Wednesday, March 11, 2009

claws of axos

01-03-09 “Claws of Axos”

“All set to destroy, Brigadier?” --The Doctor

Going into this I had two conflicting sets of values. In general, though I do enjoy Pertwee stories, I do have rather a short attention span for Earth-based UNIT stories of the 1970s. On the other hand, Jamie had spent quite a lot of time explaining to me why he had high praise for the story, though he didn’t leave out its faults either, and found it basically encapsulated the best of its genre in many ways. That said, I didn’t have as high a regard for the story as he did. I found it entertaining, but was rather taken aback at how little the Doctor actually had to do. Then again, I was very tired while watching it.

The serial begins with a Coke bottle in space. It is not really a Coke bottle, it seems to have gills, it is the Axos organic spaceship. Nothing so interesting is happening with UNIT; a bureaucrat named Chinn (presumably because he has two of them) is asserting his right to have “all personnel screened” including the Doctor or, as he expresses it, “Doctor what’s-his-name.” The Third Doctor is very frustrated throughout this story. I had to ask where in the chronology of Pertwee’s tenure this story took place, because it seemed as if he had just had his identity changed, the wounds of being trapped on Earth were so raw. I guess, in a way, despite the monotony and James Bond-ish quality of the Doctor being Earth-bound, it does give you an interesting window into a sort or raw streak of the Doctor’s personality. It’s interesting to consider in light of Nine and Ten being so alone, species-wise. It makes Pertwee, in this story at least, constantly acerbic and short-tempered: “England for the English? What rubbish.”

Meanwhile, having stolen a bicycle and a beard from BBC Rent-a-Beard, Pigbin Josh makes everyone cringe as he is first to fall victim to the Axons. (Bob Baker and Dave Martin seem to use recurring characters like this in a couple of their stories—I’m thinking of “The Three Doctors” and the gamekeeper dancing around Omega’s anti-matter land—but this character, as Jamie rightly warned me, is the opposite of PC. Take a look at this classic quote from the character, as provided by the BBC’s episode guide: “Furge thangering muck witchellers rock throbblin’ this time o’ day Ur bin oughta gone put thickery blarmdasted zones about, gordangun, diddenum? Havver froggin’ law onnum, shouldnum? Eh? Eh? Arn I?”) In the end, his intelligence is deemed “atypical” (humorous shades of “Daleks of Manhattan”).

This story has a large ensemble cast which, on the plus side, means we get to see a lot of the Brigadier. On the negative side, in my opinion, we have to deal with people like Chinn, Bill Filer with an appalling American accent (and who just seems shady; what is Jo thinking?!), and Jo being a shamefully anemic companion in comparison to the two I’ve just watched, Sarah and Ace. I’m sorry, but her outfit is ridiculous. I know Jo has had some stinkers in the past, but she’s got to be frozen to death in that mini-skirt, to say nothing of modesty. I can’t see her contributing much that’s useful to this serial either. Chinn expects the approaching spaceship to be hostile, and the Brig is being cautious, prompting the Doctor’s caustic comment from above. “More of a cry for help than out to destroy us,” though it’s this attitude that made the Doctor wrong-footed in “The Unquiet Dead” (though of course that’s in his future).

I commented while watching that the effects in this story, like the turgid chords of Dudley Simpson’s music, are in danger of being overpowering to the viewer. It’s like they decided to throw everything in their arsenal at us. In a way, it’s kind of endearing. I wonder what was in the minds of the designers re: the Axons—Greek gods or Nijinsky in Afternoon of a Faun? Perhaps a little of both. I have noticed that Bob Baker and Dave Martin like to include an element of these organic sets that the principals have to climb through (I’m thinking of “Invisible Enemy” now) which gives the production team a heck of a lot to work with. We rue and snicker at the effects but overall it’s a noble effort at creativity. The Axon design did set me to thinking about another element of the Gothic, that is, appearance versus nature. It’s not very often in Doctor Who that the outwardly monstrous is revealed to be inwardly beautiful and vice versa. This makes sense at a very basic level because it would be confusing to our basic registers of fear for a monster—like a half dozen of the Pertwee and Baker monsters, from Krynoids to Giant Spiders to Primords—to look anything other than hideous. New Who has been a bit less simplistic about this, but I found it really interesting that the Axons seemed at least initially trustworthy in their Greek god form rather than their blankety-bubbly form (“shapeless and horrible” Jo describes them).

It’s only when the Axons offer a gift in exchange for time on Earth to recuperate that the Doctor becomes suspicious. “Why should they foist this gift on us?” The Axons demonstrate the efficacy of their gift of axonite on a frog (which they, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, think is a food source on Earth). Chinn’s greed—or perhaps a genuine desire to alleviate global hunger?—is captivated and he thinks no more about the Axons’ intentions. “No one is irreplaceable.” A really annoying scientist named Winser is disgusted at the Doctor’s presumption to appear more learned than he. Why has he published “nothing” if he’s a scientist? “Not in Britain,” says the Doctor evasively. “TARDIS? Are you serious?” Before accepting the gifts, the Doctor wants to analyze the axonite. “If it is a thinking molecule it should analyze itself.”

Meanwhile in the “ship,” Bill Filer gets kidnapped along with the Master, who’s been randomly dropped in this episode as he is in a lot of stories from this era. As the Master escapes and tries to gain access to the Doctor’s TARDIS, the Doctor begins to realize that “axonite was just the inactive state”—the Axons, Axos, axionite, is all part of one whole. As the Doctor confronts the Axons about their real plans—to suck the energy of Earth dry, which is why the Master has led them to Earth—the Axons are unconcerned: “all things must die, Doctor.” They have done their part offering “bait for human greed” in order to get from the Doctor what they want: “we must have time travel.” Now, everyone wants time travel. The Daleks do. The Cybermen do. I can’t remember what the Axons want with it other than the obvious—to go everywhere and drain the energy from everything.

I realize that many people do see the story as imaginative and clever, presumably because “nothing is as it seems.” I guess that is one reason such an emphasis is placed on the Doctor’s frustration being Earth-bound—so the viewer can try to believe that he would actually betray his friends to get away and take his revenge on the Time Lords. I, for one, never bought it, much as I never bought that the Axons were anything but sinister. But I have the benefit of hindsight or spoilers. The fact that the Master ends up helping the Doctor and UNIT is a better example of pulling the wool over our eyes—“Are you crazy, Brigadier?” the Doctor asks; “Probably, but we need his help.” There’s quite a bit of action, escapes and recaptures in this story, and a rather amusing section where Sergeant Benton runs over some Axons with a jeep!

Axons stuck in a time loop, the Master possibly having escaped (well, duh), but Chinn having ironically done the right thing and having done his part to help save the world, and the Doctor still stuck on Earth—and he gets probably the most ludicrous ending line of any Doctor Who ever: “It seems that I'm some kind of galactic yo yo.” I can only conclude what is becoming obvious: Jamie is a bigger fan of Bob Baker and Dave Martin than I am!

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