Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Claws of Axos written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin and directed by Michael Ferguson

This story in a nutshell: A new alien menace comes to sap the resources of the Earth...

The Mighty Nose: This is the season eight third Doctor so the idea of trying to catagorise him in an official capacity is probably enough to bring him out in hives. Considering his enforced exile on Earth it makes perfect sense that the MOD would want some kind of background on this mysterious figure who commands the authorities and is the first line of defence for the planet when alien nasties come calling. It is the sort of thing that show hasn't had to think about before because everything four weeks or so the Doctor whisks off to another time and place. He can't run away from his responsibilities anymore, nor can he hide from the consequences of his actions and clearly both rub him up the wrong way. I think any right minded induvidual would take a dislike to somebody as officious and bumbling as Chinn but considering the Doctor is in quite a precarious position and loathing his exile he really has at him, reminding him that England isn't the be all and end all and that they should be taking responsibility for the world and not just one damp little island. During the first two episodes of Claws of Axos the impossible happens, there is so much incident and so many characters that the Doctor is practically swamped by them all. To rectify this problem the writers chose to go down a very interesting path with the Doctor, turning him into an anti-hero for the first time since the early Hartnell stories. There was the suggestion that the second Doctor might be working against Jamie in Evil of the Daleks but that is always being seen as working under duress and he shows the appropriate empathy for his companion. Because he was so anti-establishment in season seven (clearly Verity Lambert wasn't watching that closely given how the Doctor insults, exploits and manipulates the many scientific institutes he winds up becoming a part of in his first year on Earth) and because he is always butting heads with Lethbridge-Stewart, his decision to defect and run off with the Master actually feels entirely reasonable given the evidence we have seen. I love the thought of him having wound Jo and UNIT around his little finger and at the same time is working out his escape from the planet, even if the cost is the exploitation of the Earth by an alien menace. Of course the whole thing is a big con but for a few delightful minutes nobody is entirely sure which side the Doctor is on and he basks in the theatricality of his apparent villainy. The line 'we either escape together or die together' is wonderfully cutting, suggesting a life of crime with the Master or being trapped on the Earth as it is going down the pan. And the Doctor being such an old ham he really plays up the role and enjoys the smugness of finally telling the Brigadier to get off and waving his hanky at Jo. It is a testament to the strength of the third Doctor's early characterisation that had this been for real, I would have had no objections that it hadn't been set up appropriately.

Groovy Chick: What an odd one Jo Grant is in season eight. I can't decide whether she is bright and resourceful (The Mind of Evil) or a wailing victim (The Daemons). The Claws of Axos is not a great story for the character because aside from screaming at the monsters or showing appropriate horror at the Doctor's betrayal she is left entirely at the sidelines and doesn't impact the story in any significant way. If grasping hold of your head and screaming ineffectually was an art form then I would say Katy Manning has mastered it after this adventure - she spends most of the story lost in a psychedelic wilderness and spazzing out. This might very well be her very worst story, not the worst story that she is in (I would say that belongs to The Mutants), but the worst one for servicing her character with decent material – the scene where she is screaming ‘I can’t! I can’t! I can’t!’ hysterically might just be the nadir for her character. Katy Manning has proven herself time and again to be a formidable actress, jump forward to season ten where she is dishing out charismatic performances aplenty and her work with Big Finish has really suggested a versatility previously unsuspected. It is a shame that writers occasionally shoehorned her into the shrinking violet companion role - she reminds me here of the most useless companions we have seen to date (Susan, Victoria).

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I have a duty to my country!’ ‘ Not to the world?
‘I doubt even Axonite could control the growth of human common sense.’
‘Axonite is simply bait for human greed.’
‘I suppose you could take the usual sort of precautions for a nuclear blast like sticky tape on the windows, that sort of thing.’
‘The Claws of Axos are already deeply embedded in the Earth’s carcass!’

The Good Stuff: Pigbin Josh, man. What a legend. How people can complain about the realisation of this story baffles. Michael Ferguson is one of the shows most stylish directors and throws everything he possibly can at the screen to make this a truly alien experience. It is true that the effects aren't up to the task at times but with a mixture video effects, fades, blends, physcial effects, colourful, organic sets and great costumes the production team manage to make the interior of Axos every bit is psychedelic and alien as they possibly can. Okay so the exterior might look like a mutated, pulsing penis but who could forget the flailing claws that grab at your from the walls, the wriggling tendrils, the breathing floors, the eye appendage, the beautiful Axon creatures in humanoid form, eyes shooting open from the walls, foaming bubbles threatening to envelop the camera and finally the genuinely chilling spaghetti Axonite creatures. Some of effects do surprise such as the repulsive melting Axon head and the sequence where Jo ages to death before the Doctor's eyes. Sound effects are used atmospherically too; the constant pulsing of a heartbeat and the screaming wail of the Axon creatures. Whilst it might be a little too busy in places (can you imagine what this script read like before Terrance Dicks streamlined it?) there are so things thrown at you as a viewer it is on occasion a genuinely unnerving experience. It is nice that this is an alien species that doesn't want to approach the Earth guns blazing but instead enjoys a more insidious approach, offering us something that appeals to our vanity that will allow them to embed their claws into the planets carcass. The Doctor so often comes up against violent, brutish forces that it makes a surprising change to present a menace that has thought through its takeover and decided to use a little psychology. The organic science is a lovely idea and the method that Axonite absorbs, observes, transmits and programmes could end humanity’s struggle with famine. But not with the UK government trying to keep it for themselves... Just as the Doctor has come to the attention of the MOD, so the Master and his murderous schemes have been flagged by Washington  and the American government has decided that the rogue Time Lord should be dealt with once and for all. I like it when the show suggests an international presence, it suddenly feels like we are taking the threat of the Master seriously and it always makes a point of showing what happens when UNIT fails in their duty. Watch the sequence where Bill Filer is duplicated, a very simple effect where one version of the character walks away from the other. Simple, but effective. I don't think that this is one of the strongest stories to feature Roger Delgado's Master but just his presence elevates the whole thing considerably. It's not until the last two episodes that he does anything especially significant but when he does pop out of the woodwork, he's great fun. Can you imagine anything more fun than a role reversal? The Doctor is the villain of the piece and the Master is scientific adviser to UNIT? It's when he wanders into the Doctor's (extremely tatty looking) TARDIS and declares it a right botch up when he really shines. What a shame we never got to see these two out in the universe getting up to mischief together? Can you imagine how an entire series of stories with the Doctor and his arch enemy lost in time and space would be? It took me a while to realise that David Savile was the same man who played Carstairs in The War Games, such was the difference with how he approached the two characters. I can't say I was sorry when he was killed, though. You’ve got to love the Doctor’s reaction to the discovery that the TARDIS is programmed to always return to Earth – everybody looks happy about it except him!

The Bad Stuff: I'm quite a fan of the electronic music that Barry Letts enforced on season eight but there are times during The Claws of Axos where it sounds as though Dudley Simpson has started attacking his equipment in a violent frenzy. This is more of a story of idea so many of the characters that we meet are simply there to service the plot rather than stand up as individuals in their own right (season seven managed to maintain both throughout its entire run). Chinn is one of those characters whose purpose is to get in the way, Filer lacks even basic conviction a CIA agent and Windsor is so unrealistically obstinate it can only be in the vain hope to try and create some drama. I never got the impression that any of them existed outside of the confines of this story. Whilst (as discussed above) I found the crawling sheet of lasagne pasta a little too hard to swallow (hoho - I'm here all week) - it is the one element of Axos that really feels like a man wrapped up in a sheet and I probably would have scrapped it. Why is it that characters in 70s drama shout out plot points when they are supposedly comatose as Filer does here? When does that ever happen in real life? Benton clearly isn't on the ball this week, falling for the worst Master disguise on record (seriously...it even looks like a rubber mask...it even sounds like he talking through the mouthpiece of a rubber mask!). That guy just isn't trying anymore. Mind you, you might questions the Master's arch villain status when he doesn;t realise that he has been surrounded by an entire platoon of UNIT soldiers. I agree with the Master, the Doctor’s TARDIS looks more knackered than ever and is desperately in need of the Colony in Space redesign. Hardiman rather impressively gets electrocuted and does a complete somersault over the edge of the precipice. Is that the effect of an electric shock these days? The location work during the Benton/Yates car siege is really impressive (especially the explosion as the trundles down the hill) but sabotaged by that terrible backdrop during the close ups in the studio. You would have thought they could have matched up to the colour of the sky. Would you really drive back into the debris after a nuclear power plant has just blown up?

Result: If Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks disliked the Earthbound formula so much and wanted the show take flight into the universe again but couldn't because of the impositions placed by their predecessors, this is probably the best compromise they could come up with. A genuinely outlandish alien threat coming to the Earth in their spaceship and threatening the planet. It is the best of both worlds, with the Earthbound formula being given some consideration (and there is plenty of UNIT action) but a fascinating menagerie of creatures and weird alien technology to explore. It is probably the most out there story since The Web Planet and that might explain the love/hate relationship some (including myself) seem to have with it. I have always had an on/off relationship with The Claws of Axos. I remember when it first came out on video I really struggled with it. It just looked so gaudy and crazy and weird, not really what I wanted from Doctor Who at the time. When the story came out on DVD I bought it like the sad completist that I am but had no intention of putting it on. However when I started introducing Simon to the show he fell in love with the first three Doctor's and asked if we could put this one on. I spent the first two episodes criticisng and cringing and apologising for the effects and at the end of episode he told me that if I didn't shut up and start enjoying the thing then we wouldn't watch anymore. Suddenly I started to notice the ambition in the concepts, the imagination in the design and the direction and how everybody was doing their damnedest to convince that this scenario was actually taking place. My husband made me appreciate Doctor Who more! I do think that the story struggles to balance the more adult themes of season seven with the more colourful and entertainment focus of season eight and as a result it is mixture of very clever ideas and memorable action mixed in with weak characterisation and poor logic. It juggles far too many ideas for four episodes but the resulting effect is that if you don't like where the story is at the moment there will be something else around the corner to distract you any minute. Trippy direction and a genuinely alien environments paper over some truly dodgy characterisation and performances. It’s a fun story written by two enthusiastic writers but perhaps it could have done with another rewrite to smooth out some rough edges and had a little more money thrown at it to fulfil its grand ambitions: 7/10


TF80 said...

I've been recently listening to the audio The Feast of Axos and Sixie's affirmation of if you want something done don't let your previous incarnations do it (Or something like this, don't remember the exact phrase) made me howl with laughing! I didn't remember very much all the Axos thing, so maybe I should rewatch this episode ;)

BTW, returning to the audios, it's a delight to listen Evelyn and Sixie having fun again! I didn't enjoy the angst episodes following the death of Cassie, and the extreme reaction of Evelyn to it, and their separation, so it was great to have them having fun again!

Great reviews!

Anthony Pirtle said...

In your sparkling dialog section, how could you not have included, "It seems I am some kind of galactic yoyo!"