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