The Claws Of Axos
I don't think any story can be held to be quite as representative of its era as The Claws Of Axos can. When I think of other distinctive periods of Doctor Who's history, like the Hartnell era or Philip Hinchcliffe's time as producer, it's much harder to think of a single story that defines all that that period stood for. With the Pertwee era it's much easier and The Claws Of Axos drops in virtually every element that the third Doctor's stories became known for: UNIT, the Master, aliens that invade by stealth, obstructive bureaucracy and lots of James Bond action. This became a bit of a fallacy as none of Pertwee's other seasons followed season eight's pattern quite to the letter, but nevertheless The Claws Of Axos competes with The Daemons for the title of the definitive third Doctor episode, content-wise at least. This either makes it practically perfect, if you like the Pertwee era, or as formulaic as an episode can possibly be. I'm not a huge fan of the Pertwee era myself, but this story does okay.
The opening scenes don't hang about, hitting the viewer quickly with the something-on-the-radar routine, an effective way to build menace and mystery but a Quatermass II rip-off that had already been used once in Spearhead From Space. Out in space, the introduction of Axos itself suffers from being videotape-recorded (the film-recorded sections in episode four are incalculably superior) and unnecessary cuts to writhing Axon monsters at a stage in the episode where such directorial decisions may impress technically but are meaningless to the story.
While all this is going on we're introduced to one of my favourite characters of the third Doctor era, Chinn, well acted by Peter Bathurst. It doesn't help the story's credibility that his first shot sees him reading a file marked '”TOP SECRET” in big friendly-looking letters, a moment of tweeness that dates the show far more than any amount of bad CSO ever could. Underneath the apparent shallowness though Chinn is an interesting and deceptively complex character. All too often bullies are ciphers, without motivation or reason, and doing what they do for the sake of filling a bad-guy slot. Chinn on the other hand is gradually built up over the course of the story as a deeply insecure figure all too aware that his relatively high position in the civil service is rather undeserved and liable to be revoked at any moment; he's also given a believable political orientation, and the story is at its most gratifying when he's trying to reconcile his right-wing jingoism with the alien visitors he encounters. Although his chief concern initially seems to be that the Doctor is not a British citizen, it seems that no amount of xenophobia can stand up to the prospect of personal gain that he sees in Axonite. Jon Pertwee is still fiery and interesting in this early episode of his, even though the “England for the English” scene suggests multicultural leanings which, while admirable in themselves and certainly characteristic of the liberal and progressive Barry Letts, are not borne out in the era in general and certainly not in this story. On the whole though, it is the interesting and sophisticated characterisation that carries this story over it's pedestrian plotting and poor pace.
Talking of pacing, the opening moments maintain a good sense of urgency as the mysterious object closes in on Earth, intent on landing exactly where every other alien craft has landed before it ever. Good use is made of stock footage to maintain action levels cheaply and unobtrusively, and the scenes also help to introduce the likeable – if occasionally unnecessary – character of Bill Filer. However, at this stage the character development that will become so satisfying later is still at its embryonic stage and the morality – “blow up the ship!” “No don't!” – seems a bit simplistic. However, the Doctor's metaphor (“hardly seems sporting”) is clever and subtle, appealing less to Chinn's morals as it does to his bourgeois insularity.
And then we get Pigbin Josh.
Derek Ware clearly has fun playing him, and the scene where he is dragged into Axos is genuinely frightening, but his slapstick antics in the snow (“arr? aaaarr? AAAAAAAARRRRGHH!”) simply jar. It doesn't help that Dudley Simpson's comedy score, like the rest of the story's music, is a near-unlistenable electronic cacophony. In later years he would return to using conventional instruments: his scores would rarely be notable or distinctive (major exceptions being Pyramids Of Mars and City Of Death), but neither do they make my head want to burst. It spoils some good location shooting, with the entrance to Axos being an excellent set-piece.
Winser is another good character – distrustful of and antagonistic towards the Doctor while remaining on his side, if only by default – showing that Bob Baker's and Dave Martin's major strength is fully-formed even in their first story (barring the odd sexist moment towards Jo), even if their weakness are present too. For example, how exactly does Jo just walk right up to the heavily-guarded ship and walk right in without being stopped? The soldiers around it don't look at her twice.
The Axon man is performed stiffly by Bernard Holley (he is far more effective as the resonant, melancholy voice of Axos itself) but gets by on spectacle alone as his make-up is excellent. The sets of Axos themselves look artificial and studio-like, but then everything did in the early 1970s; the major problem, as far as I can see, is that the production team were still treating colour as a new toy. In terms of organic spacecraft I'm reminded of the Silurian submarine from Warriors Of The Deep – and when a production's visuals are beaten by Warriors Of The Deep, you know you're in trouble. The dialogue remains effective though, and having the Axon man stumble over human vocabulary (even if it's only a pretence) is a nice touch also. However, the Doctor undermines the Axons' cover-story to such an extent that I wonder how any of the other characters – save possibly Chinn, who is motivated entirely by greed – still buy into it. In context though, there are less holes in the Axons' story then there are in the average new series episode's plot. The cliffhanger to the first episode, while a narrative contrivance, is effective and technically very good.
“Just your report, Chinn, I'm sure that will be quite garbled enough.” What a fantastic line. If I'm honest then the minister is a far more conventional bully-character than Chinn is (he doesn't even get a name – how's that for 'plot device'?) but he's only got a small role so things are still in proportion. The value of the minister is that he helps to expose Chinn's weaknesses and consequently to flesh him out as a character. Chinn, we learn, abuses his subordinates to compensate for the abuse he receives himself: he's just passing it down the line. Wittily, he states that Filer has “ceased to exist” just as he is duplicated on board Axos.
Unfortunately, early in part two there's an increasing sense that things are going awry. The Master is artificially inserted into the story and seems to be a mere vehicle for exposition (although Roger Delgado plays him excellently as always); the real problem though is that too much has been revealed too soon. The story revolves around the Axons' duplicity, but their motives are made clear early on. Effectively their betrayal, while centring around an interesting premise, is a plot-twist without the twist and consequently episode two merely hits the marks rather than presents anything new. There's an efficient fight scene between the two filers, and the cliffhanger is technically good again even though it tells us what we already know, and that's about it. And why do some members of UNIT not know who the Master is? Tracking him down is supposed to be their job; they're like those Daleks in The Dalek Invasion Of Earth who have to have their own plan explained to them for the benefit of the audience.
What's really interesting about the story from a philosophical nature of the story is the Axons' attempt to manipulate human greed, while fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of that greed. Failing to account for Chinn's nationalism, their assumption that humanity will accept large quantities of Axonite works against them as Chinn attempts to restrict it to a single country. What's interesting is that the Axons' assumptions remain correct in an abstract sense, but they have no concept of how greed applies to reality. It's clever writing, undermined by gaudy, tacky production. I will admit though that Jo's rapid ageing is a frightening and compelling scene.
The flaw in the Axons' plan though is that they require Axonite to be spread around the entire world, even though 75% of the planet is bare ocean. Chinn states that Axonite is being distributed to every major capital in the world, but this is still tiny given that Axonite presumably needs to be spread over a certain minimum surface area. Nevertheless the Axon man seems satisfied, so who am I to complain when there's such a great slow-motion sequence to be had? The James Bond credentials of the period show themselves here as the shambling Axon-monster rampages through the Nuton complex, blowing up soldiers with its tentacles in spectacular fashion. Meanwhile, the writers' struggle to give the Master something to do is mitigated by Delgado's excellent performance and the cliffhanger is effectively apocalyptic.
The chaos within Axos as the Doctor and Jo struggle to escape is genuinely nightmarish, as the kitchen-sink production throws up some visuals that actually benefit the story this time around. Unfortunately the fourth episode is a padded one, with virtually all the story told already. It's just a question of wrapping things up, but while the Doctor's apparent betrayal of Jo and UNIT is shocking and the stunts are excellent (apart from the lack of a CSO background in the jeep sequences – an unforgivable oversight), the ending is all a bit deus ex machina, as the Doctor defeats Axos by flicking some switches on the TARDIS and then escapes destruction himself by flicking some others. Shame.
The Claws Of Axos is the very definition of average. It has good characters, and the premise of the story is great, but the way the story is told is deeply flawed and dilutes an effective idea. It still fits quite neatly into the season eight / nine dynamic though, which all things considered was not Doctor Who's finest moment.