The Sensorites

Region 1

Region 2
VHS Video
(Doctor Who Story No. 7, starring William Hartnell)
  • written by Peter R. Newman
  • directed by Mervyn Pinfield (episodes 1-4) and Frank Cox (episodes 5-6)
  • produced by Verity Lambert
  • music by Norman Kay
  • 6 episodes @ 25 minutes each:
    1. Strangers in Space
    2. The Unwilling Warriors
    3. Hidden Danger
    4. A Race Against Death
    5. Kidnap
    6. A Desperate Venture
Story: The Doctor and friends find themselves on a spacecraft orbiting a planet known as the Sense Sphere. The ship's human crew are found in a catatonic state induced by strange attacks from the Sensorites, mysterious hidden beings from the planet below. Have the humans done or discovered anything to provoke these mental battles? Do the Sensorites conceal hidden agendas of their own? In the midst of this web of intrigue, the Doctor finds that loyalties amongst his fellow TARDIS travelers are tested as well....

DVD Extras include:

  • Audio commentary by Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian Chesterton), Joe Greig (2nd Sensorite / 2nd Scientist),
    Martyn Huntley (First Human), Giles Phipps/Phibbs (Second Human), designer Raymond Cusick, director Frank Cox,
    make-up designer Sonia Markham, and moderator Tobe Hadoke.
  • "Looking for Peter" featurette on writer Peter R. Newman (21 min.)
  • "Vision On" interview of Vision Mixer Clive Doig on his job of practically "live editing" during recording of early Doctor Who (7 min.)
  • "Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere" featurette (2 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery

Buyers' Guide Review

by Martin Izsak

(A more in-depth analysis, containing "SPOILERS" and intended for those who have already seen the program, can be accessed here.)

Here we are with another of the good stories of the William Hartnell era, although this one is a bit more uneven than its more highly regarded predecessors. The story's strengths are in the middle episodes, while early episodes are a bit padded and the last episode gets a bit too unfocused. Still, the basic premise is refreshing and thought-provoking, and time is taken to examine it from many interesting angles. This story certainly holds its own against many of its rival season two and three William Hartnell adventures.

Episode 1: Strangers in Space
Episode 2: The Unwilling Warriors - directed by Mervyn Pinfield

Verity Lambert decided that there was not enough drama in the original episodes three and four of the "Planet of Giants" story ("Crisis" and "An Urge to Live"), and so she gave the order to have those two episodes condensed into one, resulting in the episode three that we have all come to know and love ("Crisis"). If only she had adopted that same practice here! The first two episodes of "The Sensorites" have a lot of good and even excellent tidbits in them, but there isn't half as much decent drama as is required to fill out two 25-minute slots, and a lot of what might have been made good under a creative director turns out to be rather lame here.

The transition out into the spaceship from the TARDIS interior to the police box exterior is of one the best seen since the very first story. The exploration of the bridge, and the tidbits of "science" teaching aren't bad - the science is real, including spectrographic studies of stars and planets, and the information is rather interesting, at least for us astronomer types in the audience.

The actual events in the space ship are a bit of a let down. Things get worse as the characters explore deeper into the ship - I've never encountered more dead air-time anywhere in television. Many of the new characters are presented somewhat as unknowns... but that doesn't automatically also imply a threat to any civilized mind. Oh, if only a few of the basics in creating suspense were applied here! Perhaps what little suspense was in the writing simply remained far too internalized, and not enough thought was given to how the production could successfully externalize this horror so they'd have something to shoot in the studio.

Another problem with the directing is as follows: If the characters are going to move, let them get to wherever they're going in a decent time frame. The Doctor Who Magazine Archive article for this story suggests that director Mervyn Pinfield wanted slow movement to make the sets appear larger. Who cares how big the ship is? Better suspense in a smaller ship would make a more interesting story. If the characters are going to sit and stare into the shadows, and glance back and forth, there are things one can do to encourage the audience to feel it with them - cut from their faces to show the things that draw their fearful attention - the wind-up toy monkey that spontaneously starts to jump and bang cymbals together (a Steven Spielberg favourite), or a shadow dancing quickly (and I do mean QUICKLY) across the passageway, or an echoing clattering sound from the room around the corner, or soft, padding footsteps, or a flickering light on an electronic door-lock that lets you know that some unseen person or thing is fiddling with it from the other side. I've mentioned sound effects, but music is important too - unfortunately this is the only thing that is used in these sequences, and there just isn't enough of it to cover the amount of screen time in all such scenes without ad nauseum repetition, which would have backfired. So a lot of stone-dead silence reigns. A track that was only used in the rejected Unearthly Child pilot makes numerous re-appearances in this story, and in these scenes - it's all right for spooky listening music, and worked well behind the Rorschach drawing, but it's not enough to do all that these scenes require of it. Great suspense can be done on Doctor Who within the limitations of its first year of production - "The Daleks" (story no. 2) proved that! This is not a very impressive debut for Mervyn Pinfield as a Doctor Who director! He seems to be good in the technical and visual departments, but not so in dramatic artistry.

On the plus side, Susan finally gets to be an alien again in this six-part story, and demonstrates abilities that will aid her friends enormously and do her character a lot of credit as well. Very nice touch!

Episode One's cliffhanger has a good final shot, but the one leading up to it was not well thought out. Episode Two's cliffhanger is much better, pulling a bit of a surprise and shocking plot-twist on the main party, with some implied danger as well.

These first two episodes sat at the bottom of my rankings of Season One episodes for a long time, scheduled to win the dreaded Wooden Turkey Award for the year. However, even with so many production disappointments, the four regular characters have a decent set of mysteries and challenges to face, and they sink their teeth into them in ways that capture viewer interest far better than the backwardly motivated episodes 4 and 5 of "Marco Polo" (story no. 4), even if that story was better acted and shot. The good bits of "Strangers in Space" and "The Unwilling Warriors" prevail, earning "The Sensorites" somewhat greater respect as a story. And thankfully, things get much better from here on.

Episode 3: Hidden Danger
Episode 4: A Race Against Death - directed by Mervyn Pinfield

The middle of "The Sensorites" is its strength, and episode three immediately displays a vast improvement of quality. The writing suddenly becomes rich and full. We get yet another corridor scene, but this time it contains drama, action, and a good pace, as the Doctor finally joins the creeping-about and brooks no delay in investigating, strategizing, and making his points to everyone present. The whole, very worthwhile point of the story finally begins to become clear.... but of course I won't spoil it for you here. Deeper discussions of that nature are saved for the In-depth Analysis versions of my reviews, so if you've seen "The Sensorites" already, you should be reading that.

The story's setting and cast soon expand considerably. The plot thickens, as our friends are challenged by both a mystery regarding a disease and a conspiracy - at last some palatable conflict to keep dramatic interest in the story high.

Peter Glaze gives us a fine portrayal, as most of the Sensorites do. Despite the cheapness of the masks, they actually look and work quite well, and allow a wide range of emotions to be successfully written and acted out by all.

It is Jacqueline Hill's turn to take a vacation, and she is not only absent for episodes four and five, but also only appears near the beginning of episode three as her character is forced to remain behind.

The Doctor steps forward to command the main action of the story. William Hartnell makes a good hero, if only his Doctor would be written for it more often! Director Mervyn Pinfield further redeems himself by adding an excellent montage sequence to his already good dramatic work in episodes three and four (and finally uses the Rorschach musical track the way it should be). The Doctor is quite prepared to boldly venture forth into another plot strand, despite the fears and warnings of the locals' toughest warrior. His first scene on the brink of this venture is both brave and humorous, foreshadowing traits of his fourth incarnation (Tom Baker). This is one of my favourite scenes from the first season.

The cliffhangers continue to work well. You can see them coming, which helps build their dramatic sense, but they still manage to be minor shockers when they occur.

Episode 5: Kidnap
Episode 6: A Desperate Venture - directed by Frank Cox

Frank Cox takes over the position of director for the remainder of the story, and continues it in much the same good-quality vein as Mervyn Pinfield had established for episodes three and four.

The plot continues to stay intriguing as the conspirators deftly sidestep each challenging revelation to keep their secrets secret, to take advantage of misfortune, and to gain even more power. Shades of "The X-Files!" This is great conspiracy stuff!

The chief scientist has a nicely emotional scene with Carol - one of the best behind-a-mask acting moments in Doctor Who history, I think.

Susan, continuing to be a well-scripted alien character, adds a poetic and beautiful description of the still-unnamed home planet that she and the Doctor come from - another nice moment!

Unfortunately, the writing begins to take a slight downturn in its plot, becoming illogical and indicating poor planning. To avoid spoilers though, I'll save that lengthy discussion for the In-depth Analysis version of this review only.

Well, in the aqueduct there is a moment that comes dangerously close to repeating the dead air-time and false suspense of episodes 1 and 2, but this is quite short and doesn't do the story too much damage at this point.

"The Sensorites" is all over rather abruptly. We suddenly find ourselves in the TARDIS again for the final scene, knowing that we've missed something somewhere. It's a great scene though, giving us a very humorous moment between the Doctor and Ian that will lead directly into their conflict in the upcoming first episode of "The Reign of Terror".

The scrolling end credits for the guest characters in "The Sensorites" are quite poor, as most of them are not identified by the same titles as we have been hearing all throughout the story's dialogue. Without extra documentation such as "Doctor Who: The Early Years" by Jeremy Bentham, I would not know that it was actor Peter Glaze who played the City Administrator so well - his name is buried simply under a plain Sensorite listing with a number that is meaningless to anyone who does not happen to have a copy of the script handy. I'm still unsure as to who plays the head scientist or first warrior. Further indications of a poorly planned script, I think. The North American "Lionheart" version of credits on episode six further botched things up in its attempt to cut out the "Next Episode" caption for the incomplete, unsyndicated story that follows and appropriately list everyone for a movie-length version of the story, as there are three new speaking characters where only two are credited, and in fact the one with the greatest number of lines has been left out.

Well, "The Sensorites" definitely has some problems, but is also a very enjoyable and interesting adventure, remaining one of the better tales of the William Hartnell era and giving his Doctor a large helping of the right kinds of challenges and victories. I think it soundly beats "Marco Polo" as a story, and may yet climb up another rung on season one's ladder of success if a DVD restoration can polish up a few technicalities....

This story is available on DVD and VHS video.
Click on the Amazon symbol for the location nearest you for pricing and availability:

DVD NTSC Region 1
for the North American market:
in the U.S.
in Canada
DVD PAL Region 2
for the U.K.
VHS Video
NTSC for North America
PAL for the U.K.

Comments on this article are welcome. You may contact the author from this page:

Contact page


Read the Buyers' Guide Review for the next story: "The Reign of Terror"

Home Page Site Map Star Trek Sliders Doctor Who William Hartnell Era Episode Guide Catalogue