You're Not Dealing With Human Beings Here: The Sensorites


The Doctor expresses grave concern over the appearance of
a bizarre alien life form with plaid pants.
It is June 20th, 1964. The music charts are about to do some very odd things - Cilla Black still holds the number one, but between now and August 1st, Roy Orbison, The Animals, The Rolling Stones, and the Beatles will all reach number one, with the Rolling Stones getting their first #1 hit.

This generative tumult - a seven week period in which five artists, four of them solidly major, reach number one - is reflected this time in Doctor Who, which airs The Sensorites. While it is unclear that The Sensorities is the best Doctor Who story to date (although it is a contender) it is without doubt the most complex and interesting.

I do not wish to bang the post-colonial gong too many times in a row, but it is worth commenting that this story is cited by Lindy Orthia as one of six stories that are explicitly anti-colonial, especially given that it comes immediately after one of the three stories she cites as being pro-colonial. To some extent, this speaks to a fundamental issue of Doctor Who - its lack of long-term coherence. The Aztecs was written by John Lucarotti, who would contribute three historical stories to Doctor Who in the sixties, as well as an uncredited initial script for The Ark in Space in 1975. The Sensorites was written by Peter R. Newman, for whom it would be his last writing credit. Little effort was made to provide an overarching vision for the show - mentions to past adventures might be dropped in, and a token effort is made to provide a cliffhanger stretching from story to story, but the fact of the matter is that continuity from The Aztecs to The Sensorites exists entirely because of the core concept of Doctor Who, not because of any active effort by Lucarotti and Newman to write complimentary pieces.

As a result, The Sensorites offers one of the most radical ideas to date in Doctor Who - good aliens. And not good aliens in the creepy Aryan way of The Daleks. No - the Sensorites look scary. In fact, the first episode ends with their monstrous visage appearing in the window of the space ship, using their monstrosity (which has, after only two uses, already become a usable trope in Doctor Who) as a red herring for the fact that, for most of the adventure, the Doctor is going to be helping the Sensorites.

The Sensorites, generally speaking, are fabulous. First of all, their costumes are great. Different characters get different masks, which are distinct enough to demonstrate difference, but still similar enough to make them feel alien. The masks are fascinating - stark and alienating, with cat-like hair in odd places. Below the neck the costumes get dodgier - the spandex suits that are apparently supposed to be skin are a bit dodgy, and the round feet, though a cool idea, never quite work. But as 1964 aliens go, the Sensorites are quite a nice bit of visual design.

Conceptually, they are also interesting - mildly psychic aliens who are mostly meek, fearful, and vulnerable. Their monstrosity, in other words, is a very careful feint. This is built into the script - we spend the first two episodes assuming the Sensorites to be monsters, only to find out that we've been wrong all along. This is an extremely clever feint - one that adds considerably to the anti-colonialist message of the story, because the audience is tricked into making a judgment that is not only shown to be wrong from a plot perspective, but is also wrong ethically.

It is this cleverness that is why The Sensorites is the earliest Doctor Who story to be explicitly referenced in the new series. The Ood of the new series are explicitly modeled on the Sensorites, both visually (complete with the appendage originating from the head area that is a long cable) and conceptually (a vulnerable psychic species), and it is eventually revealed that their planet, the Ood-Sphere, is in fact spatially near the Sense-Sphere.

Good aliens are not, of course, new to science fiction as of 1964. What is more interesting is that Doctor Who is overtly trying to challenge its audience here. It's not just trying to be a daft serialized adventure story. It's trying to tell stories that matter, and more to the point succeeding - the careful consideration of the nature of colonialism coming, in this case, in the time period during which Nyasaland broke off from the British Empire to form Malawi.

It is important to note that at this stage, Doctor Who requires stories like The Sensorites more than The Sensorites requires a setting like Doctor Who. The Sensorites, in the end, is a classic bit of vintage sci-fi that could have been an Asimov short story or a decent quality 50s or 60s film. What makes the story unusual is twofold. First, it trades on the ability of Doctor Who to juxtapose. Watching the series one jumps, in a one-week period, from escaping Aztec temples to a claustrophobic spaceship under siege from mysterious psychic invaders. Science fiction tropes take on notably different tones when they are juxtaposed actively with other tropes. And these juxtapositions are eventually what will take Doctor Who to truly mythic form.

Until then, however, the show is dependent on particularly well-written episodes in its various genres - on inventive stories that steadily add to the nature of what Doctor Who is. Part of this is conceptual - stories like The Keys of Marinus that embed the idea that Doctor Who is about wild variety. But more important, in many ways, are episodes that establish the characters. Where The Aztecs was about Barbara and the temptations of time travel, The Sensorites is, ultimately, about Susan.

Susan, as you recall, is initially defined by her alienness. Here that is expanded on, with much of the story relying on her previously only hinted at psychic powers. She is, initially, the person with whom the Sensorites communicate. Unsurprisingly, this quickly brings her into conflict with the Doctor.

The main scenes of their arguments are tough to watch, mostly because they make it obvious why Susan is never going to work as a character. The Doctor's response to Susan's taking the initiative is to infantilize her, marginalize her, and declare her input to be worthless. Susan responds to this, basically, by completely caving and renouncing her efforts to be independent.

Bafflingly, the Doctor claims that he and Susan have never had an argument. This is clearly untrue - they argue in all of the first three stories. Given that the Doctor is already established as a bit absent-minded and prone to a bit of obliviousness, this statement can be read less as a lie than as a declaration of the Doctor's absolutism. This can be a positive and a negative trait - and it will get played in both ways as time goes on - but here it seems clearly negative. The Doctor is unable to allow Susan to be an interesting character.

Eventually, Susan's psychic powers provide a key element of the story's resolution, as she uses them to help the Doctor, who is isolated in some tunnels. Thus we can see that Susan is capable of functioning on her own. But as soon as she is back in the TARDIS, it's back to normal - with it being made explicit that her psychic powers will fade. The Doctor makes vague promises to work on the abilities when they return to their homeworld, but it's obvious that this is not going to happen.

And this is the Problem of Susan. I take the name from Neil Gaiman's short story of the same name, which is in turn written in response to C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, and the character of Susan within them. Susan is the lone member of her family not to ascend into Narnia at the end, blocked out of heaven because she is sexualized and, in the argument of her siblings and Aslan, no friend of Narnia due to her shallowness. C.S. Lewis, of course, died the day before Doctor Who premiered, and so it is fitting that the show would inherit this problem from his work.

Put simply, the Problem of Susan is the problem of sexual maturity in children's literature. It is not, I assume, a horrific revelation to you, dear reader, that much of children's literature is about sexual maturity. Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan are perhaps the most explicit classic examples. (Well, I suppose the most explicit classic example is Alan Moore's Lost Girls, but let's not go there.) The character who stares into a fantastic new world is changed by it, and for children, change is maturity. Susan, at sixteen, is torn between teenage sexuality and being the Doctor's granddaughter. And, crucially, the two are mutually exclusive. 

The problem is that they are, in addition to being mutually exclusive, are also interconnected. Because we have some pretty fucked ideas of teenage sexuality. And so whenever Susan is put in the vulnerable granddaughter position she is sexualized because vulnerable women in peril are considered sexy. And whenever she's put in a position to take charge and do things, she is sexualized because she is made into an adult. Susan, in other words, is caught in a Catch-22.

Not only is this tension unsustainable, but its resolution furthermore has profound impact on the Doctor. The Doctor, in The Sensorites, is still forming. The words "Time Lord" are years away from being spoken. Sight of another Time Lord besides Susan is over a year out. The nature of the Doctor is still heavily obscured. His motivations for traveling appears to be the pure love of the adventure - the TARDIS crew discusses as much at the start of the story. The Doctor, at this point, is a creature of pure action - in most ways indistinguishable from the TARDIS. 

And so when Susan, this episode, speaks of her planet, where "the sky is a burnt orange, and the leaves on the trees are bright silver," she fences in the Doctor. When the First Elder of the Sensorites says that Susan wants to return home but also wants to wander, this has grave implications for the Doctor - because right now, the Doctor, endlessly running, and not yet established as himself, cannot return home. He's not ready yet, and it will be a long time before he is. (And when he does, the price will be immeasurable.)

But more to the point, Susan is a constraint on the Doctor. As long as the Doctor's primary goal is the protection of Susan, he is unable to be completely free. Susan drags the Doctor back towards home, and away from endless travel.

Susan, in other words, is unsustainable. It is unsurprising that, in three stories, she will be the first member of the TARDIS crew to go.

The result of this, hopefully, will be that endings like the ending of The Sensorites, in which the Doctor, for no visible reason, flips out at Ian and vows to throw him off the TARDIS, seemingly ignoring episodes of characterization. Because that is the consequence of the Problem of Susan. As long as she is on the TARDIS, the Doctor cannot continue developing as a character.


. 9 years, 11 months ago

I'm glad I'm not the only one to find the Doctor-Susan relationship tiresome. You have to admit that many the problems you bring up wouldn't be so apparent if the Doctor wasn't such a jerk. I'm sure she would be an okay companion for say, Tom Baker or Jon Pertwee.

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Elizabeth Sandifer 9 years, 11 months ago

I actually doubt that, because I think she'd still have fundamental problems. Because there's still a fundamental tension - the Doctor can't bring companions into endless adventures of massive danger out of a desire to protect the companion. Certainly not out of a familial desire. Susan, as a concept, forces the Doctor to protect his past instead of running from it.

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David Bateman 8 years, 11 months ago

I'm not sure what you mean by the penultimate sentence:

"The result of this, hopefully, will be that endings like the ending of The Sensorites, in which the Doctor, for no visible reason, flips out at Ian and vows to throw him off the TARDIS, seemingly ignoring episodes of characterization."

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Mark Pompeo 2 years, 10 months ago

I finally got around to watching this, and wow! This was a really good story. "The Daleks," "The Aztecs," and part 1 of "An Unearthly Child" get all the hype from the first season, but for my money, this was better than all of those and the true gem of the season!

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Nathan 3 months, 3 weeks ago

The Sensorites' suits appear to be neither spandex nor their skin. in fact the color photo that you show clearly shows that the clothing is both a different color and texture than the skin. It's also definitely not spandex, having a sort of fuzzy texture to it. Agreed that it isn't a great costume, but I found those to be strange assertions when there's no evidence for either.
I do find your dissection of the "problem of Susan" interesting. I'm not sure that she's unworkable as a character, but she's unworkable as a character if modern Doctor Who is your endpoint. Getting rid of her was an important evolution of the series into its modern form.

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