The Sensorites

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Region 1

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Region 2
VHS Video
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PAL
(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 how most of the "editing" was done "as live" during recording of early Doctor Who (7 min.)
  • "Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere" featurette (2 min.)
  • Pop-up Production Note Subtitles
  • Photo Gallery

In-Depth Analysis Review

by Martin Izsak

WARNING: This review contains "SPOILERS", and is intended for those who have already seen the program. To avoid the spoilers, read the Buyers' Guide version instead.


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" story 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 suspenseful under a creative director turns out to be rather lame here.

The audience misses out on the materialization effect again in both the visual and sound departments, but at least we do get a nice explanatory interior scene to begin with. We get a quick list of previous television stories (do I detect story-padding anyone?), which is not half as interesting as the non-television adventure that the Doctor spontaneously remembers. Although very well and humorously told, the thrust of it is once more a deceptive non-involved scurrying back to the TARDIS (snore). One of the characters even wonders why they even bother to ever go outside of the TARDIS. Good question. We're off to a very exciting and adventurous start in this story aren't we? Some writers haven't learned the basics then, obviously. Later in the spaceship, the Doctor supposedly defends his motives by announcing that he hasn't got an ounce of curiosity in him. If that were really true, which "The Dead Planet" (episode 1 of story no. 2) obviously proved it isn't, it's likely that no audience would be very interested in watching the show! Nothing to be proud of, Doctor, even if it were true, so don't push for it! We like you curious and meddlesome!

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. With Carol and Maitland, we get two more characters who remain incoherent for far too long a time - they take too long to explain themselves and their situation, which they don't really understand all that well. A bit of action ensues when the spaceship drops towards the planet and needs a quick course correction, but the real battle is between the sound effects and the dialogue over which of them will be louder and heard more clearly. The sequence ends up being more confusing than suspenseful or exciting, although I suspect a good DVD audio restoration could correct this and make it good again. As of yet, only the last two shots were durable enough to remain worthwhile - first an excellent view of the planet streaking by the viewscreen in front of Barbara as the ship veers off, followed by a clear one of Maitland asking himself why he couldn't operate the controls properly. At last the sequence makes some sense, but it's a little late.

Yet another writer involves the time travellers with the typical, poor season one plot device - they are prevented from entering the TARDIS and leaving. It is particularly ridiculous in this adventure, with the Sensorites removing the lock entirely. Even if the block-transfer-computation-generated TARDIS Real World Interface actually DID allow part of itself to be removed, you'd think the doors would be swinging open in the wind after that! Thankfully, the plot only dwells on this to a bare minimum extent after episode two, and so the rest of the story is not a total loss.

Things get worse as Susan and Barbara explore deeper into the ship - I've never encountered more dead air-time anywhere in television. The two women stare at John, and John stares blankly into space, and the three of them take tiny baby steps back and forth as slowly as possible, the odd plot-dead muttering doing little to keep the heavy, suffocating silence from smothering the story altogether. Such empty scenes continue to be prolific in these first two episodes, with Ian and the Sensorites adding more of the same to the proceedings. Oh, if only a few of the basics in creating suspense were applied here! First the writing: there is little about the characters of John or the Sensorites that makes them threatening, in what others say about them, or in what they do, and they don't get a chance to say anything of consequence in the first two episodes either. They are presented somewhat as unknowns... but that doesn't automatically also imply a threat to any civilized mind. 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.

Second, the directing: if the characters are going to move, let them get to wherever they're going in a decent time frame. The DWM Archive 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 telepathic 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. Ian, of all people, is chosen to walk slowly around the console, and stare out the window for a painfully long time, with only a word of dialogue at the end - a formula for obtaining a scene with a wooden performance if ever there was one. 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 - not all aliens (or foreign cultures) are nasty, and some conflicts are simple misunderstandings gone too far. (A great pity this conflict of misunderstanding was so dramatically empty while it lasted though.)


We take a trip down to the planet, confusingly called the Sense Sphere (couldn't they come up with anything better?), and we are introduced to many Sensorites whose differing characters and points of view are soon made clear. The plot thickens, as our friends are challenged by both a mystery regarding a disease and a conspiracy among the members of the Sensorite government - at last some palatable conflict to keep dramatic interest in the story high.

We also get a real villain in the City Administrator. 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 on the spaceship with Maitland.

With Ian also temporarily out of action via the disease, 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! After dealing with the disease on a chemical level, during which 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 using the Rorschach musical track the way it should be), the Doctor is quite prepared to boldly venture forth into the aqueduct alone, and confront the disease's cause and any monsters therein, despite the fears and warnings of the Sensorites' toughest warrior. His first scene outside the aqueduct with the Sensorite 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. Too bad someone got a little clumsy with the spotlight at the end of episode four.


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. Thankfully the spotlight problem is fixed with a re-shoot of the cliffhanger moment.

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

Thankfully, John also finally develops into a coherent and likeable character (and it's about time!). The Sensorite 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. The Earth people and the time travellers all figure out who the Sensorite villain is near the end of episode five, yet they don't tell the First Elder because they don't believe they have the right evidence. Okay, so John's word isn't enough - he's been too incoherent while gathering his information. Would a warning or conveying of suspicion not be prudent under the circumstances though?

Then our villain kidnaps Carol, threatens her, and later John rescues her from a henchman. Carol has been lucid since arriving on the planet, and she can identify our villain - is her first-hand eye-witness testimony still not evidence enough for them to mention something to the First Elder? She has several subsequent scenes with the First Elder, and seems quite happy to not even bring up the subject!

Barbara arrives on the planet at the beginning of episode six, and tells Susan that the Sensorite working against them must be motivated by a lust for power and not just fear, and that she can see that more clearly because she has been on the ship. Okay.... fine. Not that that makes the slightest bit of difference in convincing anyone to mention something to the First Elder.

"The Sensorites" is all over rather abruptly, reason being that it lacks a scene that satisfactorily wraps up the whole conspiracy plot. The Sensorite villain is never confronted and subdued on-screen, and the drama has been so leading up to his come-uppance! Rather, the non-Sensorite aqueduct expedition comes back with an altered map, and this supposedly puts the blame firmly and squarely on the City Administrator. Huh?? That doesn't make a lot of sense to me, especially as our villain had one of his henchmen do the alterations. Better evidence existed previously. This plot is wrapped up with only a few asides between Ian and the First Elder, and done quickly (probably in hopes that no one will examine it too closely and notice how ridiculous it is).

Perhaps the whole point is to shift the villainy to the "human" monsters in the aqueduct. A better way of doing this would have been to put the final confrontation scene with the City Administrator at the beginning of episode six, and not wait until the very end of the story to side-step it clumsily.

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, as the Doctor and Ian encounter the human villains for the first time, but this is quite short and doesn't do the story too much damage at this point. The commanding human villain takes charge of episode six's drama, a truly tragic and understandable character, well portrayed by John Bailey, who would return as Edward Waterfield in "The Evil of the Daleks" (story no. 36), and portray a similarly tragic figure in the final episode of "The Horns of Nimon" (story no. 108). The Doctor and Ian spend most of their time simply listening, which is the wisest way of dealing with him, however when they do speak, at least half of their lines contain out-and-out falsehoods. This is a very disappointing display of lack of character for the show's two heroes, and demonstrates a lack of ingenuity on the writer's part. There was plenty of truth to tell the human commander that would have done the same job of pleasing his ears (such as the correct number of humans on the Sense Sphere at the time).

Anyway, the ploy works to draw the human villains into custody, and after too quick a wrap up scene with the First Elder, we suddenly skip the space ship interior and the police box to find ourselves in the TARDIS again for the final scene, knowing that we've missed something somewhere. It's a great scene though, finally doing justice to the Spaceship exterior as it appears on the scanner screen, and 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 original 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 villainous 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 speaking humans in the aqueduct and only two are credited. John Bailey's commander refers to his subordinates as numbers one and two, so if you don't happen to recognize him or have additional documentation on hand, you are left wondering if either he has been left out (a great injustice as he probably has more lines than anyone else in episode six), or if a very confusing re-numbering has taken place. Bailey has in fact been left out of Lionheart's credits.


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.
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Read the In-depth Analysis Review for the next story: "The Reign of Terror"



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