Doctor Who episode 31: Strangers in Space (20/6/1964)
After the relentless excitement of The Day of Darkness, Strangers in Space is a much gentler episode – this, despite it featuring zombified human beings, a crashing spaceship and a creeping unknown alien force. It begins with a fairly lengthy TARDIS sequence that I find utterly charming, but feels like it’s there just to pad out the episode. After running through the different adventures the time travellers have had, like 1990s fans having a chat at the Tavern, the Doctor has a giggling fit about an adventure with Henry VIII (I’m amazed Big Finish hasn’t made this one). The Doctor also gets one of his great, quotable lines: ‘It all started out as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, and now it’s turned out to be quite a great spirit of adventure.’ And then, rather than go anywhere with all these observations, the Doctor says, ‘However, now, let us get back to this little problem’, and the plot, which has been on hold while the time travellers reminisce, kicks back in again.
When Susan does open the doors, we’re treated to a lovely shot as the camera follows the time travellers out of the TARDIS and directly onto the spaceship bridge. It’s one of two fantastic visual touches in the episode (the other comes right at the end). However, elsewhere this is one of the first episodes where the confines of Lime Grove Studio D really work against the storytelling. Twice, the story depends on the characters being unaware of what is happening in the same room, right behind them – once when a Sensorite steals the TARDIS locking mechanism, and then again when Barbara and Susan open the door into the interior of the spaceship. It’s obvious that the writer envisaged a much larger set than could be achieved, and the result just looks daft. The small sets also cause issues when John is supposed to be stalking Susan and Barbara around the interior of the spaceship. We get a hint of what’s supposed to be happening, but as the interior consists of one short corridor with two cupboards, it doesn’t really work, which is a shame because the idea itself is very scary.
The astronauts don’t really work either, even though I love their uniforms with little rocket ship logos. Having them initially appear to be dead, then coming back to life is creepy, but it would have been more impressive if they actually seemed to be lively. Instead, we get two of the wettest characters so far: they’re unimpressed at learning Ian and Barbara are from 800 years in the past, and spend most of the episode despairing at the eerie power of the Sensorites. The Doctor certainly seems disinclined to help those too useless to help themselves – he’s all for leaving as soon as possible: ‘Well, it seems to me that there’s nothing else I can do. Goodbye, my friend. Bye, bye, my child. Come along, Susan.’ After the vivid characterisation of The Aztecs, it’s hard to see this as anything but a let down.
All of these issues prevent Strangers in Space from fulfilling some of the potential that’s in the script. Where is does work, very effectively, is in creating a sense of claustrophobic dread. The Sensorites are spoken of as hostile aliens, and they’re clearly very dangerous – able to induce a death-like state in the human astronauts, and drive John to madness. They’re powerful enough to be able to interfere with the TARDIS (even Arbitan’s power only extended to placing it behind a forcefield), and they move around space in glowing orbs, toying with the spaceship, like the mysterious ‘foo-fighters’ reported by Allied airmen during the Second World War. They even seem to set the spaceship on a collision course for the Sense-Sphere, leading to the Doctor’s first opportunity to take control of a crashing ship. The episode effectively builds to their arrival, climaxing in the second fantastic visual – a Sensorite hanging in space, peering in through the window of the ship like another Second World War myth, the gremlin. As writer Peter R. Newman was a pilot in Burma during the war, it’s maybe reasonable to assume he drew on stories of foo-fighters and gremlins when he was developing these scripts.
I also wonder whether the cliffhanger was inspired by The Twilight Zone episode Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, broadcast in the US in October 1963. I haven’t been able to find out when ITV first aired the episode, and it’s more likely just a coincidence based on a common source of gremlin folklore (although I guess it’s conceivable someone saw the Shatner publicity photo), but some of the images from The Twilight Zone are very like The Sensorites:
Other things to notice: Hartnell is really not on form this week – I get the sense that he’s approximating his dialogue rather than actually delivering his lines. The spaceship bridge, designed by Raymond Cusick, has nearly as many roundels as the TARDIS.
Next episode: The Unwilling Warriors