The Sensorites

Posted in Episode by - July 22, 2016
The Sensorites

Aired 20 June – 1 August 1964

Following the superb historical adventure with the Aztecs, Doctor Who again takes off in a completely different direction, this time going back into the depths of space while exploring an alien mystery in ‘The Sensorites.’ While this story does not hold up in terms of plot or pacing as well as the first trip into space in ‘The Daleks,’ there are still some clever ideas and character development to be had.

For the first time, the lead characters take a moment to reflect on what they’ve seen and how far they’ve come since first meeting, showcasing early character development with particular focus on the Doctor himself who has become a much more heroic and steadfast figure than initially. This is a man who still puts the safety and well-being of Susan above all else, but he is also learning to accept Ian and Barbara as stand-in family members as well. Perhaps learning from his overconfidence in ‘The Daleks,’ the Doctor does not rush in to explore the spaceship with its seemingly dead crew, instead trying to usher his companions back into the TARDIS and avoid the situation altogether. This sort of non-intervention policy does seem to be more of a recurring theme for the First Doctor compared to his future selves, manifesting prominently in ‘The Aztecs’ and ‘The Keys of Marinus,’ and is a fascinating facet to witness and explore.

‘The Sensorites’ can more or less be divided into an initial two-part story aboard the spaceship followed by a linking four-part story on the Sense Sphere, and the dichotomy is quite distinct. The Sensorites themselves are actually incredibly interesting in concept, and the fist two episodes do a very good job in building up the alien nature and the potential power that these telepathic creatures hold. Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints or the desire to keep things familiar to viewers, the physical manifestation of the culture is less than compelling. Despite their telepathic nature all communication among themselves is verbal, and their culture is based on a very comfortable hierarchy as in any given human culture. It is, of course, unrealistic to expect that every alien culture would employ completely alien concepts, but the realization of the Sensorite race simply fails to live up to the background and expectations set up early on in the serial.

Similarly, the plot is full of gaping holes that unfortunately can’t be overlooked. Suggesting that any given Sensorite is indistinguishable from any other is simply flawed, and the belated realization that the TARDIS crew has helped raise a dangerous individual within the society’s ranks comes off as lazy scripting without any real dramatic work put into it. The plot does try to briefly dismiss some of the issues, suggesting that the Sensorites have poor eyesight and that the figures in power are only closely known to those in power, but again these are somewhat unsatisfying answers for a crucial backbone of the plot.

Despite the negatives and even if the execution of the ideas isn’t the best, there are still some engaging positive aspects as well. Suspicion being a prominent psychological foe is introduced, and- unlike in ‘The Daleks’- there is the argument made that anything not human is not necessarily evil or wrong. These would both become recurring themes going forward, and it’s nice to see the burgeoning beginning of those thoughts here. Perhaps even more importantly, Susan is given some incredible character growth in this serial, standing up to her grandfather as she tries to find herself and become her own person. While some of the other characters’ abnormal actions could potentially be explained by the psychic nature of their surroundings, the plot bluntly points out that this is not the case for Susan, and it will certainly set her on an interesting trajectory going forward in future stories.

At the end of it all, ‘The Sensorites’ is an interesting episode with an interesting message. Unfortunately, the six parts are filled with some unnecessary padding to prolong the adventure, and some of the engaging concepts don’t quite fully manifest themselves to their fullest potential. There are plenty of nice touches in the details and in character development, but the overt plot points don’t quite hold up as well.

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