What a colourful, fun story this is! It is incredibly well designed and directed, particularly the scenes set in Axos where some well thought out technical tricks are employed by the director to add to the effectiveness of the design work, giving an other-worldly, hallucinogenic feel. But the most colourful and fun aspect of The Claws of Axos is the script itself, and what it does with the characters. If you check your cynicism at the door, you can really tell that this was written by a team that included a writer who would go on to write an Academy Award winning film, because this takes a series with a potentially dull and repetitive premise and subverts it all to make it much more interesting.
By this point it is pretty obvious that the Master is going to turn up in every story this year, and bring an alien threat with him. Claws plays with that expectation by having the Master positioned as the victim of the Axons. Here he becomes a parallel character to the Doctor more than ever before, and nothing similar will really be attempted until Capaldi’s final season. This is the precursor to the Missy storyline, with the Master forced into the Doctor’s usual role. Alarmingly, with the Doctor established pretty definitively as his childhood bully in the previous story, and continuing to be acted as reverting to bullying in his frustration at being trapped, the Master is actually more entertaining at being the Doctor than the Doctor is. Until the conclusion of the story he is also better at playing the anti-hero. His approach to the role fits better with UNIT, with the Brigadier quite easily persuaded to take the pragmatic approach. He doesn’t take much convincing to take action to save the world even if that comes at the cost of the Doctor and Jo’s lives. So the Brigadier and the Master actually work well together, because, from what we have seen of the Brig so far, they are alarmingly on the same page. Only one of these men so far has committed genocide, and it’s not the Master.
The Brigadier of course has his own parallel character, in Chin. As per the Master and the Doctor, Chin is a version of the Brigadier taken much further down the road of amorality. He is a xenophobic authority figure who abuses his power, with a selfish nationalism. If I can be forgiven for skipping ahead for a moment, take a look at this quote from Robot:
Brigadier: Well, naturally enough the only country that could be trusted with such a role was Great Britain.
Doctor: Naturally, I mean the rest were all foreigners.
Chin’s insistence on putting Britain first actually helps to foil the Axon plan to spread Axonite around the world. The idea that an alien race would not realise that would happen is fascinating. They understand our greed, but as a collective entity that survives in complete union, the thought that we could have the characteristic of selfishness to go with that doesn’t occur to them. That’s smart scriptwriting. Chin is a brilliant character, and I say brilliant in the sense of utterly repulsive and therefore unforgettable.
There is a further parallel character in Bill Filer, who takes on the action man role that really belongs to Mike Yates (although the Third Doctor tends to steal that bit in a lot of stories). One wonders if the writers looked at the team of six regulars they were having to write for and decided to ignore all that as much as possible and substitute characters that interested them more to fulfil the same roles, because Filer is a pointless addition in terms of bringing anything to the story that one of the regular’s couldn’t have done. All he brings is American-ness. I’m not qualified to judge how well Welsh actor Paul Grist does with the accent, but I do question the whole approach, where somebody decides it would be a good idea to have an American character and then doesn’t think it necessary to have an American actor, especially with the series on the verge of being sold to America for the first time ever in 1972. All I can say is that when it happens in reverse it is always highly irritating, with the two exceptions of James Marsters and Dick Van Dyke; they are both fine by me, one of whom because his accent is perfect, and the other because he’s Dick Van Dyke.
And that cardboard-cutout-cockerney leads us to our final bizarre stop on our examination of this amazing story, with that most memorable and celebrated of Doctor Who characters, our cardboard-cutout-yokel-tramp Pigbin Josh. Why he didn’t get his own spinoff series I will never understand. RP
The view from across the pond:
When I wrote of my horrific influences in Doctor Who, I was talking about how horror and science fiction influenced Doctor Who. Needless to say, other things influenced Doctor Who that were not a part of those genres. Take Greek storyteller, Aesop (620-564 BCE). In his Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing, a wolf finds its way among sheep by wearing the discarded skin of another sheep (whoa…). He proceeds to make a meal of several of the remaining sheep in the herd. The message was that appearances can be deceptive. Along those lines, my mother has often reminded me, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”
In The Claws of Axos, beautiful gold beings appear on Earth making us an offer we can’t refuse: to cure world hunger using Axonite. The Doctor notices things are wrong with the Axons offer and asks questions that receive limited or no answers. Red flag #1: appearances can be deceptive. Red Flag #2: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is! Red flag #3: when questions are ignored, maybe listen to that blunderbuss, Mr. Chinn, and open fire! The fact is, our golden visitors turn out to be vampires of a new sort and it’s down to the Doctor and UNIT to save the Earth.
One of the biggest questions that come to my mind about this era of Doctor Who is: where does the Master get his schemes from? There’s got to be a book for deranged maniacs with a checklist. Here, he offers to help the Axons in exchange for the destruction of the Doctor and all life on earth. The universe is so vast, it’s like becoming obsessed with a single leaf on a street corner in a suburb of Montana. Sure you could avoid it with ease all your life, but instead plan everything around the destruction of Montana just to get to that little leaf. It’s absurd. In fairness, it does make for some fun storytelling and our Holmes/Moriarty pairing of the Doctor and the Master are fun even in the modern retelling of Aesop’s classic. It proves that a formula can work if you keep the main ingredients and Pertwee/Delgado (& Courtney) are a combination for success.
There are some neat elements this time around. The Brigadier once famously stated that he wanted to meet an alien menace that wasn’t immune to bullets. I wanted someone who was immune to Venusian karate, and in this story, my wish came true! About time that silly stuff failed on someone! On a negative note: episode one ends with Jo screaming. Imagine how many more episodes we’d have if the episodes ended with a companion getting scared? Episodes would last roughly 10 minutes on a good day! That was not an effective ending for one of the episodes. On the plus side, it is a 4 part story which makes the flow work very well. The story is engaging and a menace that utilizes human greed is very believable. The story is actually quite good.
The Axons themselves look fascinating as gold beings (even if their skinsuits were a bit tight; it’s the eyes that make it work) but their alter-ego forms were striking and unsettling. Like walking lumps of bloody veins and arteries (or perhaps spaghetti), I was surprised the look was permitted on family TV. Still, I was not unhappy with it! (Come to think of it, they did come to “make us an offer we couldn’t refuse” and look a bit like spaghetti…) The look of the ship might tie in with the Italian imagery, resembling something like a calzone in space. (I’m getting hungry…) The idea of an organic ship might have influenced TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation with the episode Tin Man in 1990 or Farscape in 1999 with Moya, the organic ship. Either way, this episode had a craft and a race that were very unusual for 1970s TV. The idea that the race was a single, connected organism just illustrates how far ahead Doctor Who was in creating something memorable.
Well, I’ve got a sudden hankering to sink my own claws into some Italian food now. Hopefully the waiters’ bronzed tan doesn’t end up looking a bit too golden. (Although I imagine that would be better that having the meal get up and attack me…) ML
Read next in the Junkyard… Colony in Space