The episode “The Sensorites” is the first episode in Doctor Who characterized by a plot device that would come to characterize the show, and science fiction more generally: an encounter with aliens who seem scary, grotesque and hostile, and turn out to be something else altogether.
The travelers land on a spaceship, the crew of which initially seem dead, but turn out to be in a state of suspended animation. They then learn that the crew is kept trapped there in orbit, their minds at times being taken control of, by the Sensorites who inhabit the world below. When we finally catch a glimpse of one at the end of the first part, they do not look at all attractive or friendly. The fear increases as Sensorites come aboard. But it turns out, first of all, that the Sensorites, while capable of telepathy, are also sensitive to loud noise and completely terrified of the dark, and extremely timid. Their behavior which had seemed hostile was due to their having previously encountered humans who intended to plunder their world for a valuable element, and having detected the same thoughts among the crew of this ship as well. Their actions were motivated by self-preservation, and the more severe effects on one of the human crewmembers were inadvertent.
The message that we should not judge people by their appearances, or even assume that we are rightly interpreting what seems like a hostile act, may seem trite. But we should remember that this message had not been communicate by means of science fiction as many times before “The Sensorites” as it has been in our experience. At the time, its suggestion “To them, we may appear ugly” might have been much more striking.
Susan’s question, asking if it isn’t better to travel hopefully than to arrive, also gets at the heart of Doctor Who.
Let me close by adding that it seems that the Sensorites is but one of many classic Doctor Who episodes due to be released next year on DVD in colorized form. That should do wonders for allowing a new generation of Doctor Who fans to watch and appreciate old episodes. Click through to learn more on Amazon.com!
Next up in the re-watch will be The Reign of Terror, the last episode in season 1, after which I will have to jump around a bit as I refresh my recollection of several episodes in preparation for my treatment of religion in Doctor Who at AAR.