TV Club: The Sensorites

This morning I listened to Strangers in Space with the narrated soundtrack and it was just lovely to listen to William Russell narrating this unloved tale which, on audio, felt properly tense and spooky (mainly because the set can be a lot bigger so characters don’t have to pretend they don’t notice something that’s happening right behind them!)

But it also reminded me that the first scene is the one where the Doctor talks about ‘a mild curiousity in a junkyard…quite the spirit of adventure’ which is such a lovely line. (And surprisingly isn’t in the site’s quotes, so I’m adding it now!)

They also give a handy recap of ‘the story so far’ which is hilarious as it ends with the Doctor describing an unseen adventure with Henry VIII!

I’m going to listen to Toby Hadoke’s commentary podcast for the episode now. I’m getting all Sensoritey!

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I was in the middle of watching this (one episode per day) when the news broke about the passing of William Russell. It made me appreciate his performance so much more, although he actually had less to do than usual in this story, with the Doctor & Susan very much taking centre stage.

It was great to see some genuine character development for Susan here, & Carole clearly made the most of it. However I was shocked by how keenly I felt the absence of Barbara for two whole episodes, and in more than one scene I actually found myself thinking “there’s someone else meant to be here” and mentally looking around for her. This impression was reinforced by the way she instantly took charge on her return in Episode 6.

I actually really enjoyed this story - it felt much more modern than I would have expected from a Hartnell story, and could easily have fitted in to a late Troughton season. There was plenty of world-building - something sadly lacking in much of modern Who - and some original ideas. I too drew parallels with the Ood.

I was intrigued that Peter Glaze was playing one of the main Sensorites - for a child growing up in the UK in the Seventies he was one of the best-known faces on TV - but he was unrecognisable here beneath the heavy disguise.

On the negative side, there were far too many line flubs across the board, and the teletubby-style jumpsuits were awful, especially the feet, but these were minor quibbles. Probably the story I have enjoyed the most so far from Season One.

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EPISODE 5 - “FAMILY GROUP, FAMILY GROUP, FAMILY GROUP.”

Bonus point for anyone who gets that reference.

If this is how much space I take up for a six-parter I’m worried shauny is going to have to rent extra server space by the time we get to The War Games. I’d promise to keep this one short and sweet, but there’s a lot of ground to cover.

Well, is there? I went back and forth a few times over whether, like many fifth episodes of six part serials, this is mostly egregious padding. A lot happens here, but we end up exactly back where we started, except we’re all very clear that Barbara can come down from the spaceship next week so she can get paid.

The Second Elder is murdered (unsurprisingly, creatures that are highly susceptible to sound and darkness can be instantly killed with a half-hearted karate chop) in a tussle over the firing key. Didn’t I mention something about that thing turning up again? The way it bends so flimsily in the Second Elder’s hands couldn’t help but elicit a sort of exasperated laughter from me. Speaking of exasperated laughter, I had the same reaction to the scene where Team TARDIS, thinking they’re doing a bit of helpful politicking, get our villain elected as Second Elder. They then discover, unsurprisingly, that the Sensorite who’s been the most unhelpful and suspicious of them the entire story doesn’t miraculously become their best friend when given explicit power over their fates. Shock, horror. This is what I mean by padding. We’re going round and round in circles a bit.

One of those circles brings us around to John, who has now been Made Normal, wants to get the piss out of space as quickly as possible and go have very attractive children on Earth with Carole. Did anyone else think the Sensorite’s explanation of what was wrong with John was a surprisingly accurate description of PTSD for 1964? I know that I did. “He’s always afraid, even when he’s asleep. The body says one thing, the brain another.” Genuinely thoughtful; of course it’s totally undercut by the fact that John is wearing a Scientific Madman Helmet, but the script is very gentle with the idea. John turns out to be instrumental in rumbling the Second Elder/City Administrator/Donald Trump Sensorite too, and the tempering of his performance between this ep and the first shows some fine acting work.

NOW, you saw me mention Donald Trump Sensorite. El Sandifer over at the Eruditorum (a resource I call upon probably about as much as she calls on About Time, although some of the early reviews haven’t necessarily aged well; we’ll talk about The Problem With Susan and how it’s mostly bullshit another time) talks about how this is explicitly an anti-colonial story, and I just don’t buy it. Yes, John is driven mad because he sees the material wealth in the planet and dreamed of its riches, but he is also pretty much instantly punished by the story, and Maitland and Carole are both too terrified to do much colonizing themselves. The reveal we all know is coming does push that narrative, but when it’s literally only the final sixth of a nearly nearly three hour story, you can’t push it that hard.

In 2024 though, it’s really really hard not to read this as at least partially a story about how populists will sink to any low that they can to achieve power, up to and including the murder of their own people. It’s a story about realpolitik, but also a story about how terrible they are at it. The City Administrator basically discovers lying and starts to use it to grab power for himself, out of both greed and fear of the outsiders. He leverages that xenophobia with his lackeys, but he also lies to the ones who are actively working to help cure their society of a deadly disease. It’s lucky the Sensorites are terrible judges of character because he’s laughably bad at it, mean-mugging everyone, barging into places and making quite obvious declarations of his own guilt because he believes his own people too stupid to find him out. Now, doesn’t that remind you of anyone?

The clumsy political commentary is where I’ll leave it for now - I’m looking forward to getting to the end of this, but it could also have ended probably one episode ago.

EPISODE 6 - Is there a tanning bed on that spaceship?

Final stretch now. After watching Rogue and having far too many feelings about it, what could be nicer than returning to 1964, smoking a big joint on the Sense Sphere, and watching something I don’t need to think or feel that hard about?

Sometimes I think I should keep my mouth shut.

So the anti-colonial perspective that El Sandifer reads into this story turns up mostly in the back fifteen minutes of this episode. All the business with Donald Trump Sensorite is basically discovered instantly (truly, like, all the cliffhanger is undone in about two minutes and we never really talk about the City Administrator again until he’s banished to the Outer Wastes, a very 60s sci-fi punishment) which leaves us to the real villain, the one who’s been actively trying to genocide the Sensorites.

Yes, it’s The Doobie Brothers, living down in the tunnels in ill-fitting rags but pretty neat handlebar-moustaches, waving sharpened sticks around but basically posing no threat whatsoever. Their leader is a pretty explicit colonial stereotype, although in 1964 there’s an argument that Peter R. Newman didn’t really write it as that explicit. Taken just textually, these three read a bit more like the story of Shoichi Yokoi, the Japanese veteran found living in the jungle, still believing the Second World War to be happening 26 years later. It’s also 8 years after this episode actually aired, so my entire house of cards falls down there.

What I’m trying to drive at is that, as I said about the previous episode, when we really only see the Space-Brits fighting their invisible war against the Sensorites, it’s the last fifteen minutes of a nearly three hour episode where we’ve mostly been dealing with one particular power-hungry Sensorite as the villain. That isn’t enough to drive an anti-colonialist narrative home, especially when The Doobie Brothers are mopped up pretty easily by Ian and The Doctor (not buying for a second that Ian in the Battle Turtleneck and a Doctor who has clearly been itching to punch someone in the mouth all serial wouldn’t have dusted off three malnourished Lost Boys cosplayers in a fifteen seconds) and the only other person who might be accused of wanting to extort the Sensorites never really does, is driven thoroughly bonkers by the attempt, and is then healed by the very people that did the damage in the first place. If that’s an anti-colonialist message, it’s a thoroughly muddled one.

Instead we spend a lot of time with the City Administrator, who I think has to be the real villain of the piece. Is he the villain because the men in the sewers drove him to become paranoid? It’s not explained thoroughly enough to tie together.

God I was going to say nice things about this one though - it does trot along at a fair pace, and Barbara is back! @Jane_Smee mentioned upthread that she really takes charge when she returns, and her absence is felt very keenly (even if it’s also VERY obvious she’s been in the Costa Del Sol for a fortnight. Or the spaceship has a health spa that we never saw). Once she gets into the action here, it’s all solved pretty bloody quickly, and the moment where the First Elder pegs her as a great example of a human is spot on, proving that he might not be such a terrible judge of character after all.

Speaking of terrible characters (NO BUT SHUSH), let’s talk briefly about the Problem of Susan, because I only have a brief thing to say about it. The Problem of Susan is that most of the people writing Doctor Who at this time were men in their twenties and thirties who really only saw her as “plucky girl” and “narrative driver”, as in she acts plucky and girlie, and if we need the plot to go somewhere, or not go somewhere, we’ll use Susan to get it done because she is The Child, it’s 1964, and we have to make sure The Children are protected at all costs.

Except of course, Susan is maturing, she is on the cusp of what we would call adulthood (I have another 2000 words to write about like, how Time Lords age from children to adulthood? Also I consider Looms canon so that’s another 1000) and that calls into question the ability of these men to write anything that is compelling or believable. Peter R. Newman finds a good workaround, when instead of writing her as a 16 year old Earth girl, clearly a task beyond the abilities of anybody literate at the time, he writes her as a weird, psychic, alien girl who could well be decades old already. Like she was supposed to be before Terry Nation got hold of her. So when she talks about her home (enshrining the first description of Gallifrey into canon, and isn’t it so lovely that not only do we get the first Brainy Specs in this episode too, both of these things will circle back around and into the Tenth Doctor’s era nearly forty years later, I love it when it rhymes, don’t you?), the burnt orange skies and silver leaves, we find a place in our hearts for her that believes this homesick alien, just as alien as The Doctor. The Problem Of Susan isn’t that her maturing as a woman holds The Doctor and the show back, The Problem Of Susan is that there was nobody capable of consistently giving her this characterization. She’s too tied to the idea of being an Earth child in so many narratives, when by all rights, she shouldn’t be.

The other issue El Sandifer takes with this episode (and I didn’t realize I was writing a rebuttal piece until suddenly I was) is that the blow-up on Ian at the end where he says “Well piss off then” comes out of nowhere and is completely inconsistent to the rest of his characterization. To which I say, tsh, pshaw, nonsense. The Doctor has just been talking to Susan about how she wants to feel settled somewhere. How she isn’t unhappy, but she wishes for more. We know what’s coming down the line in The Dalek Invasion of Earth. We also know that The Doctor and Susan are very close, but perhaps The Doctor thinks they are closer than they are. Suddenly, his world is being shaken, much like the world of the City Administrator. Because of course, who else is the Doctor, but the Administrator of the TARDIS? Barbara even says it explicitly a few episodes previously - “We’re very dependant on the Doctor; he leads, we follow.” This whole story, he’s very rarely been on the back foot, and has been able to solve every problem. Ironically, Susan is the biggest problem, and that final conversation in the TARDIS between them is evidence that that problem, that she as a young, maturing Time Lord, does perhaps need the option of stability and society, is nowhere near being solved. That eventually, she will leave him.

So who does he lash out at? The outsiders. Ian and Barbara. It doesn’t matter that they’ve spent the episode trying to heal him, fighting with him, solving the problem with him. He’s hundreds of years old, and his connection with one of his kin has been threatened by these outsiders opening up his granddaughter’s mind. It’s no shock that he would take any opportunity to get them away as quickly as possible.

Crikey, this went long. The Sensorites also went long, but I enjoyed it - it looks really good, hasn’t aged terribly at all. The creatures themselves are a little hokey, and there’s a definite sag in parts four and five, but on the whole, it’s a tense bit of societal science fiction that raises a few interesting questions about the nature of the relationships on Team TARDIS. I think this might come in at four stars for me, mostly on the back of the direction and the performances.

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Boring. Nothing else to say.

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