(With “The Sensorites”, we reach Part 7 of our Name Dropping journey through the First Doctor’s character arc as represented by his changing ways of addressing Ian: in which our heroes are menaced by polite men wielding giant HB pencils and Susan quotes from The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)
It was with some trepidation that I put this DVD into the slot given the poor reputation of “The Sensorites”. My memory of it was restricted to a poor quality UKGOLD broadcast during one of my Sunday morning hangovers in the early 1990s which is probably why I hadn’t previously unwrapped this DVD from its cellophane. It was a nice surprise as I found “The Sensorites” great fun and deliciously atmospheric at times.
We open with the TARDIS crew being very chummy with each other and talking about how they’ve all changed since they’ve begin together, which of course is the whole point of this blog series. This leads to one of the most famous lines in Doctor Who history where the Doctor says: “It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard and it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”
We also begin with the Doctor reminiscing about when Henry VIII threw the parson’s nose at him which set me wondering whether this is the first instance in the series of the Doctor name-dropping people from history (a la Marie Antionette’s lock-pick).
Towards the end of the recent “Husbands of River Song” Christmas special, we saw a scene where the Doctor materialises, walks from the console to open the TARDIS door, sees that the crashed ship is still on fire outside, closes the door, returns to the console, bumps the TARDIS forward a few hours in time, returns to open the door and finds a new scene outside. All achieved in a single shot. This may have been one of the most ambitious examples of trying to achieve visual continuation in moving from inside the TARDIS to the outside but here we possibly see the earliest when, from a camera angle set behind our heroes, we see the TARDIS doors open and them walking straight out onto what appears to be the spaceship control room set. They’re in a bigger studio than usual but surely they didn’t have the two sets side by side.
There’s a strange line when Maitland, having told the TARDIS crew that he’s from the 28th century, asks: “What century do you come from? The twenty first, perhaps?” This suggests a remarkably blasé attitude to the concept of time travel.
A wonderfully spooky atmosphere begins with the crew’s discovery that the TARDIS lock has been burned out and that they’re shut out of the ship. Regular readers will know that my childhood fear of something nasty getting inside the TARDIS when they kept forgetting to close the door properly has never entirely left me. But it’s easily matched by the shock of not being able to get into the TARDIS. I wonder if Freud had anything to say about the getting-locked-out-of-the-womb neurosis.
This scary atmosphere continues very effectively as Barbara and Susan find themselves locked in a corridor with a loony. For the eek factor, this is almost on a par with Barbara creeping along the metal corridor in “The Daleks” just before she’s confronted by that iconic sucker arm. All of this makes the mystery of what the Sensorites are doing to these humans all the more scary and intriguing, athough the fear of the unknown is slightly punctured at the end of Episode One when the first Sensorite is revealed as a fly on the windscreen.
The appearance of the Sensorites has been unfairly derided for years. Their masks with the combed-up beards seem quite effective and the criticism that they all look the same seems a little silly. Nearly all aliens in Doctor Who look the same unless they’re indistinguishable from humans like the Thals. Actually, despite the fact that their similarity is one of the main plot points, I had little difficulty telling them apart thanks to their distinguishing sashes, etc. Indeed, the costume design left so much room for individualism that, almost as soon as the City Administrator appeared on screen and without checking the cast list, I could tell that it was Peter Glaze of Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!) fame.
There are several things which contribute to this 6-parter not dragging overmuch. What has come to be thought of as the “Seeds of Doom” idea of making the story into a 2-parter and a 4-parter works very well as the action moves from the spaceship to the Sense-Sphere (what a cool name for a planet, by the way). As good as that is, I had to have a lie down with an ice pack on my fevered brow when I saw that the writers had taken the incredibly bold step of giving Susan something to do. I know that Jacqueline Hill was on holiday for most of this story but, with her suddenly discovered telepathic abilities, Susan is arguably given even more to do than Barbara in an average (i.e. not “The Aztecs”) story.
Then Susan gets a scene where she and the Doctor have a row about her doing things on her own. She even gets to foreshadow her departure at the end of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” when she talks of sometimes feeling “I’d like to belong somewhere, not just be a wanderer.”
To crown it all, Susan even gets an iconic line to deliver when she does her travel brochure blurb about her home planet: “It’s quite like Earth, but at night the sky is a burned orange, and the leaves on the trees are bright silver.” Considering what a lovely line this is, it’s curious that the writers never think to build on it until 43 years later, despite our having visited Gallifrey several times in between. Unless one counts the 3rd Doctor’s “daisiest daisy” speech from “The Time Monster” about “red, brown and purple and gold” rocks. And even that is more a comment on life and perception than a description of Gallifrey. It’s not until Gridlock that Susan’s line gets a nod when the 10th Doctor says: “The sky’s a burnt orange, with…slopes of deep red grass, capped with snow.”
It all rather reminds me of “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and Douglas Adams’s description of the Shaltanac race from Broop Kidron 13 whose planet is so botanically eccentric that their nearest equivalent saying to “The other man’s grass is always greener” is “The other Shaltanac’s joopleberry shrub is always a more mauvey shade of pinky russet.”
Ian gets the biggest part, of course. Not only does he get to lie around poisoned for a few episodes, it’s he who discovers the real secret which the Sensorites are so keen to hide from the humans. Molybdenum be damned! They’ve got Begonia Pope’s knitting pattern for the 4th Doctor’s scarf (see pic above).
The only point at which the story threatens to descend into silliness is at its climax when we meet the three spacemen behind the poisonings who turn out to be armed with giant HB pencils and led by a man doing an impersonation of John Cleese’s Robin Hood from “Time Bandits”: “I say, I’m most frightfully glad to meet you. Did you have a long journey? Can I offer you a pink gin?”
Finally we come to the all important issue of the Doctor’s means of addressing Ian during this story. He calls him: Chesterton x 5, my boy x 9, my dear boy x 1, dear boy x 1, my dear Chesterton x 2, Twester x 1 and the Doctor once calls him “my friend”. The relationship between the Doctor and Ian has almost reached bromance territory by now.
All in all, a fine story.
(select NAME DROPPING from the list of Categories in the left hand menu to catch the rest of this series)