Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part two)

Last time, I mentioned how seeing “The Claws of Axos” was a big letdown when I saw it, but there’s another part to the story, and that’s how we saw the Pertwee serials in America in the eighties, when I was a grouchy, cynical teenager.

WGTV in Atlanta had shown the Tom Baker and Peter Davison stories at least twice before showing the 24 Pertwee serials. I was very excited to see them, but I was also too lazy to get an after-school job and so I relied on a weekly allowance to afford blank videotapes. Good tapes cost $7 or $8 apiece then, and so for a while there, I usually ended up scrimping and getting whatever garbage brand tapes, like BASF, I could find on sale, and I had no choice but to record on the awful SLP mode. But with so many six and seven-part serials, I still couldn’t afford all the tape needed to record every story on its first broadcast. Because I enjoyed the book Doctor Who and the Claws of Axos so much, I actually scheduled to tape stories to keep around this one. I was really looking forward to it.

Because so many of the color tapes of the early Pertwee episodes were wiped by the BBC, they syndicated a package that had several black and white TV-movie collected editions. So we saw the shot-on-16mm color “Spearhead,” two black and white movies, the somewhat muted and natural color of “Inferno,” two more black and white movies, and then “Axos,” which features an alien environment which isn’t just colorful, it’s hilariously colorful.

I still raise an eyebrow over the interior of Axos, but I did worse than that when I first saw it. Axos looks like a bouncy castle with yellow curtains, chromakeyed lava lamps over the walls, and pulsing psychedelic patterns projected on the actors. You half expect the director to clear the set because Sid and Marty Krofft have booked it to shoot Lidsville. From the cold light of the late 1980s, never mind now, it’s almost comical.

I couldn’t believe it. After the gritty and believable monochrome world of “The Mind of Evil,” which, true, had a silly monster, but only for about ten seconds, it looked like Doctor Who took a quantum leap backward into the cheesiest and cheapest Saturday morning world. This couldn’t convince anybody, could it?

And yet it did: people who saw “Axos” on color sets in 1971 still tell tales about how utterly amazing it looked. They’d never seen anything remotely like that before, and with good reason. The BBC had never made an environment remotely like this before. And our son thought this was incredibly weird, and he sat riveted and fascinated, until another cliffhanger ending with more tentacled monsters sent him diving for cover.

I think it’s like this: if you’re in your forties like me, you might remember the first time you saw Dire Straits’ video for “Money for Nothing” on MTV in 1985, when that computer animation was the wildest thing you’d ever seen. Those characters were 3-D! It looked like they were popping out of the screen! But it doesn’t look like that anymore. It looks as flat as sixties’ Hanna-Barbera TV animation. Anyone younger than we were at the time, young enough to have first seen all the computer animation that came in the wake of “Money for Nothing,” never had the chance to experience what we did. Try explaining what “Money for Nothing” was like to somebody in their twenties. They will not understand what in the world you’re talking about.

So you have to grade “Axos” on a curve. I think that in 1971, most people in the UK were still watching black and white sets. The BBC had only been broadcasting in color for sixteen months. This didn’t look like a fake bouncy house to them, even if it did to grumpy teenagers in 1987.

In other news, Fernanda Marlowe’s Corporal Bell is not in this episode, but another character is. Tim Pigott-Smith, making his television debut, plays Captain Harker of the regular army, not a UNIT officer, in this and the next episode. Pigott-Smith, who died in April, went on to an amazing career, winning accolades and awards and an OBE. He’s pretty easy to overlook in this story. He’d acquit himself with a meatier role when he came back to Doctor Who five years later.

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