Friday, May 25, 2012

The Sensorites

Doctor: I think it was an exercise in fear, in power... They can control, they can frighten, yet they don't attempt to kill you.  Furthermore, they feed you and keep you alive.  Oh, this is most extraordinary!

During the course of The Sensorites, Susan comes incredibly, painfully close to working as a companion.  There are problems with how she's done here, but she just about fits, to the point that you can actually see how she could have worked.

Of course, the next serial goes and melts her wings, but we'll pretend that doesn't happen for a moment.

For the first time, both Ian and Barbara are put in the background, while Susan and the Doctor are in the foreground, and the story focuses on Susan as often as her grandfather.  Her newly-revealed psychic powers are enhanced, it seems, simply by being around the titular Sensorites.  Suddenly, this gives her a usefulness to the crew.  Each of the others serve a purpose - the Doctor is the brain, contributing his staggering intelligence.  Ian is the muscle, not only in the action hero sense, but in the sense of constantly moving things along, driving even the most meandering stories toward their climax.  And Barbara is the heart, an impassioned woman who can sway the others, comfort the sad, understand the meanings. 

Where Susan is... the teenager tagging along.  She has nothing of her own to give in adventures, and isn't particularly brave or anything.  Her strangeness is intriguing on the occasion that it appears, but that's oddly rare.  In fact, I don't think it's even shown up since somewhere in Marco Polo.  And that's all she adds.  Even barely appearing in The Aztecs, she did about as much as in the entirety of The Keys of Marinus.

It's particularly a problem because she's only 16 - too young to be an adult, to old to be a child, meaning the inherent problems with the Doctor adventuring with his granddaughter are at their worst.  As it is, the Doctor truly has an obligation to protect her and keep her safe, superseding his adventuring.  She's too young to fully take care of herself.  And she's too old to get away with being innocent.  For all their flaws, the Peter Cushing movies proved that Susan could have sorta worked as a kid in a whimsical sort of way, and I imagine that if extreme care was taken, an adult version could work.  But a teenager is impossible.

It's made worse by the general early '60s attitudes.  This isn't particularly sexist by any contemporary standards, but it's definitely the case that both Susan and Barbara are generally given less to do than Ian and the Doctor and tend to be terrorized by monsters more often.  Barbara is a strong enough character (and Jacqueline Hill such a fantastic actress) that it works for her, but Carole Ann Ford is forced to struggle with a character rarely allowed to do anything on her own.

But The Sensorites centers large portions of the story on her, and it almost works.  Throughout the first two episodes, she's more on top of the plot than anyone, and Episode 2 ends with a terrific cliffhanger as she agrees to go with the Sensorites to their home planet to save everyone else.  She's ahead of the rest of the crew, including the Doctor, on everything that's going on, but they think she's in horrible danger.  It's a great setup.  But as Episode 3 starts, the Doctor barges into the hallway, telling her, "You will not make decisions of your own accord!"  She wants to go down and solve the plot, but he refuses to let her.

Even the Sensorites are appalled at his reaction:

Sensorite 1: Why do you make her unhappy?
Sensorite 2: We can read the misery in her mind!

Eventually, he makes the hilarious response that "In all the years my granddaughter and I have been traveling, we have never had an argument."  For the Doctor, I'm not sure whether this falls under clever characterization or sloppy writing.  But for Susan, the Doctor's marginalization of her moment of strength destroys every moment she nearly becomes a character.  She fights back for a while, but always gives in, ultimately.

Still, The Sensorites gives her more good character moments than any episode since An Unearthly Child. On seeing a random book lying in the spaceship, she immediately picks it up and exclaims, "This is bliss!"  Later, she cheerfully asking Ian what he's looking at, already knowing better than he does.  She works with Ian and largely leads him in saving the Doctor from the sewers in Episode 5, and is crucial in the resolution of the plot in the final episode.  And the scene where she describes her home planet is beautiful.

And honestly, for all the roadbumps in this serial, the series actually could have made her work based on the groundwork laid here.  Her moments of strength and independence could eventually become accepted by the Doctor.  And her psychic abilities could have been expanded to give her a real contribution to the team.

But it just isn't to be.  At the end of the story, her powers fade.  The Doctor says they'll work on them in the future, but they never do.  And The Reign of Terror decisively destroys any chance she ever had of working.

Susan: Someday, I feel I'd like to belong somewhere, not be a wanderer.


The Sensorites doesn't have a good reputation, which is unfortunate, because there's a lovely story lurking here.  Its edges are as rough as any in the first season, but the underlying story is exactly the sort of intelligent, complex story Doctor Who needs this early.

For most of the first half of the story, the Sensorites are a genuinely eerie threat - psychic aliens who have kept a small crew prisoner on their spacecraft, alive and well but trapped in a tiny, claustrophobic space.  One of them, John, has snapped completely from their influence.  Susan figures out a clever way to fight them - by being comforting to John.  It's an intriguing situation.

And the standoffs between the Sensorites, psychically powerful but physically frail, and the Doctor and his companions, are incredibly tense without erupting into violence.  They truly are a terrifying unknown, and yet one with no interest in killing.

When we actually meet them, we learn they aren't intentionally malicious.  Their people have been betrayed by humans in the past, and have been dying of a mysterious disease ever since the previous visitors apparently left.  They didn't kill these new humans, and did what they did only out of a belief that their planet was under a genuine threat.

The Sensorites aren't simply a mass race with singular personalities.  They are individuals, each with distinct personalities and motivations - and largely sympathetic.  Even the overtly villainous one is driven entirely by his belief that he is protecting his people by attempting to kill the Doctor and company.  He threatens other Sensorites into helping him by threatening that the humans will kill their families, not him.  It's genuinely credible that he wins several over to his side, and that and his clever manipulations make him one of the most distinctive and threatening villains of these early stories.

Their design is effective, too - weird enough to be unnervingly alien, but distinct enough that they all look like different people.  The circular feet don't quite work, but it's a nice idea.  This idea of complex, sympathetic aliens comes up again in the Verity Lambert era - most notably in The Web Planet - but aliens are almost always simply evil monsters for years afterwards.  It's not until Malcolm Hulke comes along in the '70s that aliens don't have to be monsters.

Each of the four leads is given good material at some point.  Susan, of course, has her psychic connection.  Ian spends the middle stories dying of the same mysterious disease killing off the Sensorites before returning to his standard action hero mode.  William Russell is typically commanding and likable.  Barbara disappears during the fourth and fifth episodes, but she's wonderful in her return in the finale.

Best of all is the Doctor.  For the first time, he seems genuinely interested in helping the creatures he visits.  And for the first time, he doesn't leave the second he can manage to pile the whole crew onto his ship and run; he stays until he has resolved the mysterious disease.  This leads to a very effective montage in episode 4 and finally builds to tense climactic and clever sequences in the sewers.  And in all this, he finally seems on the verge of being the Doctor we know.

Ian: It's quiet.
Doctor:[laughing delightedly] Perhaps they're preparing an ambush!
Ian: Well, you're a cheerful sort, I must say.
Doctor:  I assure you, dear boy, my spirits couldn't be higher.  Collecting evidence, circumstantial and otherwise, calculating it, pursuing it until its inevitable end, it's fascinating!
[the ambush is sprung on them]
Ian: Doctor...
Doctor: Oh, don't interrupt, dear boy, it's most irritating.

William Hartnell is wonderful, alternately deeply threatening, delightfully funny, thoughtful, and fascinatingly odd.  The charisma and acting abilities he carries in such magnificent quantities are starting to shine.  And in that, the Doctor just about emerges.

 He still has a ways to go - after all, at the end of the story, he abruptly returns to a grouchy old man, telling Barbara and Ian that he's going to dump them at the next convenient location for no apparent reason.  But he's beginning to put his wily ways to good deeds.

So, given how solid the story is overall, why does this always come in last on Season 1 polls?  I mean, obviously, it's not going to beat An Unearthly Child, The Dead Planet, Edge of Destruction, or The Aztecs.  And Marco Polo's incredible popularity ensures its place.  But how does it end up below Keys of Marinus and Reign of Terror?

I think most of it comes down to the story's two major flaws, both of which make this difficult to love.  Here's the thing: while this is a good sci-fi story, it isn't wildly original.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.  But it's exactly the same sort of story that Star Trek would tell a few years later.  And this is one of those rare times when it's hard to deny that Star Trek would have done this same story much better.  Star Trek would have done The Sensorites in 45 minutes flat, while managing to cover every plot point and all the themes and characterization, and would have included an awesome scene where Kirk flying-leap-kicked the bad guy's face at the end.

The pacing is horrendous.  It improves as the story goes along, but it would be incredibly easy to cut this to four still-slow episodes.  The story and major characters are good, just not good enough to stretch it out anywhere near this long.  It needed to be cut down severely.

But given that the story is six episodes in the first place so the production team can actually afford to make it, the plot could have been altered in the middle segments.  In particular, if Susan had gone down to the Sense Sphere with the Sensorites, the third episode could have been taken up with the various suspense scenes as the others try to rescue her, only to realize she's largely safe when they finally arrive.  It's padding, yes, but at least it's padding with some real tension, and it allows the slow integration of the villain into the story to work more effectively.

The other major flaw is that the first episode sucks.  And I mean, really sucks, in a way that casts a shadow over the rest of the story.  The opening inside the TARDIS, as they discuss their adventures, is particularly awful - an incredibly poorly-written rehash of the previous episodes, the worst of which is Barbara dismissing the tragic finale of The Aztecs with a laid-back, "I'm over it, now."  It's pretty clear, by the way, that this last adventure just ended.

It improves once they get off the TARDIS (in a nice shot that goes out of the TARDIS console and into the spacecraft), but only because that opening sets the bar so low.  It's a tough challenge anyway - the entire first episode (as well as the second) is set on a cramped spacecraft with essentially three rooms, one of them a hallway.  Most of it takes place in the control room of the craft.  Terry Nation and David Whitaker both managed at various times to just barely eke out enough content for that sort of thing, but it's a real challenge, and Peter R. Newman isn't anywhere near up to it.  And director Mervyn Pinfield doesn't help matters.

One of the events of the episodes regards Barbara and Susan attempting to get some water to drink. (ADVENTURE HO!) The astronauts tell them where to find it.  Which, incidently, is directly behind them.  With a gigantic white "Water" painted on it.  They somehow walk right past this, open the large doors, and go down the hallway.  Nobody notices this for several minutes.  It's lazy padding anyway, but the sloppy blocking and filming only emphasize what a waste of time it is.  And that's representative of the whole episode: badly acted, clumsily staged, and lazily written. 

And the acting is a bit uneven throughout, but it's just lousy in the first episode.  All the regulars - even Jacqueline Hill, for the one and only time - are off their game.  They improve tremendously in subsequent episodes, but they really don't work early on.  Ilona Rodgers and Lorne Cossette are atrocious, so wooden it zombifies and already dead script. (Thankfully, Cossette doesn't stick around for much of the story afterwards, and Rodgers is pretty minor throughout.) Only Stephen Dartnell's John works. (Dartnell is terrific throughout the story.)

The discussions about the Sensorites are intriguing, and it does dredge up some basic suspense in the final moments, but it doesn't erase the overall belly-flop impact of the episode.  So for most people, that sets the stage so badly it becomes difficult to see clearly just how vastly it improves in the subsequent episodes.

But The Sensorites is fairly good on the whole, particularly for season one - a thoughtful, complex adventure more interested in character and ideas than action.  And it's good in ways Doctor Who isn't really consistently good again until the '70s, when Malcolm Hulke comes along and reminds us that aliens are often more interesting - and their stories more compelling - when they're allowed to be complex, sympathetic individuals.


* * ½

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