Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Doctor Who Week: "The Claws of Axos" (1971)

An organic spacecraft crashes near the Nuton Power complex, and a national emergency is declared. 

UNIT forces including the Doctor (Jon Pertwee), Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) arrive on the scene. 

They soon learn that the alien pilots of the ship -- the Axons -- require aid and assistance. 

The Axons, who possess biological or organic technology, want to remain on Earth until their damaged vessel’s power supply can be replenished.  In exchange, they promise to share Axonite -- a unique power source and “thinking” molecule -- with the human race.

After examining Axonite, the Doctor learns that the Axons and their material are part of a single, living vampiric entity with the capacity to destroy the Earth.  When Jo is held hostage and endangered by the Axons, the Doctor must make some difficult choices.

And complicating matters, the Doctor’s sworn enemy and rival -- The Master (Roger Delgado) -- is working with the Axons.

The era of the Third Doctor -- played by Jon Pertwee -- brought a huge shift in terms of Doctor Who’s already-flexible format. 

No longer would the Doctor regularly travel to other worlds and time periods.  Instead, as UNIT’s “scientific adviser,” he would help to defend the Earth from various alien threats and invasions.  If the William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton eras featured stories based on “The Time Travel Syndrome” I wrote about yesterday, Jon Pertwee era stories were from another science fiction tradition all-together: the Quatermass stories of writer Nigel Kneale.

Quatermass had actually aired on British television a decade before Doctor Who, and the series involved the exploits of Bernard Quatermass, a dedicated man of science.  In one story, Quatermass investigated an alien fungus that an astronaut returned from outer space carrying, in a tale not entirely unlike Who’s “The Ambassadors of Death.”

Another Quatermass series, Quatermass and the Pit showcased the scientist’s excavation of an ancient spaceship in Hobb’s Lane which revealed the truth about the Devil, occult legends, and demonic possession.  This story was also retold, after a fashion, in another Doctor Who serial of Pertwee’s era: “The Daemons.”

The era of the Third Doctor also was the first age lensed in color, and it gave the Doctor a recurring or regular nemesis: the Master (Roger Delgado).  The Master was another renegade Time Lord, and was to the Doctor what Professor Moriarity was to Sherlock Holmes. 

Finally, the Time Lords who had been established in the serial “The War Games” as draconian, unfeeling arbiters of cosmic justice were re-framed in Pertwee’s more swashbuckling era as cosmic bureaucrats and task maskers who would occasionally send the Doctor on a mission or two.  In other words, they became the “M” to his agent 007.

If all this discussion of antecedents makes Doctor Who of this era sound derivative or somehow unworthy, however,, then a disservice has been done.  Pertwee’s Doctor was a colorful man of action, and no doubt, the most stable of the Doctor’s many incarnations (save, perhaps, for Peter Davison’s). 

Also, by stranding the Doctor on Earth in the late 20th century, the series writers had to meaningfully grapple with the fall-out of his decisions. Suddenly, the Doctor could not just right a wrong as he perceived it nd travel away, forgetting his every action.  Instead, The Doctor had to consider what was best for his new “home” – the Earth -- and audiences saw the Doctor attempt to balance human and “other” interests in serial such as “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and “The Sea Devils.”

The early 1970s was also a time of immense concern about environmental issues.  Genre films such as No Blade of Grass (1970), Doomwatch (1972), Z.P.G. (1972), and Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972) all concerned the menace created by man’s pollution of the Earth.  Jon Pertwee’s era of Doctor Who  -- which occurred during those same early years of the decade -- likewise obsessed on matters of the environment. 

Serials such as “The Green Death” and “Inferno” gazed at the reckless practices of modern man (and big business, even) vis-à-vis Mother Nature.  Even those stories set on other worlds, such as “Colony in Space” and “the Mutants” concerned  imperialistic “empires” that plundered other worlds for their natural resources. 

Connected with this theme of pollution/environmentalism, Doctor Who of the Pertwee era took dead aim at bureaucrats, and their “country first, planet second” approach to dealing with roiling issues like the Energy Crisis or pollution.

One of the best serials of the period is “The Claws of Axos,” a tale which introduces a unique alien race equipped with organic technology.  This bio-mechanical approach reappeared later in Doctor Who history (in serials such as “Terror of the Zygons” and “The Android Invasion,” in the Tom Baker Era), but it epitomizes the environmental approach to storytelling in the Pertwee epoch.  

The Axons, unlike humans, see themselves as being “a part” of their world/technology/environment, not as beings distinctly separate from it.  This is a crucial distinction in terms of world-view.  Humans are able to look at the Earth and see it as a separate thing, and it is that sense of distance, I presume, which makes abusing Mother Nature all that much easier.  We don't consider it as being part of us.  The Axons and their ship...they're all part of the same thing; the same "hive" mind.

In “The Claws of Axos,” viewers also see the avarice and selfishness of the British government as it seeks to control distribution of the alien Axonite so it can make a profit by selling the substance to other nations.  The point, of course, is that as "separate" nations on Earth, countries consider their best interests, even at the expense of the planet as a whole.  

Minister Chinn, the bureaucrat behind this plot in "The Claws of Axos," exemplifies the worst in the human race in this regard.  The Doctor, in his role as concerned outsider, rails against Chinn and his agenda, and audiences can see how short-sighted Chinn's thinking really is.

As an alien stranded on Earth and therefore forced to suffer the consequences of our bad decisions, the third Doctor is a very vocal crusader and critic of mankind.  I admire this aspect of the character, and the fact that the Third Doctor -- a man of peace trapped on a planet at war with himself -- brings it out so successfully.  

Some of this thematic material also comes forth in the interplay between the Brigadier -- a (perhaps reluctant) man of the establishment -- and the Doctor, a man rather distinctly not of the establishment.  These characters are co-workers (and occasionally friends, of course), but they work together to arrive at the best solution to the crisis.  Still, their relationship often possesses a level of tension, and that's another tangible joy of the Pertwee Era.


  1. Wonderfully weird creatures in this one. One of Pertwee's most memorable.

  2. Anonymous7:20 PM

    One of the joys of the BBC releasing all of the original eps on DVD is getting to see many of them for the first time. I'm rather surprised by how enjoyable the Pertwee eps are. The production values are considerably better than the 60's eps. Pertwee's Doctor is, thankfully, usually more more serious than Troughton or Baker's Doctor. I rather miss Unit's absence in the later Baker eps...and Katy Manning is a total delight!


Buck Rogers: "Cruise Ship to the Stars"

In “Cruise Ship to the Stars,” Buck (Gil Gerard), Wilma (Erin Gray), and Twiki (Mel Blanc) board the space luxury liner Lyran Queen on ...