Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Insanity Claws

The words Doctor, Who, Christmas and Special seem to go together with a degree of regularity these days and a small part of what made my Christmas special this year was the veritable feast of Doctor Who DVDs I was lucky enough to receive as gifts. Skipping right past the part where I found myself, mere moments after removing the wrapping paper, absently arranging those gifts in order of broadcast - I'd really thought my days of Doctor Who geekdom were far behind me, but it's clearly chronic - I thought it might be fun to post my impressions of each here, as and when I got the chance to watch them.

First up then is The Claws of Axos. (It was going to be The Aztecs, but my wife wants me to wait on that one until we can watch it together.)
This is one of those mad stories made at a time when Doctor Who wasn't only in colour, it was lurid and playing with all the latest video effects. Presumably to go some way to disguising how theatrical it all was back then - there's a sense in this, more than others I've seen, of someone attempting to produce a blockbuster movie on stage, and where certain costumes or make-up effects aren't up to scratch they try to cover with swirly lighting and wibbly psychedelic 'wizardry'. Which somehow just comes across as being theatrical in a different dimension.
What it has in spades, like many an old Doctor Who, is ambition. Buckets of it. It's something you have to admire - well, I do - and I'm constantly amazed that no-one (apparently) ever looked at a script and said, "No, no, we can't possibly do that on ten shillings."

It's just one of the numerous qualities that helps me look past the visual shortcomings. So if the Axons we see on screen parade around in zip-up yellow leotards, I know that, if the same story was made today, those 'skin' patterns would be animated and flowing all over their shimmering CGI bodies like liquid gold. And in any case, from the neck up, they look rather creepy. Their faces have a rather Medusa-like quality and I can see why RTD might have borrowed the design, give or take a chakram halo or so, for his Heavenly Host robots.

To the story's credit, design is a strong-point in other areas, with the Axons in their "rusty (with a small r) Krynoid" form being reasonably monstrous and generally effective, except where they look like a man rolling around the floor in a big orange bag. (It's just the one scene, but it's lodged in the memory now and there's no shifting it.) And parts of the interior of Axos are well-realised, although the liberal use of CSO is distracting, lending characters an edge they could have done without and the claws that restrain various prisoners are too obviously rubbery, as though limbs were cannibalised from the entire stock of lobster costumes from the local party shop.
The Axos exterior is what really deserves praise. CSO deficiencies aside, a grand job was done making it look like an organic ship - a sort of space-faring leech - and they even go to some trouble to make it look as though it's breathing as it hurtles towards Earth in those opening shots. Fantastic.

Unfortunately, it's in those same opening shots that the story falls down. Because as well as the ship we get a montage of shots of the Axons in their ugly, spaghetti monster guise. And the immediate upshot is a story that strangely misses its own point.

It's a great premise, with bags of potential. But that bag is burst like an overloaded Tesco carrier and the contents spilled all over the place. If the Axons had arrived on Earth and they had been beautiful, golden humanoids ready to bestow their wondrous gifts on humanity *without* our prior knowledge that they were in fact horrible tangled blobs of spaghetti, we - the audience - might have been fooled for at least the length of an episode. Possibly longer, if the writers had played their cards right.

But they show us their hand at every turn. The Doctor, even though he is firmly against the shoot first policy - and quite right too - isn't fooled for a minute, and neither are we. Which is a damn shame, because all we're left with is a just sufficiently entertaining romp while we wait for the situation to be resolved. The Doctor recognises the signal from Axos as a heartbeat, but the heart of the story is given no room to breathe. We really needed to be taken in by the deception with the rest of humanity, even if only for a while.

We're fortunate at least in that the story features *this* Doctor and *this* Master. Pertwee and Delgado are in fine form, both a pleasure to watch. The way the Master is slipped into proceedings almost incidentally, as a prisoner of Axos, is nice and when Delgado stares and declares, "I am the Master. You will obey me", you're inclined to agree. Even so, the solution to the Axos problem - the time loop trap - seems to be sprung, by and large, out of nowhere and the end result is, like the spaghetti monsters, a bit shapeless and not nearly as satisfactory as a plateful of bolognese. And I say that as a vegetarian.

Of the supporting cast, it's good to see Donald Hewlett, of It Aint Half Hot, Mum fame and Peter Bathurst as Chinn provides some entertainment as the essential - and at the time, somewhat ubiquitous - government minister. Bureaucrats being, if not quite the Daleks, then the Cybermen of the Pertwee era. There's a decent bit of action in the mix - as you'd expect from a UNIT adventure - but, with the story's potential so thoroughly wasted at almost every turn, it all seems a bit purposeless.

According to the information on the Deleted/Extended scenes, the story's working title was The Vampire From Space and the amended title was mistakenly transcribed in a memo as The Clause Of Axos. A better title might have been The Seeds Of A Really Great Story, but unlike the Krynoids that the Axon costumes, with the application of a bit of green spray paint, were to become, those seeds never take root.

There are probably other points of appeal I'm overlooking in the interests of being brief, but overall it's a colourful relic I'm glad enough to have but it's by no means the best of what is - and will always remain - one of my favourite eras of one of my favourite shows. Some of those loopy video effects seem a bit drug-induced, but the Doctor had better trips than this, even when stranded on Earth.

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