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1x7. The Sensorites
Writer: Peter R. Newman
Directors: Mervyn Pinfield & Frank Cox
Script Editor: David Whitaker
Producers: Verity Lambert & Mervyn Pinfield

Synopsis: The TARDIS materializes on board a spaceship in orbit around the Sense-Sphere, a planet whose mysterious inhabitants, the Sensorites, have prevented the ship's human crew from leaving but have not tried to harm them. With the help of the Doctor and his companions, they eventually make contact with the Sensorites,
who explain that their planet has suffered an outbreak of disease since the last visit by humans and that they feared the humans would exploit the Sense-Sphere's copious deposits of molybdenum. The Doctor and his companions are in danger from certain elements of the Sensorite regime who distrust all humans, but fortunately they manage to devise an antidote to the Sensorites' illness and prove that three insane crewmen from the last human expedition are responsible for poisoning the water supply.

Review: I sat down to watch "The Sensorites" with fairly low expectations. Nobody seems to talk about it much, I couldn't remember a single thing about it from my initial viewing way back when, and in general I had the impression that it's not one of the most well-liked Hartnell stories. I was surprised, then, to find myself enjoying it quite a bit: it's a nice character piece as well as an intelligent look at the difficulties that arise when one culture feels threatened by another.

For starters, "The Sensorites" emphasizes the scientist-hero aspect of the Doctor's character in a way that the previous serials really haven't. Not only does he take the lead in resolving the conflict by investigating the disease plaguing the Sensorites and devising an antidote, but he genuinely seems to be enjoying the process every step of the way. It helps that Hartnell is particularly adept at playing up this element, as when he's about to enter the aqueducts and chuckles to himself as he announces that there must be more to this situation than the Sensorites realize. Rather than viewing the complications as a setback, he seems to relish the intellectual challenge of unraveling the mystery. This tendency is also amusingly displayed in the last episode, when he goes on for so long expounding the joys of logical deduction that he fails to notice that he and Ian have been surrounded by the humans from the initial expedition.

This serial also boasts the best writing of Susan so far. In many of the previous installments, she spent far too much time screaming, whining, making inane comments, and generally not behaving like someone from an advanced civilization. But Peter R. Newman's script portrays her as resourceful and even brave, remaining calm when the Sensorites begin communicating with her telepathically and even preparing to defy the Doctor and leave the ship with them when she becomes convinced that it's the best way to keep her friends safe. While I would have preferred it if she had helped explore the aqueducts instead of Ian, who plays the Tough Action Hero and insists on going despite being desperately ill, this is still a step in the right direction for Susan.

The Sensorites themselves are an interesting bunch as well: from the very beginning, they're at least a very unconventional threat, as they've prevented the human space explorers from leaving but haven't tried to kill them and have even provided them with food and water. The scenes on the spaceship nicely maintain the mystery and suspense for the first two episodes, and when Newman finally does reveal what the Sensorites are up to, we see that they have a very good reason for their behavior. The fatal disease that now afflicts them coincided with the last visit by humans, and their mental scan of one of the crew of the new expedition showed plans for a vast molybdenum mining project that would destroy the Sensorites' way of life. As far as they're concerned, they're only resisting invasion and exploitation, and even then they do not resort to lethal violence.

The First Elder of the Sensorites, in fact, is quite open to the possibility of a peaceful arrangement with the humans, and while his naivete regarding the other Sensorites is kind of annoying (why can't we have a relative "dove" who still recognizes danger when he sees it?), his approach holds out the promise of understanding between the two cultures. Newman deserves credit for treating the Sensorites sympathetically while still rendering them decisively alien: they communicate telepathically, they do not seem to have differences of gender, and they operate on a social caste system. (Granted, the latter has existed in some human societies, but it does at least reflect something other than the 20th-century Western European values of the human protagonists.) Even the City Administrator, who fears that the First Elder's pact with the humans will lead the Sensorites into a trap, is not really evil and malicious so much as simply paranoid due to past unpleasant experiences with humans. The true villains of the piece are the human space explorers from the first expedition, who have poisoned the Sensorites' water in the hopes of claiming the planet and its resources for themselves.

"The Sensorites" does have its problems. I don't think it really deserves the reputation it has in some quarters for being "boring" (I got far more impatient during "The Keys of Marinus" and even parts of "The Daleks"), but the machinations of the more paranoid Sensorites do grow a bit repetitive after a while. More disappointing is that the script actually undercuts some of its own good points at times. The Doctor is more interesting and likeable than he has been in the past, but in the very last scene, he completely overreacts to a remark that Ian makes about the other humans knowing where they're going: sensing an implied contrast to the TARDIS, he once again resolves to throw Ian and Barbara out at the next opportunity. Susan is stronger and more independent than she has been in the past, but she ends up giving in to the Doctor's insistence that she "do as she's told" instead of leaving the ship with the Sensorites, whereas I'd have preferred to see her stay resolute and go anyway. And I think it's a bit of a cop-out to describe the humans who have been poisoning the Sensorites' water as "insane": history has proven many times over that humans don't have to be insane to be greedy murderous racists.

All that aside, "The Sensorites" is a solid installment and a nice companion piece to "The Aztecs" on the subject of interaction between different cultures, offering a more hopeful view in contrast to the pessimism of its predecessor. There are certainly parts that could have been better, and perhaps it might have been five episodes instead of six, but it fits well into a first season that, based on the preserved episodes, seems to have been a largely successful beginning.

Other notes:

- The limits of early TV production are on display in "The Sensorites" with quite a bit of flubbed dialogue that evidently couldn't be replaced. I especially got a kick out of "I heard them over-talking."

- I'll unfortunately have to skip over "The Reign of Terror" (the next serial) since the partially-restored version won't be available in the U.S. for a few months yet. I did glance at a plot summary, and it looks like the Doctor does at least try to get Ian and Barbara back to 1963 London (and in fact believes he's succeeded at first).

Rating: *** (out of four)

"Doctor, assuming you're right--"
"Which he is, of course."
"Naturally!"
    -Barbara, Ian, and the Doctor


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