Wednesday, 29 March 2017
Inspirations - The Sensorites
The writer is Peter R Newman, about whom not a great deal is known. Check out the DVD extra in which Toby Hadoke goes in search of him, and you'll see what he looked like - and sounded like, as he once made a recording of himself reciting Shakespeare. Prior to getting this Doctor Who script, he had written a TV play called Yesterday's Enemy, set in Burma during WWII. This was subsequently made into a film by Hammer, directed by Val Guest. Newman then suffered severe writer's block, so has no further credits to his name. He died after a fall down a flight of stairs in 1975. He had been working at the Tate Gallery as a porter.
This story sheds some light on the Doctor's travels prior to us joining them in Totter's Lane. We know that there have been some earlier adventures for Susan and he - visits to the planets Esto and Quinnis for instance - and the Doctor will mention one of several stays in the Tower of London during the course of this story. (There will be at least three incarcerations, in the reigns of Henry VIII, James VI and I, and Charles II). He could not have travelled for long, judging by events to come, as he is puzzled as the story opens. The TARDIS has stopped, but it is still in motion. It is Ian and Barbara who point out that they might be on top of a moving vehicle, or inside one. The TARDIS has clearly never landed on a spaceship before.
The scanner is no help, as it is covered in static. A magnetic field is suggested as the cause, and Ian offers the culprit to be an unsuppressed motor. Viewers in 1964 would have known all about the latter, as car engines caused TV reception problems.
The only way to find out where they are is to go outside, and so we get our first spaceship of the series. It's from Earth's future - the 28th Century. Captain Maitland tells the travellers that the whole of southern England is one big metropolis, and Big Ben either no longer exists, or it just isn't famous anymore.
Recall back to the origins of the programme if you will. The survey into science fiction concepts that might work on TV included time travel, and telepaths. This story addresses the latter, and gives Susan a more prominent role as she has telepathic abilities which even the Doctor isn't aware of. The titular aliens use her as a conduit to communicate with the people on the spaceship. Carole Ann Ford claimed that this was the sort of thing she was promised when she took on the role, and the production team's failure to deliver would lead to her being the first TARDIS crew member to jump ship.
The notion that some people have genuine telepathic abilities is one that seems to have been taken very seriously, as the military of both East and West spent a lot of money conducting experiments into it, as well as other psychic abilities. Research continues, and in 2014 a signal was sent from one person's brain to another. Very basic - one person seeing a key word caused the other person to twitch - and we are no way close to sending anything as complex as a single word let alone emotions or instructions on how to navigate aqueducts on alien planets.
Susan's abilities do contribute to the resolution of the adventure, though we hear that this is due to artificial means - wavelengths broadcast across the planet of the Sensorites, and even Barbara is able to join in.
For the inspiration for the Sensorites themselves we can look in a couple of places. First of all, get out your copy of Plato's Republic. In this, his old mentor Socrates debates the ideal society with a number of people, and one of his ideals is a society which is very compartmentalised. There should be leaders - in Socrates' case Guardians, in The Sensorites the Elders - a warrior class to protect the society, and then the majority of ordinary citizens who work and live peaceably. Sound familiar? The First Elder describes his society in these terms - Elders, Warriors, and the ordinary folks. Of course, in classical Athens, there was another section of society - slaves - but they didn't count. For those of you who don't know, Plato, Socrates and many of their ilk hated the concept of Democracy. Odd, when everyone thinks it started in ancient Greece. It did, they just hated it. The philosophers disliked it because they equated it with rule by the mob - who couldn't be trusted. The ideal society had to have strong leaders. Socrates, and therefore Plato, sees his Guardians as studying physical pursuits and seeing military service for a couple of years, then studying mathematics for a whopping 30 years, with a final couple of years of dialectics, before they are fit to lead around the age of 50.
The other place to look for inspiration is obviously the insect world, especially ants and bees which have rigid social structures. Newman would also have been aware of caste systems such as that still practiced in India.
The meeting of the Earth people and the Sensorites also harkens back to that earlier work by Newman. It has been said that all alien civilisations in Sci-Fi are just the Imperial Japanese, with the Brits or Americans as the Earthlings. Look at the ST:TNG Klingons or the Draconians in Doctor Who for starters. We have the issue of "they all look the same to me" here - sadly a commonplace view in 1964 but rightly regarded as racist today. However we have current experience of institutionalised racism to contend with, with speaking Arabic and having a beard enough to get you put off a plane or banned from entering the United States. The Statue of Liberty really has become a Weeping Angel.
The human survivors hiding in the aqueducts who are waging a non-existent war also owe something to the war in the Pacific, as we heard in the post-war decades of lone Japanese soldiers being found on remote islands who thought that the war was still going on.
The latter section of the story sees the notion of xenophobia rear its ugly head once more. It's back with a vengeance in 2017 as mentioned above. It's not just the POTUS' attitudes towards Muslims - just look at the increase in racist attacks on Eastern Europeans in the UK since Brexit, and the general resurgence of right wing politics across Europe. The dislike for the unlike already underpinned the Daleks, and even the Doctor himself could have been described as xenophobic when it came to his treatment of the school teachers in the earliest episodes.
On to less controversial stuff. Sydney Newman has had a word with Verity Lambert and David Whitaker about having more real science in the programme. We've already had the theories about why the scanner isn't working, but we then get a section of the script dealing with why astronaut John was driven mad. (It should be noted that the story's handling of John's mental health issues is quite sensitively handled). John has discovered a rare element, and it is one designed to test William Hartnell's pronunciation skills. When was the last time you used "Molybdenum" in a sentence - not counting discussion of this story of course. Spectrographic analysis is also discussed - different chemical signatures can be identified by their location on the light spectrum, basically. Ian is clearly set to give Susan the full lecture, with graphs and a slide-show, and he looks quite crestfallen when she does a "Yeah, yeah, know about that" shrug and walks away.
Everything ends happily. John is cured, and gets the girl. The spaceship crew will take the humans who have been poisoning the Sensorites back to Earth. Hopefully the First Elder will have a good think about dress codes.
For the first time we actually see a spaceship on screen. There's a lot more of that to come.
Just when we thought that the Doctor was reconciled to having the teachers on board, however, he suddenly has a hissy fit, and threatens to throw them off at the next stop!
Next time, back into Earth history - the Doctor's favourite period, apparently - plus one of my favourite Woody Allen jokes...