Doctor Who Project: The Sensorites

I don’t know why we ever bother to leave the ship.

Why, indeed, is it that the Doctor and his companions leave the safe (usually) confines of the TARDIS every time they jaunt, unguided, through time and space, other than the fact that there wouldn’t be much of a show without this reckless behavior? Barbara asks this very question at the beginning of Peter R. Newman’s “The Sensorites” (Story Production Code G), spurring the companions to reel off all of their extra-TARDIAL adventures to date: pre-historic earth, the Daleks, Marco Polo, Marinus, and the Aztecs. And the Doctor replies, “It all started out as a mild curiosity in the junkyard and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.”

“The Sensorites,” alas, is one adventure our fearless travellers would have been better off just staying in the TARDIS for. They certainly try, for as soon as they leave the TARDIS and see that they’ve materialized inside a spaceship crewed by two seemingly-dead humans, the Doctor himself is keen to get right out of there. The first ten minutes of the story seem like an apology for the plot to come, with each character in turn suggesting that they get right back in the TARDIS and leave, but as soon as you see Susan lock the TARDIS door, you just know they’re getting locked out.

By these guys, no less:

Doctor Who 007 (1964) Hartnell -The Sensorites1 on, by Père Ubu, via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

In fairness, Howe and Walker make a good point about the story’s attempt to portray an alien culture with, well, alienness and in a subtle and sympathetic vein. But the real interest for Doctor Who fans is in the continued development of the companions and the early stirrings of canonicity.

The use of the word “companions” to refer to the Doctor’s travelling partners is significantly reinforced in this story, with three separate occurrences, notably twice by the Doctor himself. In order of appearance:

First Elder: “Do you wish your companion to stay here?”

The Doctor: “My companions and I will pay a visit to the man John.”

The Doctor: “We have a companion, a young lady on the ship.”

This phrase seems to be quite established by this point in the young series as the term of art for those who hitch along with the Doctor.

In “The Aztecs,” Barbara stood out as the strongest of the companions, and indeed, that story was her most vibrant showing to date. Her moral struggle against the Doctor drove that story. For “The Sensorites,” she’s literally on vacation for two of the six episodes, conveniently left on the spaceship while the rest of the companions accompany the Doctor to the Sense Sphere, where he solves a political mystery, a scientific mystery, and has an adventure in a set of tunnels. “The Sensorites,” though, belongs to Susan.

Doctor Who 007 (1964) Hartnell -The Sensorites2 on, by Père Ubu, via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.

Carole Ann Ford finally gets a script that doesn’t treat her like alien bait, and for once, someone else gets kidnapped. She even gets to help save the Doctor and Ian, who are chasing insane xenocidal human crash survivors (don’t ask) in the aqueduct tunnels the Sensorites never enter because they’re dark (really, don’t ask). Her nascent telepathic powers, though neatly retroceded at the end of the story, provide a link between the Sensorites, who can communicate mentally as well as verbally, and the Doctor and company, leading to a meeting between the Doctor and the First Elder.

She also begins to come of age, questioning her role in life and whether she wants to continue travelling. Her description of an as-yet-unnamed Gallifrey—”But at night the sky is a burnt orange, and the leaves on the trees a bright silver,”—resonates strongly, for the sharp language as much as for the longing for home she reveals. Susan is coming of age, possibly ready to stop being captured by Chinese warlords and rubber-headed aliens.

Susan’s wistfulness and seeming desire to get off the TARDIS-Go-Round foreshadow, perhaps unintentionally, Carole Ann Ford’s imminent departure from the series. Howe and Walker suggest that she wanted to leave the show by the Second Season, but whether that desire had manifested itself both early enough and strongly enough to have encouraged the writers to begin to “write her off” the series is less likely. Rather, I propose that we were beginning to see the development of a stronger Susan, particularly in the appearance of her mental powers—though, alas, every time a companion gets “strong” enough, he or she finds a compelling reason to exercise said strength in a setting sans Doctor, as Susan will when the Daleks are kicked off Earth early in the Second Season.

On two occasions in this story, the Doctor refers to himself as “human,” once directly and once indirectly. When discussing the Sensorites’ fear of the dark, he notes that cats cannot see in dark, “but they can see better than we humans.” A figure of speech, perhaps, as is his later interjection, “It’s inhuman! Just monstrous!” Clearly, even though this story dwells on Susan and the Doctor’s otherness, the notion of the Doctor as not being really human has not yet become so canonical as to cause story editors to tweak those lines.

The Doctor also puts an emphasis on mental, rather than physical, combat in this story, exhorting Ian to fight the Sensorites with his mind, and Barbara later chastises Ian for nearly braining a Sensorite with a space spanner. The Doctor also expresses his displeasure at the thought of using weapons, saying “I have never liked weapons at any time,” before heading into the tunnels with Ian. They take the weapons with them anyway. Later Doctors will variously use guns and decry any sort of weapon as beneath his dignity, but the conflicted relationship the Doctor has with the martial arts, broadly considered, starts early in the series.

Eventually, the Sensorites put the lock back on the TARDIS so the Doctor and his companions can leave, but as they prepare to depart, the Doctor, apparently angered by Susan’s growth into an independent figure, snaps at Ian after he makes an off-handed comment about never knowing where they will end up next, vowing to drop him off at the very next stop…Revolutionary France. Eh, it’s Earth, Europe, and less than two centuries away from where Ian first hitched a ride—will that be close enough for the Doctor to drop him off?

(Screengrabs courtesy of Père Ubu via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license.)

(Previous Episode: The Aztecs)

(Next Episode: The Reign of Terror)

Post 7 of the Doctor Who Project

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