What is Doctor Who as people remember it? I mean the general public, whose memories of the classic series, if they have any, are hazy recollections from childhood. It’s not uncommon for adults to mock TV shows they liked when they were young to show how much their tastes have matured. In the UK, Doctor Who is a frequent victim of this phenomenon, and even though I’m a fan of the programme, I can’t deny that occasionally it does deserve it. For the first time in the marathon (black and white did wonders for the atmosphere of the early stories), we have a story that exactly fits the bill for those who remember Doctor Who for its cheap-looking monsters, wobbly sets and terrible acting.
Thats not all that’s familiar in The Claws of Axos. The plot is ripped from half a dozen other Pertwee stories – an alien invasion, with the twist that the aliens pretend to be benevolent to gain a foothold. This is mixed with the usual UNIT escapades with pompous officials on the sidelines, and the Doctor making sarky comments. Staying as close to the basic Pertwee formula as possible, with little to recommend it over its contemporaries and a budget looking lower than ever, can the essentials of what made the era successful at the time carry this story?
The plot is rather thin. An Axon ship lands on Earth near a power complex in England, and the Brigadier leads a team inside, where they meet the Axons, a shape-shifting race that take on the form of gold-skinned humanoids when talking to humans and spaghetti monsters when attacking. Despite an interesting idea behind them, the Axons suffer because they’re an attempt to get the best of both worlds – they’re scary faceless monsters of the type kids loved in the Troughton era, and they’re also individual, reasonable aliens like the Silurians. Neither depiction of the Axons is used to its full potential, and they come across as forgettable.They’re certainly not helped by the realisation of the aliens, the gold aliens are fine except I don’t know whether that’s supposed to be skin or clothes, but the spaghetti monsters – it’s monsters like them that give the classic show a bad name. Looking and moving like men in giant bean bags, they render the whole thing a laughing stock. They’re used sparingly, but frustratingly whenever they do appear it seems to be at one of the story’s key moments.
The Doctor is immediately suspicious of the Axon’s gift of Axonite, which will cure world hunger. He convinces the local scientists to study Axonite before it’s released to the government, but he’s captured by the Axons, who want to time travel to extend their feeding stock (despite them already possessing the Master’s TARDIS). Aside from a few scenes, mostly opposite Roger Delgado, Jon Pertwee lacks the charisma and presence he usually has, and for the first time in a Pertwee story I am not understanding the Doctor’s motivations. He just seems to flit around from plot point to plot point with little purpose, and it’s disappointing as Pertwee so far has been a revelation, surpassing my expectations.
As civil servant Chinn tries to get his hands on the Axonite, securing an agreement to limit its use to the UK, the Master brokers a deal with the Axons to ensure that the rest of the world finds out about the secret deal, but upon his release from Axon capture, makes his way to the Doctor’s TARDIS, hoping to escape in it, leaving Earth to the Axons. I have no complaints about the Master’s return, in fact if anything Roger Delgado should have been in more stories. He always delivers a performance far above what the role deserves. I like that in this story he gets a chance to interact with the regulars more, rather than just hypnotise people and take on disguises. His scene with the Brigadier is a particular highlight – the Master is forced to help destoy the Axons to save the Earth, but his plan will sacrifice the Doctor and Jo. The Master is hilarious in this scene, enjoying the Brigadier’s discomfort at having to work with him. Good cliffhanger, too, until the silliness takes over again.
The final episode is the best one. The Doctor agrees to leave Earth with the Master, but instead takes him to the Axon ship in his now-repaired TARDIS and dupes the Axons into thinking he’s giving them time travel when he’s actually trapping them in a time loop. Any scene with Pertwee and Delgado sparring is wonderful, and while this doesn’t disappoint, it’s a pity that the Doctor has to pretend to go along with the Master’s plan, if only because it means they aren’t arguing; it certainly feels like a big moment from the marathon perspective for the Doctor to seemingly get a working TARDIS back, even if I know in advance that he isn’t going anywhere with it.
The Claws of Axos is a middling kind of story. The bad about it is appalling – aside from the stuff I’ve mentioned, there’s Bill Filer and his “accent”, the same old Dudley Simpson music (though there is some good stuff too, particularly in the first episode), spaghetti monsters (okay I did mention them, but thought I’d do it again because they’re REALLY bad), the caricatured Chinn, and Jo hardly doing anything (she was great in The Mind of Evil!). Certainly compared to Liz by this point, Jo hasn’t really justified her presence beyond Terror of the Autons.
And yet, it has a certain quality. As I noted earlier, there’s a familiarity about it, but the familiarity of a favourite pair of slippers. If you’re a fan, it’s safe to say that budget doesn’t matter. If you’re a fan of the Pertwee era, everything you like is here, even if it’s not the best examples of its type of story. Unspectacular, but a good watch.
Horror quotient – Don’t do that. Seriously, don’t do that.
Comedy quotient – A rather lighthearted story and that’s a good thing. I hate when things take themselves too seriously – the quality isn’t always there to support it. Only the Doctor himself is a bit humourless, although he’s funny in the last scene. A galactic yo-yo!
Drama quotient – There’s another attempt to drag politics and morals into Doctor Who, and this isn’t one of the best stories to attempt it. Any hint of drama is lost under the low-budgetness of it all.
Not a favourite, but at least it has a sense of humour. Certainly no better than average though.