Just as The Aztecs marks in some sense the coming-of-age of the historical episodes of the first season, so The Sensorites marks a major development in the science-fiction episodes. That’s not to say that future episodes won’t have their share of goofiness (wait until The Web Planet!), but that the deeper sci-fi that attracted me to Doctor Who in the first place first appears in this serial.
Neither The Daleks nor The Keys of Marinus presented a fully-developed alien society. It’s easy to be influenced by the multitude of later Dalek-oriented episodes, but we learn very little about Dalek society in their first appearance, other than their penchant for extermination. Nor are the Thaals or the Voord much more than thinly-characterized groups. In Peter Newman’s story, however, we find a fully-articulated alien society, different enough from our own for misunderstandings to occur, but possessing deeper similarities, a tension that has made for much science fiction of the ‘self-reflecting’ category over the years — seeing human society from the outside.
The serial begins with a classic situation — the travelers come upon a derelict spacecraft, it’s location unknown, its crew senseless or raving. The crew is revived and the Doctor and companions learn that the spaceship is under the influence of the Sensorites, an enigmatic telepathic race that is able to influence humans, particularly if they are under emotional stress. The audience is thus primed to expect another race of ‘bad guys’, but as they investigate further, they find the truth is much more complicated.
Susan has one of her few bright moments in this story, as she finds herself able to communicate telepathically with the Sensorites. This was welcome, as her ‘unusual’ nature, hinted at in An Unearthly Child, had largely disappeared, replaced by screaming and general uselessness. (Not to blame Carol Ann Ford, as she was constrained by the sexist writing her character was given).
When the travelers finally reach the Sensorites’ home world, the Sense-Sphere, they find a society very unlike our own. All of the Sensorites look alike (a play on our propensity to think all foreigners “look the same”), and their society, government and architecture are all based on different principles than our own. Credit to Newman and the designer, Raymond Cusick (creator of the Daleks) for putting together a coherent alternative society.
The Sensorites turn to be, on the whole, much less malevolent than they appeared at first. This doesn’t remove the tension, however, as conflict nevertheless occurs due to misunderstanding and mistrust between the travelers and the Sensorites. Rather than appearing to be a monolithic group, like the Daleks, rifts are shown among the Sensorites themselves regarding the appropriate attitude to take towards the strangers among them. In fact, this episode is remarkable with respect to the amount of time none of the main characters are on screen. We are shown lengthy conversations between the Sensorites regarding the travelers, which goes a long way to make them a fully-rounded people.
Peter Newman’s script seems to present his attitude towards human conflict; that in any interaction between two peoples, there will be suspicion and mistrust on both sides, but that this is ultimately ill-founded. Rather, it is up to men (or aliens!) of good conscience to make a leap of faith and trust the other side. It is ultimately an optimistic view of human relationships. It suggests that there are no truly irreconcilable viewpoints, and that all intelligent beings ultimately want the same things. Which could serve as a motto for Doctor Who as a whole, apart from beings like the Daleks and Cybermen.
Hartnell’s Doctor, often a bit of a spectator in some of the early episodes, is in fine fettle in this story. He confronts the Sensorites early in the episode, showing a hint of ruthlessness in exploiting their weaknesses to compel them to negotiate. Later, he takes charge of the investigation into the poisonings in the Sensorite city, and journeys nonchalantly into the tunnels beneath the city. On the whole, this is one of his finer performances from the first season.
The weakest part of the story are the supporting human characters. The ‘sane’ crewmembers, Maitland and Carol, are less-developed than most of the Sensorites, while the third crewmember, John, spends most of the serial babbling incoherently as a result of Sensorite mind control, leaving little room for character development.
But these small flaws pale beside the serial’s strengths. In short, The Sensorites points the way towards what Who could and would become. Acquit!