The Claws of Axos
The Claws of Axos is a story that manages to combine an effective alien menace with some excellent location work to present a seamless tale of invasion by stealth. The scripts by Bob Baker and Dave Martin are original and ambitious and the production manages, for the most part, to achieve their vision.
'It still amazes me that The Claws of Axos was Bob Baker and Dave Martin's first televised script,' wrote Simon Lydiard in A Voyage Through 25 Years of Doctor Who, dated December 1988. 'It was so good. Perhaps the fact that it took a year to write, and numerous rewrites, accounts for it being so well-polished and intelligent... The dichotomy between the beautiful, golden-skinned Axons and the malevolent orange, tentacled monsters they become is most effective. The slow-motion shots of the tentacled Axons running are almost nightmarish, and when first transmitted seemed quite frightening to me...
'Despite the obvious merits of this story, there is still one rather irritating flaw. If the Axons held the Master captive originally, why did they need to torture the Doctor to gain the secret of time travel?'
The story opens in much the same way as Spearhead from Space and, as spotted by Martin J Wiggins in Oracle Volume 3 Number 2, dated November 1979, there are other elements that seem less than original: 'The details of [the Master's] appearance were repetitive. As in Terror of the Autons, he brings [a] hungry horde of horrors down to Earth, becomes their slave (an irony, considering what he calls himself), his plan backfires on [him] and he ends up a temporary ally of the Doctor in cleaning up the mess.'
On the whole, though, the story is highly imaginative and inventive; indeed, it is fairly brimming over with interesting ideas. One particularly notable aspect is the impression given that nothing is quite what it seems. Axos, apparently a benevolent alien, is really a hostile parasite; the Axons, although initially peaceful and beautiful, turn out to be hideous monsters; the Master, someone we know to be evil, ends up helping UNIT and the Doctor; Chinn, an obnoxious civil servant who tries to keep Axonite for Britain's use alone, turns out to have done exactly the right thing by preventing the parasite from spreading across the world; and finally the Doctor himself, well established as the series' hero, seems to abandon his friends to Axos by escaping in the TARDIS with the Master. All it needed was for Bill Filer to turn out to be a double agent working for Russia and the picture would have been complete.
The Axons are incredibly powerful creatures. Their abilities include draining energy from just about anything, as the tramp Pigbin Josh discovers to his cost, and transmuting matter to their own ends, as in the scene where they accelerate Jo's ageing process to force the Doctor to cooperate with them. Axos is, in effect, a gestalt being, each part of it able to communicate instantaneously with every other, and is a master of deception. Even the Master cannot get the better of it. There are few other alien races presented by Doctor Who that are as well thought-out, adaptable and interesting.
Technically, the Axon monsters and Axos itself are very well realised, as indeed is the entire story. Clever use of CSO and the frequent cross-mixing and fading of images give the scenes set in the interior of Axos an almost hallucinogenic quality. The model shots of it in space are superb and, along with the excellent location scenes of it buried in shingle, help to create the impression of a highly credible alien menace. The impact is added to by Dudley Simpson's incidental music and Brian Hodgson's special sound effects, which combine to provide a fitting aural accompaniment to the visual treats.
It should perhaps be acknowledged at this point that there are some fans, albeit in a minority, who greatly dislike the direction in which Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks steered Doctor Who in the early sevenites. Anthony Brown, for example, had some strong words to offer on this subject when he reviewed The Claws of Axos in DWB No. 100, dated April 1992: 'The Claws of Axos epitomises everything Barry Letts ever did wrong when he got control of Doctor Who. Though it's customary to refer to the Letts, UNIT and Pertwee eras as if they were one and the same, they weren't.
Throughout the seventh season, even after Barry Letts took over responsibility for the mechanics of production on Doctor Who (at which he excelled), the creative impetus behind the series remained that of Derrick Sherwin and Douglas Camfield [sic]. It wasn't until Terror of the Autons that Barry Letts put his stamp on the series, introducing a number of elements which turned the superb, adult science-fiction drama of the previous year back into a shallow 'family' adventure. The fascinating barbed relationship between the Doctor and the Brigadier was converted into the sort of "I insult him, but I love him really" relationship which makes cliched cop shows so nauseating. UNIT, until now a vaguely menacing international taskforce, became a boys' drinking club and, in a prime example of Letts' parochialism, was brought back into the fold of the British Army.'
Brown went on to criticise Pertwee's 'lovable uncle persona' and the dropping of Liz Shaw - 'perhaps the most promising companion since Barbara' - in favour of the 'incompetent' Jo Grant: 'As a character, she was made bearable only by the cuteness of Katy Manning.' Brown's summation of The Claws of Axos was damning: 'The problem is simply that The Claws of Axos is the last of the transitional serials. In basic content and setting, it belongs to the seventh season, and that means that - when it's produced in the Letts style - it shows all the inadequacies of that style.'
This could be said to be a rather cynical view. In fact, particularly when viewed in context as a product of early seventies pop culture, The Claws of Axos stands up very well indeed. Such failings as it does possess are relatively inconsequential production and plotting glitches. The omission of a CSO background as Benton drives a land rover through rampaging Axon monsters, for example, makes the scene in question look very false, and the Doctor's casual appropriation of a nuclear reactor with which to run tests on Axonite seems somewhat unbelievable - especially as it has been said that the reactor supplies electricity to most of Southern England.
Whatever view one takes of it, The Claws of Axos encompasses all the Pertwee era's best-remembered elements - scary monsters, a near-contemporary Earth setting, UNIT, the Master, Jo and of course the third Doctor himself - and fairly typifies Barry Letts' time as producer.