The Claws of AxosBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by James Gent

I recently had the pleasure of seeing The Claws Of Axos for the first time, and on first viewings it struck me as one of the best of the Earth-based Doctor Who stories of the 1970s. Repeated viewings only enhanced my enjoyment, with its fast-moving scenes and direction, the well-realised visualisation of the Axon entity in its many shapes and forms, and the central concept of Axos itself – plus the central character of the third Doctor, far more abrasive than the avuncular presence of seasons nine to eleven.

The Axons are a nice twist on the alien races already encountered in the series. We have already seen. By “Axos” it has been the norm for an alien race coming in peace to be automatically viewed as hostile by the naturally distrustful Earth powers, in The Silurians, and it is quite interesting seeing their suspicions to be confirmed; and I particularly liked the twist on the contrast between pretty/friendly vs ugly/horrible aliens to be one and the same. Stealth invasion and body horror are not an original concept in Doctor Who, or sci-fi and horror in general, but always manages to be unsettling and disturbing, tapping into certain fears in the human subconsciousness, whether it is Quatermass, Alien or Rabid!

I found the Axons one of the most distinctive aliens in the series. In their humanoid guise, their androgynous appearance is quite appropriate for a race that is revealed to be a genderless consciousness, and their true nature as hideous blobs a grotesque contrast to their superficial form. Their amorphous mass of unformed organic blobs and tendrils gives them the impression of having been grown from their spaceship (which essentially they are) – the combination of the organic and the technological is always different to the more predictable sci fi norm of silver robots, and the Axons are clearly an inspiration for the Zygons and their spaceship.

‘Body horror’ – centred on concepts such as loss of individuality and human appearance, viscera, and hideous Freudian growths and appendages – is another element successfully realised in Terror Of The Zygons, which also featured shapeshifing aliens that could create duplicates of humans. The Axon creatures were obviously popular with the design department as they were reused, with a colour change, for that other body-horror shocker The Seeds Of Doom. Another nice touch to the Axons is Bernard Holley’s wonderful voice, which gives Axos a casually menacing and powerful aura for more sinister and subtle than the vocal histrionics of a Morbius or Omega!

What about the story? Obviously, it shares quite a few elements with Spearhead From Space, Terror Of The Autons, The Mind Of Evil and Inferno – a collective entity hoping to spread itself around the world by stealth, the Master collaborating with said alien entity for his own purposes, the infighting of the British Government providing as much threat towards Earth’s safety as the alien menace they are supposedly defending the planet from, and a highly pressurised industrial power complex. This might account for why people either love or hate this story – for me, any story influenced by the above stories (some of Pertwee’s best) can’t be bad, and these and other elements make it the quintessential third Doctor Earth invasion story. But, to those more immune to the charms of this format, the word quintessential can be replaced by the word ‘average’. There is an element of truth that watched alongside the stories that precede it The Claws Of Axos might give the viewer a sense of déjà vu, but viewed in isolation it is an exciting story, and mercifully isn’t dragged out to six episodes!

Another factor that may seem less if watched as part of Season Seven as a whole is the presence of the Master in his third story in a row. Personally, if the Master had only appeared in Terror Of The Autons, The Mind Of Evil and The Claws Of Axos, Roger Delgado’s reputation as one of the series’ finest humanoid villains could have been assured. It is a nice twist to see him double-crossed by his collaborators before we first meet him, and this does not diminish his villainy, as he is seen to have absolutely no principles or allegiances. Unlike the Ainley incarnation, Delgado’s Master has so many other qualities that being just a ‘baddie’ – he shares a scary amount of qualities with the Doctor, such as his charm, intelligence and air of sophistication, which is what makes their apparent collaboration towards the end all the more effective. The Master was introduced to provide not just a contrast to the Doctor, but also to suggest that they are two sides of the same coin – in a story where our hero is still a selfish, abrasive, arrogant alien genius, it makes you wonder just how far apart these two Time Lords are, and what would have happened if the Doctor had not chosen the path of goodness. It’s a shame that the series never fully explored the implications of their bizarrely competitive relationship, and that the next attempt to introduce a similar flipside to the Doctor’s conscience – the Valeyard – was just one of many interesting ideas lost in a story arc that became a game of Chinese whispers!

As I said before, the Doctor is wonderfully abrasive here, his opening scene in which he bangs the door against Chinn reminiscent of his arch treatment of Professor Stahlman in Inferno; another hangover from Inferno is when the discovery of Axonite provides the Doctor with an opportunity to get his TARDIS fully functioning again. The thing that appealed to me about the Doctor’s exile was that he was initially unwilling to be stuck on this “third rate planet” dealing with petty officials like Chinn, and – despite his heroism – always had one eye on a chance of escape, even if it meant leaving the Brig to deal with the latest threat to Earth’s safety. OK, this might make him seem callous and unlikeable, but I like these reminders that the Doctor is not a superhero or a saint, and has his own sense of self-preservation!

It is said that the once-influential UNIT became trivialised in Season Eight. The way I see it, The Claws Of Axos is one of the last times we see UNIT presented as a credible face of international relations, fleshed out with the addition of radar operatives and intelligence officers such as the briefly used Corporal Bell, who makes her second and last appearance in this story. Another criticism is that, far from being an independent body, they became indistinguishable from the regular army and in the pocket of the Government – here we have UNIT opposed, and at times, usurped by both the idiotic civil servant Chinn and the Army.

All these elements of this story – the Doctor’s less than squeaky clean personality, mankind’s greed and pettiness being as much a threat to the planet as invading aliens, UNIT’s status in Earth affairs – make me think that this story would probably be more at home in Season Seven. This is probably the only major flaw I can find in making this story something less than it could have been. In giving us an alien whose presence seems to pose a very real threat to the survival of the world, taking place on a national power source, it seems like the production team were going for a revival of the qualities that made Inferno such a stonkingly intense story, yet Barry Letts – who conceived Season Eight as a deliberate move away from high drama to family-friendly thrills and spills – got cold feet at the last minute and threw in some stereotyped characters. Bill Filer is amusing in the way that fake Americans in Doctor Who always are (The Tomb Of The Cybermen, Terror Of The Zygons) and a maverick element is always essential to balance things out between the Doctor’s impetuousness and UNIT’s establishment attitudes, but he seems like a more one-dimensional version of Inferno’s ‘everybloke’ Greg Sutton. As for Chinn… While the scenes of him conversing with his Edward Heath soundalike boss, who clearly trusts him as far as he could throw him, are amusing; the fact that the Government would choose such an obviously ineffectual individual to handle matters of international security does undermine any realism the story might be going for. Similarly, the story is let down by one of those Scooby Doo-style endings that dog even the most faultless story (The Leisure Hive comes to mind!) – the Doctor and the UNIT gang stand around in the wreck of a power station that provides energy for the whole of southern England, but these endings are what gives the show its charm: a nice cosy ending with everyone best mates again and Earth (or at least England!) returned to its homely, familiar self. These stories were made to be family teatime viewing, so I try not to carp too much about the endings. It’s easy to forget what it was like to have Doctor Who as part of our weekly routine every year – we all knew trouble would be around the corner again in seven days, as long as we tuned in the same Who-time, the same Who-channel!

One criticism I find it harder to be forgiving of is the TARDIS scene with the Master. It’s great to see the Doctor back in his console room again, and temporarily back in time and space, so it’s a pity all we get is a tight shot of two walls and a door that refuses to shut properly!

The most famous blunder is the blue CSO backgrounds in Filer’s car and on the UNIT jeep. Given that even the most flawless of productions feature at least one effects flaw, it seems silly that these instances get singled out time and time again! It’s more than compensation enough that we get plenty of memorable images in The Claws Of Axos: the impressive-looking spaceship embedded in the surrounding of the English countryside in the middle of a freak snowstorm, the incongruous sight of the Axon creature striding across a metal and glass flyover in the Nuton complex, the spaceship’s root dragging a hapless tramp through its petal-shaped opening, the hideous sight of an Axon man’s face ballooning as it starts its transformation, the Axon man’s head spinning around Exorcist-style on the video screen, and the Freudian eyeball at the heart of the ship. There is a nice matte-style CSO long shot of the reactor which gives a great sense of scale. Even the fight between Filer and his Axon clone is well choreographed and cut-together, ending with a spectular double flip by a stuntman!

OK, it’s Season Seven Lite, but given that that most refreshing of seasons in Who’s history only gave us four stories, a slight return to its style is always welcome. Mixed with the ‘Pop Art’ design of Season Eight, and the welcome (if under-used) presence of new regulars Jo Grant and Captain Yates, and the Master at his martini-dry best, to me The Claws Of Axos is a distillation of everything I love about the Pertwee era and never less than watchable.