Back in The Forest of Fear we learned ‘fear makes companions of us all.’ The message of The Sensorites is ‘it’s suspicion that’s making them enemies’. After The Unwilling Warriors removed some of the danger from the Sensorites, Hidden Danger pretty much completes the job, transforming them from the sinister menace of Strangers in Space into ‘timid little people’ pained by loud noises, and wailing piteously when Ian turns the lights out. Even by July 1964, Doctor Who was becoming synonymous with monsters – after the success of the Daleks we’ve had the Voord, the Brains of Morphoton, and the screaming jungle. This means that the series is already able to play with the audience’s preconceptions of funny-looking aliens, so that the reveal that they’re civilised people much like human beings is a surprise that’s only blunted by the fact most of us already know the general plot going in.
To his credit, Newman makes the threat of ‘mutual suspicion’ more than an abstract by introducing a new enemy in the paranoid Sensorite City Administrator and his disintegrator weapon. This is the first example of what Gary Gillatt memorably calls ‘squabbling rubber’, as the Sensorite Second Elder chastises the Administrator, who, in response, begins to plot with the Engineer (in another typical Doctor Who touch the monsters are identified by rank and costume design rather than name – see also the Black Dalek and Monoid One).
On the one hand, it’s quite nice that Newman gives a hint of a wider Sensorite civilisation, made up of three distinct castes (one of which, charmingly, is dedicated to ‘work and play’), with institutionalised privilege and unquestioning obedience to authority. I’m maybe making an unfair assumption that Newman’s characterisation of the Sensorites was perhaps influenced by his perception of Burmese customs picked up while posted there during the Second World War, particularly the veneration of age and experience and the Administrator’s inhibitions about expressing his views before the First Elder.
On the other hand, a lot of the script is extremely clumsy. The First Elder reveals his caste only drink the water from a private spring and the deadly disease afflicting the lower castes has affected none of his. ‘It might be a clue,’ the Doctor loudly announces, practically winking at the camera. Then Ian, who’s been drinking the cheap water, collapses. Hardly Hidden Danger, more Blatant Solution.
This is a really odd episode that bounces from crass exposition to the first attempts at actually developing Susan’s character and relationship with the Doctor, and might even be argued as foreshadowing for her departure at the end of the first production block. Some of the dialogue is gorgeous (‘We saw the pictures he formed in his mind, and we saw that it was the end of our way of life.’) Some of it’s diabolical. The Elder’s Palace set designs are pretty great, even if they look like they’re heavily re-using elements of the Dalek City. My overall impression was last week felt like a prototype Troughton base under siege, and this feels like a prototype Pertwee story, with the Doctor hob-nobbing with alien elites over dinner, while xenophobic underlings plot against them.
Next episode: A Race Against Death