With the TARDIS lock stolen, the Doctor and his companions are trapped on a spaceship – seemingly crewed by the dead and forever circling the mysterious Sense-Sphere… See, it sounds great, doesn’t it? And yet general wisdom will have you believe that The Sensorites is, if not a complete stinker, certainly no better than average.
Nonsense, of course: this six-part adventure is an enjoyable and thought-provoking drama, apparently inspired by a prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War.
In all truth, I can see why some find it a dull tale. There’s not an overwhelming force attacking from all angles. It’s a story about distrust, exacerbated by the water being poisoned. It’s fragmented and throws an abundance of ideas into the mix. You could argue there’s too much story to confine it to simply six episodes. Nonetheless, many say the six we’ve got are boring.
Now, however, isn’t the time to pick apart The Sensorites in its entirety; that’s because it feels like two stories. Once we get down to the Sense-Sphere, this is a theatrical production. I might even go as far as saying it’s a Shakespearian play. The first two episodes – Strangers in Space and The Unwilling Warriors (a baffling title if there ever was one) – is solid sci-fi.
In fact, I’d say Strangers in Space in particular is one of the finest examples of 1960s TV science fiction in existence.
Sci-fi is experimental. You might think it’s all about time travel and space-stations and robots, but that’s a small sample of what’s on offer. A favourite book of mine is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451: so important was this novel to me that it changed my way of thinking. It’s about a dystopian world in which books are burned, for fear they might offend. It’s a stunning vision, genuinely unsettling, and makes you see society in a different way. That’s a fine example of sci-fi, experimenting and exploring, taking the world around us and finding something disturbing within.
Look at some of the best sci-fi productions of the 1960s. 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Time Machine. The Day of the Triffids. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. The Invaders. Sure, sci-fi can mould into any shape, but its most successful ingredient is horror. It should scare you. Often, it scares because it does show a distillation of our cultures. It unveils something nasty, as a warning to us.
Strangers in Space is a claustrophobic, tense thriller, where the enemy is attacking on all sides – including from within.
While the Doctor (William Hartnell), Barbara Wright (Jacqueline Hill), Susan (Carole Ann Ford), and Ian Chesterton (William Russell) soon discover the dead crew aren’t as deceased as they initially thought, it becomes clear that they were instead put into something like a coma. Their attackers, the as-yet-unseen Sensorites can invade our minds and put us into a state resembling death; but crucially, they won’t kill. We see this when we encounter John, played wonderfully by Stephen Dartnell, who, as we later find out, has learnt a secret about what’s happening on the Sense-Sphere. The aliens, however, elect to put him in a constant state of fear, making him lose his mind.
And that’s one of our great horrors: losing ourselves. Even John’s lover, Carol (Ilona Rodgers) dare not get too close, worried about what he’ll do.
So what do the other humans do? They lock him out. They shove him in another section of the station and try their best to ignore his trauma. It’s an unsettling proposition, made worse because it’s a fiction that rings of truth. Our understanding of mental health might have advanced a lot since the days of the “madhouse”, yet you can draw an unnerving link between John’s behaviour and those of, say, Peter Streete, the Globe’s architect in The Shakespeare Code (2007). Whereas Bethlem Hospital, as seen in the Tenth Doctor serial, portrayed madness as a form of entertainment – “Does my Lord Doctor wish for some entertainment while he waits? I’d whip these madmen; they’ll put on a good show for you” – The Sensorites shows mental illness as something we largely overlook. (Writer, Peter R. Newman might’ve experienced this first-hand during the Second World War, when he served as a pilot in Burma; it further influenced his Hammer Horror film, Yesterday’s Enemy.)
Dartnell does play it beautifully. He is, at turns, terrifying and sympathetic. When we first meet him, he’s zombie-like, wide-eyed and stumbling, but soon he switches to a haunted figure, capable of seeing great danger around all corners. It’s one of the most memorable performances in 1960s Doctor Who, and that isn’t a slight on the rest of the cast who are similarly strong, if not blessed with such extreme (and therefore noteworthy) characters.
Interestingly, once everyone acknowledges John’s problem, a cure is unveiled. Similarly telling is the fact the idea of the enemy within continues throughout the rest of the story – with duplicitous Sensorites, and a small sect of humans (well, three of them) trying to bring down a whole society by hiding in the pipework.
Of course, it’s solely the fear of the unseen or the enemy within that makes Strangers in Space such an effective piece of horror: it’s further fear of the unknown. Throughout this first episode, right up until its cliffhanger, the audience are refused any impression of the Sensorites other than this almost non-corporeal entity (as we don’t actually see the creature itself) capable of influencing us through guerrilla tactics. Naturally, we know they have bodies, but for a while, they’re most effective as something entirely unseen.
When the moment comes, when we finally see the creatures, it’s beautifully chilling: they’ve got bulbous heads; dark, inhuman eyes; wispy beards curling up their faces; and long fingers, reaching out, stretching over the window. Impossibly, the first Sensorite we see is hanging in the abyss of space, where man fears to tread. Until this point, the TARDIS crew (and the fans) had yet to meet anything capable of surviving that vacuum. Everything about them is eerily new – eerily alien. We don’t know what they’re capable of.
They’re even devoid of colour – indeed, they’re devoid of much to identify them, hence the sashes to indicate authority figures on their home planet.
Later on, their enigmatic appearances melt away, and we learn they can be quite frail, naïve things, scared of loud noise and darkness. It’s not a criticism: I like the fact these aren’t your typical all-powerful monsters. Nonetheless, their mystery and sheer horror makes for one of the show’s best cliffhangers.
(This fear of the unknown continues: in The Unwilling Warriors, the antagonists stand revealed, silently gaining access to the ship and creeping up on Barbara, Susan, and Ian. They don’t say a word, content to merely observe. Finally, they’re willing to talk, but largely in order to cart Susan off to the Sense-Sphere.)
You may argue that there are a number of serials during the First Doctor era which feature very strong first episodes then devolve into something much less exciting with subsequent instalments (An Unearthly Child and The Space Museum being prime examples of this, although again, I think their reputation is far too harsh). But The Sensorites is Doctor Who at its experimental best. Strangers in Space is a horror story, then the lever is thrown the other way and we’re embroiled in politics.
Whatever your opinion of The Sensorites as a whole, can we please agree, at least, that its first episode is an often-overlooked masterpiece?