|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.