The Sensorites

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who magazine, from 2012


If visualised on a graph, with THRILLS up the y-axis against TIME along the x, The Sensorites would plot a resolute diagonal from top left to bottom right. However, while the story offers steadily diminishing returns over the course of its six episodes – each, it feels, of around 87 minutes – there is at least time for one’s mind to wander to weightier matters. And so it is that today we will consider such thorny questions as: What is the future for mental health care in Britain? Can a fair society be built on fear? How do Sensorites reproduce? And who is Carol Richmond’s secret hair stylist?

But first: praise where praise is due. It’s June 1964, mere months into Doctor Who’s near half-century journey, and we’re seeing it do things for the first time. The TARDIS lands inside the show’s first spaceship – the first of so very many – and this scenario is so radical that the spaceship doesn’t even require a name. On the flight deck, the Doctor and his companions Ian, Barbara and Susan find two crew members slumped over the controls and declare them dead. (It’s the first instance of a leap-to-conclusions fatalism that becomes rather a theme of The Sensorites.) With a shiver, Susan declares an instinctive dread of the place. There’s a sinister rumble of kettledrum courtesy of composer Norman Kay. This has a subtly transporting effect, because Kay also provided the incidental music for Doctor Who’s astonishing first episode. And so, as Susan peers nervously into the gloom, Kay’s sparse, bleak score – flute, timpani and muted trumpet – brings echoes of that foggy junkyard, and the moment crackles with all the possibility and potential of Doctor Who.

But it doesn’t last. From here, that line on our graph begins its steady descent. The uncanny atmosphere is dissipated by the waking of the crew of the SS Spaceship, who prove immediately unbearable. In charge is the lettuce-limp Captain Maitland, who speaks like English is entirely new to him. In fact, he speaks like speech is entirely new to him. “My. Name. Is Maitland,” he tells us, in swoops and pauses. “This. Is Kerril Richmond. My co-astro-not.” He means Carol Richmond, his co-astronaut. Carol is very posh most of the time, and when asked by Barbara where the water is kept, she gives her best Celia Johnson: “It’s deyn thar.” These astronots, born in the 28th century, provide Doctor Who’s very first insight into what the future holds for the human race. In their time, the whole south of England is “Central City”, so it’s uninterrupted tarmac from Brighton to Birmingham. This news will undoubtedly depress anyone currently campaigning to save the Chilterns from High Speed 2.

Maitland’s ship is trapped in the orbit of a planet called the Sense-Sphere, and he and Carol have been held in suspended animation. They sense that the local inhabitants, the Sensorites, have popped up to feed them from time to time. This conjures a fleeting, bizarre image involving spoons, bibs and an awful lot of wet wipes. As Maitland talks, we’re shown mysterious hands stealing the TARDIS lock. This is happening no more than five yards away, so it tests one’s patience when nobody notices.

The ship shakes violently. It’s falling out of orbit towards the planet. What follows, as the Doctor fights to save the ship from crashing, seems so familiar as to be cliché – but again, this is his first time. “Stabilisers, Maitland!” he shouts. “We’re going to hit!” screams Susan. “Jet reverse port!” yells the Doctor. “Jet reverse starboard!” The planet races up to meet them, filling the viewscreen. “We’re heading straight for point of impact!” shouts Carol, rather self-evidently. It’s a shame that the Doctor merely twiddles some small knobs on the control panel, and doesn’t elbow Maitland – who’s an unmitigated liability – out of the pilot’s chair so he can grapple with the big control levers; physically heaving the ship out of its nosedive. But while the Doctor saves the day, the chance for an iconic hero moment is missed. It’s something the show will learn to do much better. Furthermore, the reason for this sudden panic remains unclear. It’s suggested that the Sensorites are trying to scare the bejesus out of the humans, leaving their minds more susceptible to control, but that doesn’t really fit with what we later learn about them. Swap two pages in the script and it might have served as a cunning distraction for the Sensorites’ lock-stealing antics.

A sense of the strange is recaptured for a few moments as Barbara and Susan explore the ship, where they are menaced by a third crew member, called John, who shuffles about like a zombie. (That said, even in his living death, John shows more wherewithal than Maitland and Carol put together.) We score our first proper look at a Sensorite with the first cliffhanger. It startles Ian as it peers through the flight deck window from space, seemingly trying to find a way in. It’s hardly Salem’s Lot, but it’s still a spooky moment. Sadly, the Doctor isn’t impressed. “Oh, just ignore it!” he huffs, with a dismissive flap of the hand, which rather ruins the mood.

When compared with other humanoid aliens of the Hartnell era – the Voord, the Aridians, the Monoids – the Sensorites must be considered a success. With their stiff and shiny skin, bulging cheekbones and coal-black, unreadable stare, they put one in mind of recent chat show appearances by Madonna. And though essentially bald, they do wildly creative things with the rest of their facial hair. Long strings of beard are plastered up to their eyes like inverted sideburns. It’s not so much a comb-over as a comb-under. However, for all their little absurdities, you do find yourself believing in these peculiar pixies – most of the time – and that must be the ultimate accolade for any Doctor Who monster.

The Sensorites’ standoffishness stems from the fact that humans have visited the Sense-Sphere before, and since that day the Sensorites have been dying “from a fearful affliction”. They have used their telepathic abilities to keep Maitland and crew safely in cold storage, but this power has unpicked the seams of John’s brain. The Sensorites say they can cure him, but Carol – who’s supposedly in love with John – is surprisingly defeatist, and seems ready to wash her hands of him. “He might as well be dead!” she wails. Perhaps Carol’s attitude offers an insight into the state of healthcare on 28th century Earth? Are loved ones abandoned at the first sign of mental inconstancy? Carol refuses to believe that John can be saved. “Oh, it’s no use. It’s too late.” We might feel some sympathy if the scene did not immediately cut to Barbara talking to a Sensorite. “You can do something for John?” she asks. “Oh yes,” says the Sensorite.

Some might consider it a tragedy that Barbara remains on the ship for two episodes as her friends descend to the planet. But as Maitland stays with her, it’s a good deal for the viewer. The Sense-Sphere proves a curious place, and we are given many happy hours in which to idly ponder its mysteries. Sensorite society is based on a hardcore communist model, with individuals assigned fixed roles in society during childhood that will define them for the rest of their lives. From each according to their ability, as Marx put it. There is reference to a “lower caste”, but the First Elder assures Ian that all Sensorites are happy with their lot. Ian riffs on Animal Farm to suggest, “maybe some are happier than others.” It proves a pertinent point, for there are clues to suggest the Sense-Sphere has a sinister history. We learn they have capital punishment, and discover, hidden in the palace of the Elders, a weapon called “the disintegrator”. This can tune in on an individual Sensorite and boil his brains out through his nose, without him even knowing he’s been targeted – although he may come to suspect something is amiss when his frontal lobe froths into his lap. It’s a terrifying weapon when you think about it, more chilling in its implications than even the Conscience machine of Marinus, or Google, and makes one wonder if this ordered society might have been founded upon the threat of unwarned and instant execution by the state.

The Sensorites was made in 1964, and it’s clear that Maoist China was the inspiration for the Sense-Sphere. The Sensorite Elders, whiskery and inscrutable, speak pure fortune-cookie homily. “No opinion can be worse, sometimes, than a very dogmatic one,” cautions the First Elder of a colleague. Later, the City Administrator voices his dread of the alien visitors: “Their pleasant smiles conceal sharp teeth.” (Although this may be more then just a figure of speech given how, in moments of anger, the First Doctor can come at you with his little Adipose fang.) It’s familiar science fiction shorthand to use a foreign culture as a touchstone for an alien race, but when a key plot point of The Sensorites turns out to be how, to humans, “they all look the same”, the whole thing starts to feel rather crass and insulting to our intelligence. We must be thankful that they weren’t given “me velly solly” accents.

In all our time on the Sense-Sphere, we only meet male Sensorites. However, mention of a “family group” might be taken to imply there are ladies stashed away somewhere. Perhaps they’re cowering indoors, feeling bashful; after all, a polycotton onesie can be such an unforgiving garment. Or maybe there’s only one gender on the Sense-Sphere, and when it comes to making baby Sensorites, the ‘boys’ get together and mingle some unseen pseudopodia. The tubby Administrator may be six months gone for all we know. It’s a troubling image. Either way, there’s certainly a feminine side to the Sensorites hidden away somewhere. Between episodes, Carol scores a sexy new hairdo, and someone must help with that. The state-designated stylist likely leapt on her with giddy enthusiasm, desperate for a new challenge after a life spent backcombing ear hair into eyebrows.

Meanwhile, the plot plods on. It takes the Doctor roughly two seconds to realise that the cause of the Sensorite plague is poison in the water supply. It takes the viewer less than half that time. The Sensorites’ long-term failure to solve this childish conundrum rather erodes one’s sympathy for them. If even the planet’s brightest brains hadn’t considered the possibility of poison, then this might just be natural selection taking the scenic route. Happily, the Doctor appoints himself a one-man CSI: Sense-Sphere, and in one of the story’s more vividly directed sequences, he identifies the toxin – deadly nightshade – through application of the classic montage technique. However, in the face of his not inconsiderable efforts, the Sensorites prove no less defeatist that Carol. After Ian is poisoned, the First Elder waves his hands and moans: “Your friend his dying! There is no hope!” When the Doctor later makes a solo trip into the tunnels of the local aqueduct to find the source of the poison, the Elder wails to Susan: “There is no hope! You cannot save your friend!”

All this panic and melodrama does nothing to disguise the fact that The Sensorites suffers from a chronic lack of jeopardy. When the Administrator intercepts the vital antidote on its way to Ian and smashes it, you go: “Ooh! Nasty!” But then, one minute later, we cut to a mostly recovered Ian, with Susan saying: “It’s lucky I could get some more.” Actor Peter Glaze does his best as the Administrator, the villain of the piece; tilting his head back to suggest haughtiness, and that the humans might just be stinking the place out. But overall he feels about as threatening as a petulant toddler. The best performance in the story comes from John Bailey in the final episode, playing the deranged Ben Gunn of an Earth astronaut hiding out in the aqueduct. With just a few lines he conveys a complete inner life to his character, and it all suddenly feels real for one glorious fleeting moment.

The star of the show, the man who makes it all worthwhile, is William Hartnell. Here, we see the First Doctor complete his journey from anti-hero to plain hero, and Hartnell’s total conviction keeps the whole thing alive. And Doctor Who is already cheerfully re-writing its own myth. “We’ve never had an argument,” he says to Susan, conveniently forgetting that this whole business may have started as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, but continued as a right old barney in a police box. Back then, when we first met the Doctor, he appeared to be hiding from the Universe. By the time of The Sensorites, he’s the gadabout troublemaker we know and love, and apparently always has been. Before Ian and Barbara, he met Beau Brummel and the telepathic plants of Esto, and lobbed a parson’s nose at Henry VIII.

As the Doctor faces down the Sensorites when they steal his lock, he has a line that sums him up perfectly. “I don’t make threats,” he says – friendly, but with an edge of steel. “But I do make promises. And I promise that I will cause you more trouble that you’ve bargained for.”

You can easily imagine Matt Smith saying that line. For a moment, past and present click together, and your hair stands on end. That flash of connection you can feel is – as the Doctor puts it – quite the great spirit of adventure.


DVD Extras

Hurrah for the Restoration Team! The clean-up job on The Sensorites is sensational; a great achievement. If you’re in any doubt about that, then take a moment to check the version of these episodes available on YouTube. They’re splattered with muck and flicker like a zoetrope.

We are also spoiled, as ever, by excellent production notes and a wonderfully wide-ranging commentary track. Moderator Toby Hadoke has become a real hero of the DVD range – so well-prepared, so unassuming – you find yourself wishing he had joined the team years ago. Hadoke is also the on-screen presenter of the documentary Looking For Peter, in which he dons his best fan hat and sets out to discover the life story of The Sensorites’ forgotten writer, Peter R Newman. His wingman is researcher Richard Bignell, whose eyes shine at the thought of archives unexplored. At one point, they dash off on separate missions to either side of the camera, like Batman and Robin.

Looking For Peter is, to my mind, the finest Doctor Who DVD extra yet, so sharp is its focus, so skilled its execution, and so complete its fulfilment of its promise. It’s a brilliant job of work by producer and director Chris Chapman. And it has a very moving tale to tell. When Hadoke discovers that Newman didn’t commit suicide – as fan rumour has suggested – he says, with relief: “I’m looking to discover some fun stuff about Doctor Who, not uncover a man’s disaster.” However, there’s no little sadness to Newman’s own story – the story of a war hero whose ultimate enemy proved to be his own self doubt, and whose life would end in a sudden and bizarre tragedy. But there’s joy here too, as Doctor Who gives something back – providing some comfort to Newman’s family after so many years by showing that his name and his work lives on.

This review may have had some fun with The Sensorites; but here we are, discussing it in absurd depth. That’s still a compliment. And Newman would surely be tickled to know there’s an acoustic rock duo, based in Liverpool, called Sensorites []. The Sensorites themselves wouldn’t approve of all that loud noise in dark rooms, but it’s Newman’s work that inspired the name. It just goes to show that we can never know where a Doctor Who story – even one made 48 years ago – might take us next.