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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part one)

Among fans of my age, there used to be a common point of commiseration: when we got to see the Jon Pertwee serials, they usually didn’t measure up to the book versions we’d already enjoyed. Target had a line of novelizations, many of the best of which were written by Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke, and at least the earliest titles in the line were pretty darn good for 144-page juvenile SF stories. Eventually, Target seemed to adopt a policy of never minding the quality and feeling the width, and the writers did the best they could with a three-week window to hammer out the darn things, but the first ones were usually really readable.

I sought out the book Doctor Who and the Claws of Axos because there was a photo of the huge, hundred-tentacled Axon monster in the pages of the Radio Times 20th Anniversary special magazine. This was published in America by Starlog and was our Rosetta Stone for a while. The monster looked amazing, and Terrance Dicks’s book, based on the 1971 serial by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, turned out to be hugely entertaining. I couldn’t wait to see the original TV version.

The letdown has haunted me to this day. I’d like to think I have a pretty good feeling for what early seventies BBC programming looks and feels like, but even with all the hundreds of hours of videotape drama from the period I’ve absorbed, “The Claws of Axos” is still a stunningly poor production. It’s full of horrible actors and godawful line delivery*, ridiculous props, bad lighting, and a musical score that Dudley Simpson probably played solely with his index finger. The location film work isn’t too bad, apart from the utterly bizarre mumbling of the tramp who finds the aliens’ traveling homeworld, but everything in the studio is incredibly sloppy. This doesn’t look like it was directed by Michael Ferguson, the man who did “The Ambassadors of Death” the year before; it looks like a bunch of schoolkids made it without any rehearsal.

Baker and Martin deserved better. This was the first of eight serials they’d co-write for Who in the 1970s, and Baker contributed one additional story on his own in 1979. It’s a good story, with a very interesting alien menace: the “ship” / “traveling home,” Axos, is the same entity as the golden beings who travel in it. They’re all one organism, and they hope to spread samples of their miracle mineral, Axonite, around the planet. The golden beings pretend to be kind travelers with a promising energy source to share, but, as the cliffhanger strongly hints, they’re really cruel multi-tentacled beasts who have captured the Master and come to our planet to prey on the greed of British politicians.

The cliffhanger was a very effective one in our house, even though I think it looks far too sloppy for a director as accomplished as Ferguson. I cheated and started the episode a minute into it, so our son wouldn’t see that bizarre spoiler of the monsters inside the alien ship that opens the story. (That’s another thing I can’t stand.) So it ends with this head-and-shoulders shot of the tentacled creature and our son jumped up and dove for cover.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part six)

This really is a super story, and it ends brilliantly enough to please even the more frightened members of the audience. Our son watched this one with quite a lot of grumbling and nail biting, but I believe that since it ends with a big explosion, he got to grin really big and shout “The Master got his butt kicked!” So this one goes in the win column.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (parts four and five)

Not too much to say this time, except I seem to be enjoying this story much more than our son, who says this is super scary, and the bad kind of scary. Part five in particular has a great cliffhanger where Mailer, one of the convicts, has Jo hostage and takes a shot at the Doctor. It’s a very well directed and edited cliffhanger, planned and executed right, so after the gunshot, the camera lingers on his pistol for almost a full second before the credits roll. That had to cause a little alarm with our boy.

But he is paying good attention in a very cute way. The Master blackmails the Doctor into helping devise a way to stop or slow down the Mind Parasite that lives in the Keller Machine. As they were working together, our son piped up “Hey, I think they’re brothers!” He’s not the first Who viewer to make that claim. He’ll be drawing his own comics pretty soon at this rate.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part three)

I may not much like the character of the Master as much as I enjoy Roger Delgado’s portrayal of him, but there’s one cute little bit about the Doctor’s and the Master’s relationship that I really love. The Doctor is just about clueless when it comes to modern popular culture. He doesn’t know the Beatles catalog, he doesn’t know anything about Spider-Man, he thinks that Batman flies a space rocket, and when he tries to sing the Ghostbusters theme, he might as well be saying “Correctamundo!” to a classroom full of kids, he looks so stupid.

But the Master is fully versed in classic children’s television and popular music. He enjoys the Scissor Sisters and King Crimson. And yes, Crimson was a popular band, once. He’s listening to In the Wake of Poseidon in the back of his limo, and that album actually went to # 4 in the UK charts, a real-world fact that might be even harder to believe from the cold light of the 21st Century than anything in the Master’s latest scheme.

We’ll leave this story here for a couple of days to give our son a break from it. He thinks this serial is super-scary and could use some bionic down time.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part two)

I wasn’t planning on using an image of the strange Chinese dragon that appears onscreen for all of maybe eleven seconds in episodes two and three of “The Mind of Evil” – the director sensibly decided it’s an enormously disappointing costume and lingered instead on reaction shots from people – but the illusory beast just scared the pants off our son. You can never tell with kids! He was far more stoic and brave about the notoriously child-frightening “Terror of the Autons” than this infamously poor dragon.

His mom suggested that this story is doing a good job getting under his skin because we tell him that monsters and aliens aren’t real and can’t hurt him. And suddenly here’s a story about things that are not real killing people. It helps sell the fantasy when the dude who plays Senator Alcott, Tommy Duggan, does a really great job of freaking completely out when Captain Chin Lee turns off the lights and turns into a monster. The direction and Dudley Simpson’s loud-as-thunder music and the freaky noise of the Keller machine helps. Grown-ups may roll their eyes at that dragon, but it certainly was a very effective cliffhanger for our son.

Incidentally, who the blazes said “Okay, Alcott’s got a phobia of dragons, specifically Chinese dragons, so he’s probably got some subconscious issues with the People’s Republic, so he’s just the right guy to go to London and negotiate with them!”

In the cast, John Levene is back in action as Sgt. Benton in this episode, and, tying all the plot threads together, Roger Delgado is back as the Master. He’s got a limousine and a driver and a big cigar this time, he’s got Captain Chin Lee under his hypnotic control to cause havoc at the conference, he’s eavesdropping while Captain Yates discusses plans to dispose of the nuclear missile, and he’s able to transmit the Keller Machine’s power from the prison through Chin Lee to attack the delegates. He’s just being deliciously evil in this story so far.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part one)

It’s a great pleasure to finally see “The Mind of Evil” in color. I’ve had this DVD for a while and, like “The Ambassadors of Death,” I’ve been waiting patiently to watch it with my son. All of the other lost-in-color Jon Pertwee episodes of Doctor Who had some kind of color version available in the tape trading days, usually a low-quality multiple-generation copy that came from an American broadcast of the series in the mid-seventies. Nobody is known to have recorded this story and kept it. A gentleman called Tom Lundy recorded the other four (I think he was in Buffalo NY) and kept them, but he recorded over “The Mind of Evil” with a football game. All that remained was a few minutes at the beginning of part six before he taped something else.

A few years ago, the BBC’s technicians and magicians reassembled this story as close to the way it was originally shown as can be managed, and it looks very good. Every fifth (or so) frame of part one is hand-colored, with computers estimating the rest, and parts two through six were restored through chroma-dot recovery, extracting a color signal from the data within a black-and-white copy. I think this is all so fascinating. The only critique I can make about part one is that the insides of actors’ mouths seem unnaturally black. Otherwise this looks incredibly good.

“The Mind of Evil,” written by Don Houghton, is a little bit of a throwback to the previous season of Doctor Who. It’s a harder-edged story than the increasingly fanciful and lighter eighth season, tackling prison reform and the threat of global war without an army of candy-colored monsters. The special effects are not as garish as in the previous story, or anywhere as close to how they’d be in the next one, and the Doctor is still yelling at bureaucrats who get in his way, only this time the target of the Doctor’s loud mouth snaps back, and it is pretty hilarious seeing the Doctor get a little comeuppance for his constant rudeness.

Our heroes are faced with two issues that keep them separated in part one. The Doctor and Jo are observing an experimental procedure that is said to be the work of the famous Dr. Emil Keller. It is supposed to remove the “evil” impulses from the minds of criminals. It seems to work on a cruel fellow called Barnham, played by Neil McCarthy, who was the farmhand from the first season of Catweazle a year before this was shown. Also in the cast is perennial guest-starred-in-everything actor Michael Sheard as the prison doctor.

Meanwhile, UNIT is trying to balance providing security to a World Peace Conference while simultaneously planning to dispose of a missile – you don’t think these plot threads are going to join up, do you? – and their jobs get complicated when a Chinese military captain first reports some stolen documents and then waits half an hour after finding her country’s delegate murdered body and lies about it. Joining UNIT for this story and the next is Fernanda Marlowe as Corporal Bell, whose uniform indicates that she enlisted in the RAF, not the Army, before being assigned to UNIT. Corporal Bell has very little to do in her two stories, but it’s nice that the TV people made the effort to continue giving UNIT some recurring characters before forgetting about the character!

I kind of predicted this would start out a little complicated and over the head of our favorite six year-old critic. He wasn’t really taken with it, but he did let us know that the strange Keller Machine, and the bizarre deaths that happen in the prison’s processing room, are “creepy.” Hopefully he’ll enjoy the next episodes a little more!

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