Think about this for a moment. The only stories from Doctor Who‘s first TV season to introduce alien races were The Daleks and The Sensorites. Both of these races live on in the revived series, with the Daleks being imported pretty much wholesale (with some actual ’60s props showing up as easter eggs in the background of last year’s Asylum of the Daleks), and with the Ood being an overt homage to, and 21st-century update of, the Sensorites.
Everyone recognizes the Daleks as the monsters that made Doctor Who a British pop culture phenomenon in the mid ’60s, and their regular appearances in the new series have helped them become pretty recognizable in the States as well. But… is there love out there for the Sensorites? Can a case be made, of the two stories from season 1 to feature aliens, that this is actually the better one?
So, there’s a lot to like about The Sensorites. It’s a kind-of sort-of retelling of a pretty harrowing World War II movie called Yesterday’s Enemy, also written by Peter R. Newman (who evidently only had this one story to tell, because he never got another script produced, and died too young). The TARDIS lands on a 28th-century Earth spaceship, which charmingly contains a 20th century Bakelite phone handset and hand-crafted wooden furniture which houses the water supply (Wait… what?). Its three crewmen have discovered that they’re orbiting a planet (The Sense-Sphere) with untapped mineral wealth, and have been imprisoned by the Sensorites in order to keep that secret from getting back to Earth. For the first two episodes, the Sensorites are the bad guys, although Episode 2 is called The Unwilling Warriors so we get a sense that perhaps they’re not all that sinister.
Then the TARDIS crew winds up on the surface of the planet and meets the Sensorites’ council of Elders. What follows is several episodes of light political bantering; two of the Sensorites turn out to be highly xenophobic and wish to the destroy the humans, believing them to be destructive alien influences. Meanwhile, there’s a plague on, which the Doctor quickly learns has been engineered by… humans, left over from a previous expedition. The human captain (John Bailey), who’s become deranged as an unfortunate side-effect of the Sensorites’ telepathy, believes he’s fighting a just guerilla war against the bad guys. The machinations of the two Sensorites is almost justified, in this regard, and everyone in the story comes out in shades of gray rather than stark black or white. We have met the enemy, and it is… us.
Sounds like a pretty progressive and poignant story from all that, right? Well, it also has a reputation as being a bit of a dull clunker. The first two episodes are admittedly… light on action; it famously takes Ian and Barbara two dialogue-free minutes to walk down a short spaceship corridor, and even longer than that for a Sensorite to force Ian to walk slowly backwards down that same corridor. And it takes even longer than that for human Captain Maitland, perhaps the most inept male figure ever portrayed on the show, to open a single door. Barbara is absent from Episodes 4 and 5 entirely, which is just tragic because here we are nearly 50 years later and a lot of us are still carrying a torch for Jacqueline Hill. John (Stephen Dartnell), one of the spaceship crewmembers who’s been mentally affected by the Sensorites, goes from being a decoy villain in Episode 1, to being confined to a chair wearing a wacky helmet in a Sensorite doctor’s office for most of the last four episodes. While Susan gets a rare pivotal subplot, in that she’s sensitive to the Sensorites’ telepathy, we’re also subjected to several scenes of the Doctor belittling her and treating her like a child, which can’t have been any less uncomfortable for the audience in 1964 than they are today.
And then there are the dialogue fluffs. Just about everybody in the cast screws up their lines in this one, and William Hartnell coughs so loud at one point in Episode 5 that you can hear him hacking up his lungs from clear across the studio, interrupting a conversation between different characters on another set. So there, to quote U.S. news anchor Brian Williams, you have that. That happened.
But, for my part, I actually prefer to think of these fluffs as found poetry. If you watch the story too many times, as I have, and if you listen to the dialogue too carefully, as I have, the misspoken deliveries take on a sort of profound, deeply meaningful, life of their own.
The Doctor: [inspecting some watches] These are the non-winding time.
The Doctor: [after a nifty bit of spaceship steering] I rather fancy that’s settled that little bit of solution!
First Elder: [after the Doctor’s cured the plague] Give my Doctor the congratulations!
Fourth Sensorite: [relaying a fictitious conversation in an effort to implicate the Doctor and Ian in a murder that he’s committed] I heard them over… over… over-talking!
You can be sure that I actually work a lot of these misquotes into my daily conversation.
When watching Doctor Who in order, and from a perspective nearly 50 years down the line, it’s hard for me to remain critical of this story. As with The Keys of Marinus, the other Season 1 story that has aged… less than gracefully, we’re not watching it now for the plot, but rather to enjoy the evolution of the show in general and of the character of the Doctor in particular. This is our first spaceship story, so the model of the human craft soaring against a very starry background at the end of the last episode should be something of a stand-up-and-cheer moment. There’s efforts at establishing a future history; we learn that, in the 28th Century, London has been absorbed into “Central City”, which covers the southern half of England (a bit of future history that the show promptly abandoned, yes, but a charming idea anyway).
Plus, there’s a lot of clever misdirection. The first cliffhanger, which is supposed to give us the shock horror of seeing an alien face (The first episode of The Daleks ended with a shot of sink plunger, not the actual monster reveal), is actually a misdirection, since the Sensorites turn out to not be monsters after all. The cliffhanger to Episode 4 is also a misdirection – the Doctor goes to investigate what he thinks is the source of the poison, when he hears an inhuman growling… of course, growling monsters don’t cultivate poisonous plants, and we find out later what that was really about. When Barbara and Susan stand up to John in Episode 1, believing him to be a villain, he bursts into tears and Barbara shockingly hugs and consoles him; when John is railing against the Sensorites’ mind control in Episode 2, he does so directly addressing the camera. And John, of course, is played by Stephen Dartnell, who’d portrayed the villain Yartek in The Keys of Marinus just two stories previously… but here he is as an eventual good guy A good guy who spends the better part of four weeks strapped to a chair, yes, but a good guy nonetheless.
Honestly, the Sensorites themselves get a lot of bad press. Yes, the costumes are ill-fitting and they keep tripping over each other’s feet. Yes, they can’t tell each other apart (of course they don’t look at each other’s faces. They’re telepaths. They don’t need to). But they have individual personalities, each one gets his own little journey of discovery (the protracted tragedy of the Second Elder’s death is something that I still hope won’t happen, every time I watch the story anew), and they’re just so full of… philosophy. When the First Elder forgives the humans who’ve been responsible for the poisonings, he sadly declaims: “All they had left was the game they played… the game of war.” Their musings are simplistic and their worldview is very blinkered, yes, but, in the end, these are philosophical monsters who are scared of the dark. Without them, we wouldn’t have had the Ood serving as the Greek chorus to David Tennant’s Doctor.
Could it be, just possibly, that the Sensorites are the best aliens species to come out of Doctor Who‘s first season? Isn’t it possible that this is more profound than The Daleks?