I’m not quite sure what to think of “The Sensorites”. It’s certainly the least impressive story from the first season, and it’s quite slow going at times. Nevertheless, it’s also quite enjoyable for the most part, and it’s a reasonable attempt to create an alien race with a believable viewpoint of its own. I think that I see this story as similar to “The Keys of Marinus” in that while the story isn’t always as engaging as it could be, there are some interesting situations within the main plot, and the fact that I am interested in the four main characters and how they react to those situations keeps me watching for all six episodes.
The first episode starts out well, picking up right where “The Aztecs” left off. There’s a nice scene where the four travelers discuss their adventures and talk about how Ian and Barbara have changed since the trip began. This is followed by a very nicely directed shot where the TARDIS doors open, showing us the bridge of the ship beyond, and the four walk out the door into the bridge with the camera following them. We as viewers so rarely get to follow the crew out of the doors that this moment stood out to me. Another nice shot is the over-the-shoulder view from behind Barbara of the rapidly approaching planet as the ship is plunged towards the Sense-Sphere.
Maitland and Carol aren’t the best-acted or most consistent characters, but they do their job of explaining the plot in an adequate fashion. John is well acted, though the actor looks at the camera a bit too often. We learn a little about the 28th century as well, and the mystery of the Sensorites is set up. A lot of atmosphere is created by suggestion and by keeping the aliens unseen. We’re told what the Sensorites are capable of and see what they’ve done to the crew, including the deranged John. The pattern of separating the crew from the TARDIS continues when we see one of them remove the lock from the TARDIS (which shouldn’t be possible given the indestructible nature of the ship, but at least it’s a novel way to keep the crew out). The threat is well and truly established by the time we finally see one of the aliens and his ugly mug at the cliffhanger to episode one.
Episode two introduces properly the idea that Susan has some telepathic ability, which is interesting and adds a bit to her character. The Sensorites motivation is revealed as the Doctor works out that molybdenum, a valuable mineral, is present on their planet, and that they are afraid of exploitation by humans. The theme of fear and how it affects people pervades parts one and two. Fear motivates the Sensorites, and renders the crew of the ship vulnerable to the Sensorites influence. The Doctor and his companions are effective because they are able to overcome their fear and act. Later in the story, fear and distrust of humans is the primary motivation for the City Administrator, though he wants power as well.
We also get to see the Sensorites properly for the first time as Ian and Barbara encounter two of them in the corridors of the ship. Ian shows his mettle yet again. Clearly afraid of the two aliens, he keeps his nerve and slowly retreats. He shows restraint and is content with threatening gestures rather than an all out attack, though it’s Barbara who questions the need to attack at all. The Doctor impresses with his insistence that they need to talk to the Sensorites, though he and Ian are willing to use force to defend themselves if necessary. In the end Susan proves yet again that she’s not just a terrified screamer. She agrees to go down to the Sense Sphere in an attempt to protect the others.
Episode three is where much of the hostility with the Sensorites is resolved, and where the story takes a 90-degree turn. With the drama of the first two episodes diffused by the establishment of friendly relations with the Sensorites, we are left with the question of who is poisoning the water supply and the ambitions of the city administrator to carry the plot. Episode three is the weakest of the story, but the remainder of the story picks up again. The machinations of the City Administrator keep things interesting.
Apart from the City Administrator and his accomplice, the remaining Sensorites have to be the friendliest aliens ever. And the most talkative. And none too bright, when it comes down to it. It’s obvious within about thirty seconds of discussion about water that the different water supplies are the source of the “disease” that afflicts the lower classes, and yet the Sensorites have not worked that out after years of plague. “It might be a clue” muses the Doctor. Uh, YES. Thank goodness the Doctor came along to figure things out! The Doctor quickly deduces the problem of atropine in the water and finds a solution. With Ian’s life in the balance, there is a certain sense of urgency, but we’re never really in any doubt that the Doctor will find the answer. And he really does seem to be enjoying himself in this story. He’s quite pleased to find the poison in the water and be proven right in his theory, and he is equally pleased that he was right about the nightshade being the cause.
In the end it comes down to three crazy humans in the aqueduct who are poisoning the population, and who think they are “at war” with the Sensorites. They’re pretty amusing fellows, led by a commander who calls his subordinate “number one” and talks of “the troops” as if there are more than three of them. It’s great fun!
John is cured of his malady, and everyone is sent on their way. The final scene where the Doctor takes offence at a casual remark by Ian and loses his temper is pretty amusing.
The recently released VHS has a very nice VidFIRE’d picture and good sound. Not as good as the DVDs of course, which became apparent to me in watching this story right after “The Aztecs”. Still, it’s miles ahead of the older VHS releases.
The bottom line: as I said in the beginning, after two excellent opening episodes, the story really drags for an episode while the story changes gears, and then moves right along until the conclusion. I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected to. I think watching it over four days rather than all the way through in one sitting helps with the pace. “The Sensorites” falls into last place for Doctor Who’s first season, not because it’s bad, but because the other stories surpass it in quality.