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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Claws of Axos originally aired in 1971.

Are you trying to tell me you can absorb the total output of this complex in a police box?

Yes.

– Hardiman and the Master discover that self-confidence is a genetic Time Lord trait

The Claws of Axos tends to come in for a fair bit of criticism for pretty much being the quintessential Earth-based Jon Pertwee story, with very little exceptional to distinguish it from the pack. Personally, I’m actually quite fond of it, perhaps precisely for that reason. I think you’re hard-pressed to find an adventure in the early part of Jon Pertwee’s tenure that so effectively and so efficiently captures the spirit of the show – both good and bad. That kind of makes The Claws of Axos stand out if only because it so perfectly embodies those early Pertwee years.

Eye see you…

The basic premise of The Claws of Axos is hardly revolutionary. A mysterious alien ship arrives on Earth and decides to land in Great Britain for some reason. They promptly promise to solve all of mankind’s problems with a mysterious technology they promise to make freely available. Of course, our protagonist sees right through this facade, but the people in authority won’t listen. The situation evolves into an alien invasion, and it’s up to the Doctor to fend them off.

In many ways, this feels like the show that Terrence Dicks and Malcolme Hulke were worried that the series might evolve into. Grounded the Doctor on Earth, Hulke had astutely pointed out that this effectively limited the show to alien invasion or mad scientist stories. While I think that there was a great deal more innovation and originality than that in the opening two years, The Claws of Axos is pretty much designed according to the alien invasion template, complete with the mysterious aliens who claim to come in peace while plotting our destruction. It’s telling that the very next adventure, Colony in Space, takes place primarily off-world – it seems like Dicks was acknowledging the limitations of the format, limitations that The Claws of Axos so efficiently demonstrates.

A close encounter?

Speaking of limitations, the show does fall foul of many of the special effects woes that impacted the series during this time. There’s an over-reliance on the use of CSO, to the point where most of the scenes during the investigation of the Axon ship are cringe-worthy. In fact, there’s a scene towards the end of the serial as two UNIT troopers struggle with two aliens while driving a truck – and the background hasn’t even been edited in. According to the people working on the show, this was intention – it was intended to be blue to represent the evening sky. Unfortunately, that doesn’t come across quite well.

And then there’s the Axons themselves. I am actually really fond of the Axons for several reasons, and I’d argue that their “negotiating” appearance is actually quite cool – in a sort of a knaff “let’s wear our pyjamas to an alien invasion” kind of way. (Maybe they’re just paying tribute to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) However, the other forms of the monsters are somewhat less impressive, even by the standards of the time.

All that glitters…

The ones lumbering around in suits with roots on them look ridiculous wandering around during the daylight. One imagines that Philip Hinchcliffe might have done a better job with them – shooting them in the shadows, and using their veins to choke rather than to explode (!) their poor victims. However, there’s one point in the episode where the cast are chased around the set by what is very clearly a dude under an orange bedsheet. It’s hardly a triumph for the special effects crew.

Yet there’s something appealing about the concept of the Axons, even if the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The concept of a self-aware ship, where the individual inhabitants are formed from the mass and intelligence of the ship itself, is a pretty fascinating high-concept. As is the notion that the ship itself is literally parasitic, latching on to a planet and draining it dry like some form of weird cosmic leech. It’s hard not to wonder what a Tom Baker episode might have made of all this. Even in the finished product, the creatures with their weird bug eyes skilfully evoke the uncanny valley, even if the trippy pyjama jumpsuits ruin the vibe a little.

Into the mouth of the ship…

There are other nice touches as well. The episode serves so well as a broad sampler of the Pertwee era – one that doesn’t play to either strengths or weaknesses – and so we get a nice bit of focus on the Doctor’s anti-establishment tendencies. Indeed, the show was fond of pitting Pertwee against obstructive bureaucrats, but Mr. Chinn is such a perfect example of that kind of character. “My dear Mister Chinn,” the Doctor states in his opening line, “if I could leave, I would, if only to get away from people like you.” That pretty much sets the tone.

Chinn is a small-minded self-serving pencil-pusher who is primarily interested in British sovereignty and keeping his job. When the Axons promise untold power, his first response it to try to anchor them to Great Britain. “All we ask is your guarantee that the sole distribution right to all Axonite materials be vested in the British government,”he states, as he becomes a middle-man in their invasion scheme. There’s something grimly hilarious about the fact that his xenophobic instincts to blast the aliens out of the sky were actually correct in this instance, but were overwhelmed by his material greed.

(Eye) stalking the Master…

As a massive nerd, it’s also interesting to watch the conflict between the British government and the U.N.I.T. crew. This was, of course, back when the “U.N.” in the title stood for “United Nations.” (Now, of course, it stands for “UNited”, because of objections.) The notion of a heavily-armed taskforce operating on British soul at the behest of a foreign power is one of those plot points you tend to overlook, if only for suspension of disbelief. I hardly want a six-part adventure in which the Brigadier does some heavy-duty paperwork, filed through several government departments, in order to visit the site of a crashed U.F.O. that ultimately turns out to be a local farmer’s discarded thrasher.

However, it is fun to see the point raised here – with the notion that the Brigadier is operating for the international community and not on behalf of the British government. It’s nice to see that inherent conflict brought to a head, with Chinn actually arresting the Brigadier and his troops for daring to voice some concerns about the aliens. “Captain, I want all these men put under twenty four hour armed guard,” he instructs his soldiers. “They are to see no one, no one at all.”One gets the sense that he’s more worried that the U.N. will try to muscle their way into his negotiations than he is that they’ll take the Brigadier’s security concerns seriously.

He was only Axon for trouble…

The cast is fairly decent overall, though I will note that Paul Grist has a terrible American accent. Watching this how, with so many British actors mangling the American accent, I wonder if they might be as offended by this as the rest of the world is with things like The Devil’s Own. It’s interesting to see that the glove is on the other hand, this time. Still, Grist does have some pretty rockin’ sideburns, so I might forgive him for that. Bernard Holley is somewhat stilted as the head Axon, somehow struggling to get a villainous monotone going – his weird delivery undermines gags about eating frogs and attempts to make him seem threatening. If you look closely, you might catch Tim Pigott-Smith in a small role.

That said, I’m still not tired of Roger Delgado as the Master, despite the fact he has spent this year as a sort of pseudo-companion. Although, to be honest, I’ve always subscribed to the idea that a team-up between the Doctor and the Master would be awesome. I’d love to see them travelling together, with the Master being so wonderfully and campily evil. The rest of the ensemble gets some nice moments too, especially the Brigadier. “Touch that thing just once and we’ll blast you into pieces!”Badass!

The name’s Lethbridge-Stewart, Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart…

The Claws of Axos might not be perfect Pertwee, but I’d argue that it’s representative Pertwee. It doesn’t put the era’s best foot forward, but it does offer a fairly decent overview of what that entire period of the show was like. I’m more fond of it than others for that very reason, even if I can concede that there are probably a few who dislike it for that exact reason.

You might be interested in our reviews of the eighth season of the classic television show:

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