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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part four)

I’m not sorry to see this one end. There’s only one Pertwee serial I enjoy less than this turkey, and that’s months away, thank goodness. I do enjoy the original story, and there are several amusing moments and lines of dialogue in this installment, it just looks and sounds so awful. However, in director Michael Ferguson’s defense, whoever designed that set for the light accelerator room didn’t give any thought to how they were meant to stage an attack by monsters. Ferguson didn’t stand a chance making it look good; the constant cuts to shots of Katy Manning with her eyes wide and hands on her head as the battle commences suggest what the director himself was probably doing.

But it certainly succeeded in doing its job to frighten kids. Our son tells us that the Axon monsters are the scariest in all of Doctor Who, even eclipsing the Ice Warriors, the previous holders of that award. To be fair, one of the costumes – I think there are four – really does look terrific, even from the jaded eyes of adulthood. The other costumes are just blobby red bags with some noodles and string glued to them, but the one principal Axon really is a triumph, and the best thing, other than Roger Delgado, about the whole production. I guess I was twelve or thirteen when I first saw a photo of this beast, and I was impressed then and I remain impressed now.

One of the blobby red bag Axon costumes was painted green and pressed into service as a different monster five years later, but the Axons themselves never returned to the series, although there were several rumors that Peter Capaldi wanted the Twelfth Doctor to have a rematch with them. Fernanda Marlowe’s character, Corporal Bell, never returned, either. I hadn’t really realized that she was only in part one of this story. That was a missed opportunity; particularly with Benton and Yates due for some needed character development in the next two UNIT stories, it might have been nice to see a woman in a recurring role during this very, very male-dominated period of the program. In fact, the show was so overwhelmingly male-focused in 1971 that we missed out on what might have been a very memorable female villain in the very next story…

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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part three)

Since the Doctor spends this entire episode captured and imprisoned by Axos, it’s left to Roger Delgado to steal the show. The Master calmly has his run of both the Nuton Power Complex and the Doctor’s beat-up TARDIS, and Delgado is incredibly fun and watchable. He’d be even more fun had more microphones been handy to pick up all his bad-natured grumbling about the sorry state of the TARDIS console’s disrepair, because a lot of this episode is really quiet, but he gets all the best lines.

I mentioned with part one that this whole story seems incredibly sloppy and amateurish and the sound and vision issues are bad in all the studio sessions. I don’t know that it’s exclusively the actors failing to project, but it’s really hard to hear Pertwee in places in part one, which is really strange since the actor is usually bellowing. There are several shots where it seems the cameras weren’t in the right place to catch the action, like when the UNIT men spot the Master leaving the TARDIS this time, along with quite a few insanely quick reaction shots. It all feels like they just edited this story together from a dress rehearsal, not the final performance. The director definitely should have stopped recording this episode long enough to tell Delgado to speak up.

But while I was loving the Master’s dialogue in spite of the poor sound, our son was hating the Axon tentacled monsters. The director did a pretty good job filming the tentacled monster storming around the complex electrocuting soldiers, which had our boy hiding behind the sofa, but a far less good job actually staging where the Brigadier is in relation to the action. This was Michael Ferguson’s last Doctor Who serial and by far the least of them, but he would direct several much, much better TV episodes after this, including eight episodes of The Sandbaggers.

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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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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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