Doctor Who: The Sensorites (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros try and makes sense of this misunderstood Hartnell story...
Doctor Who was reaching the end of its first season - the unexpected popularity of the Daleks meant the that show had almost certainly become more popular that most at the BBC had anticipated. The viewers' appetite for futuristic Doctor Who adventures was high and after visiting the Aztec civilisation, it was time for another foray into an alien world...
The TARDIS materialises inside a spaceship from Earth, with the skeleton crew apparently dead. The Doctor (William Hartnell), along with Susan (Carole Ann Ford), Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) soon discover that the crew are actually alive and being held in some kind of stasis by the Sensorites, the inhabitants of the nearby Sense Sphere. Seeing the TARDIS crew as a threat, the lock to the TARDIS is stolen, and they are as trapped as the crew of the ship they materialised inside.
The Sensorites starts out very strongly, presenting an intriguing mystery - with the crew of the ship seemingly dead and then coming back to life again - then settling into a lot of moody atmosphere, increasing the tension as the much-talked-about Sensorites are about to board the ship once more and finally there is a wonderfully eerie moment where there is no sound before one of the titular characters appears outside the window. Fabulous stuff and it's a tribute to the director and the cast involved in that scene that makes it so wonderful to watch.
The main story really starts to kick in during episode three, as it becomes apparent that things aren't exactly rosy on the Sense Sphere and the First Elder of that world is unaware that his immediate subordinates are plotting against him and that the sudden arrival of The Doctor and the rest of the TARDIS crew would work to his advantage.
Episode four is probably the most enjoyable out of the six, as it has Hartnell on top form and displaying his scientific skills as he races to track down the cure to a disease that has not only been wiping out The Sensorites, but could possibly kill off one of his companions. Adding to this is the main plot of The Sensorites is well underway, with political intrigue and dastardly schemes going on behind the scenes.
Jacqueline Hill is particularly good in this story, especially in the first episode, where she confronts the supposedly violent and deranged John (Stephen Dartnell) - with the viewers having been tipped off that he could do strangers some physical damage, everyone watching is fearful for Susan and Barbara, but Barbara's caring side comes out (probably due to her vocation as a teacher) and far from suddenly turning psycho, John instead collapses into her arms. Hill really makes this scene shine and reminds the audience that when she had some meaty material to work with, she would show just how capable an actress she was. It's just a pity that with Hill being on fire in terms of her performance, she conveniently buggers off mid-way and returns a couple of episodes later with something looking suspiciously like a suntan...
William Russell gives a fairly commanding performance, frequently taking the lead over Hartnell and being the all-round macho good-egg that many fans remember him being. Russell is great when he is given the chance to excel and Ian Chesterton acted as The Doctor's moral compass in early Doctor Who, often jumping in and directly questioning The Doctor's reasoning and/or decision-making, which could quite often be seen as at best cold or at worst callous. The Sensorites sees Ian taking charge and being more of a prime-mover than Hartnell and Russell's dramatic sensibilities really come to the fore during the suspenseful sequence at the end of the first episode, where Russell's performance really sells the scene and makes for a grat cliffhanger. Russell also spends one episode incapacitated, but still manages to turn in a dramatic master-class in sick acting.
William Russell wasn't the only companion to get a better deal than usual in this story; Carole Ann Ford's participation in Doctor Who started out strongly in An Unearthly Child, as the strange, mysterious teenager who hid an otherworldly secret, but after that, the character of Susan just seemed to turn into a whiny damsel in distress. The Sensorites sees Susan taking a more active role in the events unfolding around them, especially the addition of the telepathy between her and the Sensorites, allowing her to be the peacemaker and moderator between the sensitive Sensorites and her irascible Grandfather - it is a real shame that this aspect wasn't explored further and that after this, Susan lost her telepathic abilities and just reverted back to be a whiny screamer.
Sadly, William Hartnell doesn't fare as well as his co-stars in The Sensorites - he seems to fumble with and trip over his lines more than usual in this first season; though there are many who find amusement at seeing Hartnell fluffing, but the stark reality is that the man was starting to become ill. It's not all bad news - as mentioned above, Hartnell is great in episode three, where he displays a range of emotions, both positive and negative, which reminds you just how great an actor Hartnell was when he was on top form - no other actor who followed in his footsteps has ever been able to top the sort of explosive moral outrage that Hartnell was able to muster.
Whilst it might seem as though we are singling out Hartnell for his usual fluffs, but to be honest, most of the cast - both regulars and guests - are guilty of dropping verbal clangers; it's quite likely that The Sensorites contains the highest number of cock-ups in any Doctor Who story, as the only way that the cast could have slipped-up anymore would have been if someone put industrial lubricant on the studio floor. It's almost as though there wasn't enough rehearsal time and the cast weren't entirely au-fait with their lines and performances, but that's just an opinion to try and explain why there is a higher than average amount of balls-ups in this story.
Somewhere amidst the Sensorites is veteran performer and Crackerjack legend Peter Glaze. Though the Sensorites are all pretty similar in appearance, all you have to do is look for the shortest and tubbiest Sensorite (and the one with the wildest body gestures) and you'll have found him.
The design of the Sensorites is a frustrating mix of the intriguing and the embarrassing; the shape of the heads and the execution of them are pretty good, but what seems to let the design down are the silly wispy beards that they all have, along with the mouths that are obscured by aforementioned silly wispy beards, quite possibly to try and cover up the fact that the mouths just seem like open holes in the make-up that move in a half-hearted manner whenever the actors playing them speak - the design could be seen as the perfect example as to why Jon Pertwee preferred monsters, such as the Draconians, who had half-masks, rather than full ones. The silly rounded feet are only seen now and again, but they appear so awkwardly cumbersome that one could easily imagine actors tripping over them during a take and Carole Ann Ford even pokes fun at the awkward gait of their new allies during episode five. The Sensorites could be seen as a sort of parody of university lecturers - they have the white polo-neck jumpers and beards, so all that's missing are tweed jackets with leather patches on the elbows...
The Sensorites all look pretty similiar (a statement that could be seen as racist, if the Sensorites themselves didn't think pretty much the same thing of their own race), and they all dress in the same clothing, with only the senior members of society being distinguishable from the rank-and-file by having black coloured collars or sashes. The Sensorites are a trusting bunch and it is only until a scheming member of the ruling classes decides that he wants things his way and murders his way up the ladder and also tries his hardest to murder the TARDIS crew or at least implicate them in the murder his was responsible for. There are a few things that are difficult to accept in this story, with the most difficult one being the fact that for however long the Sensorite civilisation has been in existence, no Sensorite until now had even thought of swapping over sashes with someone higher up the ladder in an effort to deceive - we have known food from Wimpy that has been easier to swallow.
With The Sensorites being a six-parter, there is some padding, but it's not as tiresome or as obvious as some of the hideous attempts to pad out a four-parter by a couple of episodes. There is a certain similarity to the later Patrick Troughton story, The Seeds of Death, which was also a six-parter, in that the start of the story seems to be only vaguely related to the main body of the story and it's not until an episode or two that the true plot starts to come into play. Speaking of such matters, The Sensorites had two directors credited - Mervyn Pinfield for the first four episodes and Frank Cox for the latter two. There isn't much in the way of differences between the directorial styles, so it doesn't suddenly seem as though you are in a different story.
The Doctor and Ian spend much of episodes five and six lurking about in darkened aqueducts, searching for the cause of mass poisoning on the Sense Sphere; this allows for some very tense and effective moments as our heroes go carefully looking around for the outbreak of death on the planet and when they get to the bottom of the mystery, it seems to forshadow the events seen by the Golgafrinchams in Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as the bizarre sense of derranged "normality" depicted is farcical, yet disturbing in nature.
The Sensorites was released on VHS years ago in a VIDFired, remastered edition that looked pretty damn good. With the release on DVD, it looks even better; whilst some episodes look better than others, the image quality in general is very pleasing indeed, with the best-looking episodes almost looking like it did upon the original broadcast.
No real problems here, with the audio sounding as good as it possibly can, given the age and limitations of the materials available. Dialogue is perfectly audible, but it should be noted that the audio in episode six has a fair amount of sibilance - this is almost certainly down to the condition of the print that was available and nothing to do with any fault of the remastering process. It should be pointed out that the technical glitch during episode six, which has the voice of someone in the gallery present on the soundtrack (the focus of one of the special features) seems to have been corrected.
Looking For Peter: The ever-reliable Toby Hadoke is your host as he undertakes a personal quest to find out more about writer Peter R Newman, the scribe whom brought The Sensorites to the screen, and left very little else to the world. Hadoke soon finds out that this is a man so enigmatic that he even managed to officially die twice, so just what are his chances of unravelling the mystery of this elusive writer?
Starting off with a shot to make any ardent Whovian smile, that of inside Mr Hadoke’s living room, with a row of all his Doctor Who DVDs on the shelf, including such titles as Galaxy Four and Mission to the Unknown, this is a blast from the outset. Hadoke’s first port of call is the trusty internet, where the infallible(?!?) Wikipedia comes up with very little, so puts in a call to Rob Shearman, and even the might of the Doctor Who Monthly can’t really put him on the trail, with Newman dying before the publication started. With official channels unable to even come up with a photo of the writer and two different decades listed for his date of death, this isn’t going to be easy!
Turning to professional researcher (and fellow uber Who fan) Richard Bignall, they head to Westminster with the intention of finding Mr Newman‘s death certificate. Among the many unsubstantiated thing print over the years were that the writer committed suicide, with many fans joking that he was trying to atone for his Sensorites sins. Hadoke is pleasingly level-headed, noting that: “A lot of rumours in Doctor Who turn out to be codswallop”. The elusive paperwork is found, and our dynamic duo discover that he died of natural causes. There was a curious pause when Hadoke finds out that the cause of death was due to a massive cerebral haemorrhage, as he says: ”So that… hopefully we can scotch the suicide thing with that.” You are left wondering if he might have about to use the phrase “knock [the rumour] on the head,” as the first instincts of many would be, but skilfully avoided doing so.
Investigating other things from Mr Newman’s CV takes Hadoke to Hammer movie authoritarian Marcus Hearn - whose work we know from The Dark Side magazine - and finds that Newman was brought in to inject a bit of credibility into the studio’s output, the result being a harrowing war movie entitled “ Yesterday’s Enemies”. Looking at war from both sides of the battle lines, there are certain thematic elements which are common between The Sensorites and Newman’s big screen venture, almost as though Newman used the same route as Gene Roddenberry in dressing up social commentary with science fiction trappings to get it on television. Even though the film was nominated for BAFTAs, his further scripts were found to be too grand for Hammer, and Newman found himself no longer the golden boy of Bray Studios. Hearn discloses that the writers’ relationship with Hammer was not that great, and that little was known about him even among those at Hammer. The mystery deepens, and every little tantalising tendril is leading Hadoke closer to his quarry, the lone Doctor Who writer whom vanished into thin air…
…and that’s where we’ll leave it, as there is no way in hell we’d spoil something so engrossing, uplifting and genuinely special as Looking For Peter. We might be looking at the finest example of a documentary to be classed as merely “added-value-material”, as if such a title could ever earn the right to be associated with something as fine as this. Hadoke is at his very best, and we offer our sincerest congratulations to everyone involved, and anyone with even the mildest of interests in Doctor Who should make the time to see this. We’re keeping quite about the outcome, and don’t expect a peep out of us: we’ve signed non-disclosure agreements with the Weinsteins, so we know how to keep quiet, under pain of lawsuit. Superb investigative filmmaking, and recommended without question.
Vision On: With another salute to those folks behind the scenes, we get a look at Doctor Who from a man right there from the outset, Vision Mixer (and later Jigsaw guy) Clive Doig. Involved in the tests for the opening title of the show, he’s a man spilling over with delightful titbits about the processes involved and the things which frequently went wrong. Once filling us all in on the job of a Vision Mixer and the processes involved, he then proceeds onto the good stuff.
If you thought that Bill Hartnell fluffing his lines was bad enough for the actors, it caused tension you could cut with a chainsaw in the gallery! Diog also notes that the husband and wife team operating the Chumblies decided not to let being encased in a cumbersome costume dampen the flammable relationship between them! Any tale about lost Who are especially welcome, and we are treated to the story of how during the shoot of Marco Polo, a camera went off-course and crashed into a hanging piece of set, causing it to spin around whilst generating havoc in the gallery. Doig assures us that it was all but unnoticeable to viewers at home, but with all episodes of it wiped, there is nothing but Doig’s word to back up such bold claims.
It’s short - clocking it at around six minutes, but it’s both informative and amusing, with another perspective on working with Bill Hartnell and his failing faculties, as well as tantalising scraps from the table of the lost stories. Framed around the theme to the beloved drawing show which gave this piece its’ name, Vision On is worth six minutes of anybody’s time, we’d say.
Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere: To those with fox-like aural capabilities, or possibly anyone whom has seen The Sensorites more times than is good for them (OK, who said twice?) they will have picked up on the mysterious, God-like voice which seems to foretell everything that which is about to happen. Yes, God is indeed a woman! Well, let’s not induce hate-mail about that one, and quickly point out that this is a fascinating curiosity detailing just why a curious, feminine voice can be heard calling out numbers at one point during the final episode. We won’t tell you the answer to this riddle, but it’s purely by accident rather than design, and Vision Mixer Clive Doig is on hand again to untangle false deities from cock-ups. Fun, and totally unexpected.
Photo Gallery: Another brisk stroll down memory lane and much more is in order, but forget those yellowing pages from the Doctor Who Monthly, as you see those fondly-remembered images look better than ever. We get a look at shots which set the imagination aflame in those too young to have seen the older shows, before home video came along and exposed the lesser ones for what they really were, but you can relive those fond memories in this enticing gallery of nostalgia. When seen by the unflinching light of a still camera, with lights and rigging all about, the a lot of the sets look genuinely crummy, living down to the general perception of the show. When you see them as filmed (or kinoscoped) they really do pass muster, which all points towards the camera and lighting crews doing their jobs properly to being them to life. There’s lots to enjoy, and guaranteed to raise a smile!
Audio Commentary: There is a real sense of “musical chairs” with this particular commentary track, as its participants come and go almost on a whim, with a number of them to start with. Tobe Hadoke takes a rest from hunting the ghosts of writers past to moderate everyone brought in to watch The Sensorites. Comprising this genial mob are the ever-terrific William Russell, Carole Ann Ford, designer Ray Cusick, “Second Sensorite/Scientist” Joe Greig, Assistant Makeup girl Sonia Malcolm, Director Frank Cox, Martyn Huntley (First Human) and Giles Phibbs (Second Human). Get all that? Right, on we go…
Hadoke diplomatically starts out by calling The Sensorites “…one of the least-remembered stories of the era”, which sets things up for a light and refreshing atmosphere, and that William Russell defends it from a technical perspective, that of keeping all the cast together and giving all the characters something to do, which clarifies that it isn’t just the fans whom don’t have a great deal of affection for it. We have to worry about Russell a little, as he defends Hartnell’s frequent “fluffs” a little more robustly than he should. “Everybody says that, but I don’t honestly remember any awful moments myself happening. I mean, if he did hesitate or stumble or whatever it was, he would certainly cover it up very professionally… masterly.” At this point, someone (possibly Cusick) starts imitating Hartnell’s usual tricks to cover up his memory loss.
The man in the Sensorite mask Grieg provides a number of wry chuckles, including re memories of being encased in the hairy makeup. “You always got a mouthful of whiskers when you were talking. Some of us smoked in those days, and we were supplied with cigarette-holders during rehearsals”. At this point everyone laughs, particularly Ford. “The thing was, when you breathed out, smoke came out through the eye-holes…” Cue Ms Ford almost collapsing on the floor in hysterics.
The mysterious person of Peter R Newman is brought up, with Hadoke fishing for more possible titbits in his documentary, but Russell quickly puts the kybosh on any such notion, “I don‘t think we met any of the writers. That was Verity‘s [Lambert] department.“ Indeed, the late producer is praised a few times by those gathered, particularly Ford, whom admits being in awe of her. To find warm thoughts for a person in her position by all involved is a rare thing indeed. Puts us in mind of the old joke: what does a producer do when they’ve finished f**king someone up the arse? They hang up the phone…
With this being her final chance to be heard on an audio commentary, Ford almost jumps at the chance to express how she found herself treated as an adult actress playing a minor: “It was a rod I made for my back, I‘m afraid… Bill [Hartnell] used to treat me as if I was a fifteen year-old. He let the character spill out into reality, there. He was always giving me all sorts of grandfatherly words of advice as to how to live my life. Which weren’t always welcomed…”
Audio commentaries sometimes have an amazing knack of bursting the bubble of fans, many of whom almost demand that to appear in beloved project should leave an indelible mark upon them. The nature of the industry is that a job is a job: you do it and you move on. Ms Malcolm demonstrates this perfectly, shattering illusions with: “…I gather that there many people are really, really still interested in those very old episodes… I have to confess… that I haven’t seen another episode of Doctor Who since I stopped working on them. I have no idea how it is now… did they gradually get younger? I know Patrick Troughton was a bit younger than Bill… maybe they’re playing them as fifteen-year-olds now…” Not far off, eh?
The track really comes into its own during the final instalment, as the thesps and director try to get to grips with the story unfolding, including little disputes as to whom was doing what during certain scenes. Huntley and Phibbs take issue when Cox points them out at a key point in the story, with Huntley not sure which character committed a violent assault: “I don’t even know who that was…”. “No,“ counters Cox, “It was one of you… [two]”. “Was it?” This is naturally followed by a chorus of “yes” from everyone in the recording booth. It’s this kind of genial interaction which is so very welcome, rather than griping about the production shortcomings or luvvies droning on about treading the boards.
That you find out Peter Glaze had a crocodile-shaped bog-roll holder in his toilet, as well as William Russell emphatically says that technically-minded director Mervyn Pinfield gave absolutely nothing to the actors to help them tells you that this is the perfect combination of fun and informative, with those listening sure to be swept up in the fun. Required listening, as usual.
Production Subtitles: Remember when the internet allowed the access to almost infinite materials on just about anything, and the world was stunned at the convenience of it all? There are those who still sit among their hallowed reference materials, spitting the very name of “The Internet”, making instant scholars of all whom dare to seek knowledge for themselves. Well, yet another superb track once again brings the fruits of extensive research for every fan to acquaint themselves with, and give even the most die-hard fan something they didn’t know.
Most acknowledge that the production design of The Sensorites is one of the best aspects of the story, as the enclosed nature of the writing allowed/needed more effort to be spent on the aesthetics. The track positively revels in this, giving all possible minutia regarding Ray Cusick’s excellent work. If you think that all spaceships are made from mysterious alloys or advances in plastic? Nope, the galactic cruiser featured here was made from hardboard painted silver, with low-level lighting to make it look dingy. Take that, Ridley Scott!
Running through is a fascinated look at the way the BBC (and its ITV rival) used to organise the schedules for their shows, which reinforces that Doctor Who was intended for a general audience, and wasn’t merely a show for kids. It was a proud tradition that Doctor Who be the nexus between the genuine children’s programme and the footie - well, until certain people came along and thought it appropriate to bugger this nice little arrangement up, anyway.
Speaking of the processes, there is much information from the production office, including how Sydney Newman’s previous Pathfinders serials shared many thematic elements with Doctor Who, including putting the principle characters in danger at the end of episodes to form “cliff-hangers”. In both shows, characters were kept in check to ensure that they didn’t end up becoming ciphers. They clearly didn’t keep this in mind when casting Bonnie Langford a couple of decades later…
Thanks to this clued-up track, you know not only where the story was shot, but what pieces of equipment were brought in so as to commit it to tape in the first place. It really is quite exhaustive, not to mention pointing out all of the recording dates, but every edit in the recording - which cost a fortune, and done only in extreme circumstances - for whatever reason. Ever wondered just who those uncredited people in the background are? You know, the ones in the masks which cover their faces? Ponder no longer, as they are all revealed for your delectation. Good on you, for giving credit where it is certainly due!
We also get detailed biographies of the supporting cast, answering those very annoying questions of: "Where the hell have I seen [insert name] before…?” You also get production memos, changes in hairstyles between shots, use of doubles and just about every thing you always wanted to know about The Sensorites, but could never work up enough enthusiasm about the story to ask.
The track-team pull another ace, with a running commentary which nestles neatly alongside the main feature to provide interesting, relevant and amusing information. The close relationship between the two can only come from years of doing them, as well as boundless enthusiasm and dogged researching, something which many other companies have tried to pull off, but resoundingly failed. You want information and a good time? You know which option to select…
PDF Materials: Now this is pretty special. Not only do we get all six of the Radio Times listings (two of which, including rather natty photos); we also get a period article entitled “ The Man Who’s Who”, being a profile of Bill Hartnell, including some rather nice quotes from the man himself. Best of all is a separate file containing reproductions of Ray Cusick’s key props from The Sensorites, including the torches and “Photo Magic-Eye”. This is a wonderful inclusion, and a fine example of why it’s best to go straight to the designers themselves where possible.
Coming Soon: We all knew it was coming, but prepare to cream in your jeans anyway! The third in the Revisitations series, with re-worked editions of Robots of Death, Tomb of the Cybermen and The Three Doctors. This deeply cool trailer will have fans putting their previous editions on Ebay to fund the new set faster than you can say “unwanted Christmas present”.
The Sensorites is a Doctor Who story with a fairly poor reputation; it's not the greatest story in the show's debut season, but it's certainly not as awful as some fans make out. It's a fun romp, with some interesting twists and turns and has quite possibly Carole Ann Ford's best performance and despite most of the cast fluffing their lines, all of the cast throw themselves into the thing with customary gusto.
The extras may be a little on the thin side, but as we are coming to the end of the range in terms of Doctor Who releases, most of the archive material has already been seen. Most of the surviving cast and crew were assembled for the audio commentary and the documentary Looking For Peter is fabulous, so much has been done with what little there was to work with. Recommended.
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 23rd January 2012
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Looking For Peter, Vision On, Secret Voices of the Sense-Sphere, Production Subtitles, Coming Soon, Radio Times Listings
Easter Egg: No
Director: Mervyn Pinfield and Frank Cox
Cast: William Hartnell, Carole Anne Ford, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Peter Glaze
Length: 150 minutes
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