness, they’re probably right. That sounds like something we humans would do.)
Nevertheless, something very significant occurs in this episode: the Doctor, perhaps for the first time since the program began, makes a conscious decision to stand up for what’s right. There have been moments in previous episodes where there is a slight sense of disappointment in the Doctor, because he hasn’t acted as we expect him to act. As he stands in defiance of the Sensorites, we see that this is where it really begins, a course that will eventually change the meaning of the word doctor from healer to warrior in the language of the Gamma Forest, and the man whom River Song will one day claim can stop an army at the mention of his name (spoilers!) is born. The Sensorites may be mediocre, but in hindsight, The Unwilling Warriors really is one of the most important episodes of Doctor Who in its long history.
As the time travelers and the humans discuss what the best course of action is, Susan receives a telepathic message from the Sensorites. We’re privy to only one side of the conversation, and she makes an agreement with the aliens in exchange for the others’ safety. Telling her friends to stay where they are and not move, Susan opens the door, and stands with the Sensorites. She intends to go with them to the Sense Sphere…
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.)