Introducing: The Sensorites

The Sensorites of the eponymous Doctor Who serialThe Sensorites is important. Modern audiences are beginning to appreciate these gems; frankly, any surviving black-and-white stories should be treasured. It’s amazing that we’re still able to see the spectacular William Hartnell as the first Doctor; William Russell as Ian; Jacqueline Hill’s Barbara; and Carol Ann Ford as Susan… in all her screaming glory.

Sitting in the Sphere

The Sensorites is the last complete story of Doctor Who’s first season to be released on DVD. The following story, The Reign of Terror, which concluded the season in 1964, is due for release later this year, with the missing episodes presented as animation.

Season 1 was the last until Season 6 to have the same main cast members for a whole series, with Carol Ann Ford leaving the show in The Dalek Invasion of Earth – replaced by Maureen O’Brien’s Vicki – and Ian and Barbara departing in The Chase.

The whole TARDIS crew are at their best in The Sensorites – in fact, it’s probably Susan’s best serial… with very little screaming. There are a few mistakes here and there – okay, more than a few – but they still all put in their finest performances.

It’s a shame that Barbara disappears for two-and-a-bit episodes, but when she returns in the final episode, she’s on fine form, quickly taking charge of the situation and holding the TARDIS family together.

Making sense

The first four episodes of The Sensorites were directed by Mervyn Pinfield, Executive Producer of twelve Doctor Who serials – 56 episodes – from An Unearthly Child to The Romans, while the last two were directed by Frank Cox. The transition between the two is seamless; The Sensorites is brilliantly realised, supported by Raymond Cusick’s contrasting designs – the smooth against the grimy.

The Sensorites is the first of three serials to be directed by Pinfield – the other two being Planet of the Giants and The Space Museum – just two years before his death in 1966. Under his role of Executive Producer, however, he oversaw some of the First Doctor’s best-loved stories, including The Daleks, Marco Polo and The Aztecs.

In episode one of The Sensorites, “Strangers in Space,” Pinfield presents us with a stunning shot as we pan from the TARDIS control room into the space station, right after the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan reminisce about their previous adventures. As Matt Michael notes in the DWM Special: 200 Golden Moments: “[we’re placed] right alongside the characters, experiencing their shiver of anticipation, staring out onto a darkened spaceship bridge, and following them out through the doors. It’s a marvellous shot, and one that could only easily be achieved when these programmes were recorded continuously, with the TARDIS built as a set in a corner of the studio.”

Frank Cox continues the stunning visuals in “Kidnap” and “A Desperate Venture,” with the creepy aqueducts, quick transition between scenes and devious Sensorites. The atmosphere is excellent, and somewhat reminiscent of the last episode Cox directed, “The Brink of Disaster,” part two of The Edge of Destruction.

New classic Doctor Who DVD - The SensoritesThese were the only three episodes of Doctor Who to be directed by Frank Cox, although he continued to direct until 1990, where he worked on Scottish Soap Opera, High Road. His last credit as producer was in 1993, though he also appeared in features for The Beginning DVD box set in 2006.

His wife, Bridget Turner, has also appeared in Doctor Who as Alice Cassini in Gridlock (2007).

Of course, both Pinfield and Cox had the unenviable task of making a few rooms look like a spaceship or an entire Sense Sphere!

As for writer, Peter R. Newman, whose only Doctor Who credit is The Sensorites… I don’t want to spoil the Looking for Peter feature on the DVD release.

Trust issues

The Sensorites is all about trust and perception.

The newly-arrived humans distrust the Sensorites, who, in turn, don’t trust the humans because there were other humans there, who were also sceptical about the aliens. Furthermore, because the Doctor and Susan look like humans (or, as the Doctor later argues, humans look like Time Lords), the Sensorites are naturally distrusting of them too. And they’re not the only ones…

Back then, the audience weren’t quite sure whether to trust the Doctor – and nether were the TARDIS team. In the previous tale, The Aztecs, the Time Lord seemed to act against his friends and, although they quickly bond again, the ending of The Sensorites sees a further argument between them.

But we are only sparingly reminded that the Doctor and Susan are, in fact, alien. It’s almost as if the show’s creators are turning the Doctor into one of us; someone we can really relate to and admire.

The Sensorites can only be told apart by their dress – the Elders and other superiors – and one even mentions how humans are “ugly.” Rebellious elements use their similarities to wreck chaos, in a bid to overthrow their rulers – and even the Doctor falls for it.

See what I mean…?

For a species with no eyelids, perception is everything.

If you can remember the Sixties, you weren’t there

With the eleventh Doctor off gallivanting around the universe with Amy, Rory and the Missus in tow, it’s easy to forget those early, but perfectly formed black-and-white days, where the Doctor would confuse space with a hot country next to Portugal, Ian would dote on Barbara and Susan would scream about absolutely everything.

But don’t be put off. The first TARDIS team was fantastic. So fantastic, they kick-started a show which has lasted nearly 50 years.

After all, “it all started out as a mild curiosity in a junk yard…”

The Sensorites was released on January 23rd, and you can buy your copy from Amazon for just £12.99!

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  1. James McLean says:

    Great piece – this story, while not perfect has a gentle pace and a variety of set pieces that makes it an enjoyable little yarn. It’s often snorted at so I’m glad you’ve focused on the positives rather than any obvious negatives here.

    • Philip Bates says:

      Hi James!
      Thanks for your feedback – glad you like the article.
      The Sensorites has a charm about it, certainly; I’ve wanted to watch it since I became a fan – dunno why! There’s just something about that Sense Sphere.

      • gavinio says:

        I saw this for the first time when it came out on VHS and thought it was okay.

        Not the greatest Who story ever, but it was by no means the worst either. I think what makes the black and white stories so enjoyable on DVD is the VidFIRE treatment of the pictures. They look stunning – certainly when you compare something like The Aztecs to its VHS release!

        • James McLean says:

          I agree Gav – seeing these shows in such crystal clear glory, make the adventures so much more enjoyable. I had The Sensorites on the Gunfighters/Sensorites/Time Meddler bizarro boxset and enjoyed it then. I think what I enjoyed about – and many of the black and white stories – is that the location point moves rather than shifts back and forth between two points.

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