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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 Ambassadors of Death (part seven)

Many Doctor Who episodes suffer from being a little padded, but the conclusion of this story is one of the worst examples of a serial running out of plot and running in place. It certainly isn’t rushed; with maybe ten minutes of story left – ten good minutes, mostly – we have to suffer through about three instances of people, including Michael Wisher, returning after a few weeks away as the TV journalist John Wakefield, asking the insane General Carrington whether he’s absolutely sure he wants to make a live TV broadcast unmasking an alien and showing the world what’s out there, risking worldwide panic.

Now one problem here is that sometime midway through episode six, John Abineri stopped playing Carrington as a controlled and subtle villain and made him unhinged, and the script repeatedly gives him a stupid catchphrase. “It’s my moral duty” might have been chilling if used once, and repeated when he has lost, but it makes the character look foolish when he can’t say anything else. Frankly, his hired goon, Reegan, is far more competent and threatening than Carrington, and all he wants to do with the aliens is have them rob banks.

Another problem is with this worldwide live telecast. There’s one school of thought that somebody must have yanked a plug and nobody at Space Centre knew the feed was cut, otherwise there could have been a mass panic; in any event, the audience in the Who universe saw at least the beginning of some program about an English general claiming the existence of aliens. Another theory, put forward by Tat Wood in a volume of the entertaining About Time criticism, is that anybody who did watch this quickly dismissed it and forgot about it like people in our world did when they saw Alternative 3 or an alien autopsy movie in the 90s, or Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.

I honestly think it’s more likely that the network was just humoring Carrington and never broadcast anything. How in the world did this guy convince anybody at any television channel in any country to stop what they’re doing and let him have control of their airwaves for a live feed? I think the BBC sent Wakefield since he was familiar with Space Centre, and Wakefield had a quiet word with his boss, and they recorded all of this just in case there was something to it. But come on, nobody at the American networks, let alone any relay station in Jos, cut away from anything to hear somebody claim to be ready to unmask a space alien. My suspension of disbelief stopped right about there.

Well, nitpicking at length is the way of Doctor Who fans. I really think this story’s finale was a disappointment overall, but when it was good, it was really good. There’s a terrific bit, pictured above, when the Doctor shouts “What kept you?” at the Brigadier, because he wanted to be rescued earlier. Some of the stunt work is especially amazing, including one fellow who goes down a flight of stairs backward, and the direction of the on-location scenes is very good throughout the show and there are some really good moments in the last episode. I think the conclusion is disagreeably stagy, but that Space Centre control room set is an awfully theatrical set in the first place; it was probably unavoidable.

Our son, meanwhile, loved the story more and more with each installment. He was super-excited this evening, and responded to every new plot complication with “This is gonna be so cool!” When the Doctor and the UNIT gang bring the ambassadors to the Space Centre, he was just about ready to pop. While it was good, this was not one of my favorite adventures, but I think it’s definitely one of his.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part six)

Pictured above, Jon Pertwee steps out into an alien environment created by blue screen / chromakey. This won’t be the last time. The BBC called this blue screen tech – the antecedent of modern green screen – “Color Separation Overlay.” It was used for the first time in the previous serial and there will be quite a lot of CSO in Doctor Who‘s seventies.

It turns out that the aliens are not empty suits as our son predicted, but hideous blue-and-black creatures that we only glimpse very briefly. And it also turns out that General Carrington is behind all the villany. Our son claims that he’s known that the whole time, but I’m not certain I believe that claim.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part five)

Throughout this serial, we’ve seen a large, full-scale space capsule for the actors to climb in. I was interested to learn that this prop was built in a shared-cost budget with another BBC drama, Doomwatch. This allegedly “sci-fact” show about civil servants saving the world from dangerous new technologies and ecological disasters was created by a pair of former Doctor Who‘s regular writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It debuted the week after “Doctor Who and the Silurians” began, and the capsule was used in episode six, “Re-Entry Forbidden,” which was shown five days before the first episode of this serial. I wonder whether anybody watched both shows in March 1970 and noticed.

After watching part four, I showed our son a picture of John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton from “The Invasion” to refresh his memory, because Benton, now a sergeant, resurfaces in this episode. There’s a neat story about how this character got promoted to semi-regular. He was one of many good guy military characters in “The Invasion,” which Douglas Camfield had directed. Camfield was in line to direct the next serial, “Inferno,” and since there was room in the script for a Sergeant Anybody character, he asked whether they could rehire John Levene, as he enjoyed working with the actor. The production team reasoned that there was also a Sergeant Anybody in this story, and so it might make a little sense to start using some familiar faces in UNIT rather than a revolving bunch of guys in beige uniforms. That worked out quite nicely. Everybody likes Sergeant Benton.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part four)

This is the second story in a row where the director found a chance to shoot the alien menace of the month in front of the sun, resulting in big lens flares. Timothy Combe, last time, and Michael Ferguson, director of this story, really have enjoyed the BBC’s move to color. But you’ll forgive me not illustrating it; the chroma-dot recovery that restored the color to most of this serial (episodes 2-4 and 6-7) is wonderful but imperfect. The screen grabs from the video interiors, while still flawed, look much better than the orange-and-purple smeared 16mm exteriors.

Ferguson is a great director whether on location or in the studio. I love the way he composed this shot at the cliffhanger. The Doctor has found the body of the Civil Servant of the Month, killed by one of the aliens wearing the astronaut suits, and, as he’s trying to see whether Sir James has been injured or killed, the alien, with its touch of death, comes up behind the Doctor.

Our son thinks that the Doctor will be okay, suspecting that the Doctor’s people have a much higher resistance to radiation. He also still thinks that the aliens are just animating the suits. Perhaps they’re disembodied and they need radio impulses to understand commands because they don’t have ears?

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