‘Doctor Who’: ‘The Sensorites’ DVD review

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One of the fascinating things about watching early Doctor Who stories from a modern perspective is the discovery that, in spite of the seismic changes in the programme, in television, and in the world itself, many facets that existed during the show’s first season remain present almost fifty years later.

Although The Sensorites is almost three hours of slow-moving, black-and-white episodes light years from the colourful, lightning-paced contemporary incarnation of Doctor Who, the essential tenets are still in place.

The Doctor (William Hartnell) still has his TARDIS, his companions, and his incorrigible habit of casually namedropping famous historical figures that feature in untelevised escapades. ‘Do you know he threw a parson’s nose at me?’ he remarks of Henry VIII. ‘I threw it back, of course.’ Yet most pertinently of all, his unerring ability to wander into adventure was as well-honed in 1964 as it is in 2012.

In The Sensorites, he, his granddaughter Susan (okay, some things have changed a bit), Ian and Barbara arrive on a spaceship to find the crew under the psychic control of the Sensorites – Ood-like aliens from the nearby Sense-Sphere who dress in jogging suits and look like a cross between ALF, the Elephant Man and David Bellamy.

But they’re not all bad; nasty old earthlings on a previous trip exploited the Sphere for its mineral wealth, and the Sensorite Council is divided on whether to help the visitors or kill them. The fact that Ian Chesterton is dressed like Simon Cowell throughout the story probably doesn’t do the human race any favours.

Of course, the Doctor manages to win the day by a combination of scientific genius, having his coat shredded by a nasty beast and being cantankerous. ‘So, you think I’m an incompetent old fool, do you?’ he grumbles, but his faculties aren’t in question. The story, on the other hand, is.

It’s well-meaning and conceptually sound but awfully dreary, with nothing much in the way of intentional light relief. What little levity there is comes from all the fluffed lines. ‘I heard them over … over … t–t–talking,’ remarks a Sensorite at one point. Maybe it made sense in the Sixties.

Extras: The principal feature here is Looking for Peter – a documentary in which Toby Hadoke goes in search of the mysterious writer of The Sensorites, Peter R Newman, about whom little is known.

After a fruitless Googling – ‘As well as there being practically nothing about him, he also suffers the ignominy, poor chap, of having died twice,’ Toby quips after finding discrepant dates on IMDB and Wikipedia – our intrepid host heads off to Westminster Register Office with fellow fan Richard Bignell in search of Newman’s death certificate.

‘I’m looking to find out some fun stuff about Doctor Who, not uncover a man’s disaster,’ Toby mutters after learning the writer died of a massive cerebral haemorrhage. A meeting with Marcus Hearne, Hammer Horror archivist, reveals only that Newman-scripted movie Yesterday’s Enemy contained ‘no buxom women screaming at horrific monsters’, but fortunately, Bignell’s scrutinising of official records eventually pays off and the mystery is solved – although Peter R Newman’s gobsmacking physical resemblance to Paul McGann goes unremarked upon.

Unfortunately, there’s not a great deal more – but as this story is 48 years old, perhaps that’s not surprising.

Vision On is a continuation of earlier interviews with Clive Doig in which the Jigsaw man discusses his work as a vision mixer and William Hartnell’s incorrigible fluffing of lines. ‘He was just … sometimes … impossible.’

Secret Voices of the Sense Sphere is a mind-bogglingly banal featurette about the voice of someone off-camera being caught on the master-tape and there’s a comprehensive photo gallery and selection of PDFs to round things off.

The commentary, featuring William Russell, Carole-Ann Ford, Ray Cusick, Joe Greig, Frank Cox, Sonia Markham, Martyn Huntley and Giles Phibbs, is thankfully more substantial, with Russell (who played Ian Chesterton) explaining how seriously William Hartnell took the role of the Doctor and Cusick endlessly neglecting the Sensorites in favour of a certain other alien race.

‘We all remember, of course, the Daleks, which I had to design,’ he says. ‘That was quite a story.’ Yes, but it’s one we’ve heard a million times, Raymond, and we don’t really need to hear it again.

Elsewhere, Carole Ann Ford discusses Peter Glaze’s crocodile-shaped toilet roll dispenser, bemoans Hartnell’s inability to distinguish between fiction and reality – ‘Bill used to treat me as if I was a fifteen year old: he was always giving me grandfatherly words of advice as to how to live my life, which weren’t always welcome’ – and coos over the co-star sat next to her: ‘What a very delicious action man you were, Russ.’

Not for the first time on a Doctor Who DVD, it’s a commentary that is much more entertaining than the serial itself.

Released on DVD on Monday 23rd January 2012 by 2Entertain.

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