Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Serial 7: The Sensorites

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor)
Companions: Susan, Barbara, and Ian

Written by: Peter R. Newman
Directed by: Mervyn Pinfield & Frank Cox

Background & Significance: Because the first season alternated between educational historical adventures and educational sci-fi tales, the original plan was to have a sole pair of writers write the whole show. Based on his success with "The Daleks", Terry Nation was the obvious choice to continue carrying the sci-fi torch for the show. Hence, "Keys of Marinus". For the historicals they chose John Lucarotti, who did a kick ass job writing "Marco Polo," and then knocked it out of the park writing "The Aztecs", which is to this day the quintessential historical.

Of course, this didn't quite pan out in the way they wanted it to. Writing takes a while. That's why you have Dennis Spooner writing "The Reign of Terror" and Peter R. Newman writing this story.

"The Sensorites" is a much maligned story. In that big ol' "Mighty 200" poll, it was voted the worst Hartnell story not called "The Space Museum" and the worst of its season. And "Second Worst Hartnell" had to happen to some story some time. It just happened to happen to "The Sensorites". It's unfortunate, really, because "The Sensorites" is still Doctor Who at its most nascent. The goal was to do a story based on spectacle and mind-bending (heh) concepts. This was limited by the BBC's casual disregard for the programme's potential, as they had decided it would be filmed in the cramped and inferior Lime Grove Studios. Producer Verity Lambert fought valiantly against this and (being Verity Lambert) managed to get better studios on the other side of the season. For now, smaller sets were what was available for "The Sensorites", which greatly limits its ability to go for "spectacle."

And I can tell people this background. They still won't listen. The only way to MAYBE change minds is to talk about it.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So in starting this episode, I have to be the dissenting voice of reason. Within the first ten minutes it’s clear why everyone and their mother is ready to tear down this story. Why? Because it’s slow.

But that’s disingenuous. And it ignores everything this story is doing right so far.

First off, I’m a sucker for a good mystery, or a good thriller, or good intrigue. So it’s not a stretch to say that this is totally right up my alley. Yes, it’s absolutely padded, and yes, they probably coulda cut five to ten minutes out of it if they weren’t trying to fill such a specific twenty five minute time slot. Yeah. It’s not perfect, but the way that it utilizes its time to slowly build the tension and ratchet up the danger is extremely effective and makes the reveal at the end of the episode tremendously exciting and enticing.

I love the way Newman builds it up here. The visual of the TARDIS opening onto the actual spaceship set is mindblowing even today. It’s one of those shots that you don’t even really see in the modern show because of the way it’s made. The TARDIS interior has to be its own individual set separate from other sets because of its scope. And when you put The TARDIS into a location or set it’s usually freestanding so you can’t have the interior to make it work as well as you should. It’s something I long to have happen because despite the fact that most people don’t notice this divorce between TARDIS exterior and interior and how you never see a blend between the two. It’d be akin to seeing a shot of people traveling from one floor to another on an elevator. It’s a fun, sexy thing and a luxury I’m sure Doctor Who can’t always technically afford.

If only TARDISes were real. But I digress.

Right off the bat, that shot really puts you in the head space of actually being there that it feels like quintessential Hartnell. It brings up the majesty of space in a way that you just don’t see any more. This will be most on display in “The Web Planet” in the next season, but you get that here. There’s an intellectual curiosity about this world and a moment that is so insanely inhuman and completely unbelievable from a character standpoint (“What Century Are You From?”) becomes a source of bonding over the wonder at the unknown. Honestly, it treats science fiction in a way you almost never see on Doctor Who: We’re on a spaceship. Isn’t that weird?

The characters too seem to sparkle in ways that few others do. Sure, they’re poorly sketched and have horrible dialogue, but they really do come across as  people in an untenable situation. Their fear becomes our fear.

And we’re also denied the view of the Sensorites, which is smart because it gives the reveal a nice punch and builds up the mystery of them in your head. Myths and legends are always more scary than actual fact and our imaginations will run wild if we’re scared. Indeed, the only Sensorite action we get in this is the stuff with John and his encounter with Barbara and Susan. John is clearly gone as a person. He’s out of it and out of his mind and it’s actual walking proof of what will happen if our crew encounters the Sensorites. This guy is nuts and the Sensorites did this. Oh man. We are screwed.

But the best bit of the episode where like… god dammit, how did a Sensorite sneak onto the bridge and melt-remove the lock off the TARDIS with no one noticing? Like. That doesn’t even make a lick of sense. And it’s not like it’s that far away or it was in and out! The crew is RIGHT THERE! AND it took a few minutes! I mean come on!

All in all it’s a slow episode, but a great episode. The technology, the sci-fi is just the sort of stuff I feel like watching when I watch some 60s Who. It’s not often you get Doctor Who that moves into space opera territory (the few times they’ve tried, it went horribly), so there’s a novelty when you get it and the novelty of the 60s vision of sci-fi has an innocence and warmth to it that you don’t get in modern stuff. No. 60s sci-fi was still full of pioneers and the possibilities. Nowadays sci-fi? It’s been done. You gotta do something crazy and out there to get noticed. You gotta break through the cynicism and the roteness and sometimes just go “Hey! We’re on a spaceship. How messed is that?”

Part 2:

So it’s in this episode that we start to learn about the titular aliens of the story and it’s fascinating to see that they are both alternately terrifying and not.

What made them scary in episode one is the shroud of mystery clouding around them. Our imaginations were allowed to run wild all over and it amplified everything. Here there’s less ambiguity as we get to seeing a pair of Sensorites slowly terrorize the ship we happen to be on, but they’re still something of a menace. Again, yes there’s the problem of everything being a bit slow and a bit padded. How many times can we see the Sensorites prowl like panthers before we expect them to attack? At a certain point it becomes clear that they’re not actually going to and the threat is diminished somewhat.

But what makes it scary is the way it seems The Doctor and co are all completely outclassed and still behind. The crew is no help as all of them are either raving lunatics or incapacitated instantaneously by the Sensorites. And then they take Susan.

This is, perhaps, most terrifying. Susan being a member of the TARDIS crew separates her from the actual crew of the ship. It makes her different. And yet she sacrifices herself for the safety of the rest of everyone and the only reason THAT happens is because she opened her mind to the Sensorites and allowed them access to her brain place. That’s something. But it’s worth pointing out that while Newman is terrible with the actual sci-fi concepts in this story (or at least, in executing them: they’re shoehorned, poorly expositoried, etc., and I’m not sure the “opposite of a cat’s eyes” makes sense here) he makes up the difference in an exploration of theme. The crew is susceptible to the Sensorites because they are afraid, which allows the Sensorites in.

Susan is vulnerable because she thinks she can scare away the Sensorites. It works, but it is a moment of tremendous hubris and she pays dearly for it.

Playing with this theme is interesting because it really gets to the core of Susan as a character. This is the first story that goes out of its way to reference adventures that happened before “An Unearthly Child”, and Susan is key in discussing such things. Clearly, her grandfather’s sense of adventure and excitement is on her mind and she aspires to be like him. But The Doctor (for all his bravado) is a tremendously cautious and careful character. He doesn’t act on impulse or irrationality. No, he goes for calm and measured and calculated. The amount of time he spends thinking about The Sensorites is (as we find out here) the prudent course of action.

Susan, it seems, has a long way to go before she’s her grandfather.

I’ll also point out that The Sensorites are really excellent here. Really. The design on them is incredibly strong and takes advantage of the black and white in an interesting way I hadn’t thought about. Because they’re wearing what appear to be gray jumpsuits, they don’t stick out as bland. It gives them equal footing and specifically draws attention away from what they’re wearing. Instead, we’re left to focus on the faces which, granted, look silly, but it’s worth mentioning (in case you hadn’t heard) that each Sensorite face/mask is different from every other Sensorite face/mask. What this means is, no two Sensorites look the same, which is unique, isn’t it? How do you tell Ice Warriors apart? Or Zygons, for that matter? The Sensorites have nuance and detail specific and true to them. Subtly, it’s a reminder that this is its own unique species with genetic variations so they’re not coming off some BBC assembly line.

Honestly, it’s slow but strong, isn’t it? So far so good, and no major complaints outside of “it’s a little boring in places”. And we still have four more parts to go.

Part 3:

My biggest problem with “popular fan consensus” is that there’s often little to no discussion about “why things are the way they are.” Popular consensus dictates that “The Gunfighters” is one of the worst Doctor Who stories of all time. Why?

What you’ll inevitably get are one word answers. “It’s stupid” they’ll say. Or “it’s dumb/silly.” Really? Well “City of Death” is tremendously silly and everyone seems to love that one. But the mob mentality/group think doesn’t play well with “why?” There’s too many variations on a theme and not enough creativity. People with similar opinions are more prone to glomp onto whatever is the prevailing opinion and take that for their own. We’ve all done it. But the problem with the group think is you’ll have baseless accusations that make no sense. I love Superman Returns despite its faults. I’m in the minority on that one, sure, but the point remains that “Superman didn’t even throw a single punch” is not exactly a valid criticism for the film unless your baseline criteria for a Superman film is “Superman must throw at least one punch.” Honestly, my baseline criteria for a Superman film doesn’t involve him throwing punches. I’m interested in getting good character work and exploration of Superman as a character, so the argument doesn’t hold water for me.

But I digress.

The reason I bring this up is because I feel universally reviled stories like ‘The Sensorites” are not given a fair shake by people who hate it because they parrot the same thoughts everyone else has. Often times we watch Doctor Who stories knowing the outcome or fan consensus and are thusly more inclined to look at a story in a particular way. I know “Talons of Weng-Chiang” is supposed to be good so I go in looking for the good things. I hear “The Sensorites” is boring and I’ve already resigned myself to a place of “let’s just get through this” and the rest of the story continues with me lacking engagement necessary to enjoy the story on just about every level.

And that’s a problem. I mean, it’s an unavoidable problem at this point. We live in an age where airing on the side of caution is the norm. But the fact remains that it’s probably detrimental to your experience with a story and can taint it before you’ve even had a chance to have your own perspective.

For me, “The Sensorites” is a story I didn’t quite love the first time I saw it but seeing it this time I’m coming around to it in a big bad way. It’s far from perfect, but even for a story that was produced seventh(!) in the total Doctor Who running order, that’s astounding. We now have a Doctor Who that’s produced well over two hundred stories spanning almost eight hundred episodes and that I’d be hard-pressed to argue that this story isn’t one of the most boring stories I’ve ever seen (specifically, that its pace is sluggish even for Doctor Who) I can’t say what’s here isn’t particularly interesting or well done.

To the contrary, it’s extremely well thought out.

First of all, there’s a real distinction to make the Sensorites into real people. What started as a seeming variation within two masks has now blossomed into a whole society full of Sensorites with their own drives and passions that help to make them all distinct. All of them. There’s something like six Sensorites running around and while I might not know a whole lot about them, they’re all distinct in their mannerisms and actions and behaviors. That’s to say nothing of the masks OR the defining black cloths. Honestly, I found myself knowing who all the Sensorites were without even needing to try. Compare that to any other recurring Doctor Who monster where you either need a color (Daleks) to tell them apart if you can at all (Ice Warriors are interchangeable).

This is the sort of thing that you only get in the Lambert run of Doctor Who. There’s an attention to detail and an ambition that you don’t really get from any other era in the show’s history. Sure you have Hinchcliffe and Holmes pushing the envelope as to what they can or can’t show on television and still have it be considered “children’s television” and you always have Moffat pushing himself further and further to tell the fastest Doctor Who story he can possibly tell. But this is different. There’s an attention to detail that I feel later eras mostly miss out on. Often times I find things lack texture outside of the context of the narrative. Robert Holmes is notorious for sketching out worlds economically and in incredible detail, but the productions don’t always reflect the detail he puts into it. Even when he’s at the height of his powers, with Hinchcliffe it always feels like your standard Doctor Who and the genericness of what’s on the screen waters down his scripts.

That doesn’t happen here. Lambert makes sure to pay a tremendous amount of attention to the Sensorites and their society. And I won’t say it’s “too much detail”, but it’s a thing that’s constantly overlooked.

And yes. It’s slow. It’s painfully slow, but what’s good here is quite good in a way I think Doctor Who can sometimes take for granted.  The empathy of the First Elder really shines through at every turn. It’s there when he makes sure John is taken care of and he’s leaping into action with Susan when Ian collapses from water poisoning. What seemed cut and dry at the start of the story has blurred considerably as the leader of the Sensorites proves himself to be nowhere near as simple-minded and black-and-white as the first episode would have you believe (assuming of course that someone in the first episode told you there was a leader of the Sensorites you would meet later).

It’s also here that we have the departure of Barbara for a few episodes. Jacqueline Hill needed a holiday, so the story will move on without her as she gets a much deserved vacation.

And honestly, I must say I quite like Hartnell in this. I feel he gets a lot of things to play with in this story and he does an excellent job in all of them. He bounces effortlessly between the power he exerts over the Sensorites and the tenderness he shows Susan as she starts to grow up before his eyes. It’s a telling moment, and interesting that it’s happening here. Or at least, it is happening here. Watching The Doctor wrestle with it is tremendously interesting because it forces him to consider a life without Susan, doesn’t it? And that’s when his real fun will begin.

But before that we must continue.

Part 4:

So far, what’s made “The Sensorites” sing is its production and execution, not its script. Newman’s script has some excellent ideas, but the execution of them is hardly what it probably could be. It mostly comes off feeling rote and uninspired, which is the exact opposite of this production, which is ambitious and such.

Imagine my surprise when I remember that a key plot point in this episode (and continuing into the next) revolves around one of the most ludicrously executed concepts I’ve ever seen in Doctor Who. It’s not because it hasn’t been done before. I’ve certainly seen this device in Doctor Who before, even if I have no ready examples (they mostly revolve around The Doctor doing some impersonating anyways, so it’s a slight difference). It is of course, the bit where the City Administrator stages a secret coups and decides that the Second Elder is not doing a good enough job and as a result he usurps the title of Second Elder while keeping the Second Elder under lock and key. It’s an impersonation thing.

Except it makes no sense. It’s in direct (and I mean direct) conflict with the narrative, or at least the narrative as it’s produced.

The main problem is that the Sensorites are all given distinctive “looks.” They have the same general features (hairy face, little more than almond slits for eyes, a concave shape for a nose, a thin mouth), but there’s variations in the structure of it. Noses come in different sizes. Eyes are shaped differently. Sensorites are individuals, and the scripts even go so far as to illustrate those differences in how the various Sensorites react to situations. Character building, if you will.

But there’s this bit where one of the humans says “Oh my god we’d never be able to tell all you Sensorites apart.” And it gives the City Administrator his idea to coups against the society.

Here’s the problem. The City Administrator’s whole plan is to steal the Second Elder’s sash so that he can be the Second Elder and NO ONE WILL KNOW. Except like… they will. The Sensorites all look as different to each other as humans look to humans. That’s the bloody point. And here we have the City Administrator just deciding this is okay and that this will work AND THEN IT DOES? Are they KIDDING? Like for reals? I mean, that’s like Attorney General Eric Holder suddenly deciding he’s going to be the Vice President, so he kidnaps Biden and wears his suit jacket and then walks around like no one will know. AND IT WORKS. Like? Are they kidding?

It’s honestly a little insulting to the Sensorites, isn’t it? That they’re aliens even to each other? I mean, no one in this world mistakes anyone for anyone else, right? Barring weird exceptions like “identical twins” and “oh my god you look just like her’s” it just doesn’t happen.

Granted (and this is a big granted) the City Administrator is a delusional, paranoid, lunatic. This is a guy who is remarkably xenophobic and a big believer in some crazy ass conspiracy theories that are wonderful because they don’t make sense. Conspiracy theories are always so IMPOSSIBLY complex that they can only make sense as if someone had the wherewithal to get in that deep into something they could easily do if they just tried for something simpler. On top of all this he’s a stone cold murderer, destroying the vaccine for Ian using witch hunt logic (“he’s faking; I don’t think he’s really sick. Let’s not give him the antidote. I’ll bet you he’s alive in three days. And if he’s not then it’s one less human to deal with.”)

Again, the rants of an insane crazy person. That’s the only way I can describe it because he's just… man. Paranoia, xenophobia, thinking he can just usurp a position because he thinks he looks like the guy despite the fact that HE CLEARLY DOESN’T. This story is madness. And this City Administrator guy is the total stuff of legend. Just an utter loon.

Part 5:

It’s clear in this episode that Newman is writing a story that specifically skews for children rather than anything else.

What makes it so jarring is that just a few episodes ago you had a bunch of weird and mysterious aliens flitting around a spaceship and being mysterious. Now, here we are three episodes later and the City-Administrator-turned-Second-Elder is an impossibly camp villain. He’s really rubbish at just about everything, flying by the seat of his pants the way he does. Honestly, I half expect him to cackle maniacally or something crazy like that because it just… It’s nuts. His way of throwing off suspicion is by getting in everyone’s face and yelling them into submission.

There’s an actual line of dialogue that says “Is the Sensorite you were talking about in this room?” He’s the only Sensorite in the room. Way to throw off suspicion.

And then on top of all that Susan soon after realizes that oh no! He’s the bad guy! He’s against them! We’re in some trouble guys! And what’s worse? The Doctor, Ian, and Susan GAVE him this power, didn’t they? They are responsible for it. And it’s like… no they’re not. The First Elder made the decision. The new Second Elder just happens to be a raving murderous psychopathic lunatic with no sense of decorum or throwing off of suspicion. It’s just… it’s mad. It doesn’t help that Susan’s line of reasoning is not “man he was acting like A COMPLETELY GUILTY PARTY” but rather some name association with the City Administrator as though she forgot he existed until just then despite the fact that they had shared a number of scenes before that one.

I just don’t know.

It doesn’t hurt that nothing happened in this episode. Like literally nothing. The Second Elder is killed. The City Administrator attempts to frame The Doctor by using hearsay from one of his men which immediately backfires because of an extreme lack of details (total kids show because it’s designed to see if the kids can out think the evil Sensorites and beat Ian and The Doctor to the solution). And then they sit around talking for a really long time. And then Ian and The Doctor go into the sewers and what’s-her-name is captured because the episode’s called “Kidnap” and apparently it still counts to call an episode that if you do it within the last eight seconds.

Unfortunate, really, because I think this story was doing particularly well up until this point. It’s only here that the wheels really come off the cart and it really starts to crash and burn. Still, episode five and this happening? That’s hardly the worst thing, and it’s still got a strong first four parts. It’s just unfortunate that the Newman stuff is probably this episode whereas I imagine Whitaker was script editing episode one most heavily and then did progressively less as the season went on. Unfortunate, because there’s something good in here if they took it perhaps a little more seriously. Ah well. One more to go.

Part 6:

Or as I like to call it: “Peter R. Newman gets a weird case of ADD”.

So at the end of the last part The Doctor and Ian headed into the aqueduct to explore what was down there. At the same time we also had the kidnapping of Carol. Because that happened.

But as we find out, the kidnapping of Carol has nothing to do with anything. It is solved fairly quickly and isn’t even the focus of this episode. No. The focus of this episode is actually the aqueduct and the secret band of guerillas who are hiding down there and poisoning the Sensorite water supply. All of them are totally nuts and totally need to frakking shave; the leader is a genocidal paranoia machine. God knows how long they’ve been back there, but they really are completely out of touch with everything, and it really gets to the thematics introduced at the start of this story about paranoia and fear and what it does to a person.

It’s an eleventh hour introduction and it means the City Administrator storyline is completely sidelined and passed over in a “oh right about that” moment in the last three minutes.

That’s unfortunate, methinks. The City Administrator story was incredibly hokey and campy but it was still the main narrative thrust of this story for the last three episodes (half the story) and then it kinda loses interest and moves onto something it can’t adequately explore because there’s only fifteen minutes left. My question is “why not explore this sooner and mirror the culture’s mutual paranoia and xenophobia?” I mean, it makes sense, doesn’t it? Mirror the storyline of the City Administrator with the plight of the guerilla fighters. Then you have something interesting to work with.

Instead we get more of the same. We get the City Administrator creating more and more conflict without any sort of real plan and acting like the King of Suspiciousville.

What makes it interesting is an almost implicit argument that this is where the Sensorite society is heading. There’s a conversation between Susan and the First Elder in which she reflects on her home and spirit of adventure and growing up. Susan (who is in the process of her own adulty awakening) points out to the First Elder that his implicit trust of every Sensorite is not exactly a healthy attitude. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that implicit trust is a very unguarded, childlike trait. And Susan telling The First Elder that he shouldn’t trust everybody is a way of maturing Sensorite society.

Of course, that’s an argument that paranoia is not necessarily a bad thing to have. We should all be a little guarded and a little suspicious of all things. The First Elder’s free-wheeling compassion is not a good thing. At all. It allows him to be taken advantage of by evil Sensorites (like the City Administrator).

What it leaves me wondering is “where does Sensorite society go next”? The First Elder will assuredly be more guarded as the City Administrator (who DID become his most trusted advisor for a time) betrayed that trust for his own unique ends. It’s an interesting direction for a character to go, especially one who’s had such an innocence about him this whole time. And it’s really his fault and his alone that The TARDIS crew don’t wind up dead at the hands of Sensorites in this story. Were it up to anyone else, they’d have been killed, but the First Elder’s compassion and patience saves them and has the perfect temperament to prevent an all-out war between the humans and Sensorites.

And really, paranoia tempered with compassion and patience sounds like a killer combination. Without it, you grow beards and act like crazy people who poison water supplies.

Final Thoughts?: So I can't say "The Sensorites" is worthy of the scorn it seems to constantly receive when discussed, but I can't say that it's anywhere near perfect either.

It's interesting. I think "The Sensorites" as a story definitely lends itself better to a weekly television viewing as opposed to watching it all in one sitting. Each episode really tries for something different from the ones before it and I feel like as a story it relies on a blurred-by-memory perception of what came before rather than a more concrete evidence. If you watched it that way, episode six would play much better I'm sure, as you probably wouldn't have noticed the insane ADD Newman seems to get right at the end. ADD of course, plays better when it's been so long your shift in attention at least makes sense. But seriously, this story really embraces the serial nature of early Doctor Who in a way that other episodes don't. The stories bookending either side of this one feel very large in scope and feel like they're always pushing in a particular direction towards a particular end. This story feels like it's "what happens in Sensorite culture over the course of six television weeks."

And yeah, it's boring, but there's a lot of good stuff in here. In terms of scope and impressiveness I feel like directors Mervyn Pinfield and Frank Cox really do good work in illustrating the world. The aqueducts feel cramped and the use of light is inspired. And I already spent way too much time on the "entering the spaceship" shot.

But the complaints are apt. It's an incredibly slow story even for 60s Who. It could easily be tightened and condensed and they could excise large swaths of the stuff in here. At the same time, though, there's the beginnings of an exploration on themes of paranoia and prejudice that lend themselves very easily to children's television, especially the Doctor Who of this season. I love seeing all the various components bump into each other, from The First Elder and the City Administrator to Susan and her own abilities to grapple and overcome her fears as she grows up into a young woman.

To dismiss it as "stupid" is not a valid argument. Yes, it's clear why this is not well received and why it's often cast aside in favor of the other stories of the season, but I feel like there's a lot to like here if you can just get past its early Who trappings.

And the masks are super cool.

Next Time!: 7th Doctor! Ace and Mel and Sabalom Glitz! Silly diner antics! Wacky runaround antics! Star Warsy antics! Talky antics! Cliffhanger antics! It's about to get anticsy all up in here! "Dragonfire"! Coming Next Tuesday!

1 comment:

  1. Huh. I thought it was slow too, but how many other Classic Who serials are slow (have they seen The Wars Games)? And the costume design is nice for season 1 Who. Not to mention the beloved Ood were basically modeled after the Sensorites (obviously the Sensorites didn't have the collective mind). I didn't have any problems with this serial.

    Regarding "The Gunfighters" (side note - bad name...are they fighting guns?), I have yet to watch it (I want to finish the 1970s first - three serials away!) - I gotta believe that serial might have failed because it was meant to be taken more seriously, unlike City of Death? Yes, the British accents are probably apparent but this early in DW's history you aren't going to get many American (or even Canadian!) actors in the UK! Even in 2007's Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks had groan-worthy American accents.