Friday, January 17, 2014

The Sensorites - "I don't make threats. But I do keep promises."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Sensorites - Details

Season 1, Story 7 (Overall Series Story #7) | Previous - Next | Index

I don't make threats. But I do keep promises.
And I promise you I shall cause you more trouble
than you bargained for if you don't return my property! 

Doctor Who at its seventh story is still in the long process of figuring out what sort of show it is, and isn't. "The Sensorites" is more what it will be than many of the first season stories; but, that's both a good thing and a bad thing. There're plenty of reasons this story is not well-loved because man, oh man, part of what it is is cheap, shoddy, poorly written, and painfully acted. And yet, if you're willing to push past its abundant flaws, it's got flashes of charm and an underlying theme that make it worthwhile. Sure, there are the usual gamut of muffed lines and at least one scene where you can see a stagehand trying to keep a piece of the set from falling down -- if you want to watch for it, it was the second episode, where Ian and Barbara have gone looking for the Senorites that just came in through the loading bay and are passing through a series of small rooms -- things early Who are infamous for; but, if you're going to be a Who fan, then you know this is the sort of stuff up with which you have to put.

So let's acknowledge stretches of this are horribly incompetent, and unfortunately the problems start straight of the gate. It wouldn't surprise if me if even relatively committed fans wished Maitland had stayed 'dead' and, when he didn't, decided to find something else to watch after the first few minutes of his screen time. It's not just that the actor playing Maitland is, in a word, terrible; he's so bad he makes hash of lines as simple as "My name is Maitland." Seriously. The script does him, nor anyone else, any favors either. Consider this bit of dialogue, far from the worst in the first episode:
MAITLAND: Now remember, all of you, no violence unless the Sensorites start it first.
IAN: Why no violence? Surely we've got the right to protect ourselves?
Maitland has basically told Ian to only use violence in self-defense. Ian replies with incredulity because surely he has right to defend himself. Um, yeah, like he said, Ian.

If this were an aberration, we'd overlook it, but it's not. This is indicative of the level of discourse throughout. This is bad TV. And yet, while I'm not going to argue this is something anyone should seek out to watch, it's a bit important.

When I was at UConn, some friends and I were out late one night walking around campus and saw the dorm cafeteria being stocked. The boxes being carted in were stamped, incredibly, "Grade D But Edible." I'm not kidding. That's what we've got here. A story that's Grade D But Edible. What makes it edible? The fact that it's trying to do something other than just put malevolent aliens onscreen to be scary. The Sensorites aren't what we are lead to believe in the early going. They're still problematic, but there's an argument being made here, incoherently at times, but an argument nonetheless. The argument is for an open-minded approach to the Other. It's a small hook to hang six episodes of turgid dialogue and a dubious plot on, but it's a strong hook.

The Sensorites are set up to be just another alien baddie, skulking around, messing with the humans' minds, apparently keeping them alive for the pleasure of torturing them. The twist isn't that they're just misunderstood, or going about contact with humans the wrong way, or even that they're actually the good guys, it's that they're basically just like us. Some of them are wise and compassionate, others are fearful and untrustworthy. The humans in the story aren't straightforward good guys either. Some are murderous colonialists who see the Sense Sphere as a resource to exploit and the planets inhabitants as an obstacle to that goal. Others might be tempted by the same thought, but aren't acting on it.

The enemy in this story isn't a conniving alien or greedy humans, it's fear. The characters who act out of fear suffer, and cause others to suffer, for it. The Doctor embodies a courageous sense of exploration here and, while skeptical of the Sensorites until he gets to know them, is open to the possibility of working with them instead of against them, despite their early appearances. And that, despite how rubbish much of this is, shines through.

Stray thoughts:

  • The idea that aliens could come along and steal the TARDIS door lock by cutting it out seems to involve a misunderstanding of what the TARDIS is (or, perhaps not having decided yet, exactly) and doesn't square at all with what we know about it now.
  • That it takes Susan pointing out the Sensorites all look very similar, so much so that they couldn't really tell each other apart without their sashes and collars of office, to set in motion an identity stealing plot is exactly as dumb as it sounds. 

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