The Sensorites is not the most feted of Doctor Who serials. The seventh and penultimate story of the show's first season, broadcast between June and August 1964 (with a fortnight's gap between episodes two and three for reasons of Wimbledon tennis and test cricket) this six-parter has never been one to conjure with. Even its writer, Peter R. Newman (and more of him later, when I come to discuss the extras on this DVD) is something of a mystery man. His story isn't one of the all-time classics, far from it, but it isn't an all-time turkey either. It's just filed away somewhere in the middle ranks. In a way, it suffers from both still existing and existing complete: who wouldn't swap it for the whole of Marco Polo or Fury from the Deep, neither with a single episode surviving in the archives? I know I would. But, while I'm not going to make a claim for this being an unacknowledged masterpiece, it's easy to underrate The Sensorites.
The TARDIS lands on a spaceship in orbit around a planet called the Sense-Sphere. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan find the crew seemingly dead but in fact in a state of paralysis. This is due to the natives of the planets, the Sensorites who not only keep the ship's crew captive, they do the same to the Doctor and his companions by stealing the lock of the TARDIS. But who are the real villains?
To get the obvious out of the way, at six episodes this story is too long. It's somewhat lacking in action too, but that is part of Newman's point: the conflict between humans and aliens come largely from misunderstanding, though there are characters with less than noble motives on either side. While Barbara is somewhat sidelined – to the extent of not appearing in the fourth and fifth episodes, though still being listed in the end credits, due to Jacqueline Hill taking a break – the other three regulars are given quite a bit to do. Carole Ann Ford has said more than once, and with good reason, how dissatisfied she was with the way Susan was characterised. However, The Sensorites gives us an intriguing glimpse of what could have been. Her telepathic abilities come to the fore here, and she also gives a description of her and the Doctor's home planet, not yet called Gallifrey. The rest of the cast is solid. Those of us of a certain age will note Peter Glaze in Sensorite costume, years before he became part of our childhood as a regular on Crackerjack!.
Given patience, The Sensorites does offer its rewards, in an attempt at a more cerebral style of humanistic science fiction that could be found in other stories before and after. But it's certainly one for the completists and the established fans. Newcomers to Hartnell Who should best start elsewhere.
The Sensorites is released by 2 Entertain on a dual-layered DVD encoded for Region 2 only. As with all the Who range, there is an audio-descriptive menu option.
The DVD transfer is in the intended ratio of 1.33:1. The original 405-line two-inch videotapes were wiped in 1967 and 1969, but the complete story has always continued to exist in the archive on 16mm film recordings. They have been VidFIREd to restore a video look to the proceedings and the results are likely as not as good as you are likely to get, given the circumstances, expecially considering that we are watching on much larger television sets than people had in 1964.
The soundtrack is the original mono, cleaned up and with no problems to report. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are available for all the episodes and all the extras apart from the commentary. Also on the disc are the invaluable information subtitles, provided this time by Stephen James Walker.
The commentary is moderated by Toby Hadoke, with a revolving list of interviewees. Initially he is joined by William Russell, Carole Ann Ford and designer Raymond Cusick for the first episode and two. Actor Joe Greig (who plays one of the Sensorites) joins them for the second episode and stays on until the fifth. Make-up supervisor Sonia Markham joins them for the last three episodes. Frank Cox, who took over direction from Mervyn Pinfield, comments on the the two episodes he directed. At twenty-four he was the youngest on the set, and he harboured a crush on Ilona Rodgers (who played Carol). Finally, actors Martyn Huntley and Giles Phibbs, who play the stranded humans, join the commentary for the final episode. From references along the way, this was recorded circa 2010. Hadoke moderates with his usual ability, no mean feat with so many people on screen with their memories of making this serial over six weeks forty-six years earlier. It's a worthwhile listen, not the most entertaining commentary out there, but not a bust either. Rather like The Sensorites itself.
Peter R. Newman, writer of this serial, was a mystery man. Some reference sources gave an incorrect year and cause of death (1969, and suicide following long bouts of depression). No-one seemed to know what the R stood for. Other credits are sparse: before his six episodes of Who there was a play for the BBC, Yesterday's Enemy, broadcast on 14 October 1958, drawing on his wartime experiences. That play no longer exists in the archives, but Hammer filmed it the following year under the same title. (That film has never had a UK video or DVD release and I can't trace a TV broadcast. I haven't seen it.) After The Sensorites, nothing. So, in “Looking for Peter” (21:20) Toby Hadoke goes on the trail of the elusive Mr Newman. With the help of Richard Bignell, he finds out about his writing career (further scripts for Hammer went unproduced) and eventually tracks down his now elderly sister Vera and her and Peter's niece Helen and we hear about a writer's career with the successes separated by long periods of writer's block. We see his picture and in a touching finale, we hear a recording of his voice .The R stands for Richard and he died in 1975 at age forty-eight, after falling and hitting his head on an iron radiator As an essay in how someone can slip into obscurity and as a solution of a puzzle, it's well put together and quite moving. This documentary on its own justifies the whole DVD set.
Next up, “Vision On”. No, not the children's show of the 60s and 70s, which gave an early showcase to future Doctor Sylvester McCoy, though this item begins with the same theme tune. In this featurette (7:05), Clive Doig (who was coincidentally later a director on Vision On) talks about the unsung craft of the vision mixer, a vital role in the days of multi-camera studio drama and continuing to be essential to light entertainment and game shows.
Mr Doig turns up again in “Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere” (2:05), discussing the phenomenon of “talkback”, usually the studio PA calling out shot numbers in the gallery, becoming audible on the TV broadcast. This was not an uncommon occurrence.
The extras are completed by the stills gallery (4:37), Radio Times listings and Raymond Cusick's original design drawings in PDF format, and a Coming Soon trailer for the Revisitations 3 box set (1:50). There are no Easter Eggs this time round.