A while back I purchased a box set of the first three Doctor Who stories (Doctor Who: The Beginning) that aired during the 1963-1964 pilot season. The thing that I remember most about watching those episodes was that I constantly felt like taking the master footage and cutting out a lot of the padding that seemed to add more to each of the stories than necessary. “The Sensorites,” the next to last story of the first season, would have been a perfect story as a two-part serial as opposed to the six that aired in its original broadcast.
The story begins with The Doctor (William Hartnell), Ian Chesterton (William Russell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill) and The Doctor’s granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) landing via the TARDIS on the control deck of a space ship where most of the crew appear dead. After the team decides nothing can be done with the crew, they awaken and explain that they were sent from Earth to investigate the Sense-Sphere, a planet inhabited by The Sensorites. The Sensorites, due to a previous bad encounter with humans from Earth, induced a coma state and made them so scared and feeble that they would never act against them. Fearing The Doctor and his friends would help the humans escape, The Sensorites remove the lock from the TARDIS, which virtually prevents them from entering their ship. Now, the team is faced with two problems: getting the TARDIS lock back and figuring out the beef between The Sensorites and the human scientists.
The setup is interesting enough that it would seem to warrant its multi-part format, but Peter R. Neuman’s script is paced so slow that when the first part ends you already feel a lifetime has passed. Perhaps things would have been better for me if all the actors involved in this story actually seemed engaged in the story. Even “The Edge Of Destruction,” which was part of the Doctor Who: The Beginning set, seemed to have more there in its two parts than any of the six broadcast for “The Sensorites.”
I’m sure Carole Ann Ford was constantly frustrated at the lack of growth of Susan. Since she was allegedly set-up as a Time Lord much like The Doctor, it seems so very irritating to see her so nimble and whiny. Of course every female companion did their share of screaming and cowering, but she always seemed borderline ready to do it from minute one of each show she was present. In “The Sensorites,” Neuman’s script sets up the fact that Susan can showcase some manner of defiance when she attempts to negotiate the release of her friends and of the human crew of the space ship from The Sensorites against The Doctor’s wishes.
Stephen Dartnell’s mineralogist John, one of the crew aboard the space ship gives a solid performance as the more mentally damaged of the crewmembers. I would have liked it if they simply had the crew be just a one-person ship for the sake of keeping the script lean and concentrating on the danger at hand rather than making up excuses for characters to get kidnapped. Alas, that means of extending the story far behind it’s actual length is a staple that has stayed in Doctor Who even into the new series.
There are special features included in this DVD, two of which connect with the actual story and one that deals with what one particular crewmember does behind the scenes. “Looking For Peter” with Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf’s Toby Hadoke attempts to discover more about the writer Peter R. Neuman, whose only notable history in entertainment has been his sole contribution to Doctor Who. “Secret Voices Of The Sense-Sphere” explores the origin of the voices of The Sensorites while “Vision On” discusses what a vision mixer does.
I would have thought the story would have been more interesting with the audio commentary provided by Russell and Ford as well as other cast and crew members, but they seemed to struggle to remember the episode. Some of the earlier commentaries for Tom Baker’s episodes are entertaining in that respect because Tom knows how to laugh (especially when he struggles to remember the episode he was in) and keep others featured in the commentary (including Liz Sladen) entertained. That element would have help me listen to the commentary more and sadly makes it more of a chore.
“The Sensorites” really is a must for die-hard Whoivans; casual viewers and new series fans should stay far away from this story as possible. If you want a good example of how to make an episode go on work over a long period, try “The Mind Robber,” or as I’d like to call it “If Doctor Who was written on an acid trip.”
Consider the age of this episode, it is remarkable that the video and audio of the story come out so crisp and clear. Let us hope other stories from, some of which that have been declared as incomplete, get the same good treatment.