035 – Kidnap (The Sensorites part 5)

The City Administrator returns to Plan A – The Disintegrator Ray.  Meanwhile, The Doctor looks for the connection between the poisoned water and the monsters in the aqueduct.  Also, a Sensorite scientist learns to shake hands.

Carol's beehive is as tall as a Sensorite forehead. I wonder if she looks like a Sensorite to them.

“To see all the time is not a good thing.”

We left The Doctor in the dark aqueducts, a loud roar coming from nearby.  Susan and Ian rush into the dark and find The Doctor on the ground, his jacket ripped, but otherwise okay.  He didn’t get a look at what attacked him.  He proclaims that he knows what is happening with the aqueduct, but that the pressing matter is finding The Sensorite who is plotting against them.

The City Administrator demands the imprisoned Second Elder arrange the return of the firing key to The Disintegrator Ray.  Once they have the key, The Second Elder grabs it and breaks it before The City Administrator can activate the ray.  In the ensuing struggle, The Second Elder is killed.  The conspiracy has now turned to outright murder.  The City Administrator will kill Sensorites for his goal.  He then comes up with a plan to pin the death on The Doctor.  The City Administrator’s co-conspirator claims to have seen the murder.  He says The Doctor pulled the weapon from his coat.  Ian quickly points out that The Doctor’s coat had been ruined and left in the aqueduct.  Being caught in the lie, the co-conspirator corrects himself, saying it was most-definitely a cloak, not realizing The First Elder had presented The Doctor with the cloak mere moments earlier.  This is obviously not going well.  Conspiracies are only as good as those involved.  The City Administrator then proves he is a better mastermind, transferring the xenophobia to The Second Elder, and casting all blame onto him.  The City Administrator is now officially promoted to Second Elder, being championed for the position by The Doctor.  Ah, dramatic irony.  The episode ends with Ian and The Doctor entering the aqueducts with weapons and a map sabotaged by The New Second Elder, and Carol being kidnapped, hence the title.

I have to say once more that I think the strength of this story is the plotting.  The actions and words of the characters are not wasted.  One example is the destruction of The Doctor’s coat, which plays heavily into proving he didn’t commit murder.  In any number of stories these would just be events that happened but have no overall relevance.  In this story, the coat and the cloak play heavily into events.  Likewise, The First Elder realizes that it The Doctor and his companions didn’t kill The Second Elder, then someone else must have, and that someone would have to be a Sensorite.  So many of the details in this story help create the clues for the characters and the audience.  We know The Sensorite villain and we see the clues that are planted for our characters, but there is also a mystery in the aqueducts and this mystery is hidden from the audience.  Yet even this plot has clues in the nightshade, the darkness, the noise, and in exposition that was set up earlier in the serial.  I’m not sure what else Peter Newman has written, but I bet he would be a good mystery writer.  His command of pace, detail and motivation would certainly be a boon in that genre.

I have given Susan a bit of grief in previous stories, but I have to admit that she is really working in this story.  I don’t know if it is Barbara’s absence (she is still on the ship with Maitland) which allows Susan to be portrayed as stronger and more Barbara-like, or if she is finally being written as competent in her own right.  In my opinion, this has been the best use of her character since the episode An Unearthly Child. No screaming, no panicking, she even seems smart and intuitive.  I wish she had been used like this in all the stories.  The fact that she wasn’t lends some credence to the generally accepted idea in fandom that three companions in the TARDIS doesn’t work.  Two is thought to be the ideal number.  While I don’t think that should be a hard rule, I do acknowledge that it often doesn’t work because it can be hard to find enough for each character to do.  These episodes on The Sense Sphere seem to lend credence to this rule.  There is the hint that Barbara will return in the next episode.   It will be interesting to see what happens with Susan’s character at that point.

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034 – A Race Against Death (The Sensorites Part 4)

The City Administrator continues plotting against the humans while The Doctor attempts to find a cure for Ian’s illness.

Sir, you have been de-frocked!

“These people have fine qualities.  The Second Elder and I have misjudged them.”

It doesn’t take long for The Doctor to work out the water as the cause of the Ian’s illness.  He mixes salt and water to act as a way to slow the poison, but he demands access to The TARDIS which has supplies and equipment he could use to find a cure for both Ian and The Sensorites.  After consideration and advice, The First Elder refuses to return the TARDIS lock, which infuriates The Doctor, leaving him to work with what supplies The Sensorites can provide him.

The City Administrator and The Second Elder are put at odds a bit more.  The Second Elder even threatens to remove The City Administrator from his position.  John makes the realization that the evil he senses is actually The City Administrator.  Then Carol sets up the idea that to the humans all Sensorites look the same.  If it wasn’t for their sashes of office, they the humans wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.  “I had not thought of that,” says The City Administrator, obviously trying to use this information to his advantage.

Next we are given a science montage where The Doctor and The Sensorite Scientists analyze water from different districts, The First Elder holds a piece of paper, and Ian thrashes about on a couch.  All joking aside, it accomplishes what the story needs and doesn’t go on too long.  The Doctor discovers that District 8’s water is poisoned.  This doesn’t explain why people are getting sick in every district, but it does prove there is poison in the water.  Since all the water comes from the same source, it is reasonable to assume everyone is being poisoned in the same way but that the poison doesn’t affect all areas at the same time.  Regardless, The Doctor makes a quick antidote and sends one of his assistants to deliver it to Susan and The First Elder.  Meanwhile, The City Administrator kidnaps The Second Elder and takes his sash of office for the purpose of imitation.

The Doctor decides to go with one of the scientists to the aqueducts to investigate the water source.  The City Administrator intercepts the antidote and, believing it is poison, smashes the vial.  “This will prove if the young man is faking, one way or another,” he cheers.

Upon arrival at the aqueducts, The Doctor finds he must enter alone.  The aqueducts are both dark and supposedly full of loud monsters.  The Doctor dismisses his assistant, remarking on the convenience of the water source being located at a place which naturally fills The Sensorites with fear.  Susan, worrying about the antidote, goes to the scientists and gets a back-up antidote and cures Ian, who then goes rushing after The Doctor into the aqueduct.  As the episode comes to an end, The Doctor finds a few sprigs of Deadly Nightshade and hears a ferocious roar!

So, I must admit that this viewing of The Sensorites hasn’t been nearly as bad as I remember.  I have a theory to explain this.  When I first watched The Sensorites it was all in one go.  This time I have only watched an episode or two per day, writing a review between each.  I think this actually improves the viewing experience.  As Doctor Who has always gone out one episode at a time, week to week, this simulates (to a degree) the way it was originally intended to be watched.  Thus, sometimes concepts or plot points are sometimes repeated.  This was way before home video.  In addition, each episode, while slow by today’s standards, is paced fairly well.  I never thought I would say this before, but I am actually enjoying The Sensorites this time around.  These days, shows are made with full expectation that they will be going to DVD.  This – consciously or unconsciously – will affect the writing.  It affects the pace.  If people can go back and re-watch something, there is no real need for a recap or restatement of plot or ideas.  Contrasting this season of Doctor Who with the most-recent (New Who series Five) we see a stark difference in plotting.  Okay, there are many differences between William Hartnell’s first season and Matt Smith’s first season, but one of those differences is the acknowledgement that the viewers of Matt Smith’s first season will almost certainly watch and re-watch each episode many times, even doing a frame by frame analysis.  This level of detail may seem a bit obsessive, but if the show is being written with that in mind, then Steven Moffat and the other writers for Series Five are giving the fans what they want.  This is very clever plotting.  On some level, I also find it irritating.  While I do agree somewhat with the idea that the devil is in the details, if all you focus on is the details, then all you have is the devil.  You have details but no story.  Thus far, Moffat is still giving us an entertaining story, but I have to wonder if Doctor Who in its current incarnation will become so focused on the obsessive details at the expense of being a well-told story.  Or, to put it in storytelling terms, are we getting details or are we getting clues?  Are we getting Easter eggs or are we getting foreshadowing?  These are not the same thing.

Anyway, The Sensorites: still entertaining.  Will it hold up past episode 4?

033 – Hidden Danger (The Sensorites Part 3)

We get a crash course in Sensorite government and sociology plus, we learn more about the illness.

John likes to make eye contact with the audience.

“No opinion can be worse, sometimes, than a very dogmatic one.”

The cliffhanger from the previous episode, where Susan agrees to go with the Sensorites in order to save the lives of her friends, is quickly resolved as The Doctor demands that she doesn’t.  The two characters have an argument over Susan’s foolish choice.  Susan insists that she is no longer a child, The Doctor insists that she still lacks wisdom.  While this scene is odd when juxtaposed with the threat that caused it, it does provide some good characterization between Susan and The Doctor.  She is growing up.  The Doctor states that he and Susan have never argued before.  Perhaps her telepathic link to The Sensorites is making her more bold.  Perhaps she is merely growing up as Barbara says.  Regardless, it is a nice opening scene even if it does cheapen the cliffhanger from the previous episode.  Two for two on that account.

We learn more of the history of Sensorite-Human relations in this episode.  It seems that five humans had visited The Sense Sphere once before.  At the time they were welcomed, but the humans began to argue.  Two of them took the ship and tried to leave but it exploded.  The Sensorites never saw the other humans from the ship and assumed that they had stowed away.  Ever since that day The Sensorites have been dying off in greater numbers each year.  This new situation filled them with fear, but The First Elder has decided to let The Doctor, Ian, Susan, Carol, and John visit The Sense Sphere.  He hopes The Doctor may be able to find a cure for his people.  The Sensorites, as an act of goodwill, will attempt to cure John.  Barbara and Maitland will remain on the ship as insurance should the humans try anything deceptive.

With this, the third episode, we finally see the villain of the piece in the form of The City Administrator.  None of The Sensorites have names beyond their positions, which is indicative of their caste society.  The City Administrator seems to be a type of Third Elder, after the First and Second Elders.  Each Elder is marked by a sash, The First Elder having a sash that crisscrosses his chest, the second having a single sash across his chest, and the City Administrator who has a sash around his neck.  He is also very distrustful of the humans.  As a result, he has assembled the disintegrator ray and has it trained on the humans visitors.  The Second Elder, furious at this action, takes the firing key from the disintegrator.  This does nothing to dissuade The City Administrator from his opinion, it only makes him more subversive and cautious.

As The Doctor, Ian, and Susan dine with The First Elder, they are initially served different water.  The Elder insists his guests are served water that he has stored in flagons at the palace.  It seems he discovered a spring one day and all the elders drink from the water gathered there.  Coincidentally, none of the Elders have grown ill. I wonder….  Ian, being extremely thirsty, drinks some of the lesser-water.  He soon passes out and it is revealed that he is afflicted with the same illness that is killing The Sensorites.

Okay, let’s just say it now, the water is the key.  The Elders dink stored water, everyone else drinks water from the aqueducts.  The Elders are not growing ill, everyone else is.  It is obvious that the water is being poisoned somehow.  As simple as this seems, it is fun that the writer actually put enough thought into the story to provide large clues.  There is a mystery here.  While it is reasonable to conclude the water is the key, we do not yet know what is causing the poison, but we do know it coincided with the departure of the original human visitors.  We also know from this episode that The Sensorites couldn’t account for all five of the original visitors, they merely assumed they left with the others.  It is not a big leap to theorize that the original humans are still on the planet and could be the cause, in one form or another, of the poisoning.

We also have it established that John, due to his “mind being opened”, is able to determine if a person is good or evil.  He senses an evil presence in The Palace, but he also senses that The First Elder is good.  More clues, although the evil presence will most-likely be The City Administrator since he advocates murder.

The Sensorites is holding up so far, although it was harder to keep my attention on this episode.  This is probably due more to not getting enough sleep last night rather than anything inherent in the episode.  Three down, so far so good.

032 – The Unwilling Warriors (The Sensorites Part 2)

In which we meet The Sensorites.

Help me! I'm trapped in an episode of The Sensorites!

“So far you have only proven you can lock doors.  We can unlock them.”

Okay, first thing is first.  Occasionally on Doctor Who when a new episode starts they will replay the footage from a previous episode as a recap.  Other times they re-film footage.  Strangers in Space ended with a great cliffhanger as Ian Chesterton looked with horror upon a disturbing visage gazing into the space ship.  The Unwilling Warriors begins with this same sequence re-filmed, but to much less effect.  Ian’s fearful gaze is shortened to a look of shock as he calls immediately to The Doctor.  Our first look at a Sensorite even shows the costume to look different from what it was in the first episode.  How disappointing.  How underwhelming.  What was once a great shock and ominous cliffhanger has been reduced to a mildly odd shot of a strange, yet not horrific, creature gazing at our heroes.  Again, disappointment.

In this episode we learn why The Sensorites have been keeping the astronauts prisoner on their ship.  It turns out that when John did a mineralogical reading on The Sensorite planet (The Sense-Sphere) he discovered high quantities of a mineral called molybdenum.  Molybdenum has a high melting point and is used as an alloy in steel for ships.  Whoever could mine The Sense-Sphere would become rich.  John’s thoughts of wealth were picked up by The Sensorites, and they imprisoned the astronauts as a defense mechanism.  It seems that humans had tried to get at The Sense-Sphere’s molybdenum once before and there was some sort of “affliction.”  This hasn’t yet been explained. Regardless, the fear The Sensorites have of the humans is justified, even if their methods for defense are extreme.  But this is an interesting portrayal of xenophobia, not human of alien, but alien of human.  This is also a far cry from the all-to-typical portrayal of all aliens as a threat to humanity that exists in more modern Doctor Who stories.  Yes, The Sensorites start off as villains, but they have a motivation that is understandable and in the end we are merely witnessing a diplomatic catastrophe.

We learn two additional things in this episode.  First, The Sensorites’ eyes are fully dilated.  The Doctor theorizes that they will be unable to see in low light or darkness.  Second, it would seem The Sensorites can telepathically communicate with Susan.  Finally we have some characterization of Susan that extends beyond panicking and screaming.  Carol Ann Ford is able to do some better acting, more in line with her portrayal of Susan from An Unearthly Child, which was the last time the character seemed at all interesting.  Susan even agrees to accompany The Sensorites to The Sense-Sphere if they will spare the lives of the people on the ship.

In all, this was a more interesting episode.  Despite its disappointing start, this episode cracks along at a nice pace and we start getting pieces that answer questions that have already arisen and the author starts putting other pieces into play that will be addressed later.  So, an improvement over the previous episode.  What does the next hold?

031 – Strangers in Space (The Sensorites Part 1)

The TARDIS Crew materialize on a ship under siege by mind-controlling beings known as The Sensorites.

Here is the high point. It's all downhill from here.

“One thing’s for certain.  We’re certainly different from when we started out with you.”

Compared to the finale of The Aztecs, Strangers in Space is like hitting a brick wall.  The pace slows to a crawl.  This isn’t so much due to bad writing or directing, it is for the purpose of suspense and atmosphere.  A large amount of exposition is thrown at us as the astronauts reawaken from their enforced slumber.  They are being mentally tormented by a race called The Sensorites.  These creatures seem to be able to control the minds of the three people on the ship, Maitland, Carol, and John.  We discover that something horrific happened to John and he appears to be insane.  He moves like a zombie in some scenes, like a schizophrenic in others.  Maitland continually succumbs to fear.  It is only Carol who is emboldened by the appearance of the TARDIS crew.  Unfortunately, The Doctor and his companions soon find themselves sharing the situation of the astronauts when they discover the TARDIS locking mechanism has been removed by The Sensorites.

As stated before, this episode attempts to build a suspenseful atmosphere.  I think it is partially effective.  Many of the sets are dimly lit and the camera movements are slow and ponderous.  Maitland and Carol give a jarring performance, perhaps intending to convey mental instability, but at times it comes across as bad acting.  Doctor Who has had a long history of questionable portrayals of people under alien influence, and it would seem The Sensorites sets this standard rather low.  The Sensorites remain unseen until the closing moments of the episode, and I think the reveal is very well done.  After a few minutes of building tension as we hear the arrival of The Sensorite ship, we have silence as Ian moves to inspect a view port.  William Russell does an excellent job of conveying fear as he sees The Sensorites appear.  The ending really does pay off the slow pace.

Another excellent shot is when the camera follows the TARDIS crew from the TARDIS control room and onto the ship.  It is a single shot.  The director, Mervyn Pinfield, really went above and beyond with this.  Granted, it was a very easy shot to do since everything was on the same set, but it was the first time such a shot was used, and in our modern age of television, such a shot would be done with computers.  The simplicity and practicality of the shot and sheer illusion of the TARDIS are what make it so wonderful and imaginative.  So, while The Sensorites has yet to really be compelling to me, it has a few things that work in its favor thus far, and I look forward to re-watching this story to see how it holds up.  I admit that I am going in with a bias against it.  My first viewing of this story did not leave me with a good impression.  It seemed slow and boring.  It is too early yet to tell if this opinion will hold.

One final note, when Ian and Barbara first make introductions to Carol and Maitland, they admit to being from the 20th century.  The two astronauts take this in stride as if this is a normal thing.  This seems rather jarring and unusual.  Apparently, for 28th century Earth, meeting time travelers is commonplace.

030 – The Day of Darkness (The Aztecs Part 4)

Ian is trapped in a flooding passage that leads to the tomb while Barbara desperately tries to stop the sacrifices planned for the eclipse–one sacrifice being Susan!

 

Perhaps the heartbreak of "Doomsday" isn't so far away as I had previously thought.

“I feel that all the people who died here are watching and waiting for me to die here too.”

Many heartbreaking things happen in this episode.  While The Doctor’s engagement was quite unexpected, to The Doctor most of all, he does have a genuine fondness for Cameca.  In the end, he must leave her, and Cameca accepts this truth with dignity and grace.  But that doesn’t mean it is easy.  Meanwhile, despite a final attempt by Tlotoxl to discredit Barbara to Autloc, the High Priest of Knowledge sides with Barbara.  He knows that this decision will be his undoing, and to this end he sacrifices all his wealth to the guard watching Susan so that she may escape.  Autloc then imposes exile upon himself, never to be seen again.  While history has not changed, Barbara’s interference has broken two people.

Having rigged a system with leather straps and a pulley carved by The Doctor, a daring escape is made.  Tlotoxl attempts to kill Barbara, but Ian intervenes.  Tlotoxl cries out for Ixta and the two rivals have a final showdown, Ian eventually throwing Ixta from the temple, killing him.  Sadly, like many fights in early Doctor Who, this one isn’t shot well, nor is the choreography the best.  That doesn’t mean there aren’t good shots, the wide-shots in particular are good, but there are a lot of close-ups.  Television as a medium still hadn’t developed a good eye for fight scenes.  The Time Travelers are able to get into the tomb once more.  Tlotoxl, realizing that they have escaped but that he has won nonetheless, proceeds to the altar to sacrifice The Perfect Victim.  History, as a whole, remains unchanged.

In the denouement The Doctor and Barbara reflect on the events they have just taken part in.  Barbara questions why even bother traveling in time if one cannot change anything.  The Doctor said that while she was unable to change a society, she did change one man.  She gave Autloc a better perspective, a better outlook.  In a way, perhaps this does institute some change.  Often it is the small victories such as these which can have unforeseen consequences.  Societies often change one person at a time.  While Barbara failed in an immediate sense, perhaps some decsendant of Autloc had a better life because of her interference.

Overall, I would say that The Aztecs may take the prize for best of the season.  Admittedly, I love Marco Polo, but The Aztecs is much tighter and has a better pace.  Possibly the thing that works against Marco Polo the most is that it is missing.  Thankfully, this is not the case with The Aztecs. Rarely has Doctor Who done a story this tight and this emotional.  In the end, our characters only escape with their lives and a trail of tears from the two people they hurt along the way.  Those left behind may ultimately have a better life due to this interference, but that doesn’t make the abandonment any easier.  Autloc is now in exile, Cameca has lost her second great love.  Even The Doctor cannot bear to leave without a reminder of Cameca.  Of all the adventures thus far, this one has taken the highest emotional toll on the TARDIS crew.  Once more, Lucarotti set the bar high.  He truly was one of the best writers in the history of Doctor Who.

 

029 – The Bride of Sacrifice (The Aztecs Part 3)

Tlotoxl raises the stakes and The Doctor gets engaged.

Ah, we are such a very long way from Rose and "Doomsday"

“Tlotoxl‘s evil and he‘ll make everyone else the same!”
“They are the same, Barbara!  That’s the whole point!”

I love how Barbara rises to Tlotoxl’s challenge in the opening moments of the episode.  The fight between Ixta and Ian should end in death, Tlotoxl tells Barbara that her command cannot stop the duel and if she wishes Ian to live, she must save him.  So, Barbara puts a knife to Tlotoxl’s throat and says that if Ian dies, so does Tlotoxl.  As Barbara says, “Why should use a divine miracle when human ability will suffice?”

The next catastrophe, which will be addressed in the next episode, is an eclipse of the sun.  The plan is for Tlotoxl to sacrifice the Perfect Victim to have the sun returned.  Barbara pleads with Autloc to trust in her, to join her against Tlotoxl.  The sun will return, she insists.  What is interesting is that from this scene it would seem that while Autloc does believe the sun will return, he also has provisions within his worldview that if the gods disfavor The Aztecs, they will not return the sun.  To know something to be true, yet still make allowances for it to NOT be true is very human.  It ranges from superstition to outright religious faith.  Once again, the duality between Barbara’s knowledge of history and reason and the religious beliefs of The Aztecs butt heads.  And now that Tlotoxl has been publicly humiliated, the situation is growing more dangerous.

The Doctor and Tlotoxl have a brief confrontation, one which left me wanting more.  The Doctor’s method of dealing with Tlotoxl is to not give him anything, to not even verbally spar with him.  As the servant of a god, that is his right.  Barbara as Yetaxa claims to be a benevolent god and thus owes some explanation.  The Doctor insists that if Tlotoxl delivers the plans for the tomb, then Tlotoxl will find the truth about Yetaxa.  What beautiful irony that both sides ultimately want the same thing.  The Time Travelers want to leave and Tlotoxl wants the false goddess to be gone.  Sadly, we learn that the plans do not exist.  Ixta lied about them.

Ian and Barbara share a moment where he convinces her of the futility of her struggle.  Having been among the people, Ian has learned that Tlotoxl isn’t the exception, he is the rule.  The Aztec society share’s Tlotoxl’s belief in sacrifices.  Autloc is the odd man out.  Barbara cannot change an entire society using one man.  Rather, she cannot change it overnight.  Barbara, in a moment of frustration, confesses to Tlotoxl that she is not Yetaxa, but she also threatens to destroy him if he tells anyone.  The situation is growing more dire.  But we are in the penultimate episode.  That’s just drama.

Just as things were really going well, we have a scene with Susan.  Okay, perhaps this is an unfair way of phrasing things since it was a rather short scene.  Tlotoxl and Tonila have plotted together to have The Perfect Victim meet Susan and choose her for his bride.  As The Perfect Victim cannot be denied any request, Susan’s refusal completely violates Aztec law.  She must be executed.  We’re meant to believe this is a bad thing.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the funniest moment in this episode.  The Doctor accidentally gets engaged as he makes cocoa for Cameca.  A more modern incarnation would have been more proactive about this.