Doctor Who Reviews: The Sensorites

When the new revival of Doctor Who graced our screens back in 2005, it would have been easy to totally ignore the past and start with a clean slate. Luckily for the die-hard fans, RTD and co didn’t. In fact, there have been so many tips of the hat to the past that you could be forgiven for thinking that you’d been whisked back in time to 1985 when acknowledging Who’s past was common practice.

After the obvious candidates like the Daleks, The Master, Sarah Jane Smith, the Cybermen, the Autons and UNIT, there are subtler nods to the past. Take The Fires Of Pompeii in which The Doctor mentions the concluding events of The Romans. The following story Planet Of The Ood does the same thing, and mentions Sense Sphere from The Sensorites. Meaningless to 21st century kiddies, but Who fans must have been screaming in delight.

Whether or not modern kiddies will want to check out The Sensorites is another matter. Parallels with the Ood can be drawn in that they both look quite similar, they have telepathic abilities and despite their alien appearance, they’re actually peace-loving dudes. Rumours that the Sensorites can carry a tune still prove unfounded, although I’m sure they managed to hold their own against The Beatles with potential classics such as Love Me Ood.

The Sensorites is the first story of its kind in Doctor Who in that it presents viewers with an alien race that doesn’t want to wipe out the universe. This rather unusual take on the traditional sci-fi motif portrays the Sensorites as mistrustful of humans rather than hostile – understandable, given that they were originally affected by a deadly plague. At first, all their actions suggest that they are bad guys that have been taking leaves out of The Dalek Book Of Sneaky Tricks. They can hold innocents captive. They are capable of freezing people. They can drive men to the point of madness (presumably armed with a copy of the latest Miley Cyrus CD to help their cause).

They’re also not above bickering among themselves, much like any current crop of politicians that you’d care to mention. For example, after Ian is struck down by the deadly poison, the faction of rebel Sensorites kidnap the Second Elder and rob Ian of that all-important cure. Such in-house bickering would become a recurring theme in the future, as Silurians, Dominators and even Daleks would start to back-stab, manipulate and trick each other. All of which presents a refreshing take on the traditional alien threat, and altogether, the eponymous creatures work quite well. Their appearance is inspired (even with their comedy flipper feet), and in hindsight, paved the way for their 21st century doppelgängers very well indeed. Oh, and you can also spot Crackerjack’s very own Peter Glaze as the Third Sensorite. Who knows, maybe Don McLean played a Kraal or Stu Francis played one of the Tractators without our knowing?

The Sensorites is also notable for presenting our very first future humanoids as ordinary working people. Maitland, Carol and John are shown to be your everyday Joes and Jos, and it’s all the more effective than having characters strut around in holey leotards, potato sacks or cloaks and no trousers. Lorne Cossette is slightly stagy as Maitland, although Ilona Rodgers and especially Stephen Dartnell as Carol and John, respectively, are much better. Dartnell’s convincing portrayal of madness is certainly an improvement on his previous cameo as Yartek, the scheming Voord in The Keys Of Marinus.

The Sensorites though hasn’t exactly enjoyed a reputation as one of the most memorable stories. I guess that it’s a case of padding out the story too much that’s led it to becoming one of those stories that time forgot. It could have been told in a far tighter four parts, and no one would have noticed the difference. The problem is that for all the political shenanigans and double-crossing among the Sensorites, after a while, it just gets repetitive, and ultimately, a little boring. Much as I’m not against ‘talky’ Who, in this case, it just seems to me that there’s way too much angry bickering and not enough action.

The Sensorites is one of those rare stories in which Susan is actually portrayed as an alien being, as her ability for telepathy is shown. Although the downside of that is Susan is still reduced to screaming and whinging and wondering why she’s being ignored by her grandfather. Regrettably, after this, Susan’s alien background would never really be brought up again, as the original alien teenager descends into a clichéd screaming wreck. Barbara and Ian have less to do than in The Aztecs, although as ever, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell make the most of their parts (bet Hill was glad of the two-week holiday though after the gruelling work schedule). William Hartnell, too, does a good job once again (and produces the classic “Matron” fluff into the bargain). Much as with the last couple of stories, it’s been interesting to see The Doctor’s persona mellow to the point where he has now become a diplomatic mediator among races. We’re allowed to see this change in the first episode where the TARDIS crew reflect on their travels so far, from what started out as the “mild curiosity” in the Totters Lane junkyard has turned into the experience of a lifetime.

A mish-mash of the ambitious and the mundane, The Sensorites still manages to hold up well enough as a different take on the alien race, and what it means to human beings. Although the talky scenes threaten to drag the story down, there’s enough good acting and unusual but effective set design (the curving alien sets from Raymond Cusick are inspired) to keep The Sensorites on track. Quite what modern kiddies today would make of The Ood’s forebears I don’t know, but for the time in which they appeared, The Sensorites were undoubtedly the Doctor Who Monsters of the Week.

All of my Jon Pertwee-era reviews are collected in my new Doctor Who guide ebook along with lots of other goodies such as video/DVD/book release comments; planet/monster/character guides, plus thoughts on incidental music and cliffhangers, and more!