DVD Review: Doctor Who - The Sensorites

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Review: Doctor Who - The Sensorites (PG) / Directed by: Frank Cox / Screenplay by: Peter R Newman / Starring: Wlliam Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford, Peter Glaze, Lorne Cossette, Ilona Rodgers, Steven Dartnell, Eric Francis, Bartlett Mullins / Release date: January 23rd, 2012

There’s always a frisson of excitement when a ‘classic’ black-and-white ‘Doctor Who’ serial makes its way onto DVD. These early shows are, after all, what laid the foundations for the legend the show would become and more often than not newer fans who come to these old shows afresh are surprised by how enjoyable and engaging many of these ancient episodes are, nearly fifty years later. Whilst they obviously can’t hold a visual candle to the fizzing, colourful, widescreen thrills of the 21st century series, there’s usually much fun to be had amongst the black-and-white footage, the primitive production values and threepenny special effects rarely undermining well-written, intelligent and often well-meaning adventure stories. ‘Classic’ ‘Doctor Who’ is often a lot better than its critics give it credit for. But then there’s ‘The Sensorites’ and all bets are off…

A word to the wise. If you’re planning on adding the new ‘Sensorites’ DVD to your collection then please, for the Love of God, don’t try to watch the whole thing at once, I beg  you. Trust me, an episode at a time, several days apart, is the way to go with this one. Two episodes in a row will induce a sort of hazy, disorientating effect, three or four may well bring about a temporary catatonia with much rolling of the eyes into the back of the head. But, my friends, watching all six episodes in a row is not only utterly unthinkable, it’s almost guaranteed to cause an irreversible living rigor mortis and really, no amount of sniggering at William Hartnell’s legendary wanderings from the script are worth the sacrifice of a potentially full and healthy life.

I’m exaggerating, of course, for comic effect. But ‘The Sensorites’ really is a slog of a story. Screened in June 1964 when the show was still basking in the glow of the success of the first appearance of the Daleks some six months earlier, ‘The Sensorites’ is another one of those tricky outer space stories the series was running in between the more worthy historical serials and the sci-fi ones were often a bit of a problem back in the early days, particularly because of the perceived need to create new ‘monsters’ which could rival or even replicate the success of the Daleks. With all due respect, the Sensorites never stood a chance. The story actually starts off fairly promisingly and the first episode isn’t too much of a chore. There’s some nice character beats between the TARDIS crew - the Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, teachers Ian and Barbara. Initially distrustful and suspicious of one another right at the start of the show the year before, they’ve now become friends bonded by experience. As William Hartnell’s Doctor so nearly manages to put it: “it all  started out as a mild curiosity in a  junkyard and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.” So there. Laughing happily and back-slapping apart, the TARDIS sets down upon the flight deck of a spacecraft locked in orbit around the planet Sense-Sphere (in the same Galaxy as the Ood-Sphere, home of the spaghetti- mouthed aliens from the David Tennant era, so we’re told in 2008’s ‘Planet of the Ood’) and the surviving crew-members are unconscious, initially presumed dead. But they suddenly awaken and tell the TARDIS crew that they’re under the malign mental influence of the Sensorites, the inhabitants of the Sense-Sphere, and that they’ll never be allowed to return to Earth. Much creepiness too as Susan and Barbara wander off and find themselves trapped behind a sealed (if clearly wooden) bulkhead with John, another mesmerised human astronaut, for threatening company. The climax of the episode is especially memorable, our first glimpse of a bewhiskered Sensorite floating in space and peering into the flight deck through the ship’s space-window (it’s not called that but I bet it would have been).

Sadly for ‘The Sensorites’ (and us) it’s downhill after episode one. The story, such as it is, proceeds at a pace which would scarcely trouble a snail. The Sensorites themselves board the spaceship and whilst there are some good ideas in their characterisation - they’re telepathic, sensitive to loud sounds (so watch that snoring) - they’re basically just rather pot-bellied men in grey romper suits with plate-sized round feet and sashes around their necks, bald heads and a bit of bum-fluff on their faces. They’re hardly guaranteed to get anyone racing behind the sofa.

But to be fair to writer Peter R Newman, scaring the kiddies probably wasn’t really high on his agenda. His script is actually really rather good, mature and thoughtful, dealing with issues regarding trust and deception, fear of the unlike, duplicity and treachery. As such though it’s sluggish and stagey, wordy and worthy and clearly with not enough plot to sustain six episodes. The story creaks along and, when the Doctor, Ian and Susan travel (off-screen) down to the Sense-Sphere (Barbara wisely staying behind so the actress could go on holiday - somewhere sunny judging by the tan she’s acquired when she returns in episode five) it grinds to a halt under the weight of its continued exposition and the to-ing and fro-ing between various bickering Sensorite factions. It appears a deadly disease is killing the Sensorite people and the Doctor quickly discovers that there’s something nasty in the water supply. But who put it there and why? Four or five episodes later we find out and it’s all a bit underwhelming and fizzles out in a most perfunctory shoulder-shrugging fashion as if Newman had realised his box of tricks was empty and there was nowhere else to go.

Taken slowly, steadily, an episode at a time, it’s possible to make your way through ‘The Sensorites’ and it does have its own quaint, peculiar charms. Hartnell, never at his most comfortable in futuristic stories, wanders off-text frequently and there’s much fun to be had in watching the amusement/borderline panic in his fellow performer’s eyes as they wonder where the Hell he’s going this time. To be fair, he’s not the only culprit; there’s much fluffing and stumbling evident but generally everyone else remains earnest but there’s not much real conviction here, just a lot of actors going through the motions and, most probably, hoping the next one’s a bit more fun. You’ll be hoping much the same thing.

Special features: A quick mention for the restoration which makes stunningly vivid  episodes first (and last) broadcast an astonishing 48 years ago. The visual extra material  itself is naturally a bit thin on the ground  but there’s a rather charming documentary featuring comedian/fan Toby Hadoke and historian Richard Bignell on the trail of the writer Peter R Newman, about whom little is known, then-vision mixer Clive Doig (later a doyen of kid’s TV) recalls working on 1960s ‘Doctor Who’ and, Hadoke-moderated commentary with some surviving cast and crew aside, that’s just about your lot. You’ll probably find it’s enough.

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