Timestamp #7: The Sensorites

Doctor Who: The Sensorites
(6 episodes, s01e29-e34, 1964)

Timestamp 007 The Sensorites

This story is essentially a parable about fear, from humans losing complete control of their autonomy to the Sensorites being afraid of confrontation and the dark. The serial is driven by the Sensorites and their fear of losing their molybdenum (“moly-mol-minerals”; poor William Hartnell) resources through betrayal of their trust in human explorers.

There were some great character building blocks. Susan is developing telepathy, and I wonder if it’s something in the Time Lord DNA. If so, does the Doctor share that skill? I also really enjoyed seeing Susan spread her wings a bit in facing off with her grandfather and demanding some space to run. She’s growing up physically, and yearns to grow emotionally.

I liked that they established the Doctor’s apprehension with weapons. I also enjoyed seeing the origins of the Tenth Doctor’s description of Gallifrey, even though it isn’t called that yet.

Despite those positives, this serial really drags on, and the unfortunate thing about watching something that doesn’t entertain is that you start to really pay attention to all of the flaws. First is that this serial is almost like a blooper reel for the entire first series. There are so many production errors, and they’re very noticeable. The guest stars can’t help distract from the verbal stumbles from Hartnell and Carol Ann Ford because the guests were terrible and single-note.

The second major flaw is costuming. The alien costumes are terrible, even for the 1960s, but they do remind me of the Ood (from the Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh Doctor eras) with the overall design, transmitters, and telepathy.

Third, I really had an issue with Susan and Ian making fun of the Sensorite “flip-flop” walking style. It flies in the face of the overall mythology I’ve come to expect from the later years, and seems uncharacteristic of characters who were earlier celebrating how much they’ve grown as people.

The writing problems didn’t stop there. I got hung-up with the way that Susan shows momentary interest in the spectrograph, and then rudely interrupts Ian as he’s explaining it. I also had a problem with the Sensorites not being able to tell one another apart by anything more than their rank insignia, but they have no problem making direct telepathic calls to one another or reading text on paper. The removal of the TARDIS lock to prevent the Doctor’s company from leaving also felt weak.

The “creature” in the aqueduct is never really explained. I can infer that the growling was man-made, and that the claw marks in the Doctor’s coat were from the spears, but it would have been nice to have it acknowledged.

I know that I’m beating up on this serial. There are a lot of great ideas and concepts here, but they’re lost in long, drawn-out delivery. It’s not terrible overall, but merely boring and exaggerated with a ton of squandered potential.

It didn’t help any that the Doctor’s anger at the end toward Ian is quite unexpected and makes no sense. Everyone agreed at the start that the voyage has been good for our heroes, but Ian is frustrated in not being able to steer their own course. I wonder if the Doctor is projecting his frustration with Susan’s growth onto Ian.

I certainly hope that The Reign of Terror rings out the first year of Doctor Who on a high note.


Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”


UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror


The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.


10 thoughts on “Timestamp #7: The Sensorites

  1. What happens when a perfectly good story is handed to Mervyn Pinfield? This. I’m being a little harsh. Pinfield was the technical guru and was assistant producer for the whole first season to help to realize any effects. They also gave him a few stories in the first two seasons to direct. There’s a couple of problems though. While he does sometimes produce some nice effects – you may not have noticed because it’s old hat now but the camera follows the travelers from walking out of the TARDIS into Maitland’s spaceship. That was a supremely difficult technical feat at the time – the problem is that spectacle ages far worse than acting and story. The fact that he cared so little about the actors and establishing their motivation is a real problem. It eventually gets so bad that after the Space Museum the cast asked the producer not to hire him anymore because they found working with him so difficult.

    The sad thing is that there are so many good ideas in this one. I also like the sense of exploration in the first episode as they figure out where they are and what’s going on. It’s fairly standard in the first season but I really enjoy that it gave the audience and the characters the chance to explore a space. Another interesting thing is that this is the first story where the Doctor could leave but decides to stay. At the end of episode four he’s cured the plague and the first Elder would have let him leave at that point but he stays to figure out the source of the plague because he wants to help. This is the beginning of the Doctor becoming the hero that we know in later stories.

    I will leave you with one thought. I know that many people who view this think that the Sensorites can’t tell each other apart. However what’s actually said is “How would you know one of the Elders *from a distance*? Then the answer was “by the insignia”. They then explain that the soldiers have very little personal contact with the elders. I think that the implication is that the Sensorites because of their thought transference don’t actually use television or anything and also because of their telepathy have no concept of duplicity. That’s how the City Administrator is able to fool them. Not because they can’t even tell each other apart on site.

    My personal opinion is that this is the best of the Pinfield productions but I’ll be interested in your take on Planet of Giants and The Space Museum.

    • The technical side of the house was what saved this one from getting a rating of one, but it could only bring it to a low two. I did appreciate the camera work, including the moving from the TARDIS to the ship’s cockpit in one motion. It was a great effect, but it’s a shame that it was lost in the rest of the production.

  2. As I tried to post before, but it didn’t work for some reason – it’s a nice touch that later in the series, we find the Ood are related to the Sensorites as the Sense Sphere is mentioned in one of their episodes.

    This was a story that had a lofty idea and then executed it very poorly. We start out with two episode, I think, on the space ship, It could have been more claustrophobic, which would have added to the tension they were trying desperately to create.

    The rest of the story deals with the Sensorite civilization and this is really where it falls flat. There wasn’t enough story to have it as long as it was.

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