The Claw of Axos

The Claws of AxosDVDThe killer, when reviewing Doctor Who DVD releases, is the VAM.

How to address these additional features? Should you always have to account for the fact they’re put together on a tiny budget, and convey more verve and imagination than any other ‘extra’ material on any other range? Should you  approach them with a sense of gratitude? Have that mitigate any criticism? It’s a tough one (although the implicit answer, of course, is “no”).

From my point of view, most of the extras on the DW range are solid and, from any sensible standpoint, they deliver. And, while we’re lucky to have them, there has been some money involved – even if it’s a pittance. Plus they appear on product that we pay for, and that alone means I think they should be subjected to a fairly robust appraisal. But I do still marvel that they exist.

This is from DWM #455.

DWM #455First screened in 1971, The Claws of Axos debuted on DVD back in 2005. Improvements in something called ‘colour recovery techniques’ mean the story has now been reissued again, in a newly enhanced version.

And, really, this four-parter makes the release of any other Third Doctor adventure redundant – because it kind of is every other Third Doctor adventure. As a totem for the era, it’s got the lot. Let’s work through the 12-step program to Pertwee…

  • Something falling to Earth
  • A comedy yokel
  • A man from the ministry
  • “Freak weather” conditions
  • The Doctor disapproving of a missile strike
  • A big power station
  • A phallic-shaped alien
  • Action by Havoc
  • The Master in a short-lived alliance with this week’s monsters, before entering into a short-lived alliance with the Doctor
  • The Doctor trying, and failing, to get his TARDIS operational
  • The Doctor rubbing his neck and pondering on a thing before stroking his cheek and pondering on another thing
  • The Doctor in a grump

So is this merely Doctor Who as a form-filling exercise? No, no. Although it’s clear script editor Terrance Dicks was very much a back seat driver when Bob Baker and Dave Martin were fashioning the story – and thus, we could reason, suggested some well-travelled routes they might want to take – The Claws of Axos is not without its own inventiveness. We’ll get to that in good time. But over-familiarity isn’t the sin here. Instead, it’s the final line on our list that very nearly sinks the whole thing. Such grumpiness!

I’m a big Pertwee fan. Although I grew up watching and loving the Tom Baker years, my viewing was accompanied by my older brother whispering in my ear – like a less-hirsute and not-dressed-in-satins High Priest Hepesh – that it had all been so much better with Jon. Little brothers listen to their big brothers, and so I’ve always had this fundamental belief there’s something a bit special about JP. However, upon watching this tale again, I fear I’m losing my religion…

Has there ever been a more misjudged performance from a Doctor? Every line Pertwee delivers is loaded with contempt. He barges into the story in Episode One, sending Peter Bathurst’s pepper pot-ish Mr Chinn flying, then he proceeds to metaphorically chew the face off everyone he encounters. Of course, it’s that aptly named civil servant who really has to take it on the proverbial. He’s set up as a bureaucratic bogeyman, overripe for a lambasting, however the Doctor’s savagery towards him just feels too much. Sure, Chinn has despicable politics (even dear Jo, in a line surely unloaded onto her by Pertwee, talks of the “contemptible, underhand deal” he’s trying to broker) but those scenes where he’s talking excitedly on the phone to the minister, who, at every turn gets in a deflating barb about the poor old duffer’s uselessness, just made me feel a bit sorry for him – and start to see the Doctor as rather a bully.

There are some small, Pertweeian moments of charm, of course. There always are. His fitful expression when his Venusian aikido fails to put down Bill Filer’s duplicate is lovely. Ditto, the point at which he confesses to the Master, with palpable embarrassment, “The Time Lords have put a block on my knowledge of dematerialisation theory.” Both examples fleetingly humanise the Doctor, but he’s all cranky again in a trice. By the fourth episode, things have reached a pretty pass – he’s even chiding the TARDIS. “Come on!” he screams like a big baby. “You must take the load! You must!”

The final sequence sees the traveller return to Earth, still in a sulk (“Well, this is a fine welcome, I must say!” – Oh shut up!) but now with a croaky throat. Unsurprising, considering he’s been barking non-stop for the last hour and a half. When the end credits roll, it feels like a relief. As if you’ve closed the door on a hectoring neighbour.

Thankfully, Roger Delgado’s Master is here to ameliorate the situation. His dialogue is similarly spiky, but unlike Pertwee, he delivers it with a smile in the voice. His reaction to the Doctor’s TARDIS is a joy: “What a botch-up!” he sniggers, before going on to compare it – in one of his many oddly parochial turns-of-phrase – to a “second-hand gas stove”. It’s telling that throughout Episode Three, in which the Doctor has very little to do, the Master is right at home working alongside UNIT and bantering with the Brig. With meltdown imminent, he teases the old soldier he’d best take the prescribed precautions against a nuclear blast – “like sticky-tape on the windows”.

That this is by no stretch of the imagination the villain’s best showing doesn’t really matter. There is some class in the way he arrives towards the end of Episode One, already fully enmeshed in the tale. Okay, there’s no dignity in being manhandled by muppet mandibles – which is precisely what’s happening to the dastard when we first see him. But I love the sense he’s already on Episode Three of his own separate adventure, in which he’s so far managed to track down the Axons and sweet-talk his way onto their ship, until, in a cliffhanger turn-of-events, they decide to take him prisoner. Even his subsequent confrontation, with the flaccid rod of gristle that passes for the story’s enemy boss, can’t take the shine off the intergalactic criminal.

Oh, and while we’re considering the Master, something that struck me in Episode Four when he and the Doctor are messing about in the TARDIS, is our hero’s pointed remark to him, “You’re the mechanic”. It hints at a more detailed backstory for the character than I think we were ever privy to during the Pertwee years…

Inventiveness. I mentioned that earlier and indeed The Claws of Axos has some neat concepts at play. That the Axons arrival as beautiful people, gently disseminating their poison, is a welcome refresh of the alien invasion storyline, and arguably influenced this year’s The Power of Three. Plus, sinewy eye-sack aside, the realisation of their various forms work well. The golden unitard-clad humanoids are simply effective, Bernard Holley’s impassive vocal tones making a neat counterpart to their garish appearance. And the Shredded Wheat monsters tear along nicely, their stinging tendrils being a particularly natty way of dispensing death.

Director Michael Ferguson’s staging of the story is equally impressive, particularly the multi-layered trippy visuals within the Axon ship, an oil projector playing over the action and emphasising yet again the fact that during this stage of its life, Doctor Who was stylistically most akin to Top of the Pops. Special mention should also be made of the terrific special effect in which we see Holley’s floating, ever rotating head as he communicates with the Doctor and Jo. Even now, it remains mind-blowing.

As Katy Manning relates in this release’s accompanying documentary (see below) it does seem as though characterisation suffers due to the emphasis on visuals. The guest cast – much like axonite itself – defy meaningful analysis. Visiting US agent Bill Filer, for example, is a bottom drawer, shaken and stirred version of Felix Leiter who, at one point is revealed to be carrying a gun simply because that’s what Americans do. And, obviously, the least said about Pigbin Josh, the better… “Oh arr?” Yes, “Oh arr.”

The Claws of Axos is a story that catches a reflection of itself in its own glitter. Like its golden visitors, it dazzles us. But a little investigation reveals something not-so-nice within. Something permanently in a tizzy, that’ll have your eye out if you’re not careful. Some kind of galactic yo-yo.

DVD extras

Unlike other reissued stories in the Doctor Who DVD range, this one isn’t over-endowed with new extras. However, the main motive for unleashing Axos again is that improved picture quality, which is particularly apparent in Episodes Two and Three – so that’s reason enough. However, the few fresh items included are of interest…

“They managed to grab my boobs so many times!” Thanks, Katy Manning. Making-of documentary, Axon Stations! is a confidently produced effort, as the bravado of that title might indicate. It opens with some suitably glam rock-inspired music and a terrific animation sequence, as a frond whiplashes out and draws the viewer into the maw of the Axon spaceship. For a glorious moment, we have become Pigbin Josh!

Within lie the expected line-up of surviving cast and crew (including, of course, Katy) who entertainingly tell the story of The Claws of Axos’ creation. Aside from Jo Grant being inadvertently groped by alien mandibles, the main narrative here is the secret origin of Dave Martin and Bob Baker – who they are and how they came to be.

Their proposed comedy about latter day TV chef Keith Floyd’s army exploits brought them to the attention of Doctor Who’s script editor Terrance Dicks, who saw enough in their writing partnership to commission an adventure and then mentor them through the process. The approach, which necessitated countless revisions and back and forths, reflects what sort of a show Doctor Who was in the early 1970s – a big success, sure, but a workaday success, like Z Cars or Coronation Street. Within that, there’s a sense of hardiness you won’t find in the modern day programme. Nowadays, any talent attached to the series has to be a star signing, but back then, Dicks – and this is to his credit – obviously didn’t feel overly precious about the series, and considered it a reasonable vehicle to occasionally run-in new talent. Looking back on that decision for this documentary, the wise old patron can take some reflected glory in the careers his Bristol Boys subsequently enjoyed. “The lads have done well,” he nods, thinking about Omega, K9, Wallace and Gromit.

In addition to the writing, we hear a lot from director Michael Ferguson, whose contributions evoke an era of unusual experimentation in mainstream television. He talks of a “creative latitude” and says Axos’ visual richness reflects the fact that, at the time “people had found alternative ways of encouraging their minds to escape reality.” It’s quite a trip for the Doctor and friends, but Katy Manning, at times, is less enthusiastic about the results. She describes the fibrous Axons as “something the dog had gobbed up”, and points out that the focus on technical inventiveness took a toll on the cast’s performance. Nonetheless, it’s probably an equitable pay-off. “It’s got a sensible silliness about it,” reckons Ferguson – a reasonable summation of most good Doctor Who.

Now, unlike Toby Hadoke, I don’t own any headgear. But if had a cap, it would have been firmly set against the other big addition here, Living With Levene.

The premise sees Toby spending a weekend with Benton actor John Levene under the pretext of gaining insight into the ‘real’ man. The knowing tone of voice, self-consciously kooky music, plus jaunty title font are all indicators Hadoke’s wandering into the kind of territory Louis Theroux once reconnoitred in his Weird Weekends TV series. And so we have all the nonsense of Toby ‘arriving’ at John’s house, while his narration conspiratorially cautions us: “These days [Levene] has a reputation as an unpredictable and sometimes controversial figure…” (Oh yes?) “… on the Doctor Who convention circuit” (Oh no).

For me, it’s that last, fannish clause which triggers the alarm. This is Toby Hadoke pissing into the tent, attempting an ignoble and covert takedown of someone who, in truth, is often mocked by those he is most keen to please.

Initial exchanges between the two are unpromising, John cracking one-liners, which Toby solemnly takes at face value. There’s more pleasure, instead, in freeze-framing a shot of the actor’s DVD shelves, and picking your way through his collection. Gladiator, Sexy Beast, both series of Ricky Gervais’ Extras… In an egregious crime against fandom, his Doctor Who discs aren’t arranged in chronological order – and they’re mostly US releases. Plus some post-2005 episodes. Interesting. Hmm, how come he owns two copies of The Time Monster?

This early sequence sees Toby musing, “I’m surprised by how hyper John is. I get the feeling he’s putting on a bit of a show for us.” A valid concern, but it’s only expressed in voiceover, in the past tense and a million miles away from his interviewee.

Fade out. Then fade up again as Toby returns to John’s house for a second day together… and things change. True, we’re still invited to smirk into our sleeves as the actor compares himself to the Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, albeit with the proviso that rather than the dead, he sees “sad people”. And there’s also the unfortunate moment when he explains to Toby how his compulsion to cheer up lonely old folk manifests itself. “I’ll go up [to them],” he says, laying a friendly hand on Hadoke’s shoulder, before stepping back and adding further clarification: “I won’t touch them.”

We then see the man working his magic with one silver-haired dear. “I didn’t watch Doctor Who,” she says, nonetheless, enjoying the encounter. “Do you know Julian Ovenden?” she continues. “He’s the new up-and-coming one”. John, we might unkindly conclude, has been-and-gone. But it’s here Toby gets on with putting his concerns directly to his subject. There are no more edit suite barbs, and it really picks up. Asking John why he presents himself to folk in such an obsequious fashion, Toby elicits the revealing admission: “It’s an apologetic desire to please, and maybe get a little thank-you.”

Things continue on this tack, as we meet Vera, John’s mum, with whom he is now living in order to provide 24-hour care. Over the breakfast table she talks about her son, and his rough start in life – profound ill heath and a very difficult relationship with his father. “I’m into sea salt at the moment,” says John, self-consciously cutting across the discussion. Then it’s off to meet our subject’s pal, Bob, for a lovely sequence on the local golf course. “He’s someone special, I think,” says Bob of John.
The documentary’s near-redemption arrives at the end, when Toby vocalises the fact he’s always felt a little apprehensive about the man who played Benton, because, in person, it seems as though John’s been to “one too many motivational speakers”. That Mr Levene accepts this remark, and is given an opportunity to respond to it, makes my resolve soften to those earlier sequences. Perhaps I was being unfair. This hasn’t been quite such a sly exercise after all, and maybe the getting-to-know-you bits were always going to be a little stilted.

John Levene was born, as he says several times in this, “breached, jaundiced and dead”. So perhaps we should let him live his life how he wants to. Maybe even afford him a little thank-you from time to time. I still have reservations about the basic premise at work here – which infers negative qualities upon its subject and invites us to conspire against him – but I’m glad that when Toby walks away from this encounter, he does so without laying down some sort of judgment, other than he “rather liked” John.

If I did own a hat, I guess at this point I’d be inclined to raise it to a bad job well done.

The only other ‘new’ inclusion on this disc is the unexpurgated 72 minutes of studio stuff from the story’s recording session in Studio 3, on the evening of Friday 22 January 1971. In terms of completeness, it’s great to have, but not wildly entertaining. If anything, the events captured here are matter-of-fact – there’s no bantering or bust-ups, beyond Jon Pertwee becoming mildly terse when a crewmember gets in his eye-line. All the best bits (such as they are) were already included in an edited-down version, described as ‘Deleted and Extended Scenes’, on the story’s original DVD release and reproduced again here. At least these cuts are jollied along by Richard Bignell’s excellent info text, which reveals that when the title The Vampire from Space was ditched, initial paperwork had the adventure’s new name as ‘The Clause of Axos’. Actually, that would have worked rather well.

Other features from first time around include the Now and Then documentary, a rather ordinary look at Dungeness beach and Dungeness Power Station some 30-plus years on. It’s chirpily voiced by Katy Manning, who refers to the former unconvincingly as “one of the strangest places in the country” and tries to make play of the latter’s “other worldly quality”. One imagines, in the case of the nuclear plant, that sense is even more pronounced now, with the complex currently in the process of being decommissioned.

And then there’s Directing Who, which brings us Michael Ferguson against a plain backdrop, talking about the white heat of TV technology in 1971 and programme makers “greedy” to try new things. The commentary track also dates from the original release, with the late Barry Letts (the show’s producer), plus Katy Manning and Richard Franklin (Captain Yates) on duty. Aside from Letts chiding the other two that “we must watch the story a bit now”, it’s Franklin’s oddball remarks that take the biscuit – including introducing his character as “Jo Grant’s love interest”, his bemoaning of the lack of “pretty nurses” in Doctor Who and a blatant plug for his “novella”. With this testimony unearthed once again for public consumption, one wonders if Benton’s superior officer will be next to receive a knock on the door from a curious representative of the Doctor Who fan police.

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