Title: Doctor Who: The Sensorites
Directors: Mervyn Pinfield (episodes one to four) and Frank Cox (episodes five to six)
Starring: William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford
Released: Out Now
The First Doctor, Ian, Susan and Barbara land on a spaceship whose crew members are kept alive yet not allowed to leave by the mysterious inhabitants of the planet below, the Sensorites. The Doctor and his companions are then taken down to the Sense Sphere to investigate a mystery but not everybody wants them down there…
“It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
One of the joys of 2Entertain’s eclectic release schedule is that, much like the Doctor, we can journey back and forth into the programme’s history and so this month we find ourselves right back at the very beginning with the first TARDIS team. The original, you might say. This was only the team’s seventh adventure and it’s one that’s rather looked down upon or fully ignored in fandom, which is a shame. It does follow a certain pattern and being a six-part story it does have padding in places but I found it quite enjoyable all in all.
Watching these old stories it’s impossible not to make comparisons with the new era but it’s also intriguing to see where some of the lore came from, Susan’s description of Gallifrey for example, and how they can still surprise you after nearly 50 years. We start with the team discussing past adventures and Hartnell gives that well-known quote I used above. For the first time the team feels like they have properly gelled rather than being at each other’s throats. The team and the viewers are now getting to know the routine. From then the Doctor opens the TARDIS door and we get a spinning view straight from the console room and out into the spaceship. This may only be 1964 but the programme hasn’t done anything like that since and it’s a lovely visual. We normally just see the characters emerging from the blue box into another part of the studio or the outside footage but here the two sets were lined up.
The first episode as usual sees our travellers investigating their mysterious new landscape and here we have the intriguing idea of a crew being held prisoner on their own ship by aliens. The aliens don’t kill the crew and even keep them alive by bringing food, but they are not allowed to leave. When a Sensorite does appear it’s eerily floating outside the ship as a wonderful cliffhanger. From then on things do follow a familiar pattern as the Doctor, Ian and Susan are taken down to the surface to investigate a plague and, of course, someone is accused of murder. Barbara bravely volunteers to stay aboard the ship because Jacqueline Hill needs a holiday.
When the action transfers to the Sense Sphere, the titular aliens lose their mystique and you can see the limitations of their costumes. Although the masks are an interesting design they do rather look like they were kept in a dusty warehouse for 30 years and rushed immediately onto the set without someone even bothering to comb down their beards. Their clothes are basically pyjamas with additional black bits sown on and the elders get a sort of psychic monocle accessory. Despite this, I like the effort that has gone into making them a fully alien race. Peter R Newman used the story to discuss racism and xenophobia as the travellers stumble over themselves not to offend their hosts, while most of the Sensorites dislike the human race altogether and want to get them off the planet as soon as possible. The City Administrator spends most of his time plotting with others in very bland rooms and I really enjoyed this interplay, at least the first time round. Although a main plot point seems to revolve around the old "you all look the same to us" stereotype, this is at least acknowledged. The ending lets it down a bit as the story is wrapped up all too quickly with an unsatisfying conclusion, as the main conspirators are dealt with off-screen and soon even the TARDIS team are back bickering again. Susan even gains some interesting psychic powers only to have them taken away as she leaves the planet.
William Hartnell is especially good in this story as we see the old man enjoying himself playing investigator and choosing to help the aliens. Of course it's all to get the TARDIS lock back, but you know he just might be enjoying saving the day. Wonder how that will work out? The rest of the cast do well but there are quite a number of fluffs here. This story of course also has some padding, but extra ideas are thrown in to keep it rumbling on. This is often accused of being a dull story and I can see why, but personally I liked it a lot and am surprised that it’s not better regarded in fandom. It tries so hard and even introduces some small pieces of Doctor Who lore. Definitely worth a look if you are a fan of the Hartnell era.
Extras: Commentary with William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, Joe Greig, Martyn Huntley, Giles Phipps, Frank Cox, Raymond Cusick, Sonia Markham and Toby Hadoke. There isn’t a ‘making of’ on this disc but instead we have Looking for Peter in which Toby Hadoke goes in search of the elusive writer of this serial, Peter R Newman (“Hello, is that Doctor Who Magazine?” “You know it is, Toby. You write for us”). Vision On sees vision mixer Clive Doig talk about his work on Doctor Who while in Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere he discusses the origins of the mysterious voices heard in the background of this story. Also included are a text commentary, photo gallery, Coming Soon trailer and PDF material.
Continuing Adventures: The Sensorites next popped up in The Monsters from Earth (1965), a short prose story published in The Doctor Who Annual 1966 in which the First Doctor with companions Tony and Amy Barker are imprisoned by the aliens for killing a fearsome Zilgan (spider). It is also mentioned in Seventh Doctor novel Original Sin (1995) by Andy Lane that the Sense Sphere has become part of the Earth Empire by the 30th century. The Sensorites still live on though, in the form of 21st century monsters the Ood. Not only do they bear a physical and sartorial resemblance but also in Planet of the Ood the Tenth Doctor confirms that the Sense Sphere and the Ood Sphere are in the same star system, the Horsehead Nebula in Mutter’s Spiral.
Trivia learnt from the disc: To further play up the racism angle, Peter R Newman requested that a conical tower in the shape of a Ku Klux Klan hood be built as part of the Sense Sphere scenery. It did indeed become part of the set but cannot be seen in the finished serial.