Reviewed by John Hussey
“The Sensorites” is certainly a product of its time, representing perfectly 1960s science fiction. From the story it tells, to the set pieces, right down to the alien designs. Surprisingly the serial still holds up fairly well but it isn’t without its flaws. One of the major ones is how simplistic the narrative can become. In the process it makes the characters feel extremely stupid due to being unaware of the obvious things going on right under their noses. This in turn makes the serial feel like its pandered to little children rather than a family audience.
But to give writer Peter R. Newman credit “The Sensorites” does hold some interesting social messages which ultimately heightens the serial’s intelligence. At the heart of the narrative lies the age-old torment of fearing that which is different. Both the human characters, and the alien Sensorites, hold pre-judgements of the other and this irrational thinking makes for some intriguing developments throughout the episodes.
To begin with “The Sensorites” holds a lot of mystery and an eerie atmosphere. The Sensorites are slowly built-up within “Strangers in Space” as a powerful race due to their psychic abilities. Their presence controls the human ship, forcing the passengers to remain within the galaxy. One of the passengers, John, has been driven mad because of the Sensorites presence within his mind. Though the acting is quite hammy John’s character adds a nice little layer to the narrative, with him at first being a physical threat to both Susan and Barbara due to his unbalanced nature, later on becoming a beacon to the conspiracy that unfolds.
The Sensorites are properly revealed in “The Unwilling Warriors”. It’s fair to say that these creatures are a prime example of Doctor Who‘s early budget restraints. Though the costumes themselves appear rather uninspiring the actual masks of the alien race aren’t too bad (even though it is clear they restrict the actors facial expressions). What’s interesting about the alien species is whether or not they are truly a threat. As the humans rightfully state from the very beginning that despite being held against their will the Sensorites never attempted to attack them.
We then move onto the idea of the Sensorites fearing humanity due to their worries that they intended to mine their planet for a rare mineral called Molybdenum. This caused the creatures to drive John accidentally into a state of constant fear to try and prevent his plan. What is rather intriguing about this serial is how important Susan becomes, progressing her character beyond a frightened child that lacks independence. She forms a psychic connection with the Sensorites and learns about their culture. What is also fascinating is how the Sensorites managed to anger The First Doctor after they attempted to take Susan, with the Time Lord showcasing early signs of his infamous wrath.
“The Sensorites” picks up upon the TARDIS crew being taken to the Sense Sphere in “Hidden Danger” where they try to negotiate with the First Elder. Things aren’t easy as opinions and code control the minds of the Sensorites. Their fear of humanity makes them sceptical towards The First Doctor and his friends and require convincement. Susan manages to control her grandfather’s temper (who is still angered by the fact they tried controlling Susan) and pushes her role within the story as being a helpful hand that understands the Sensorites and attempts to bring peace.
Meanwhile, the villain of the serial comes into play. One of the Sensorites is adamant on his opinions that humanity are a threat to his species and attempts at every turn to destroy them. It becomes rather clichéd and predictable (sometimes infuriating just because his ideals are clearly wrong and jeopardise the safety of the TARDIS crew and the Sensorites for the sake of narrow minded thoughts) but the serial remains entertaining.
A new development arises when the First Elder reveals that members of his species are dying. It is soon discovered that their water supply is being poisoned after Ian becomes ill after drinking from it. More problems come about as The First Doctor tries convincing the suspicious minds of the Sensorites into believing his actions will benefit both parties whilst the rogue Sensorites continue their plotting. They attempt to prevent Ian from getting his medicine whilst also impersonating the Second Elder to cause more trouble from behind the scenes.
Despite the serial being entertaining it does become infuriating (like I said above) because of the selfish decisions devised by the rogue creatures, as well as the characters being unable to figure things out, despite how obvious they are. It makes the narrative feel rather silly as the script lowers the standards to please a younger audience, and thereby making our beloved characters feel rather pathetic at times as they simply allow things to happen, and in some cases help the problems along.
It’s rather daft that once Barbara returns to the scene that the rest of the TARDIS crew start to figure out the conspiracy. I know Jacqueline Hill was on holiday during the events of “A Race Against Time” and “Kidnap” but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the TARDIS crew are clueless without her. Maybe it’s a way of showing Barbara’s importance but it’s more likely to give her something to do after her long absence, along with spreading the plot over its six episode run.
“A Desperate Venture” ties all the knots together as The First Doctor reveals that the poisonous water supply has been caused by surviving members of the previous human expedition. They had become deranged due to exposure to the Sensorites’ minds, driven to believe that they needed to fight and kill the alien race. The rogue Sensorites have meanwhile continued to move their plans forward after accidentally killing the Second Elder and taking his place. The despicable Sensorite annoyed me further by trying to cash in on his new-found power by making the likes of Susan and Ian respect his authority, attempting in his crude way to put them in their supposed place.
It’s fair to say the villain of this serial was very frustrating because of his deluded opinions and how he managed to manipulate the events around him, causing the Second Elder’s death and corrupted the minds of his fellow species. But luckily his plans eventually fail as The First Doctor outsmarts him. Susan had already figured out who was behind the conspiracy (miraculously after Barbara had returned) and after gaining evidence of his sabotage the TARDIS crew were able to give the First Elder all the reasons he needed to banish the traitorous creature.
I think the strange thing about “The Sensorites” is how quickly I was able to go through its narrative and yet it lasted for six episodes. In many ways this serial feels far too long and could’ve easily been condensed to allow for a sharper script which didn’t stretch out plot elements for the sake of it. “Strangers in Space” and “The Unwilling Warriors” didn’t need to drag out the Sensorites mystery and “Hidden Danger” proved to be the real starting point of the serial, with the previous two episodes feeling more like filler.
And the shoddy writing in which had the TARDIS crew unable to see the problems right under their noses was inexcusable. The most embarrassing moment came about at the very start where everybody failed to realise that the TARDIS lock mechanism was being stolen. Sure they were looking away at the time but once they smelt the smoke they should’ve quickly deduced that it was coming from behind them and caught the Sensorites in the act. But of course this needed to happen to make sure The First Doctor and his companions couldn’t escape.
As stated above “The Sensorites” did well at utilising Susan and making her feel useful. This more resembled the character crafted within “The Pilot Episode”, a strange young girl filled with mystery. Carol Ann Ford truly got to make Susan feel alien through her psychic connection and understanding of alien culture. I always loved how we had a scene dedicated to her re-establishing that she wasn’t human (something that is usually wrongly proposed by side-characters and villains within the serials).
We actually got to hear Susan talk about her home-world and depict the first ever description of Gallifrey, most notably its orange sky. Through the First Elder we got an idea of how Susan feels and what she wants in life, with a later scene indicating to her later fate within “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” in that she wants somewhere to belong, a reaffirmation of why she grew attached to 1960s Earth due to belonging somewhere instead of being a wanderer in space and time.
It’s very clear how the Sensorites shaped the creation of the New Series creatures the Ood. Their look, shape, clothing, their communicator devices and even their psychic connection all resemble the Sensorites. Heck, even their planet the Ood Sphere is set within the same galaxy as the Sensorite Sphere. The Sensorite culture is rather fascinating from a social stand-point because there is a lack of freedom. Their lives are destined by their abilities which ultimately ranks them within their society.
“The Sensorites” is an overall entertaining story but it lacks true depth and instead relies on cheap progression nudges that renders the entire experience a lesser product. Plus the social commentary is vastly brushed over and would’ve made for a more interesting narrative as humanity questioned the Sensorites and their backwards way of living. Though it is touched upon, with Susan questioning the First Elder on the trust system within his species, but more could’ve been done.
It was hinted upon that their resemblance made them almost identical in appearance, with their symbols of status being the only differentiation which led to the rogues fooling not only the TARDIS crew but also members of the Sensorites. This showed that their society had many flaws, meaning that their race ended up being the broken species because of their pre-judgements making them appear rather hypocritical considering how more socially advanced humanity are with their equality and diversity.