5 December 2018: It Takes You Away review added.
26 November 2018: The Witchfinders review added.
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"There's been some kind of catastrophe here."
Big scary aliens intent on destruction - all very nice, but the death rays and homicidal leanings do tend to get a bit samey after a while. So let's ring the changes. Why not have some timid little aliens who wouldn't hurt a fly?
Why not? Because it makes bloody boring television, that's why not. While The Sensorites has the odd moment of interest, overall it's about as fascinating as a wet week in Slough.
It actually starts off pretty well. While the astronauts seem unreasonably wibbly, nevertheless quite a nice atmosphere of brooding menace manages to build up in the first episode.
Then they bring on the Sensorites, and it all turns to custard. There we are, having assumed the position behind the sofa, peering fearfully at the screen to see what manner of horrifying monster could be producing all those scary mind control thingies. And what do we see? A couple of waist-high Teletubbies with toupees stuck backwards on their chins. It doesn't help, either, when they pan down to the incredibly unfrightening circular feet and we see that one Teletubby's standing on the other's foot. We don't know about you, but this scene makes us laugh so hard we need oxygen.
And it's all downhill from there. Despite the fact that previously visiting humans intended to nick half the planet from under the Sensorites' feet, not to mention killing off large chunks of the Sensorite population, the Sensorite leaders are aliens of reason who are prepared to give our fearless heroes the benefit of the doubt. All very commendable, of course, but not exactly gripping viewing.
But wait! Dissension in the Sensorite ranks! In between squeaking with fear when the lights go out and whimpering when someone turns the stereo up to eleven, some of the Sensorites show that evil can lurk in the most diffident of hearts.
Not, however, without a lot of chat. Lots and lots and lots of chat, between several virtually identical aliens standing still in a featureless room. And yes, that's about as interesting as you'd expect. Several episodes drag by in this way, enlivened only by the diverting spectacle of Ian on his deathbed. (Sadly, he manages to miraculously revive after fondling Susan's knee.) In fact, the thing only kickstarts itself into life again in the last episode, when we get to find out who the Nessie is that's been lurking in the aqueduct. (Although we never find out why the Doctor's jacket got shredded. Fashion statement?)
Part of the problem with The Sensorites is that the writer tries to have an each way bet. He's obviously keen on the idea of a non-violent alien society based on reason and co-operation, but periodically gets all panicky that the aliens aren't interesting enough. The plot therefore lurches between the Sensorites being nice and being scary, mostly for no reason at all. In the first episode, when Ian and Barbara lock the door on the Sensorites, they agree that the Sensorites aren't very aggressive and are probably as scared of Ian and Barbara as they are of them. A microsecond later, they realise a door is unbolted and panic erupts. Later in that ep, the Sensorites threaten to kill them, then instantly assure them they have no desire to harm them in any way. Huh?
And that sets the tone for the rest of the six (or was it six hundred? It felt like it) episodes. Let's face it, delicate little aliens who can instantly be overcome by turning out a light or yelling a bit are never going to pose a realistic threat, no matter how much they mutter about death to the humans. The big fight scene ends up killing somebody, but nevertheless, it's like watching a bunch of teddy bears having a scrap.
The other plot element that strips out any tension in the story is that the "bad" Sensorites are absolutely right. Considering how their previous human visitors behaved, and given that the next one to arrive had exactly the same evil plan to steal all their nice molybdenum, only a yoghurt would have welcomed them with open arms and given them the freedom of the city. At the end, the Doctor says to a Sensorite: "The fact is, you didn't kill him. Shows great promise for the future of your people." Well, he's got a nerve, considering the angelic behaviour of (most of) the Sensorites compared to the humans. It's our bet, too, as soon as the humans return to Earth with news of the molybdenum, the Sensorites'll be doorstepped by yet another bunch of humans waving pickaxes. Fortunately, they won't have the Doctor there to save them.
When we get to see him amongst the endless Sensorite political machinations, it's a good story for the Doctor. His lack of fear of the Sensorites is great (he's particularly impressive when he's demanding the TARDIS lock back), and we love the way he gets everybody out of trouble at the end with devious cunning rather than derring-do.
For the rest of the TARDIS crew, it's business as usual. After her terrific performance in The Aztecs, it's disappointing to see Barbara clutching fearfully at Susan when they see John (it's two against one, for God's sake!), but things look up for her at the end, when she not only makes a few intelligent observations but also sallies forth bravely to rescue the Doctor. Ian is his usual smug, patronising self. As for Susan, urgh. Not only is she constantly terrified, but there's a lot of ghastly stuff in there about how she's Becoming A Woman. It's probably supposed to be endearing character-development type stuff, but it just makes us wince. The guest characters are either dull (the astronauts) or indistinguishable (the Sensorites).
It's a brave effort. They're trying to do something new, and good for them for giving it a go. Unfortunately, the reason why it's not usually done this way is all too obvious.
MORAL: Don't be too nice to visitors. They may never leave.
SHE WAS TOO BUSY MAKING THE TEA
The Doctor says "Chesterton, have you noticed anything about this watch?" As if Barbara, who's standing right there, is invisible!
JOIN THE DOTS
"The whole lower half of England is called Central City now." Prescient or what? One or two more motorways, and we're there.
I'M HEINZ. FLY ME
We love the way they get around the potentially expensive issue of the way the Sensorites travel with a superb budget-shaving shot of a couple of baked beans jigging about in space.
IF THE CAMERAMAN DOESN'T GET US FIRST
The Doctor wonders whether the Sensorites are coming to kill them. Just after he does so, the camera crashes into something just in front of him.
THE USUAL DRILL
Long before Maitland starts attacking the door, the white marks are visible.
I'M WAY AHEAD OF YOU
It's nice the way Susan cuts off Ian's patronising explanation about the spectrograph thing with a cheery "Oh, yes, of course". It's easy to forget amongst all the screaming that she's a Gallifreyan too.
HE DOESN'T KNOW HIS HEART FROM HIS ELBOW
In laying their evil plan to kill the humans, one Sensorite asks where their hearts are, left, right or central. The other says dunno, then says he'll aim at the centre of the chest. The first one asks if that will be fatal and the second one confidently says yes. Since he doesn't know where the heart is, how does he know?
TOO BUSY TRYING TO TELL EACH OTHER APART
Aren't the Sensorites a bit on the slow side not to have figured out the water thing?
NOT THE MIND PROBE
We love John's treatment hat. It looks as if it fell off a Christmas tree.
THAT'S A WRAP
One of the Sensorites delivers a superbly hilarious speech, saying: "I saw the Doctor and the other two leaving the aqueduck (sic). I heard them over... over... talking."
SO YOU ADMIT IT
In general, the Doctor's pretty hypocritical about guns, badmouthing them one minute while waving them around the next. Here, though, he's about as honest as he'll ever be: "I have never liked weapons at any time; however, they're handy little things."
The shoulder flash the Doctor reads says INEER, but the Doctor spells out I-N-N-E-R.
We love Susan's classic line about Gallifrey: "But at night the sky is a burnt orange, and the leaves on the trees a bright silver." Shame it didn't look anywhere near as interesting as that when we actually got there.