The Claws of Axos

Written by:
Bob Baker and Dave Martin
Directed by: Michael Ferguson
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1971
Video Availability (NTSC Version): Try Blackstar

This is the third time I've seen Axos, and again it's one of those stories that I initially hated. So poorly made it even has actors in front of blue screen where they forgot to dub the CSO in, and a childish, cartoony premise, I thought it was garbage. Seen again, it's one of those stories that's not "so bad it's good" but more "so bad but what does it matter?"

Perhaps one of the hardest hit of the Pertwee backlash, whereas trounced former greats like Terror of the Autons have now clawed back most of their reputation, this one is still met with a cool response since the video release confirmed those fears. It opens with a spacecraft shot that some might claim poor, but when you consider it matches the quality of that in the Williams era, several years later (and is even better than those in Terror of the Vervoids) then it has to be given perspective. Yes, this is a story so childlike in its politics that one of the opening shots is a stuffy politician reading a file marked "Top Secret" in three inch high letters.

Okay, big girl time: while Who has had many scary moments (Oak and Quill, Stengos, Morbius…) this is actually the only story that's given me nightmares. At the age of twenty. Yes, I'm ashamed to admit it, but the psychedelic Axons and Jo ageing in a later episode - despite being greeted with disdain by my conscious mind - had such a profound effect on me I woke up screaming. Oh dear.

I tell you what, while Baker and Martin get some stick (and God knows, I'll give 'em plenty when I get to The Three Doctors) there's some cracking lines in this one, vis: "My dear Missster Chinn… if I could leave I would. If only to get away from people like you. And your petty obsssessionsssss! England for the Englissssh - Good Heavenssssss, man!" "I have a duty to my country." "Not to the world?" It's takes on the international situation that make things so rewarding, and it's also fun to see Washington interested in the Master. A bit far-fetched, mind… I mean, a single man meeting a personal vendetta from a gung-ho American administration? What are the chances of that happening? (While the actor who plays the Washington agent is very good, would they really have had such a natty 70s haircut, too?)

This is an important story in that even though Terror of the Autons was comicbook like, this is the first Pertwee story to fully trip the line between science fiction and science fantasy. There's bits that work against the subject matter - all the studio stuff shot on video tape looks less realistic than what's gone before, and Yates being so thick he doesn't even know where UNIT's direct line is - undermine the credibility of the piece. But what credibility anyway?

Pigbin Josh is, of course, worthy of his own series, while I'm amazed that Pertwee is still actually acting at this point. I'd also forgotten the first use of CSO screen in its purest form occurs in this episode where Filer is driving. And isn't the Axon ship horribly well designed? Yes, it looks garish and cheap, but the overlaid voice and eye are immensely disturbing. In many senses you could say this is the second season 7 remake. While Terror was an obvious retread of Spearhead, and The Silurians would get remade the following year as The Sea Devils, this is almost Ambassadors in reverse. Apart from the design similarity of their craft, this isn't horrific aliens that are really ambassadors, but ambassadors that are really horrific aliens. Okay, enough rambling. Basically, what you need to know about this story is… it's fun!
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I once saw Gary Russell have a pop at this story because (if I remember correctly) it takes UNIT three episodes to work out what we already know: that the Axons aren't a peace-loving race after all. It's a fair point, actually, given that they're revealed as monsters right from the first minute of the entire story. So I guess it depends not on whether you care about the plot, but whether you enjoy all the fluff that surrounds it.

Personally I do, even if Chinn is played as a bumbling caricature. I mean, the Axons in humanoid form are just people painted gold with leotards and stuck-on eyes, but concentrate on the Imperial subtext and you'll enjoy it a lot more. I know it's not exactly The Silurians, but for a fun, fast-paced story like this to even have a subtext is a bonus. There's also some interesting characterisation with the Master, forced to be a slave to the Axons, and siding with Filer, completely oblivious to the fact that Filer is there to arrest him.

In some ways this is reminiscent of Baker and Martin's anniversary script, as their ambition clearly outweighs the budget. Listen out for the wooden footsteps of the Brigadier as he walks around the organic spacecraft. And I always cringe when I hear the Master ask for his "laser gun", a sequence alone which drops the rating half a star. A minute-long, set-shaking fight sequence also corrodes the edges, and look out for the wobbling wall just before the end…
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There's a proliferation of people calling each other "man" in this story, more than any other Pertwee story to date. Did people really talk like that? Anyway, this is a bit of a coasting episode as you would expect for a part three, with some Havoc extras falling down as an Axon attacks. That's the major problem I have with UNIT in that the extras making up their number simply can't act. And isn't Jo shrieky in this one? Maybe she's just determined to get herself heard, because she certainly hasn't got anything to do. And again the "old boy network" is present, with the Brigadier and the Master being remarkably honest with one another. Oh, and on a point of trivia, this is the first time the inside of the Tardis is seen in the Pertwee era.

Some domestic science fiction sees Chinn's equally uninspiring boss sack him by videophone, while John Levene tries his best not to pee himself after taking orders from Delgado in a crap rubber mask. That's exactly what used to get to me about the Pertwee era, because the idea of a high-ranking military personnel being fooled by a man in a ludicrously fake mask defies all believability. So fans championing the Pertwee era as a hard-hitting, adult highpoint of the series really contrasted badly for me. But it doesn't matter, cos the series itself never believes the hype - it's just a laugh, pure and simple. The Master's remark about "sticky tape on the windows and that sort of thing" is priceless, and Delgado really seems to be enjoying himself.

The scene where Jo is aged did, as I said earlier, gave me nightmares, and produces a performance from Jon. There's also some interesting references to his exile, and how the Axons can remove the Time Lord blocks on his memory. It is, of course, extremely unlikely that an alien element would be spread over the entire world in days without testing, but hey, that's the Pertwee era for you. There's also a nice crap edit on this one from UK Gold, who allow their "omnibus" to contain a snatch of the closing theme.
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Pertwee smacks Jo one in the opening minutes here (no kidding), yet she still carries on screaming like a loon. One thing to look out for is part of the Tardis interior outside of the console room... as if the console room here isn't the first room as you enter.

I think what really horrifies me about this one is the fear of mental and bodily absorption/possession that it presents. There's also some great stuff with the Doctor claiming he'll abandon the Earth... for a second you almost believe him.

On the naff side of the scale, then the CSO screen fight with Yates and Benton is dire. Though with all the secondary characters around it's forced them out into a three-line ghetto. The climax to this one is yet another trademark Pertwee ending where he connects Axos to the Tardis and places both of them in a time loop. Not only is this galling in itself, but then he somehow manages to get the Tardis out of the loop, which seems to defy its own logic.
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Sorry gang, I know it's pants - but I really like it.
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