PETER R. NEWMAN
& FRANK COX
'THE SENSORITES' DVD (BBCDVD3377) RELEASED IN JANUARY 2012.
The Doctor and his companions land on a spaceship orbiting a distant and mysterious world, where a human crew lie frozen somewhere between life and death.
The planet is the Sense-Sphere, home of the Sensorites, beings of immense intelligence and power. Unable to leave, the Doctor and his companions must deduce the Sensorites’ intentions: are they friendly, hostile, or frightened? And what is the deadly secret at the heart of the Sense-Sphere?
20TH JUNE 1964 - 1ST AUGUST 1964
1. STRANGERS IN SPACE 2. THE UNWILLING WARRIORS
3. HIDDEN DANGER 4. A RACE AGAINST DEATH
5. KIDNAP 6. A DESPERATE VENTURE
The Sensorites is a serial that, in many ways, encapsulates the show’s first year. Although I find that it doesn’t stand up as well today as some other early serials do, there is still much to like about Peter R Newman’s six-part tale that begat many of the exemplary storytelling techniques that would ultimately make the series so successful.
First off, the production has real initiative. Verity Lambert and her team were not afraid of landing the TARDIS on the deck of a 28th century starship no matter what constraints they faced in terms of money and time, and while the Sensorites may not look all that impressive in the face of modern prosthetics, their haunting, husk-like faces were incredibly ambitious for 1964 – and incredibly successful too. Indeed, according to Russell T Davies, the Sensorites inspired the look of Ood over forty years later (a fact stealthily acknowledged in the 2008 episode Planet of the Ood).
Newman’s portrayal of the Sensorites’ society is similarly striving. Unlike the universally malevolent Daleks, for instance, here we have a realistic race that isn’t of one mind. Different Sensorites have different motives, some warmongering and some peaceable. This idea of conflict within a race or society is a Doctor Who staple that would appear time and again in serials such as Doctor Who and the Silurians, but you saw it here first.
Moreover, The Sensorites is not chained to just one location. We are taken from the above-mentioned starship to the Sensorites’ unique home, the Sense-Sphere, Newman unwittingly coining a contrivance that later production teams would exploit in their six-parters. Serials like The Time Monster, The Seeds of Doom and, of course, The Invasion of Time would all adopt the four episode / two episode divide to help maintain pace. Again, the practice dates right back to here.
This story also sees William Hartnell provide probably his finest first season performance - here his Doctor is confident, brilliant and forceful. The Sensorites even sees Hartnell’s Doctor at his most emotional as, The Dalek Invasion of Earth aside, the tension between him and Susan has never been higher than it is here; she’s growing up, and he doesn’t like it one bit. There’s also a lovely symmetry in how the Doctor feels at the beginning of this story, and how he feels at its conclusion. In “Strangers in Space” he takes the time to comment on how he, Susan, Ian and Barbara have all become firm friends, yet by the end of “A Desperate Venture” he’s decided to put Ian and Barbara off the ship.
The DVD’s bonus material is a little thin when compared to most releases, but it nonetheless feels equal to The Sensorites and its humble place in the Whoniverse. The commentary is as educational as ever, with meticulous Who historian Toby Hadoke eking every ounce of anecdotal material out of the contributors, whose number includes stars William Russell and Carole Ann Ford, designer Raymond Cusick and director Frank Cox. This is supplemented by almost ten minutes’ worth of vision mixer Clive Doig’s reminiscences, many of which are general in nature, but the most pertinent of which are presented as a separately billed two-minute featurette, Secret Voices of the Sense-Sphere.
Above: Toby Hadoke looks for The Sensorites’ enigmatic writer, Peter R Newman
The release’s highlight, however, is Toby Hadoke Looking for Peter. This unique programme is afforded the sort of length usually reserved for 2|entertain’s retrospective ‘making of’ documentaries, but looks at the mysterious man behind the serial rather than the making of the serial per se. Most Who fans know nothing about The Sensorites’ enigmatic writer beyond that he wrote The Sensorites; made an aberrantly sombre Hammer movie; and died in 1975 (or 1969, depending on your source). Hadoke’s search to find out more about Newman is almost as poignant as it is illuminating, as his quest leads him not only to what the ‘R’ stands for (which was the most he’d expected), but also to the man’s family, his face and ultimately – not to mention eerily – his voice.
I’ve always had a soft spot for The Sensorites because it typifies those early, pioneering Doctor Who serials so beautifully. In those days they weren’t scared of anything; they just did their best with a cramped studio and illimitable imagination. Neither this serial nor its DVD’s unusually personal accoutrements are likely to attract much acclaim, but as I’m writing this almost fifty years after the event, Peter Richard Newman must have been doing something right when he put pen to paper.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2008, 2012
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
The Sensorites is an unfairly maligned story. OK, so it is a bit awkward in places, but you find me a Doctor Who story that doesn’t have a few moments where – like a theatre production going horribly wrong – you are sitting there awkwardly wondering if they will be able to recover from an embarrassing effect, a trite piece of dialogue, or even an abysmal performance. There are a fair number of guffs in this story, but there is much to enjoy as well.
This is the story that sums up the great difference between Doctor Who and Star Trek for me. For my money, Doctor Who is about scary monsters, witty scripts, tons of atmosphere, and a powerhouse performance from the actor playing the Doctor. Star Trek, on the other hand, is about a bunch of people standing around in a very theatrical manner discussing some seriously interesting issues. Now I’m a huge Star Trek fan – especially Deep Space Nine, which is the only television show that even comes close to the sheer diversity of genres it touches upon as Doctor Who, but it still pales in comparison because it often commits the ultimate sin: it takes itself far too seriously. And it doesn’t have the multiple cliffhangers, regularly shifting regulars, fantastic monsters, breadth of storytelling, and the sheer gall of trying to achieve effects way beyond its budget…
What is this fool talking about? I hear you cry... well, the shift in quality between the first and last three episodes of this story reveal the Doctor Who / Star Trek divide in monochromatic style. The first half of The Sensorites is classic Doctor Who, whilst the last three episodes are most certainly Star Trek. The story opens on a mysterious and spooky spaceship under siege by scary-looking but ultimately peaceful aliens; a very Doctor Who concept. Once we move away from the spaceship we enter into talky discourse about xenophobia, diseases, and the story starts to become a heavy morality tale about overcoming prejudice and making peace with those that are different. Very Star Trek.
The Sensorities’ unfortunate reputation might have something to do with the strength of the historicals in Season 1, having to make excuses for itself whilst The Aztecs and Marco Polo stand proud as examples of Doctor Who at its finest. However, this story does try at least with an unforgettable first episode cliffhanger which slowly pans across the spaceship towards the window looking out to space before the terrifying looking Sensorite paws at the glass. Although they get somewhat repetitive, the scenes of Barbara and Susan trapped away from the others and at the mercy of a deranged man inject some chills into the story.
Now I’m not saying the whole thing falls apart when we move away from the claustrophobic spaceship to the Sense Sphere, but it doesn’t hold the attention in quite the same way - the same way an episode of Star Trek: Voyager wouldn’t hold your attention the same way that even a middling episode of Doctor Who would. The mystery of the water is signposted far too obviously (as Ian goes to drink the First Elder screams ‘Stop... you must have the crystal water...’; they are all about subtlety on the Sense Sphere, you see) and the direction is quite bland compared to the creeping tension in the first half of the story which is due to the loss of the director from those episodes.
If you watch it in three instalments of two episodes you might be able to see beyond the dull secondary characters, slow plot, and underdressed sets and instead focus on the principal attraction here, William Hartnell. What a commanding performance. He can fluff as many lines as he likes as I just could not take my eyes off him throughout. I suppose it’s time that I revealed my love affair with Hartnell as his Doctor can do no wrong in my eyes, whether he’s mysterious and moody, cuddly and cheeky, or forgetful and snappy I always find his Doctor such a fascinating creation. The job came at exactly the right time in Hartnell’s career, and you can see that he absolutely adores his newfound popularity amongst the children. It’s an intoxicating performance. His explosive temper proves constantly amusing and his intense ranting that keeps you glued to you set. The image of him lit up by torchlight amongst the water system with those terrified eyes as creatures growl in the darkness is extremely vivid.
The thing that shocked me most though was The Sensorites’ mature use of Susan, an often neglected character who is given chance to do more than scream and throw tantrums here. Carole Ann Ford’s performance is actually rather good as she finally gets some material to work with. I love it when she stands up to the Doctor and tells him that she is leaving with the Sensorites; you get the sense of the little girl becoming a woman and her telepathic abilities once again give her the spooky angle that made her so compelling in An Unearthly Child. For entire scenes here, Susan is understated and even... watchable. Colour me impressed.
The Sensorites work as faceless monsters to a point and the early scenes of them stalking Ian through the spaceship are memorably scary. Once we head for their planet their menace evaporates and we’re left with a bunch of politicians and scientists to flesh the race out. The design is ingenious and some of the concepts such as thought transference and their class system make them stand out from your average Menoptera. The Chief Administrator never really convinces though; he has a great line in Doctor Who bad guy dialogue 101, but never really comes across as a threat especially with daft moments like the one where he looks at the camera and exclaims “I never thought of that!” to the suggestion that if he swaps his sash with another Sensorite’s, then nobody would know who he is! Oh, and they should’ve abandoned the circular feet idea which was neat in theory but impractical and embarrassing in practice.
The other huge sin that this story commits is writing out Babs for two episodes. A fortnight’s holiday for Jacqueline Hill means we have to cope with her absence during the dullest of the six episodes! When she reappears in “A Desperate Venture” I was whooping for joy!
Nonetheless, I don’t feel that The Sensorites is given enough praise. It’s not six episodes of pure genius but it’s full of clever ideas, three episodes of great scares and some marvellous character work between the Doctor and Susan (in a period where character development was as important as the plots themselves). The concluding half doesn’t really catch fire like the first half, but it is still reasonable science fiction nonsense. Watch it for Hartnell, there are some of the best Billy fluffs on show here and he commands your attention throughout.
Copyright © Joe Ford 2010
Joe Ford has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
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