Picture this: the Doctor is told of the threat posed by an elusive yet formidable race, lurking in the background with menacing powers. These aliens are mysterious at first; there is a slow build-up to their first appearance and to the Doctor’s first confrontation with them. They are pale, thin, bald-headed creatures, and the mere mention of their name is enough to create a keen sense of dread…
Remind you of a recent Doctor Who season story arc – the one involving The Silence, perhaps? In fact, it’s just a summary of one aspect of writer Peter R. Newman’s sole Who serial, 1964’s The Sensorites, but there’s much more to this perennially unloved slice of futurama than its titular aliens.
The Sensorites is notable for its portrayal of Susan’s telepathic abilities and for its references to her and the Doctor’s home planet. Although the focus is mostly on Susan’s use of thought-transference to communicate, the Doctor can’t resist getting in on the act too; as he tells Ian, “Telepathy isn’t only a prerequisite of the Sensorites –I know sometimes what you’re thinking.” Early on, there’s also a nice feeling of the TARDIS crew having been together for a while and a fitting reminder of how Ian and Barbara, the human schoolteachers who started their journey with the Doctor and Susan in time and space as unwilling crewmates –as virtual captives, initially – have become much closer to the two aliens. “We’ve all changed,” comments Barbara, to which the Doctor remarks, “Yes, it all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, but now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure…”
Remind you of The Silence?
All of the TARDIS crew’s TV adventures to date are mentioned in the dialogue to remind viewers of the journey they and the time travellers have taken since it all began 31 weeks earlier, and there’s even mention of a sadly untelevised encounter with Henry VIII, who “threw a parson’s nose” at the Doctor!
The story starts proper with the eerie desolation typical of the show’s early science fiction stories as the Doctor and co. investigate the deck of a spaceship. For a 21st-century viewer, it’s remarkable to note the contrast between the Doctor’s approach to new adventures then compared with now: he carefully checks that the environment they’ve landed in is safe before they exit the TARDIS, he ensures Susan locks the doors after them and he even declares, moments after they’ve surveyed the deck, “I think it would be wise if we left.” Hardly the rash adventurer of the Eccleston, Tennant or Smith eras!
Inevitably for an old SF serial made on a shoestring budget, credibility is strained when we see the 28th-century spaceship crew in their RAF-style ties, shirts and uniforms. The communications units are 1960s telephones attached to the walls, while elsewhere filing cabinets abound, but thankfully, there’s much more to this story than dodgy props. There’s a palpable aura of danger aboard the ship; crewmembers Captain Maitland and Carol are revived and warn the time travellers they must leave; the Sensorites have stopped the humans from leaving this area of deep space by controlling their minds and their ship.
Although hostile, the Sensorites they don’t kill humans, they merely put them in deep sleep and visit them sometimes to feed them. The implication that humans are like zoo animals for the Sensorites, possibly kept alive for some sinister purpose, establishes the aliens as a potent enemy, and the more information we are given of these shadowy beings, the more we anticipate our first sight of them. Worse still, it transpires that while the TARDIS crew have been with Maitland and Carol, the TARDIS’s lock has been burnt out by a Sensorite. This weakening of the TARDIS’s apparent invincibility increases the peril. Indeed, as the tension mounts and we gain our first glimpse of a Sensorite via a shot of its claw, we begin to fear for the Doctor and his friends.
It’s tempting to wonder what this story must have felt like to the contemporary viewer; in 1964, no one had any idea how long the first run of Doctor Who would last for, never mind that we’d still be watching it in 2012 and beyond, and there were no story titles as such onscreen, only individual episode titles. It must have felt as though the Doctor was about to face his deadliest foe yet, worse even than the Daleks. The first episode ends with a humdinger of a cliffhanger as a Sensorite is seen peering in at our heroes through a viewing port on the deck.
What follows is more interesting than a good vs evil allegory– depending, of course, on whether you prefer your aliens to be monsters or for them to have subtler, more human motivations. We soon see that despite their alarming appearance, the Sensorites are no Silence; they have physical limitations and character weaknesses, just as we do. Costume designer Daphne Dare and make-up artist Sonia Markham deserve credit for the creepily effective visuals; aside from their distinctive bald heads, the Sensorites have monkey noses, Mr Spock ears and goat’s eyes.
Their telepathy apart, they talk in whispery voices, though Peter Glaze’s City Administrator speaks with a hoarseness to emphasise his villainy; they’re scared of the dark; loud noises cause them pain; Ian holds them off with a spanner (“I think they were as frightened of me as I was of them!”); Susan repels them with mental techniques she learned on the planet Esto.
A picture emerges of a vulnerable, mostly harmless species: “Intruders from other planets always say they wish to talk but all they mean to do is destroy.” Writer Newman supposedly based the Sensorite race on Chinese communists and provides insight into the caste system on their planet, the Sense-Sphere; each social position is “simply what one is best fitted for.” But all is far from peaceful; there is dissension in the ranks, particularly regarding how best they should deal with humans who venture too close to their world.
The Sensorite First Elder is pro-human but the City Administrator and the Second Elder aren’t; one Sensorite even describes us as “loud and ugly things.” The debate they have regarding humankind and the skullduggery employed by the anti-human faction to ensure they achieve their aims echo those of the Silurians several years later, while the moral message concerning the pitfalls of two species’ xenophobia towards each other and the revelation in the final episode of the ‘real monsters’ lurking in the aqueduct beneath the city are pure Malcolm Hulke.
Unfortunately, as the Sensorites’ characterisation becomes more complex, so the initial potency and mystery of the creatures wane, and there are other instances where you feel that script editor David Whitaker should’ve prevented Peter R. Newman from selling us short. “The Sense-Sphere is an ordinary planet with a slightly bigger landmass than usual – but that’s all”, Maitland says early on, scarcely whetting our appetite for the Doctor’s visit there. The Doctor’s realisation that the Sense-Sphere is so precious because it’s rich in molybdenum is equally underwhelming, a hangover from the original Sidney Newman outline for the series as a vehicle to teach children about science. And as for the Doctor having a maximum three days to find an antidote to the poison in the water that Ian has drunk, wouldn’t one hour have provided a far edgier race against time?
Yet there is another striking feature of this story – the character of John, the spaceship’s mineralogist and Carol’s partner. The portrayal of his mental illness is disturbing, presaging that of Hindle in Kinda sixteen years later, and though Stephen Dartnell could be accused of weediness in his performance, we come to realise that it’s apposite for this character; the Sensorite who tells the Dr about their previous, troubled encounter with humans sounds similar to John, thereby establishing the link between him and the aliens – they’ve made him into a Sensorite, scared and with voices in his head.
Pleasingly, John’s madness is cured by those who caused it. The First Elder returns him to his former self, while defending what the Sensorites did to him– he was intent on plundering the planet’s molybdenum with a fleet of spaceships to take it back to Earth: “We saw the pictures he formed in his mind and we saw that it was the end of our way of life. We had no alternative but to imprison him and his friends in orbit around the Sense-Sphere.” This neatly explains the dormant state of the spaceship’s crew at the beginning while providing a credible motivation for the Sensorites’ apparent malice towards humans.
In conclusion, it’s hard to disagree with perceived fan wisdom that The Sensorites doesn’t hit the spot that truly good or great Doctor Who stories do. However, that’s purely because its early scene-setting tension is undercut by Peter R. Newman’s desire to tell a more complex, interesting and moral story, and it has many riches hidden below its surface.