“THE SENSORITES” – Season 1, Serial 7, Story 7 – Written by Peter R. Newman; Directed by Mervyn Pinfield (episodes 1-4) and Frank Cox (episodes 5-6) – The Doctor, Susan, Ian, and Barbara land inside of a spaceship where the crew appears dead, but is actually just sleeping. Then they meet some new bad guys who appear bad-ass, but actually aren’t. None of the Sensorites shave, even though none of them can grow a proper beard, and if you want to defeat them in combat you have to turn off the lights and scream. They can sort of take over your mind and they don’t trust humans. Because The Sensorites Have Been Hurt By Humans In The Past And They’re Just Not Ready To Start Dating Again.
The first two episodes of THE SENSORITES rank among my all-time favorite William Hartnell episodes; in fact, I’d go so far as to say the opening to episode one, “Strangers in Space,” is one of my all-time favorite scenes in the history of DOCTOR WHO, and contains one of my favorite quotes, as he tells Ian, Barbara, and Susan, “It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
The episode opens with the TARDIS crew standing around the TARDIS console, trying to figure out where they are. We get a lot of little touches that I like – references to past serials, casual conversation, explanations of how the console works – but the biggest reason that I like this opening is that there’s a mystery and there’s evidence of growth between the group. The Doctor is almost downright cheery about having Ian and Barbara around. As much as it’s important to have conflict and drama, it’s also important in long-running television shows to demonstrate that the characters want to be with one another, or you can risk drowning your show in misery. As an audience member, I feel good watching DOCTOR WHO and I don’t want the characters to continually act like they hate having the adventures I enjoy watching.
That THE SENSORITES manages to demonstrate this is a definite plus in its favor, but it’s like having the cherry before the meal – it’s nice but it’s not going to make or break the overall story. As the group exits the TARDIS, they encounter one of those wonderful sci-fi set-ups: they’re on a spaceship and the two crewmen they find on the bridge are dead. The Doctor thinks through this scenario, taking clues (such as the two crewmen’s stopped watches and their body temperature) to figure out a rough time of death. Everyone is asking questions and offering theories, and it’s just about the best start you could hope for.
Therefore, it’s a little disappointing when they decide to just leave, except just as they’re about to exit, the male crewman turns out not to be dead. And after they help him revive, the female crewman turns out not to be dead, either.
They explain that they’re from Earth, and in orbit around the Sense-Sphere (for newer fans, this planet is in the same system as the Ood-Sphere), and that the planet’s inhabitants won’t let them leave. The Sensorites are using a kind of mind control to keep the humans from leaving, and one member of the crew, John, is kept away from the locked-up bridge.
I really like the set design for THE SENSORITES – the closed-off bridge has two large, circular doors on the back wall, each of them leading down a different corridor. The doors are, initially, locked and so it creates some good drama when Barbara and Susan finds themselves trapped on the other side.
The Sensorites interfere with the Doctor’s group before making their official appearance, which leads to one of the all-time great DOCTOR WHO villain reveals: they first spot a Sensorite when he’s seen floating outside the window of their spaceship! It’s a great shot and sets up the Sensorites very well: we know they can do mind control, that they can sneak around (they steal the lock mechanism off the TARDIS’ front door without anyone noticing them), that they can control the spaceship (they send it crashing towards the planet below, only to be foiled by the Doctor), and that they can float outside the ship in space.
Pretty kick-ass, right?
Yeah, not so much.
The Sensorites are one of the weakest physical threats the Doctor has ever faced. The mind control business turns out to be more akin to mental conditioning, and their weakness in combat – I kid you not – is that they don’t like the dark and they don’t like loud noises. They’re also not really all that evil, which is actually a nice switch. The script by Peter R. Newman is much like the actual video broadcast: full of shades of gray.
The Sensorites first convince Susan to come to the planet without the others by contacting her through her telepathic abilities, which causes a rift between her and “Grandfather” that firmly places Susan in the Spearsian “not a girl, not yet a woman” box. I love the tension between her and the Doctor – he comes off as a protective old man, which is just what he is. The First Doctor’s fuse is a short one, though what he’s quick to is usually an intense annoyance more than angry fireworks. He doesn’t keep his opinions to himself, however, and falls back into the old parenting trap of demanding behavior from a youngster that the child clearly thinks they are ready to escape.
The tension between Susan and the Doctor (and he’s right that she shouldn’t be making decisions for the group on her own, and the readiness in which she accepts the Sensorites offer to leave the Doctor and join them on the planet is surprising) creates some wonderful moments for Barbara, as she understands better than anyone what Susan is going through.
Once the Doctor, Susan, and Ian get to the planet, the serial does go the padded route. I like that the Sensorites turn out to be a varied society. The leader of the Sensorites, the First Elder, is cautious but open to accepting the Doctor. We learn that a previous human expedition discovered a valuable mineral on the planet (molybdenum – which is totally real) and were such jerks about everything that the Sensorites no longer trust humans on any level.
Yet, here’s the Doctor, promising to help cure the sick Sensorites that have been cropping up since that human expedition. He figures out that they are being poisoned through their water supply after Ian drinks some of the regular tap water instead of the super-purified crystal water given to the Elders. Through his actions, the First Elder starts to be won over to trusting these new visitors.
Trust is the major theme of THE SENSORITES; the question over whether to trust the Doctor or not sets the First Elder and the City Administrator against one another. There’s some good politics here, even if the City Administrator hurts his valid points by acting like a total crazy person, willing to let Ian die to see if the Doctor is telling the truth or not, in regards to the antidote he’s created.
There’s a nice twist as to who the actual bad guys are in this episode and plenty of good work from everyone involved. We get a couple descriptions of Gallifrey from Susan (where, “at night the sky is a burned orange, and the leaves on the trees are bright silver”) and the serial ends with a very testy Doctor telling Ian he’s going to kick him off at the next stop.
Life with the First Doctor … always one inappropriate comment away from getting on his bad side.
I like THE SENSORITES quite a bit.