The Sensorites

Written by:
Peter R Newman
Directed by: Mervyn Pinfield/Frank Cox
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1964
Video Availability: Try

While Doctor Who's first season is commendably straight, this relative lack of humour means that the SF stories have dated terribly. The Daleks may have been the reason the show was initially so popular, but four decades later there's very little to distinguish it from a Web Planet or a Space Museum… or even a Sensorites.

The Sensorites is infamously mundane. That is to say, it takes tedium into a new dimension. Yet I am quite fond of it, and while the middle episodes may be far from essential viewing, there's two things of high note in this story - one in the first episode, and one in the last.

We'll get to the first in a minute. First, we get the normally naturally charming original Tardis crew spelling out their appeal in a moment of twee nauseum. "It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard…" It's a terrible scene, the verbal equivalent of Ian Chesterton wearing a T-shirt with the slogan "aren't we cute and loveable?" on it. However, after this, something extraordinary happens. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I do believe that this is the only time in twenty-six years of Doctor Who that there was an attempt to show the crew walking through the large interior, onto the place they've landed, and then walking on with the small police box behind them - all in one self-contained sequence! What's more, it's done in such an understated way, far from director Mervyn Pinfield saying "hey, is this cool or what?" Which he could well have done - it rocks like a daddy! It's such a simple little thing (and an illusion - there's actually a cut to a second shot, but the brain doesn't take it in) yet outrageously effective. I just can't understand why they never repeated such a trick in over 150 other stories. And if you think I'm bigging this up to much, then not only is it a first-class moment, but it's also just about the only thing to single out here.

The rest of it isn't bad, apart from the stinky lines - "It's a space ship!" indeed - but nondescript. The guest cast are criminally bad - Ilona Rodgers should have been shot on sight - while the dialogue is so leaden and blandly functional you suspect that Peter R Newman was just a pen name for Terry Nation. (See? Uncle Tel doesn't even have to write the thing to get the blame!) While The Edge of Destruction has a higher count per episode, this is also the first season story with the highest number of Billy fluffs. In this first episode alone we get "These are the non-winding time" as a challenge to the majesty of "There's not an ounce of curio-curiosity in me, my dear boy" and "I rather fancy that's, er… settled that little bit of solution." Again, for completeness' sake, those fluffs in full continue: Three - "Yes, rich in minb, min, minerals, yes, quite, go on…"; Four - "I'm going to find the, er first, er Elder, scientist, rather."; Five - "Otherwise I might have been in much stek - in a worse state than I was."

There's some interesting dynamic between the crew, not least Barbara and Susan's one-upmanship. Famously the only story where Susan has anything approaching characterisation, when Susan gets a psychic sensation, Barbara has to feel it too, while later Susan has to insist she can smell the burning just as well as Babs. But best of all is the Doctor exclaiming "Can't you go faster, Susan's in there", seemingly not giving a toss about Barbara. Though despite praise in some quarters, "Strangers In Space" is a deeply naff episode title. For the Tardis leaving scene alone I'd like to give this one a five-star rating, but the rest of it clearly doesn't match up to the promise this delivers. And as I'm watching this tot on a shaky fourth generation video and not the swanky vid-fired official release then I can't say I'm overly enthusiastic about watching the rest of it…
* * * ½

"I studied it whenever I could, but it didn't look like anything that would cause much excitement."

The Sensorshites - has it really taken me two episodes to come up with that gag? This is a pretty interminable instalment, full of woeful secondary cast members and a patronising spectrograph scene. As for the eponymous creatures - flat-footed, bald old men with stethoscopes that can be defeated by flicking off a light switch. The first time after I'd seen 'em I woke up to find I'd pissed the bed.

Actually, sorry, but this is crap. I love the Hartnell era, reappraise it whenever I can, and was all up for sticking up for this maligned story. But it's stodgily written and incredibly badly acted, with Billy in particular mawling his dialogue. And with a Hartnell story all you have to focus on is script and acting - there's no sets of which to really concern yourself with. It's also painfully slow, a regular complaint by fans of the era, though usually it's unjust. Here it's well deserved when viewing what is, in essence, a reasonable four-parter. Sadly, the reality is that The Sensorites was made as a ropy six-parter.
* *

The first five minutes of this episode are almost entirely given over to characterisation, with a Doctor-Susan argument. It doesn't really press any buttons, though, as Ford is nowhere near the actress Hill is, and Susan's character is paper-thin. What's more, her conceding independence to the Doctor reminds me of that episode of Diff'rent Strokes where Arnold and (what you talkin' 'bout) Willis decided that wanting to learn of their African roots was "unAmerican").

Before the super-powered Doctors we had a very vulnerable Doctor and associates, and this is the third story in a run of seven where the antagonists hold the Tardis hostage. "To them, we may appear ugly"… "what we must learn is trust" - blimey, it's Star Trek! What an interminable bore this episode is. Plus, one of the Sensorites has been at the pies - an uncredited early appearance from Colin Baker, perhaps?
* *

This one has the much-mocked "I had never thought of that" line when a Sensorite realises they're indistinguishable from one another. There's also a "how convenient" line from Billy, referring to another contrivance, both of which might have been postmodern in a greater story. What a turgid yawner this one is. Now so dated it has no function as a piece of entertainment, this could well be the worst Hartnell story of all. Much, much worse than I remembered, though there are two more episodes to go. And remember, the makers of this flannel would never have imagined it would be released onto home video to be rewatched over thirty-five years later. There's also a tedious water virus plot and Jacqueline Hill is on holiday.
* ½

"I heard them over … over… talking." A cracking fluff, and not even one from the master. That's the Sensorites blowing lines, the only interesting element in an instalment crammed to the gills with infantile exposition. I realise now that the two previous occasions where I've seen this story I've reappraised it not as a something I enjoyed, but something I tolerated. Even when I used to say "It ain't that bad" it was uttered as a defence, rather than all out praise. Now the slim plot has been past me a couple of times - and The Sensorites has NOTHING to say - it holds no stimulus beyond the novelty of initial viewings.
* ½

Barbara's back, her "I've been away on the ship" as feeble as five's constant calling for her. Yet she's the lucky one, having gotten away with only starring in four parts of this story. There's more line fluffs per square inch than probably any other episode, so chuck in a boom mike shadow and you're in Heaven. "A Desperate Venture" could be used to describe the whole story. "Trust can't be taken for granted, it must be earned." "We Sensorites have a lot to learn from the people of Earth." Oh, shut yer faces!

Ian and the Doctor meet a rough-hewn rebel who speaks the Queen's English. The campest rebel you've ever seen, he minces "I have my men" at the earliest opportunity. He probably says other things as well, but I started to fall asleep so I couldn't tell you what they were. Of note is the discussion of Gallifrey, referred to as "our place" by Bill. I note that the last two episodes were directed by Frank Cox. I was going to suggest he was better than Mervyn Pinfield, but then I remembered Pinfield was behind the first. It seems that no matter who directed, there was no saving this pulp story. All the insufferable soapbox preaching about "the game of war" makes The Sensorites, again, a Nation-like tale. I bet Tezza took notes and had it in mind when they asked him to contribute for the tenth anniversary season, nest pas?

Yet I said that there were two worthwhile things about this story, one in the first, and one in the last. I wasn't lying to you. Because while this story is the televisual equivalent of Mogadons, the last scene is a killer. With minimal provocation, Billy totally loses it and blows his top at Ian, telling him he's going to throw him off the ship. Cracked me up the first time I saw it, I swear.
* * ½

Sadly, I have to admit that this story really is as poor as they say. The dialogue, plot and situations can most charitably be described as "naïve", while the acting is uniformly stagy. The lack of anything even approaching ambition makes this worse than even The Keys of Marinus, which at least tried something new, however unsuccessful. The first season's historicals were a triumph, and Edge of Destruction a commendable experiment. The science fiction stories, however, now leave much to be desired.
* *

Jokes too feeble, even for me, omitted from this review:
"One of the Sensorites is played by Peter Glaze, the noted children's presenter. So he went from Crackerjack to Hackerjack".