“It is the failure of all beings that they judge through their own eyes.” – First Elder
From my first viewing, I have always liked the Sensorites and was surprised to find that many other fans don’t. It may stem from a few clunky bits and costumes that require stretches of believability, but to me the story is so much more than that. It introduces an interesting set of aliens (unfortunately never used again until the purposefully similar Ood were introduced in the modern version) and has a heavy and principled theme running throughout in its discussions of trust and judging on actions not appearances or fears.
The story starts with some rather tense moments on the first ever spaceship we encounter on the show. Knowing nothing about what the supposedly dangerous aliens are like–but seeing the absolute terror of the crew–lends an air of tension to the whole episode as we wait for the inevitable encounter. The sudden cliff hanger ending of the first appearance of the very strange looking alien floating at the window in spaceis thus quite striking and iconic.
Watching all the stories in order to this point, it’s interesting to see the progression of the Doctor towards the figure that we know today. Narrowly saving a crashing spaceship by arriving at the last minute to take charge of complex controls and calculations in a way that others can’t—this is something we will see time and again in Doctors in the future. He is much more in command and in his element in this story, exultantly expressing the fun he is having figuring out the mystery at hand and we get to first hear him state his distaste for weapons. Here too we see him start to champion the good in others, (“Yes, but the fact is you didn’t kill him. Shows great promise for the future of your people.”) and even his grumpy comments seem less belligerent and more endearing now (“Dictated to by petty thieves and my own grandchild!”)
We also continue to get to see the growth of Susan into a stronger, less childish character, probably at its height in this story. Her telepathic ability finally comes to full light—it his her mind (and according to the Doctor because she is “strong-willed and without fear”) that allows her alone to communicate and even empathize with the Sensorites. It turns this into a bit of a coming of age story for her as she takes on the responsibility this brings and makes her own decisions. Her discussion with the First Elder about trust and their future is much more mature. We even get a very poetic description and longing about her home (“At night the sky is a burnt orange and the leaves on the trees are bright silver.”)
The Sensorites themselves are quite extraordinary as characters. Their odd body types aside, there are some interesting aspects to their mental abilities such as their telepathic powers. A huge network of ‘numerous frequencies’ of thoughts, feelings, and discussions is apparently all around and affects how they interact. Rather than simplistic mind control, their attack on the crew is more nuanced–they are not able to control minds per se but instead can exploit a ‘confused’ mind (one drowned in emotion or where the “veil is lifted” as they call it, causing it to lose control). Their reactions to darkness and their sensitivity to sound add a lot of vulnerability to their character. They have developed a great society amongst themselves, but it’s easily brought crashing down by outside forces that they cannot handle. At the same time, they have tapped into something that the more powerful humans cannot handle either since it so easily drives them mad. (“At some time they must have opened their minds, or experimented with the mind-transmitters. Every really rational thought was crushed out, and all they had left was the game they played; the game of war.”)
What makes the Sensorites an excellent story, however, are the displays and discussions of trust and mistrust that occur throughout. We quickly learn they are not the evil aliens the crew first thinks but instead very sensitive beings. When the TARDIS crew quickly subdues them but cause no harm, the Sensorites recognize this as a sign of trust. However, there remains a lot of uncertainty in the interactions—each side feeling slightly uncomfortable with the other at first, unsure of what to make of all the differences and thus very quick to believe the worst of the other if challenged. Some Sensorites speak disdainfully of the humans because they don’t follow the clothing customs that are the bedrock of their society (“None of them wear any signs of authority or badges of position. How are we to distinguish them?) while our crew can’t readily accept the lack of individualization among the Sensorites to the surprise of the leaders (“There is no disgrace in being in any of the castes, it is simply what one is best fitted for.”). Really, it’s a story of cross-cultural communication and the danger of making assumptions just based on people’s ways and manners being different.
I would very rarely label a DVD extra as a must-watch, but there is a documentary on the Sensorites called “Looking for Peter” that highlights the reclusive writer of this story and some of the experiences in war that may have led him to just this kind of story. It’s really well-done, even moving, and as I wrote in one review: “The thought that this theme perhaps comes not from some cocooned intellectualism but from someone who experienced cross-cultural friendship across a battlefield just seems a bit poignant…”
Best Unsettling Moments:
The first cliffhanger is well-done and even iconic—there is a long stretch of silent tension as they pan across the crew to Ian’s face as we see him wide-eyed whispering “Doctor! Doctor!” and the sudden and unexpected jump to the sight of a Sensorite floating at the window.
Also quite effective is the madness of John as he breaks down in front of Barbara and Susan. Unsure of what he’s capable of doing while being pushed by the Sensorites, we feel pity for him crying in their arms but it’s quite startling when he suddenly jerks around plaintively yelling to the unseen voices in anguish, “No, they are my friends!”
- Our first spaceship
- Description of the Doctor’s home planet
- Statement of disdain for weapons
I find the end drags a little when the crew seemingly have figured out who the traitorous Sensorite is but still muddle on looking for proof and do not really denounce him outright. But most importantly, it’s too bad that people dismiss The Sensorites because they don’t like the costumes and such; I think that they are missing out on a nice and endearing story.