Doctor Who: The Sensorites

First contact is hard. Or, “All Sensorites Look Alike To Me.”

Season 1, Serial G
Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With William Russell (Ian), Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and Carole Ann Ford (Susan)
Written by Peter R. Newman
Directed by Mervyn Pinfield (eps 1-4) and Frank Cox (eps 5-6)
Produced by Verity Lambert

Episodes and Broadcast Dates:
  1. Strangers in Space – 20 June 1964
  2. The Unwilling Warriors – 27 June 1964
  3. Hidden Danger – 11 July 1964
  4. A Race Against Death – 18 July 1964
  5. Kidnap – 25 July 1964
  6. A Desperate Venture – 1 August 1964
(A gap between Episodes 2 and 3 was due to sports programming on 4 July)

Plot Summary

The TARDIS lands inside a spaceship. The human crew at first appear to be dead, but turn out to be in stasis, and they revive to tell our heroes that they’re trapped in orbit around the Sense-Sphere by the Sensorites, telepathic beings who blame the humans for a plague that currently imperils them. A Sensorite team removes the lock from the TARDIS door, preventing our heroes’ escape. The Doctor attempts to broker peace, but his efforts are undermined by a Sensorite elder who capitalizes on the mistrust between species to further his own ambitions. Ultimately a rogue group of humans are discovered in the sewers, and their poisoning of the Sensorites’ water supply is the cause of the plague. The elder’s machinations are also exposed, and with treaty negotiations now progressing, the Sensorites release the humans’ spaceship and restore the TARDIS lock.

Analysis and Notes and Stuff

All humans look alike to me.
First contact between cultures is hard. When there’s a wide gulf between technology levels, even the most well-intentioned interaction has a built-in imbalance in favor of the more technologically advanced culture, and with few exceptions the interaction historically turns into oppression and enslavement at best, and genocide at worst. At the very least, the more powerful culture usually possesses a sense of entitlement and superiority, and assumes the other culture is consequently in need of the benefit of their knowledge, ethics and belief systems. (Like Barbara in the previous serial. And that didn’t go so well now, did it?)

We’d all like our first interaction with aliens to go as smoothly as the end of Star Trek: First Contact. Zephram Cochrane returns from his first successful warp drive test and before the engines have time to cool, the Vulcans arrive to say “Hey, welcome to the neighborhood!” and five minutes later everyone’s getting drunk and dancing to Roy Orbison.

In a case of two cultures meeting where there’s relatively equal levels of technology, odds are it’ll go as tenuously and perilously as it does in The Sensorites. Both parties will have factions among them polarized toward amity and enmity even though the Sensorite society is seemingly based on trust and respect for others. And when the Doctor and friends arrive, the two cultures are in an anxious standoff. In a state of frenzied stasis, rather like the crew of humans they meet.

Consequently, The Sensorites can be viewed as a companion piece and contrast to The Aztecs as an example of interaction between cultures that actually doesn’t wind up going off the rails. The hostile factions of Humans and Sensorites are ultimately exposed and rooted out, and good will wins the day.

Insert hair salon joke here.
Unfortunately, it takes six laboriously tedious episodes for all this to happen. As much of an advocate as I am for the very early days of the Classic Series -- no, seriously, folks, just because it’s black and white doesn’t mean it’s boring, honest, just give it a chance! -- this is most definitely not the serial to win over the Fish Fingers and Custard crowd, and it’s even a struggle for me to make it through all six. So much exposition, so much campy acting, so much kidnappings, poisonings, capture/escape/capture plot padding.

And they lose more points with a plot that hinges on not only the Humans’ inability to tell the Sensorites apart (the “All [insert mildly racist term here] Look Alike To Me” trope), but even the Sensorites can’t tell one another apart without sashes or other designations! And that’s especially lazy storytelling when the Sensorite masks do actually vary, the actors are different heights, etc. Maybe all Sensorites have prosopagnosia; you’re welcome to ret-con the story at your leisure.

Which is a shame, because there are some lovely bits. Susan actually gets to use her psychic powers. The Sensorites look great, they have relatively individual personalities, the first episode cliffhanger is pretty chilling as we get our first look.

At least now I can pronounce “molybdenum.” See, early Doctor Who was an educational program.


- First time the TARDIS crew land on a spaceship
- The Ood are more-or-less-officially related to the Sensorites, according to Russell T Davies.

Haven't I Seen You…

- John Bailey (commander of the rogue humans) would later appear as Edward Waterfield in the classic Evil of the Daleks, and Sezom in the non-classic Horns of Nimon.
- Steven Dartnell (John) wore a wetsuit a few weeks earlier as Yartek in Keys of Marinus.

Rating: One and a half out of four Elder sashes.
John Geoffrion balances a career in hospital fundraising with semi-pro theatre gigs, and watches way too much Doctor Who and Britcoms in between. He'll create an author page after he puts up a few more reviews.


Anonymous said...

Actually watched this recehtly for the first time and quite enjoyed it. It's important to try to watch in order and appreciate the time it was made rather than compare to other times and genres. It was a kids show at this point and the villains were far more convincing than Keys of Marinus which was so OTT and melodramatic, that I half expected Crossroads titles instead of DW. Best watched 2 eps at a time, you get far more from this story then. It does prove the point though that the Daleks ruled everything at this point and no other enemy came close. This had a few decent twists though and I must admit to being pleasantly surprised. Hartnell is outstanding.

Mikey Heinrich said...

I agree. I find it hard to watch this one without being consumed by a warm feeling of, 'Awwwwww. Bless them.'

It's interesting how much this one points out how integral Jackie Hill's Barbara was to making everything work on the series. The couple eps where she's away on vacation noticeably struggle without her.

Anonymous said...

I was surprised how strong and assertive Barbara was as the series went on, in a good way, it was refereshing. It was a shame how the opportunity to reveal the best villain, The City Administrator, at the end was missed. His treachery had been built up over 3 episodes and yet we didn't see him brought to book. He was funny, especially with his sash disguise. A bit like Perry the Platypus from Phineas and Ferb. I did however love how the characters actually just talk to each other in these stories, you really root for them all the way through as you get to know them. Something lacking in the 80s when people actually cheered when Adric died, not right surely..