Well, many months have past since we saw the Doctor and his fellow travellers in dimensions four and five knocked out by a mysterious force on their departure from the planet Skaro, so I think a bit of a catch-up is in order: a fault in the TARDIS meant the crew were stuck inside it for a couple of weeks, bickering, trying to kill each other, and screaming at clocks. Once that was all sorted out, they joined Marco Polo for an epic adventure in 12th century Asia, where the Doctor came within a whisker of losing the TARDIS to Kublai Khan in a a game of backgammon (and Kublai Khan's whiskers were quite something). After that came a series of B-movie style adventures on the planet Marinus (killer plants, brains in jars, that sort of thing), and then a visit to 15th century Mexico. Here Barbara, mistaken for the reincarnation of a high priest, mounted a doomed attempt to change history by putting a premature stop to the Aztecs' habit of human sacrifice. It all turned out pretty harrowing for her, but as she breezily informed us at the beginning of the latest adventure: "I'm over that now!"
This time the TARDIS has landed aboard a 28th century British spaceship (London no longer exists, by the way - even Big Ben is no more), orbiting a mysterious world known as the Sense-Sphere. By now it's become a well-established tradition that the travellers are stranded almost as soon as they arrive - here it's thanks to the Sensorites, the Sense-Sphere's telepathic, garden gnome-like inhabitants. They've removed the TARDIS's opening mechanism, making it totally inaccessible. They're deeply suspicious of strangers, you see, and they've been making life hell for the ship's three-person crew - especially mineralogist John (Stephen Dartnell - who also appeared in the show a few weeks before this adventure commenced as a baddie called Yartek, dressed in the appealing combination of a wetsuit and a monk's habit), ever since he discovered the Sense-Sphere was rich in precious molybdenum. Understandably keen to prevent outsiders stripping their world of its minerals, the Sensorites have driven John out of his mind and immobilised the ship, insisting the Earthlings come and live with them (which is quite sweet, really).
With the coming of the TARDIS, the Sensorites have latched on to the mental powers of the Doctor's granddaughter Susan (it's a good use of a disappointingly underdeveloped character), and are using her as a sort of mouthpiece for their demands. We pick up the story with Susan announcing that, to prevent the Sensorites causing any harm to the others, she's agreed to accompany them down to their world.
There's a lovely moment at the beginning of this week's episode as Susan prepares to leave with two Sensorite escorts (Ken Tyllsen and Joe Greig): once the creatures have pulled down a hatch, concealing themselves from view, the episode's title fades in, like an explanatory caption.
The timid little Sensorites are a wonderfully unusual adversary, and as the Doctor blusters after them to snatch back his grandchild it's hard not to feel for them as they wince in pain at the loudness of his voice, and cower in terror as he turns out the light. "They are not carrying any weapons, yet I am frightened of them," puzzles one of the Sensorites about the new arrivals, whose jeopardous travels in time and space have made them into far more formidable opponents than the ship's milksop crew.
Teenage rebellion comes to Doctor Who, as Susan, who wants to help the Sensorites, gets fed up with her grandfather mollycoddling her. Ian thinks her change in attitude to the old man's down to being hypnotised by the Sensorites, but Barbara knows better: the girl's just growing up (Ian and Barbara, by the way, have got increasingly close over the course of the series, here he wishes he was telepathic so he could know what's going on in her mind...)
This adventure began with the travellers talking about how much they've changed since they began their travels, and that's certainly true of the Doctor. Trying to make Susan see that he knows best how to deal with the Sensorites, he tells her: "The one purpose in growing old is to accumulate knowledge and wisdom, and help other people" - he's certainly changed his tune since those first few episodes, when helping other people was always the furthest thing from his mind. Unable to grasp Susan's growing need for independence, he develops a personal grudge against the Sensorites: "In all the years my granddaughter and I have been travelling, we have never had an argument. And now you have caused one!"
Meanwhile, poor John, now a white-haired nervous wreck, is struggling to cope with the voices in his head: the Sensorites have "opened" his mind, meaning he can sense everybody's thoughts. His fiancée Carol (Ilona Rodgers) is finding it a bit of a nightmare as well (I feel sorry for Captain Maitland (Lorne Cossette), who must have felt like a gigantic gooseberry travelling through space with these two).
The Sensorites agree to cure John, and prepare to take him down to the Sense-Sphere with Susan and Carol: the Doctor's belaboured them into taking he and Ian with them as well. Barbara's staying behind with Captain Maitland (Cossette's performance clearly suggests that no woman would have any need to fear being alone with him): for no real reason other than allowing Jackie Hill to take a couple of weeks off.
As they prepare for the off (the Sensorites have kidney-shaped travel capsules we never get to see close up), the Sensorites reveal the reason behind their hostility toward strangers: an Earth ship came to the Sense-Sphere some years ago to mine its molybdenum. Eventually the intruders were driven away, but ever since their ship blew up on lift-off a terrible disease has gripped the planet, with Sensorites dying in greater numbers every year.
Up to now, there's been a wonderfully eerie atmosphere to the story, but as the scene switches from the ship to the Sense-Sphere, Peter R Newman's script - and the realisation of it - take a turn for the silly. Sitting at the very top of the Sensorites' caste system is the First Elder (Eric Francis, whose later career involved playing one of Vincent Price's meths drinker minions in Theatre of Blood), his status denoted by two sashes. He's assisted by the uni-sashed Second Elder (Bartlett Mullins, one of British film and TV's most ubiquitous bit-part players - best remembered nowadays for his role as the sweet little newsagent/pornographer in Peeping Tom). Their chief underling is the City Administrator, played, oddly enough, by rotund Crackerjack co-host Peter Glaze, whose jumpsuit is not exactly flattering.
The First Elder "senses great knowledge" in the Doctor, and thinks he could be a great help to the Sensorites. The others are sceptical, with the Administrator deciding the best way to deal with their visitors would be to have them disintegrated the minute they sit down.
John, whose "open mind" means "he can tell the difference between good and evil people", senses the danger on arrival at the Sensorite city...
Judging by the portly frames of both the Administrator and the engineer (Arthur Newall) he enlists to work the disintegrator, the rule is that the fatter a Sensorite is, the more evil. Let's call this dastardly pair the Sensowrongs.
But the Second Elder, being only slightly podgy, cancels the disintegration at the last minute (much to the Administrator's disgruntlement), having decided the visitors don't look that scary after all. The notably slender First Elder welcomes them warmly, and is horrified to discover that the Administrator's provided them with the ordinary water drunk by the common run of Sensorites rather than the special crystal spring water reserved for the special use of the Elders .
Impressed with the Elders' hospitality, the Doctor agrees to do what he can to help the Sensorites eliminate their mystery illness. But just then, Ian collapses after a fit of coughing...
Now to an eaterie whose food may not make you collapse in a choking fit but could well slowly kill you with cholesterol.
Things at Café Larkins continue much the same as they did in the last series, the only changes being Hetty Prout's new hairdo and the mysterious, uncommented-on disappearance of Alf Larkins' nephew Georgie (it's not really a great loss). The series kicks off with the return to the caff of a familiar face, the one belonging to Ada Larkins' former char and current archenemy Gloria Gannett, now permanently accompanied by her monolithic brother Fred (Robin Wentworth). Ada's popped out for a bit, so Hetty gives Mrs Gannett a warm welcome in her employer's absence.
Mrs Gannett's brought back some empties ("Oh no, that's me medicine," she says sheepishly as Alf hands her back a gin bottle), and gets her money just before the return of Ada, who chases her out with a can of insect spray. It's worth noting that the Café Larkins menu features the delightful-sounding liver and chips. Does anywhere in the country still serve this? Did anywhere in the country ever serve this? Do write in.
Anyway, Ada's interrupted in her denunciation of Mrs Gannett by the arrival of the vicar (David Stoll, replacing Charles Lloyd-Pack). Unusually, he's popped in for lunch - but beats a hasty retreat as soon as Ada starts asking after his wife. What's going on? Lofty the gasman explains: Mrs Vicar's left home.
Ada sees this as a golden opportunity to indulge in one of her favourite pastimes: meddling. Seemingly heedless of the fact they've got a caff to run, she drags Hetty round to the vicarage so they can minister to the minister. But they're a little late: to Ada's horror, Mrs Gannett's already installed herself as the vicar's new housekeeper, with Fred as odd job man.
Convinced by Mrs Gannett's refusal to let her see the vicar that the dodgy pair have done him in, Ada enlists Alf's help to break in round the back of the vicarage while their lodger Osbert's out the front distracting the Gannetts with a survey of their smoking habits. Embarrassingly, the vicar's in his study and, overhearing their musings on how much his various objets d'art are worth, assumes they've come to rob him.
Once all that's smoothed over, the vicar insists that everyone's got the wrong end of the stick and his wife's just gone to stay with her mother for a few days. A phone call from her seems to tell a different story though, and, grabbing the receiver, Ada informs Mrs Vicar that she's no need to worry about her husband's welfare, as from now on she'll be taking care of it personally.
But with Larkins and Gannetts both ensconced in his household, the vicar's feeling less than relaxed. Between them Fred, Alf and Osbert are slowly destroying the place, and Ada and Mrs Gannett are at each other's throats in the kitchen (the various patterns on their outfits clash even more violently than the characters).
Alf and Osbert give the vicar a hand with his sermon, in an attempt to spice it up a bit. "You've got a slice of The Avengers there, mate," he says of the rewritten version in the face of the vicar's scepticism.
Ada spoils Mrs Gannett's plans to cook for the vicar by having Hetty bring food in from the caff - which her rival then spoils by smothering it in treacle. It imparts an interesting flavour (gurning vicars are something we see nowhere near enough of on television these days).
As the animosity between Ada and Gloria escalates, and Alf and Osbert deal with Fred by just chucking him out the window, the vicar finally snaps. Deciding he's had enough he phones his domineering mother-in-law and insists on his wife's return. Contradicting his sermon's teaching that "the meek will inherit the earth", he lays down the law to the errant Mrs Vicar: "No darling, I am not drunk. But if you don't come home in two hours I will probably get drunk!"
After the vicar unceremoniously boots out all of his alleged helpers we end with Hetty and Ada bonding with Mrs Gannett over his ingratitude. See - the church is wonderful for bringing people together.
Now the return of a feature that I've no reason to believe is especially popular, as we listen in to this week's hit parade. "It's Over" for Roy Orbison's reign at the top of the charts as the Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" rises to number 1 (it's pure gold, this).