CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Sensorites / DVD Review

"I'll certainly never watch The Sensorites in quite the same way again," muses Toby Hadoke on Looking for Peter, a gem of a documentary that accompanies this month's release of the rather unloved Doctor Who serial from William Hartnell's first year in the role. In light of the backstory that emerges from Hadoke's research then certainly the details of writer Peter R. Newman's early life, including his wartime role as pilot and parachutist and experiences in Burma, add contextual colour to the themes of his Doctor Who story.

A former actor and director in repertory theatre, and writer for radio, his route to working on Doctor Who began with the television play Yesterday's Enemy, sadly no longer available in the archive, which was transmitted by the BBC on 14th October 1958. It featured a distinguished cast including Gordon Jackson, Barry Foster, Lee Montague, Burt Kwouk, Alex Scott and Terence Brook and tapped into Newman's war experiences, exploring the rather taboo subject of British war crimes. Newman explored the moral complexities of war that affected both sides of the conflict as British troops take over a jungle village in Burma and shoot innocent villagers in an attempt to 'persuade' a Japanese informer to surrender. However, when the Japanese recapture the village, the British commander and his troops are subjected to equally barbarous methods to force them to give up vital information to their enemies.

Newman's play was picked up by Hammer Films, a regular practice for the company which often looked at television subjects as suitable for adaptation for the cinema. Val Guest's film version of Yesterday's Enemy in 1959, headlined by the legendary Stanley Baker and with Gordon Jackson reprising his original role, was the culmination of a series of war films that the studio had produced from the mid to late 1950s, including The Steel Bayonet and Camp on Blood Island. It was a well received, if somewhat controversial, BAFTA nominated production and its critical success spurred Newman and Hammer to work together on a number of other, eventually unrealised, projects.  

The Inquisitors, to be directed by John Gilling, about the impact of the Inquisition on a Spanish town was cancelled at the last minute. It is alleged that Columbia withdrew financing a few weeks prior to shooting when the Catholic church raised its objections about the film's subject matter. The sets, already built, were used on Curse of the Werewolf which then had its location switched from France to Spain. By the early 1960s, Newman's various projects had floundered at Hammer and as Marcus Hearn points out in the documentary, he was also pricing himself out of the market.

He commenced discussions with story editor David Whitaker about writing for Doctor Who in late 1963, just as The Daleks hit the nation's television screens, and during early 1964 he developed the story that would eventually become The Sensorites. He was formally commissioned to write the scripts on February 25th 1964 and it would remain his only contribution to the series. Intended as the conclusion to the first season of Doctor Who, The Sensorites was caught up in an ongoing discussion about which studios at the BBC were most suited to the programme's production. Producer Verity Lambert had been campaigning for some time to get the series moved from the rather primitive and restricted conditions of Lime Grove.

One of her arguments was that Ray Cusick's ambitious sets for The Sensorites would not be allocated the space they deserved at Lime Grove's Studio G and that as of April 1964, well into pre-production at that point, it was far too late to try and squash everything into Lime Grove which she felt was rather unsuitable for Doctor Who. She got her wish and the BBC's Planning Department gave her permission to use studios at Television Centre until a new home could be found for the programme. The Sensorites was eventually accommodated in TC3 for episodes one and two, with the fourth taped in TC4, and all the rest in Lime Grove D. When Sydney Newman eventually decreed (as a bluff to get the Planning Department to make their minds up presumably) that if the programme could not be found a permanent home he would be forced to cancel it, it was soon decided by the end of the season Doctor Who's new home would be Riverside Studios in Hammersmith and Planet of the Giants, opening the second season, would be the last Doctor Who fully produced at Lime Grove.

Mervyn Pinfield, the show's associate producer, was felt to be a director with the appropriate technical expertise to bring the visual scale of the The Sensorites to the screen and he helmed the first four episodes until director Frank Cox took over for the last two. It would be Cox's last work for the series before he went on to a solid career as a producer and director at the BBC. Pinfield certainly creates some palpable suspense in the first two episodes after the Doctor, Susan and his companions arrive on a spaceship from Earth in the 30th Century and find it debilitated by the inhabitants of the Sense-Sphere, the Sensorites. There's a fantastic opening shot where the occupants of the TARDIS are shown leaving through its double doors and entering directly onto the flight deck of the ship, something that must have been quite exciting for viewers at the time. Plenty of atmospheric lighting and minimal or no scoring helps to maintain the tension as they investigate the ship, meet the crew from Earth and have their first encounter with the telepathic Sensorites.
... a decent stab at what was Doctor Who's first attempt at depicting an alien culture and its inhabitants
The serial also shows off Cusick's design work rather well and here he goes for a palette that prefers the cluttered interior of an aircraft cockpit rather than the predictably slick and antiseptic regalia of most science fiction films of the period. The ship's corridors and bulkheads have his telltale use of rounded and curved forms and apparently he was inspired by Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia and Art Nouveau when it came to designing the Sense-Sphere's cities. Costume designer Daphne Dare and make up artist Sonia Markham created the appearance of the Sensorites and I still think, apart from the pulp SF indulgences of their domed heads and rather impractical rounded feet, that they and Cusick's set designs are a decent stab at what was Doctor Who's first attempt at world building and depicting an alien culture and its inhabitants.

There are subtle differences to each Sensorite, as noted in the DVD's production notes, but there still remains something in their conformity that nods to early 1960s perceptions of the Communist Chinese, garbed in the Zhongshan suits as worn by their leaders, especially Mao Zedong, as a symbol of proletarian unity and, by extension, of Chinese Communism itself to the Western imagination. The Sensorites also offer parallels with how the Chinese were depicted in films such as The Yangtze Incident (1957) where, as the so called Bamboo Curtain was drawn across Asia, Tony Shaw explains in British Cinema and the Cold War, "self segregation and containment inevitably encouraged a sense of mutual suspicion and hostility" and where popular culture could only offer audiences a second hand credibility to images of Cold War aggression.

Interestingly enough, the story's themes of the misunderstandings and xenophobia borne out of first contact, as well as internal government deceits and disputes, also chimed with China's failure, in the late 1950s and 1960s to establish diplomatic, economic and trade relations with the West. Their policy in the 1960s, according to Harish Kapur in China and the European Economic Community, "did not bear much fruit. Neither Western Europe in general, nor the European Community in particular, were ready to respond to Chinese overtures." Zedong also had internal disputes to deal with after his policy known as the Great Leap Forward met with a catalogue of failures and he was caught up in "a tug of war between the radicals and the pragmatists" when it came to deciding foreign policy.

It offers a further context to the fear of humans that the Sensorites telepathically communicate to Susan, explaining their attack on the humans because they fear that John's discovery of a supply of molybdenum on Sense-Sphere may lead to their exploitation and that contact with a previous Earth expedition had already proved to be a disaster. As the story progresses we discover that the Sensorite Council is divided about the presence of humans on their world. A faction plots to kill the humans and they also capture, kill and then impersonate one of their own leaders, the Second Elder. However, it is then revealed that a disease affecting the Sensorites is caused by the remaining crew members of the previous expedition, hiding in the city's aqueducts, who have introduced a poison into the water supply. Thus the story, like Newman's Yesterday's Enemy, shows mistrust and fear as a mutual failing and is a refreshing change from the morally black and white nature of previous stories in the first season.

Perhaps this is as much an expression of the chill that descended upon post-war British attitudes long before the thaw of the mid-Sixties. As David Kynaston notes in Family Britain, the Suez crisis of 1956 created a prevailing mood in the country that would continue to persist well into the 1960s and had shown, "Britain's inability to act independently of her American ally; the futility of clinging on to Empire; the ability of those in power to practise deceit." Those ever so British, and class ridden, survivors of the first expedition in the climax of the story attempt to maintain their war footing with the Sensorites even though there is no actual war and are a continuation of the "myth of Britain at war" as conservatism, the decline of Empire and Suez take their toll.
... plugging into the angst over the British loss of face in the Suez crisis and the blame game of the Yangtze Incident
The overriding problem with The Sensorites is that it can be downright dull when you get to episodes three and four and after managing to produce a very psychologically tense atmosphere and building up the appearance of the Sensorites in the first episode with a then very strange and surreal pay off as Ian spots one of the creatures balletically floating outside the ship. It's a great example of the visual and aural 'strangeness' of the programme and as noted the tangibly threatening atmosphere continues into the second episode.

As the TARDIS crew explore Captain Maitland's spaceship, the menace escalates with the mystery of the locked sections of the ship and the banished John, a mineralogist who has discovered the mineral wealth of the Sense-Sphere. Stephen Dartnell is so very good as the deranged John, putting across his psychological scarring in a memorably physical performance. You really feel for him when he finally breaks down in Barbara's arms. Equally, Maitland (Lorne Cossette) and fellow crew member Carol Richmond (Ilona Rodgers) carry the bizarre atmosphere further, remaining silent and unmoving when they are mentally controlled by the Sensorites boarding the ship.

We also get the series' first look at the use of telepathy with the Sensorites apparently able to influence and control human minds and this also allows Carole Ann Ford to fulfill some of Susan's original character development. Again, it's a subject that was much in vogue in the 1950s and University of London mathematician Samuel Soal had been testing participants in new experiments into precognitive telepathy during the war years and into the 1950s. Telepathy was also included as a subject matter in the original research into kinds of science fiction that might be reflected in a Saturday tea-time show undertaken by the BBC prior to Doctor Who's creation in 1962. Brainwashing was also a familiar anxiety from the period with assertions that the Chinese had perfected some techniques during the Koren War and that, starting in the early 1950s, the CIA and the Defense Department conducted secret research (notably including Project MKULTRA) in an attempt to develop practical brainwashing techniques. Released in 1962, John Frankenheimer's film The Manchurian Candidate - a Cold War drama depicting the son of a prominent, right-wing political family brainwashed as an unwitting assassin for an international Communist conspiracy - made the concept very familiar to audiences.

Carole Ann Ford gets much more to do here as Susan befriends the aliens through her telepathy and her independence from the Doctor adds a much needed bit of maturity to the part. Jacqueline Hill isn't featured much as she was given two weeks off during the production and was written out of episodes four and five. William Russell is as good as ever, even though he spends much of his time on Sense-Sphere in his sick bed during episodes three and four. Hartnell is thoroughly engaging as the Doctor in this too and he delightfully takes centre stage in solving the situation, taking charge on the ship and working out who is responsible for the poisoning of Sense-Sphere's inhabitants.

The big leap forward here, as the production notes observe, is the Doctor determines to solve the problem and sets out to investigate the aqueducts because he clearly wants to and is not driven by the desire simply to recover a fluid link or get the TARDIS lock back. There's a wonderfully paced montage sequence of him undertaking some forensic testing in episode three that livens things up a bit and where the vision mixing (presumably handled by Clive Doig) again underlines Pinfield's technical ability.

When the action moves to Sense-Sphere the story really does get bogged down and unfortunately the Sensorite politicking lacks some oomph. It becomes something of a turgid round of scheming Sensorites standing and sitting around and nattering in often slow paced and dull scenes. The later episodes set in the aqueducts are strong, atmospheric drama but the Sensorite power struggle hinges on Carol pointing out to the City Administrator that without their sashes it is hard to tell all the Sensorites apart. Couldn't he have already reasoned that one out for himself when he formulates his impersonation of the Second Elder?

The supporting cast are fine, where Stephen Dartnell particularly stands out and the deranged humans living in the aqueduct are convincingly realised, but unfortunately Maitland and Carol are probably the least impressive characters here. While Toby Hadoke may rightly mock The Sensorites poor status with fans (it "didn't even have the decency to get wiped so that we could mourn its loss and imagine how brilliant it must have been") there is, as he himself demonstrates, plenty to enjoy here. At six episodes it does outstay its welcome but there are at least three very good episodes here that are worth watching. For me, it is clearly the themes of the story, courtesy of Peter R. Newman, which remain strong too - fear of the unknown, xenophobia, mistrust between races - plugging into the angst over the British loss of face in the Suez crisis and the blame game of the Yangtze Incident.

Special Features

Toby Hadoke once again moderates the unruly mob that consists of Carole Ann Ford, William Russell and Raymond Cusick who natter away on several episodes plus there are welcome visits from actor Joe Greig who played various Sensorites, director of episodes five and six Frank Cox, make-up designer Sonia Markham and human expedition survivors Martyn Huntley and Giles Phibbs. 
Looking for Peter (21:19) - Toby Hadoke and Richard Bignell set out to uncover just who exactly Peter R. Newman was. Little is known about the enigmatic writer of The Sensorites and this sweet little documentary delves into Newman's career, including his work for Hammer and their adaption of his television play Yesterday's Enemy, and his family background. Along the way, in Who Do You Think You Are? style, Hadoke and Bignell raid public archives, consult Hammer historian Marcus Hearn and track down Peter's relatives to find out more about the writer and the man. What emerges is a fascinating, very bittersweet story of frustrated creativity tragically thwarted.
Vision On (7:03) - Clive Doig, BAFTA award winning television producer, sheds some light on his early career as a vision mixer, including work on early tests for the classic 'howl-around' Doctor Who title sequence. In a role he fulfilled for two years during Doctor Who's phenomenal growth from a fledgling series, Doig explains what exactly a vision mixer is responsible for in the television gallery of the 'as live' early days of television production. His memories take us from the making of the pilot episode; tales of sets falling down and cameras going AWOL; Hartnell's legendary fluffs ("he was sometimes impossible"); the husband and wife playing the Chumblies bringing their marriage problems into the workplace and to an admiration for the tenacious Verity Lambert. Lovely anecdotes.
Secret Voices of the Sense-Sphere (2:03) - More from Doig as he explains, briefly, the incidence of 'talk-back' on episode six of The Sensorites. Perhaps it might have been better to make this part of the Vision On featurette as it seems somewhat superfluous here hanging about on its own.
Photo Gallery
Great selection of black and white stills, including many of Cusick's striking set designs, but I've seen some good colour stills in print elsewhere including the Howe-Stammers-Walker book The Sixties. Are these lost or in the hands of private collectors unwilling to grant their use?
Coming Soon
Trailer for the forthcoming reissue of The Robots of Death, Tomb of the Cybermen and The Three Doctors in the Revisitations 3 box set.
Radio Times Listings
Listings and a profile of Hartnell from the magazine plus three of Ray Cusick's design drawings for the serial for various props and visual effects that were contracted out to Shawcraft.
Production Subtitles
Thorough and very detailed notes from Stephen James Walker.  
Digitally Remastered Picture and Sound Quality
Once again those backroom boys at the Restoration Team do the early years of the series proud and create a stunning restoration of the materials held by the BBC.

Doctor Who: The Sensorites
2 | entertain / Released 23 January 2012 / BBCDVD3377 / Cert: PG
BBC 1964
6 episodes / Broadcast 20 June 1964 - 1 August 1964 / Running time: 149:33

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4 Responses to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Sensorites / DVD Review”
  1. Lots of interesting stuff here. I know it's not the best-regarded of the Hartnell serials, but I'm really looking forward to the whole package - especially the Newman doc, which sounds as though it'll shed a lot of light (& I do love anything that involves delving into archives). Thanks for reviewing in such depth.

  2. Thank you for the fascinating background to the Sensorites. It is not one I had seen back in my day, and now I will have to find it and others. Your in-depth information reminds me how media fiction and real events can intersect--especially in science fiction. You help me appreciate the genre more. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this review. I'm glad that Doctor Who seems at last to have done Peter R. Newman justice. I'm fond of The Sensorites, one of the more reflective stories in a thoughtful season, and look forward to seeing whether the DVD release helps restore its reputation.

  4. KAOS says:

    Thanks for another wonderfully informative article. I've only seen The Sensorites once, and found it... ahem, difficult, but I'll watch with renewed interest when I buy it. And of course the production notes always help to liven up a plodding tale.

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