Friday, February 03, 2012

Doctor Who: The Sensorites DVD Review

Possibly long overdue for a DVD release is the first season adventure, “The Sensorites.” “Long overdue” because the titular alien race were the influence for the prominently featured new series race, the Ood; “Possibly” because the Sensorites aren’t particularly fascinating figures, and Ood fanatics (surely you exist?) dying to get a peek at the mysterious species’ origins, are likely to come away wondering how the Sensorites were the inspiration for anything.

As I understand it, according to Russell T Davies, the Ood come from the same general area of the universe as the Sensorites, and as such are related. Even their planets of origin have similar names: The Ood-Sphere and The Sense-Sphere. This is a terribly clever way, I think, of taking a faulty idea from the classic series and finding ways to make it work in the new show, without ever using words like remake, reenvision, or reimagine. Saying that the two species are related does two things: It provides due reverence for the original idea, and it adds a nice layer of continuity for long term fans. These days Moffat gets all the credit for being the clever one, but let’s not forget that mad Uncle Russell wasn’t missing any crayons from his box of colors, either.

An Ood and a Sensorite
“The Sensorites” sees the show taking a detour into the realm of science fiction, smack in between two historical stories, “The Aztecs” and “The Reign of Terror.” The first season of Doctor Who was pretty fair about evenly taking turns between the two types of stories. In the second season there was more of an emphasis on the sci-fi, even though from today’s vantage point, the historical tales of the Hartnell era seem to be the ones that hold up better. When the show wasn’t featuring the Daleks, its sci-fi wasn’t as strong, which speaks to how tight of a concept the Daleks really were way back then. But since sci-fi is an ever-evolving artform, it dates itself in ways that these old historical stories tend not to. Back in 1964, “The Sensorites” probably seemed like a pretty cool story, especially to kids, at whom the show was squarely aimed at that point.    

It begins with a lovely, warm scene of the TARDIS crew discussing their numerous journeys up to this point, and the impact they’ve all had on one another since Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) first stumbled into the time machine, as well as the Doctor’s (William Hartnell) and Susan’s (Carole Ann Ford) lives. The scene is followed by a tracking shot of the crew walking out of the console room through the TARDIS doors, and outside the ship to the interior of another spaceship – a series of moves that’s quite the rarity in the classic series, let alone its first season! It’s quick and subtle, and yet once you see it, you simply can’t unsee it, and the marveling at the decision to connect the two sets together to achieve the desired effect begins. For the first five minutes alone, it’s impossible to dismiss “The Sensorites” altogether.

Quickly the narrative moves forward, as the time travelers explore the spaceship on which they’ve landed. They discover the human crew, all seemingly dead. The Doctor, rather uncharacteristically, insists that nothing can be done for them, and so it would be best if they all just took leave, but before they can, the dead begin to rise. Ahhhh, it turns out the humans weren’t dead, but rather in a deep, coma-like sleep – put there by the Sensorites. The first couple episodes have a nice sense of dread about them, and the cliffhanger for Episode One, “Strangers in Space,” is rather creepy, as we get our first look at a Sensorite, from Ian’s point of view, floating silently in space, and peeking through the ship’s window.

More is learned about the Sensorites when the action moves to their planet below, the Sense-Sphere. It turns out they’re just as afraid of the humans as the humans are of them, and the more the story explores the Sensorites, the less alien they become, despite the fact that they’re telepathic, afraid of the dark and loud noises, and most peculiar of all, they’re unable to tell each other apart - ideas that aren’t ever taken to any kind of proper conclusions. New mysteries pop up on the Sense-Sphere, as well as some fine character development for Susan, who gets some good stuff in this piece, including an exploration of her own telepathic powers, an aspect of Gallifreyans that got minimal play on the original series, but Davies explored further with the Tenth Doctor. One of the great Susan moments of this serial is in its final episode, “A Desperate Venture,” when she speaks of her home planet, of which she says, “At night the sky is a burnt orange, and the leaves on the trees are a bright silver!” Years later, Davies would use similar words to describe Gallifrey in “Gridlock.”

Indeed, one cannot help but wonder what influence this story might have had on Davies at some point, or maybe he just saw it as a flawed work, worthy of borrowing bits and pieces from. “The Sensorites” has an unsophisticated kind of earnestness about it, which might be why it’s so difficult to dislike. I must also admit that my opinion of it was somewhat colored by the documentary included in the extras entitled “Looking for Peter,” in which Toby Hadoke searches for information on Peter R. Newman, the writer of this story. “The Sensorites” is not just Newman’s sole Doctor Who credit, but aside an obscure non-horror Hammer film called Yesterday’s Enemy, it amounts to 50% of the deceased writer’s only official credits. If Newman had some massive resume, I might be more inclined to pull apart this work, but as is, I feel the need to label it a mild curiosity, even if not an altogether successful effort and one that should be given some reappraisal in the name of all that’s decent.

DVD Extras: In addition to the aforementioned “Looking for Peter” - which can’t be recommended highly enough, as it’s quite an engaging addition to the proceedings – there’s a rotating commentary track with stars William Russell and Carole Ann Ford as well as guest stars Joe Grieg, Martyn Huntley, and Giles Phibbs, as well as behind the camera folks Frank Cox (director), Raymond Cusick (designer), and Sonia Markham (make-up designer), all moderated by Hadoke. “Vision On” and “Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere” are two short pieces centered on Clive Doig, who was the vision mixer during this period of the show. There’s also the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitles option, and PDF materials, which include Radio Times listings, a short RT piece on Hartnell, and some design drawings from this serial. Finally, there’s a trailer for the “Revisitations 3” box set, which will of course be broken up and released separately for Region One, in the form of special edition double-dips of “The Robots of Death,” “Tomb of the Cybermen,” and “The Three Doctors.”