Friday, July 10, 2009

"Strangers in Space"

We're back! The Historian here. After an agonizing, but necessary two week break, Ketina, Ronelyn, Schmallturm and I have reconvened for this first episode in a new story. Before we get to the summary, I'd like to encourage our readers (whoever you are) to feel free to make comments, either regarding any episode or just generally, letting us know who you are, how you found us and what you think of the Project. We'd like to hear from you! That being said, let's get to the summary!

Episode summary: First aired 20 June, 1964. The TARDIS has stopped...but it's still moving. Have they landed on something, or perhaps in something? While they try to think through the problem, the four friends reflect on how they've changed since that fateful night in a junkyard in London, talking about their various adventures together. The Doctor even shares an adventure he and Susan had in the time of Henry VIII, before Ian and Barbara joined them! Finally, they open the doors and emerge into what appears to be the cockpit of a spaceship. At the controls, they find a man and a woman, both seemingly dead. After a discussion, the travellers begin to leave, only to discover the spaceship crew isn't dead after all, merely in deep comas! After being revived, the captain, called Maitland tells the TARDIS crew that he and his crew, the woman Susan and another man called John, are being held captives by a mysterious alien race called the Sensorites, natives of the planet the ship is standing off from known as the Sense-Sphere. Maitland urges the Doctor and crew to leave before they too are trapped, but the Doctor talks the captain into explaining the situation: the 28th century Earth ship had come to this sector of space and found themselves unable to leave. The Sensorites apparently kept them here through some form of mind control, putting them into a deep sleep if they tried to leave. And yet, both Maitland and Carol have memories of being fed and taken care of; it seems the aliens are interested in keeping, but not killing them. Meanwhile, an alien-looking hand has crept towards the TARDIS, using a piece of equipment to remove the lock mechanism, although it is still unable to open the doors. Finally, the Doctor agrees that they must flee, but the travellers discover that the lock is gone--without it, there is no way to open the doors! Suddenly, the ship lurches out of control! Maitland feels his will leave him and is completely unable to move to control the ship, so the Doctor jumps in and takes over. Ian helps Carol control the thrusters, while Barbara and Susan assist as best they can. After a close call with a collision course with the planet, the ship settles back into a normal orbit. The Doctor speculates that this was all an attempt by the Sensorites to scare them, and possibly to test the new visitors. Maitland is horrified that he was unable to resist their influence at all. Later, Susan and Barbara begin preparing food, while the Doctor tries to get more information about both the Sensorites and the third missing crewmember, John. Answers about the latter are not forthcoming. Asking Carol where water is, Susan and Barbara misunderstand and wind up passing the water machine and going through a closed door into a dark area of the ship. As they walk on, a human looking hand closes and locks the door behind them. After a few minutes, Ian realizes the two are missing and Maitland and Carol leap up in fear. They have gone into the ship where John is! He had been Carol's fiancé, but when the Sensorites had taken over their minds, John had become violent and they had shut him out of the cockpit. That was some time ago; who knows how he is now! Meanwhile, Susan and Barbara have encountered and run from a figure they only barely see in the dark. Attempting to sneak past him, he snaps on the lights, begins to walk towards them and collapses, clutching his head. Barbara soothes him and the women realize he's scared and pathetic rather than harmless. On the other side of the door, Maitland has begun to cut through the lock when a high pitched whine is heard--an indication that Sensorite craft are approaching! They leave the door and prepare for the boarding. John, meanwhile, hears the noise and tells Barbara and Susan he'll protect them. In the cockpit, the strange craft approach and then there is silence. Suddenly, a weird figure appears at the window outside the ship! The Sensorites have come....

It's funny; after viewing this episode, we all remarked how little happened in it compared to previous episodes, but writing a summary out like that...well, it feels a lot more full than I'd thought. One thing that is definite is that this episode was less about events than atmosphere; in reality, no one is ever in any danger at any point (even John isn't the threat he at first appears to be), but the feeling of tension and menace builds palpably. This different approach--from a new writer to the series, Peter R. Newman--gave this episode a very different feel from any of the others. Even towards the end of this first season, it's fascinating to see the show still experimenting with new tweaks to the format. (Full disclosure: Schmallturm found the episode a bit too talky, rather than completely atmospheric.) A note about that "towards the end" bit; it turns out that this story was originally supposed to be the end, but the season was expanded to one more six part story beyond this one. This, of course, explains the "summarize our adventures thus far" scene. It was a delightful addition, if a bit out of place considering, and a valuable "look how far we've come" kind of assessment, almost an admission that the whole "get Ian and Barbara home" thing won't be the focus of the travels any longer.

Something interesting to note is that this spaceship crew is the first time the TARDIS crew has encountered Earth humans in the future. All the other humanoids have either been aliens (the Thals, the peoples of Marinus) or people of the past (Marco Polo, Tlotoxl, etc.). This is our first glimpse of the future of mankind as a far spacefaring race--it's implied that the Sense-Sphere is a long way from home, and we see a rather nice 1964 version of the far future in the spaceship cockpit set. Both Schmallturm and I found the uniforms of the crew to be kind of spiffy in a Thunderbirds sort of way. The biggest puzzle, though, was the blasé reaction of Captain Maitland to the idea of encountering time travellers from the 20th century. Does this imply that time travel is around in the 28th century? It's not clear; whether it will be made more clear or not is...also not clear. Still, the people of the future don't seem too much different than the TARDIS crew, although it was nice to encounter people who didn't immediately want to hurt, trap, trick, or whatever our friends.

Acting-wise, the regulars turn in a decent performance, with William Hartnell showing his mettle once again. In a crisis, it's completely believable that his Doctor would push the ineffectual captain aside and take over. (Is this the first time we've seen the Doctor wearing glasses? I can't remember.) The rest all have their moments, although I can't come up with anything that stands out. The guest cast was a bit of a mixed bag, with Maitland being a bit wet and Carol not really doing much. In fact, it's Stephen Dartnell as John who stands out thus far among the guests; his character was by turns menacing (remember, he's shambling towards them in the dark after locking the two women in; for all they know, he's the Sensorite that is apparently on board) and pathetic, but completely believable. (As a side note, Schmallturm insists that John reminds him of David Bowie, specifically his hairstyle and the idea of a neurotic spaceman trapped on his ship. Of course, when this story aired, Bowie was still David Jones and, at best, playing small folk clubs, but Schmallturm was very insistent. At times like this, I've learned to smile, nod and promise to put it in the blog post.) And the monster, the Sensorite? Well, the idea that it could apparently survive the vacuum of space and appear at the main viewing window is a bit creepy, but we didn't really get a good enough look at it for me to form a firm opinion yet. Next week, hopefully!

So yes, I found this to be a bit slow, but an intriguing start to a new story. Had I been watching this in 1964, I would have had absolutely no idea where it was going. (As it is, I'm reserving judgment, unwilling to rely on old memories!)

Over to Ketina, and we are back on track to see you all again next week! Until then, I remain



Ketina here.

Let's just dive in, shall we.

The Good: The set and costumes were pretty keen. They did a very good job setting up the creepiness and ratcheting up the tension. And the John character was particularly effective. He was zombie-like at first, but then collapsed like child in Barbara's arm, which I thought was all around quite good. I am enjoying this story so far, but well...

The Bad: The pacing just didn't do it for me this week. My memories of the old Hartnell stories is that they were always at a colossally slow pace. Watching the episodes as we are for the TARDIS Project, with one 25 minute story a week, does change this - the pace has generally been much faster watching them in this fashion. But this story reminded me of how I remember these old stories; slow plodding pace with lots of dialog, long still scenes, and slow plot.
Also bad, but probably intentional, the terrible terrible high pitched sounds generated by the Sensorite's approach. Ow my head.

The Silly: The story was full of tension and suspense, but the clichéd music stings throughout, "duh nah!", I found more silly than tension filling.
Susan and Barbara running down the tiny, tiny corridor away from John.
The end moment, as the Sensorite clings to the window from outside, was very reminiscent of the old Twilight Zone episode with the gremlin on the plane wing and William Shatner freaking out.
And it appears that heroine screaming has returned!

One very interesting thing about this story though, is that it presents many mysteries in this first episode. If the Sensorites make these high pitched sounds when they're around, how come we heard nothing when they were steeling the TARDIS lock? If it was John who stole the lock instead (maybe while hypnotized) then why didn't we hear the door open? Were the Sensorites really going to stop them from crashing into the planet, if they hadn't have gotten away on their own? Why weren't the space explorers surprised to see time travelers from 20th century earth (I doubt we'll get an answer to this one)? And of course, who the heck are these Sensorites and what do they want?



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