Doctor Who complete reviews: The Claws Of Axos
|REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO|
The Master's back with more dastardly deeds and the Spaghetti-Monsters From Hell...
Supposing a random stranger came up to you in the street and told you that you could have a million pounds – free of charge! No more debts. Champagne lifestyle. Worry-free life. However, it’s a fair bet that the first thing that you’d say would be: “What’s the snag?”
Cynical lot, us Brits. Given the chance of a free gift or offer, the first thing we do is take a magnifying glass to the small print, where there’s normally some obscure term or condition that can’t be met in a month of Sundays. This concept of “Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts” certainly bears fruit in Doctor Who, and in particular, season eight romp, The Claws Of Axos.
The Claws Of Axos always brings a smile to my face, since I remember seeing it with a group of mates when it first came out on video in 1992. Sad lot that we were, we’d got hooked on Who again thanks to The Sea Devils repeat on BBC 2. So when Axos arrived in all its juddery 525-Canadian Conversion glory, we all had a good old belly laugh at Filer’s sideburns, Pigbin Josh, Pertwee’s frequent splutterings of “Axos!!!” and the groovy video effects that are so far out, they make the front cover of Cream’s Disraeli Gears album look subdued by comparison.
Today, Axos still rams home its message of mistrust well. The idea of an apparently benign race offering a gift in return for shelter on Earth is a simple but neat one. Naturally, the Axons aren’t anywhere near as friendly as they seem, and in fact, their generous gift of Axonite (which resembles a novelty bath loofah) turns out to be not only the bait for human greed, but the bridgehead for Axos invasion.
"The Doctor’s evidently getting more fed up with his exile by the day. Only in his second scene is he yelling and ranting at the injustices of being stuck on a primitive planet with only fools for company"
This mistrust is everywhere in The Claws Of Axos. The Brigadier is at loggerheads with pompous civil servant Chinn, who evidently cannot be trusted – especially when he has the gall to arrest the UNIT personnel. Even The Doctor’s apparently been affected, turning traitor and siding with the Master towards the end. OK, in hindsight, it’s obvious that The Doctor is only playing a trick in order to defeat both the Master and Axos, but there’s still a vague possibility that the bouffant-haired one could still sell out.
The Doctor’s evidently getting more fed up with his exile by the day. Only in his second scene is he yelling and ranting at the injustices of being stuck on a primitive planet with only fools for company. Inevitably, Chinn, with his reactionary patriotism, was always going to get The Doctor’s back-up. “My dear Mr Chinn, if I could leave I would – if only to get away from people like you!” begins The Doctor, before exploding in full-on rage. “And your petty obsessions! England for the English! Good heavens, man!” Brilliant stuff, and probably one of my all-time favourite Pertwee quotes, acted to perfection by the great man himself.
Even after this head-to-head, The Doctor’s behaving suspiciously - even by his standards. He seems perfectly willing to work with Winser in conducting tests on Axonite. He initially remains sceptical about Bill Filer’s presence on board Axos. And of course, he apparently abandons Earth to the tender mercies of the Axons, while racing off with the Master. It’s all a big ploy in the end, but some sharp writing and Pertwee’s performance are enough to make you wonder.
"It’s certainly one of the most imaginative stories of the season, with a whole load of interesting ideas and concepts jostling for attention"
It’s a neat little premise, and on the whole, Bob Baker and Dave Martin turn in an impressive debut script. It’s certainly one of the most imaginative of the season, with a whole load of interesting ideas and concepts jostling for attention. The organic spaceship. The apparently peaceful aliens. The memorable spaghetti monsters. All of these bold ideas needed a bold director to bring them to life, and who better than Michael Ferguson to step into the breach?
This is Ferguson’s boldest directing assignment out of his stories, and for the most part, it works. Axos and the Axons are generally striking images. The interior of Axos may have dated, with its trippy Top Of The Pops video effects and slideshows, but there’s no denying that the images stick in the mind for a long time after. Ferguson goes for every visual trick in the book – zoom-ins to the monsters; distorted camera angles (The Doctor’s disorientation in episode one); strange cross-fades (The Disney-esque effect of the revolving, floating Axon head talking to The Doctor and Jo in Episode Three); and full-on visual grooviness (whenever Axos goes mad, such as the trippy wig-out at the start of episode four).
"The effects may be primitive by today’s standards, but some of the visuals are memorably macabre."
Ferguson’s not afraid to go for the jugular when it comes to scaring kids. The effects may be primitive by today’s standards, but some of the visuals are memorably macabre. The deaths of Pigbin Josh are Winser are quite freaky – regrettably, they never kept the original edit of Josh’s face falling in on itself in the transmitted version, although we get a brief shot of Winser’s head falling apart before the screen fades to white. There’s also the creepy shot of Jo ageing to an old granny, which is enhanced by the rapid camera switches and video effects, not to mention Pertwee’s convincing screams at Axos to stop. And even the scene in which the Axon woman turns into a golden blimp is bizarrely odd.
The Axon monsters – shambling lumps of spaghetti bolognaise – are also highly convincing. The way in which they kill hapless UNIT soldiers is great, whether they cause soldiers’ chests to burn out, or whether they just blow them up into smithereens, Ferguson really sells the power of these blobby aliens. The Axon humanoids are also memorable, thanks to the bug eyes, the groovy Greek God hairdos and also Bernard Holley’s creepy performance. The less said about the phallic eye of Axos, though, the better.
All in all, Axos is something of a visual tour-de-force, and even the stark location filming works, with its freak weather conditions (the filming took place in the freezing January of 1971). The realisation of the Axon ship buried in the shingle is well done, as is the battle between Benton and Yates and the blobby Axons – and if you look hard enough, the I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-A-CSO background is, in fact, meant to be dark blue sky.
"Deciding which character is the silliest is like deciding which of the Seven Dwarves is the shortest"
So what with its striking visuals and witty, clever script, The Claws Of Axos still scores a couple of own goals. This is mainly due to the silly characters, who are so overdone, it’s a wonder that they’re not burnt to a crisp. Deciding which character is the silliest is like deciding which of the Seven Dwarves is the shortest.
Take Chinn, the portly civil servant, whose ineptitude is staggering to behold. Chinn is the sort of character that could have blundered in from a Goodies episode, all OTT pomposity and little display of intellect. In fact, Chinn’s tiny mind doesn’t comprehend anything that’s going on unless it involves food. With the crisis deepening in episode four, Chinn still finds the time to head off to the staff canteen to grab a chicken drumstick or four to munch heartily on. And after he gets into the car to head off from the exploding nuclear reactor, he rubs his hands as if he’s just been told that after the crisis, he’s going to the local pub for a pint and steak ‘n’ kidney pudding with all the trimmings. You can tell that after the gritty realism of Season Seven that there’s less emphasis on portraying the real world. Chinn, in reality, wouldn’t pass muster in a Citizens Advice Bureau, so quite how anyone could think he’d graduate to such a high-standing political rank is beyond me.
Still, at least Chinn fulfils the function of pompous authority idiot for The Doctor to shout at. Bill Filer, on the other hand, doesn’t really achieve much, despite his claims to be the top man of the law in America. The most memorable thing about Filer is his hilarious 70s haircut, a great big helmet/mullet affair, and whopping great sideburns to boot. The problem with 1970s stories, is that it’s easy to rip the piss out of the bad haircuts and flares, but even by these standards, Filer takes all the awards. When you look at The Claws Of Axos though, Filer is really no better than Jo Grant. He gets himself captured. He’s hypnotised and duplicated (resulting in a copy that can only say “Come to Ehhhxxxxaaahhhssss!!” over and over again). He’s knocked out by the Axonite (resulting in some of the stagiest sleep-talking ever seen on TV). And he goes back to America without The Master. Presumably, after his failure, he becomes a roadie for Boston or Lynyrd Skynyrd or any other gaggle of mullet headed hippies.
"Poor old Josh. Even when he makes his discovery, resulting in more “Ooh-arr-ing” than the entire Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, he’s quickly sucked in by Axos and then reduced to a withered husk"
Pigbin Josh, however, looks like he’s just been exiled from The Wurzels. Really, Pigbin Josh serves no function whatsoever. In the first episode, we mainly alternate between frantic scenes of the UNIT team tracking Axos and Pigbin Josh faffing about on a snowy rubbish tip. What can we deduce from the evidence? He’s a boozer – he’s got through his first bottle of cheap plonk, and it’s not even 11 in the morning. He likes to ride his bicycle, he likes to ride his bike – even contemplating trading his current ramshackle model in for a new one. And he’s evidently so hard up, that a freezing cold dip is something of a treat, since he probably doesn’t get access to a bath. Poor old Josh. Even when he makes his discovery, resulting in more “Ooh-arr-ing” than the entire Pirates Of The Caribbean trilogy, he’s quickly sucked in by Axos and then reduced to a withered husk. He does get his own catchy theme though – come on, sing it with me: “Duuhh duhhh duh duh duh duh duh daahh duuuhhhh” – the song that The Wurzels presumably discredited.
The silly characters aside, some of the ideas don’t really ring true in Axos either. Take the casual way in which Winser and The Doctor casually breeze into a nuclear reactor, with all the nonchalance of a work’s day out to the zoo. As if that’s not bad enough, at the end, no one’s really concerned that the whole reactor’s going to blow up. Which they really ought to be. And amazingly, the nuclear reactor explosion doesn’t cause some catastrophic radiation leak. The Doctor instead rematerialises on what looks like a comedy rubbish tip – when in fact, he should be doing a horrific interpretation of the ending of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Again, total lack of realism.
But at the end of the day, that’s not the aim of The Claws Of Axos. It’s an exercise in entertaining the family, and if you’re going to be depressing the kids with melted, radioactive heads and nuclear shelters, then what’s the point? Axos may be dated. It may be implausible. It may be deeply silly. But it’s still very enjoyable. I haven’t even mentioned the list of funny lines that the Master gets – in particular, when he’s trying to disentangle the messy TARDIS console: “Might as well try to fly a second hand gas stove!” Roger Delgado again pulls off a flawless performance that combines the menacing and the wryly amusing. When Hardiman disbelievingly says: “You mean you can store the entire output of the complex in that old Police Box?”, The Master just sarcastically says: “Yes!”
All that good humour is just one reason why I can forgive Axos all its daft characters and occasional goofs. One side of me still laughed like my 17 and a half self did back in 1992 at the ropey effects and Filer’s sad haircut, but the other side has a respect for the hugely ambitious production and the well-written script. And don’t forget the moral of the story either, eh kids?
John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.