Saturday 4 April 2020


First broadcast: June/August 1964
Written by Peter R Newman

”I don't like the voices. I want to have silence in my head!”

”Leave us at once!”

From the off, the travellers are warned away from the Sense-sphere. But not with as much vehemence as you get warned off this story. People are quick to point out it reaches unparalleled levels of tedium. And this is being posted out of order because, much like the travellers, I first heeded then defied that advice.

It’s not just slow. After all, Hartnell’s default mode is slow, we’re used to that. It’s that for long periods nothing much seems to happen at all, like they’re hoping if they just keep going they’ll hit on something. “Anything but this awful waiting”, the Doctor says at one point. Cue more awful waiting.

And it shows frequent signs of having been made up as it goes along. When an antidote, intended for Ian, gets dramatically dashed to the ground someone just goes to get some more. A monster on the loose, in one cliffhanger attacking the Doctor and clawing up his cloak, is just forgotten about.

Okay, so it’s not good. But is it interesting? There we hit another problem. Assessments of the story sometimes feel like they’re talking past one another. This is because of a jump half-way through where they go down from the spaceship to the Sensorite homeworld. (Called “the Sense-sphere” because… actually, I’ve no idea why.) But rather than advance, everything then shifts from one story into another which merely happens to have much of the same cast in it. So let’s take them one at a time…

Another Kind of Avarice

The set-up is that the travellers land on a rocketship whose crew have been reduced to helpless fear (or sometimes stasis) by the Sensorites. Why do their mind control powers work so well on the future humans, yet not on the travellers? Of course our heroes need to be able to do heroic things. Which is underlined in the story, by one Sensorite explaining they are “string-willed and without fear”. Or by the introductory segment where they discuss how their adventures have changed them. But then they’re differently susceptible between themselves…

There are two extended sequences where Barbara and Susan retreat very slowly from John, a Sensorite-possessed crewman, and then Ian and Barbara from two of the Sensorites themselves. These do not get tedious in any way. But, for those who sit through them, each time Barbara who notices they don’t actually do anything very aggressive.

And Susan, rather than fall under their influence, first leads the resistance then telepathically communicates with them. Whereupon she discovers “it’s suspicion that’s making them enemies”. An earlier expedition had tried to exploit their planet, not for its unusual name but because it contained a rare mineral. Which may or may not have been called Macguffinite. Peaceful types at heart, they have presumably watched a lot of ’Scooby-Doo’. So their plan becomes to scare the pesky, interfering humans away, like their planet’s an old mill and they’re wearing rubber masks. (Which they sort of are.) When one appears at the spaceship window he may as well cry “woo-hooo!”

The standard way of portraying telepathic communication is by voice-overs, as regularly used in ‘The Tomorrow People’ (1973/9). But here we only hear Susan’s replies, like one side of a phone call. The suggestion is that telepathy doesn’t just transmit words, it’s a deeper form of communication closer to Spock’s Vulcan mind-meld, an opening-up which eliminates deceit. Notably the discs the Sensorites use to empower this are placed on the forehead, like a third eye.

Which leads to a classically liberal ’Who’ moral, where the Doctor simply asks an incredulous crew “have you tried talking to them?” But it’s his grand-daughter who leads on this. In fact she seems to have greater telepathic powers than they do themselves. While they need those discs hers are innate.

Finally we have a Susan who seems to bear some relationship to the gifted youth we first met in 'An Unearthly Child’! With this and the progressive moral, even in a below-par story, that’s stuff to write home about. But let’s poke the gift horse in the mouth a bit.

The Sensorites’ First Elder says “our planet is a rich one.” They have technology, but if they’re using the Macguffinite the humans are after no mention is made of it. Because by riches he doesn’t mean material things. They look alike, have melodious sing-songy voices, are collectivist against our individualism and possess an inscrutable wisdom. No prizes for spotting this is an Orientalist story, about the spiritual wealth of the mystic East. Even their name suggests they’re the moon to our sun, opposite but complementary.

Except is a story really anti-colonial, if it is just shifting the desired object from the material (a mineral) into the immaterial (a form of perception)? Either way it is about them having something for us. Mad John rants about “the dreams of avarice”, and this is just a slightly different kind of avarice. It also assumes the foreign culture, however inscrutable it originally appears, will not just prove explicable to us in the end but handily fill a hole in our lives. They were always there for us, even before we arrived.

And with Susan… her insight is effectively proved right, and her solution the one that’s taken up. With the exception that Ian and the Doctor go with her to their planet. But at the time it’s presented as a cliffhanger, a dangerous moment which is curtailed by the Doctor ordering her out of it. It would be glorious to imagine a version where she just goes off with her mates anyway, and lives psychically ever after. But in what’s transmitted even as she does the right thing, it’s presented as the wrong one. “Sometimes”, she laments, “I feel I’d like to belong somewhere.” Not on this show she won’t.

And if she’s more on the Sensorites’ wavelength there’s a tradition of women, and particularly young women, being psychically or spiritually (the two are near synonymous) attuned. And this not a challenge to but a product of patriarchy. It’s because they are considered less able to participate in our rational, shillings-and-pence reality that they’re considered more readily attuned to something else. For example in the contemporaneous original X-Men line-up it was the one female team member, Marvel Girl, who had the psychic powers. The fabled ‘women’s intuition’ is a more generalised, more nebulous version of this.

So John, the crewman driven mad by the Sensorites’ spooky broadcasts, is essentially ‘feminised’. But if he can’t channel this like Susan, he’s given a kind of deranged vision where he can tell good from evil with simple clarity. And handily everyone falls neatly into one or other of those categories. (However we don’t see a single female Sensorite throughout, like they’re the ‘male’ to the ‘female’ connectors in this junction.)

Similarity and it’s Discontents

The second half takes us to the Sensorite home city, whose sets avoid right angles and sharp edges. Their unashamed artificiality makes them reminiscent of the expressionist classic ‘Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, while having almost the opposite aesthetic. (Gaudi was supposedly an influence.) It adds to the harmonious, utopian sense. We are in a kind of dream city. (In which case they really should have made the rocketship all angles, rather than having those round bulkheads. But anyway…)

And this utopia also involves a rigid caste system (again recalling Orientalism), where they seem to only have ranks rather than names. Except those without rank, who we’re told “are contented with their similarity”. At the time a disease is sweeping the lower orders while leaving the upper crust alone. And without anyone seeming to see any of this as distracting from the utopianism. Indeed, the definition of utopia here would seem to be everyone knowing their assigned place is “natural”.

Intra-Dalek dialogue was soon to become brief, normally consisting of Senior Daleks explaining their plans to enlisted Daleks. (Not infrequently, even within the story a hiding human observes from nearby.) But that wasn’t the case in their first showing, where they’d have something close to actual conversations. True, these made you realise how their screechy voices worked best set against human tones rather than alongside one another. But there was a genuine attempt to make them aliens rather than monsters, to give them some semblance of internal life.

And this is true of the Sensorites, only multiplied. Watching interchangeable-looking characters deliver cod-awful dialogue in silly voices isn’t going to replace sex, drugs and rock’n’roll any time soon. You start to wonder if the actors insisted on those all-over masks so they could later deny any involvement. But the intent seems laudable.

Yet wait, I hear you say! How does this work with their hive-mind utopianism? For one thing, the nature of their telepathy changes. Now it is essentially a mobile phone call. At one point one has to deliver the message he’s ordered, under duress. And he seems unable to slip in his own thoughts, nor does the recipient seem able to sense his actual state of mind.

And this individualism comes those dissatisfied with their lot. The Administrator seeks to usurp power from the First Elder, and marshalls phobia against the humans as his means. (John labels him as evil within the story.) And he rises through the ranks by stealing the sashes of those above him, earning him the nickname Suspicious Sash. (Well from me anyway.) An idea he gets from one of the rocketship crew commenting she can’t tell them apart.

So the ludicrous racist notion that foreigners all look the same, even to each other, is married to a moral about the dangers of individualism. It’s like a compound fracture of wrongness.

The noble but somewhat credulous leader failing to suspect the treacherous subordinate… we had all this with ‘Marco Polo’! Though, perhaps partly with the alien setting, there’s more a sense that we should be drawing life lessons from this.

Which doesn’t fit well. The First Elder tells Susan “our society is based on trust… we have the perfect society. All are contented.” And won’t be persuaded otherwise by her. Later he’s forced to concede “We Sensorites have a lot to learn from the people of Earth” - an almost complete reversal not just of his first statement, but the whole first half of the story.

As it turns out, there are humans who are out to get the Sensorites. The first landing party aren’t dead, as was believed, but hiding in the aqueduct and poisoning the Sensorite water. So, despite being outed as evil, Suspicious Sash kind of had a point all along. Despite getting no credit for this within the story. In fact, beyond him sabotaging the crew’s equipment before they go down into the aqueduct, these two storylines are essentially held apart.

In fact, as the palace coup story essentially peters out before the other humans appear, you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d just given up on one so thrown in the other. (Though Newman has claimed this was his original impetus, inspired by those tales of lone soldiers fighting on after the war was over.)

Despite looking like Robinson Crusoe’s shabbier brother and being armed only with sharpened sticks, they hold firm to military protocols. In scenes which could have come from ‘Monty Python’. “Civility isn't for me, you understand, it's for the uniform,” barks a bearded NCO.

The Sensorites are literally enlightened beings. They have no eyelids and darkness doesn’t just stymie or spook them, it seems to cause them physical harm. So they’ve stopped going down into their own water supplies. Rather than… I don’t know… rig up some lights or something. But the aqueducts are essentially catacombs, and the humans (also known only by titles, Number One, Number Two and so on) are the Sensorites’ shadow selves. They’re the dark side the Sensorites had hopelessly tried to banish but must instead face down.

The Sensorites might not want to be poisoned, but they need a little human tang in their water just to get by. The First Elder was too trusting but, in a circuity of logic, should have listened to Susan more. They thought they didn’t need us, but luckily came to realise the error of their ways. And let’s forget all about the humans wanting Macguffinite, despite it being where we came in. Happy ending, fade out.

As seen over ‘The Aztecs’, this is a post-colonial show. It’s made by the public broadcaster of a once-imperial power, reflecting on past habits. Yet the scenario of ‘The Sensorites’ is pre-colonial. It’s about first contact, about encountering the unknown. And it works better, much better, in the first half when that unknown can only be hazily guessed at. The more we learn, the more we realise there was little for us to learn here.

Coming soon! Speaking of Daleks…

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