Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos

Serial Title: The Claws of Axos
Series: 8
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

An alien spacecraft appears, heading for Earth, and blowhard government official Chinn (why do they give all these pompous idiots the authority to take control of UNIT? Do you think they'd just let "Senator Sturmwell from Nebraska" (picking a state at random, here, so no offense intended, Nebraskites!) just take control of the US Military? Isn't that what you have trained, experienced military commanders for?) steps in and orders it shot out of the sky.

The attack fails and the spacecraft lands- and devours a homeless man, grabbing him with a giant claw and sucking him inside the spacecraft. It causes all sorts of freak weather activities as well. Off to a promising start in Earth/Alien relations, the Brigadier, the Doctor, Jo, and American agent Bill Filer, dispatched to coordinate with UNIT on the worldwide manhunt for the at-large Master (whom the Doctor continues to insist has left Earth now that he has a dematerialization circuit handy, but on whom the Earth is taking no chances), unaware of the spacecraft's hobo-appetite, head out to meet the alien spacecraft firsthand.

Inside, they are met by the Axons, gold-skinned, faux-beautiful humanoids that have come to offer humanity a gift: Axonite, a miracle substance that can replicate and duplicate any material (including replicating food and power, ending all material needs). The material is taken to the nearby Nuton power plant for testing as Chinn starts getting delusions of Earth-revolutionizing grandeur.

Meanwhile, Bill Filer arrives separately from the group and is captured and held next to the Axon's other prisoner... the Master, captured soon after leaving Earth, who has led them back to this world as an easily-conquerable prize in return for his freedom (not yet granted). Filer has fulfilled his mission to find the Master, but is hardly in any position to do anything about it.

However, the Doctor suspects foul play, getting on Chinn's bad side, and insisting that he be allowed to join the team examining Axonite. Chinn, suspecting that UNIT and the Doctor will interfere in his becoming a global hero, retaliates by having the Doctor and UNIT placed... UNDER MILITARY ARREST...?!?!?! (SERIOUSLY, WHERE DOES HE GET THE AUTHORITY TO DO THIS?!??! I Did they elect a king of the entire planet, and this is his cousin or something?!?!) The Doctor, allowed to continue the examination under 'house arrest,' runs samples through an enormous 'light accelerator' machine.

The Axons create a false Bill Filer and send him to assassinate the Doctor, leading to a colossal battle around the light accelerator- but the real Bill Filer escapes and arrives just in time to destroy his duplicate by hurling them into the accelerator. The Axons are revealed to be horrific spaghetti-pile creatures, part of a collective intelligence, with the golden-beauties as false avatars... and, their evil plot revealed, they attack en masse, bulletproof, and armed with grappling claw-tipped tentacles that can explode a man simply by touching him. With UNIT under arrest, the standard military attempts to deal with them... and is slaughtered.

The Doctor and Jo are captured- the Axons know that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and want the secret of time travel (having captured the Master's TARDIS). They claim that they can restore the Doctor's knowledge of TARDIS operations, blocked by the Time Lords. Meanwhile, the Master escapes, and heads straight for the Doctor's TARDIS, intending to flee... but in the process of trying to make it operational, he is captured by the Brigadier! The Master bargains for his freedom in return for helping to defeat the Axons. He and the Brigadier make an excellent team, turning the power of the reactor and light accelerator, captured by the Axons to draw power form, back upon the Axon ship before they can activate the Axonite, a Trojan Horse that will envelop and devour the Earth.

The plan fails, but in the chaos, the Doctor and Jo escape... and the Doctor realizes that the avarice of the Axons could be used to trap them. In a ruse that even the audience almost believes, the Doctor convinces the Master that he is willing to team up to repair the TARDIS and escape the 'doomed' Earth, valuing a regained mobility over any loyalty to Earth. With the Master's help, the TARDIS is repaired, and the Doctor takes the two of them to the Axon ship.

The Doctor then offers his own deal to the Axons, double-crossing the Master: to link the power of his own TARDIS with the Master's captured unit and to give the Axons the power of time travel. However, he instead uses the power of the linked TARDISes to generate a time loop, trapping the Axons inside- because of their linked, interconnected nature, every bit of the Axons, including their foot-soldier avatars and the Axonite molecules throughout the world, is pulled in. The Doctor uses his TARDIS to escape the loop as it closes up, as the again-betrayed Master (seriously, for two serials in a row, he's been the honorable one that is double-crossed by a treacherous, lying, dishonorable Doctor!) escapes to his own TARDIS and likewise flees.

Oh, and that jerk Chinn...? No repercussions. He escapes the Axon attack, and is last seen alive and well with no repercussions for his absurdly heavy-handed, idiotic tactics. Talk about a flippin' loose thread...!

The Doctor returns to Earth, though not out of any loyalty to UNIT or Jo... instead, his TARDIS has been reprogrammed to rematerialize on Earth whenever it dematerializes. Even though, with the Master's help, the ship is functional again, the Doctor still lacks the knowledge to pilot it, and even if he could, it is irrevocably tethered to Earth- like, as the Doctor puts it, "a galactic yo-yo."

The Claws of Axos (also known as the far more generic ‘The Vampire From Space,’ which the first two episodes were produced as, animated titles and all, before they changed it; other candidates included ‘Doctor Who and the Gift’ and ‘The Friendly Invasion’) starts off with a blithering barrage of irritating illogic, and quickly (and unexpectedly) transforms into one of the best Third Doctor serials yet!

The beginning unquestionably starts off on the wrong foot- the alien spacecraft incoming, and UNIT ascertains a firing solution, which the (anti-military) Doctor (seriously, I wanted to punch his smug face in again for the first couple of episodes- thank goodness the likability meter was cranked again in the second half!) snipes at. "Just a precaution, Doctor," notes the Brig, reasonably. "Shoot first, ask questions later, eh, Brigadier?" asks the Doctor testily. Uhhhh... no. That is the exact OPPOSITE of what a precaution is, and exactly 180 from what the Brigadier just said!!! The Doctor's again just being hostile to prudence for no good reason, and demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of what a precaution is! To which Chinn responds by... immediately firing missiles at the as-yet-unidentified craft! Demonstrating that HE doesn't understand what a precaution is, either- proving the Doctor right by way of clumsy writing, despite having just given the Brig a line entirely contradicting this course of action! In fact, the whole first episode and part of the second is like this- characters behaving illogically, acting as if the last scene they were in or the last line given to them never happened, and generally doing things for no GOOD reason, only because plot contrivance told them to. It's all very ham-fisted and quite obnoxious.

And yet... somehow... at some point you don't even recognize, it begins to turn itself around. The Doctor and his obnoxious attitudes are taken out of center-stage, and Bill Filer and the Master- both entertaining and enjoyable characters, take his place. The narrative keeps up a brisk pace. The effects astound. The plot keeps interest. And when the Doctor does return, he's had a seeming personality transplant that's sanded down the prickles. And suddenly you find yourself saying "Hey, I LIKE this Third Doctor adventure! And not like Inferno or Ambassadors or Spearhead, where I can accentuate the positive because I'm loyal to the show... but like Terror of the Autons, where I genuinely ENJOY watching it! Except... more so!!" Before you know it, the Doctor is voyaging in the TARDIS again, the bad guys are being routed, explosions and plot twists galore, and all of a sudden, you LIKE this story!! The past transgressions are forgiven, and you can fully invest in the thrill of the serial. How did this happen? Well, let's explore some of the elements of the story and see if we can find out...

As per my quandary in the last serial, the Master returns- in quite an unexpected way- captured on his way off Earth. At the end, he departs again in a working TARDIS. In addition, the Doctor's dematerialization circuit is repaired, only for him to discover a new problem; his TARDIS is programmed to re-route to Earth. Still, now it is fully functional again, and potentially capable of travel across the globe. Both of these are extremely surprising developments- the expected status quo is being kept up (Doctor stuck on Earth, Master as recurring villain)- but without stagnating the story. The situations for both of them are continuing to develop, along paths that bring them back to the expected place through natural and well-thought-out plots instead of Gilligan's Island-style contrivances to keep everything from developing and resetting at the end of each episode. This is a good sign for the series- the writers are putting some effort into things! Still, is that it? The entire reason why things are so good...? Despite the detractions? I mean, everyone was acting pretty obnoxious at the beginning- All right, let's run down the characters, and see whether they helped or hindered.

Chinn... hindered. A lot. Here was General Carrington, Mark II- only this time, instead of an obsessed madman in charge, it's a greedy fool with bureaucratic power. Was there anything more satisfying than seeing his home office strip him of it, and offer his resignation for him to sign? Or when the soldiers turned on him? That the Brigadier didn't arrest HIM is a testament to his patience. This character was obnoxious, though more of a comic foil than a true antagonist. Again, once he was sidelined, the story got much better.

Bill Filer... helped. A great deal. He served more or less as the protagonist, taking some heroic actions, having a great (well-staged and well-realized) double-fight, and generally acting heroic- I was glad for his survival at the end, and wouldn't mind seeing him again.

The Master... was at his best here. He had some great sequences- his bridge-jump stunt sequence, his mulling over the TARDIS repairs, his taking a Doctor-like role in the first confrontation between the Master and the Brig, his working with UNIT and the Doctor, his disbelief that the Doctor would actually betray his friends- he had a lot to do, and carried much of the middle of the story on his own. The real surprise came when he actually fed the power to overload the Axons as promised- he had taken every previous opportunity to try and weasel his way into escape, it was the one bit of honesty that proved shocking! Again, with the Axons as the true villains, the master becomes more of a foil and a grudging ally- a role in which he does quite well.

Jo... must be really cold. Those location shots looked downright frigid (courtesy of an overnight snowstorm- out of continuity with the vagrant shots shot a few weeks before, necessitating an added line about ‘freak weather conditions’ resulting from the Axos ship’s arrival), and as short as that skirt was...! Jo continues the trend-reversal from Mind of Evil in this serial; though she is not as useful or active here as she was in that serial, she makes positive contributions (whilst not-understanding a lot in order to give the Doctor exposition opportunities). While certainly not the powerhouse that she was in the last serial- and rather reduced in role to accommodate the larger cast- her overall role was very positive- heaven help me, I think I'm actually beginning to like her as a companion!

The Brigadier... was likewise not the powerhouse of the last serial... but he is no-nonsense in his dealings, not over-reactive militarily, and you have to cheer when he gets the upper hand over that git, Chinn. And with both Chinn and the Master, he forgoes any kind of grudge, acting honestly, honorably, and practically to resolve the crises at hand. Again, a very positive portrayal.

And, the Doctor... oh, Doctor. So irritating in the beginning; why must you always begrudge the military prudent precautions against potential threats, especially those that turn out to be right every time? It was about the scene in the particle accelerator, facing off against that obnoxious and grating scientist, that I came to a realization about this Doctor- he is a jerk to everyone he comes in contact to, abrasive and rude. We like him when he is being a jerk to people we don't like (like Stahlman in Inferno), and get annoyed with him when he's a jerk to people we do (like the Brigadier, of late). Either way, he never stops being a jerk... he just re-directs it to targets we approve of sometimes. Well, the first half of the serial did him no favors, but the second half- starting with his escape with Jo (and use of number recitation to keep her conscious and rational), to his apparent-betrayal, and last-minute heroics, re-earned the good graces that he had in series 7. Overall, the second half fares much better for him than the first, and he ends the serial more likable than unlikeable... please, Doctor- keep up the trend!

Alright, More good than bad- and most of the bad centered in the first half. That could certainly account for things... but aren't we forgetting the two stars of the show?

The first, the Axons, are excellently realized- the pile-of-spaghetti true forms are a little clumsy, perhaps (reminding me of an unholy union between the Krotons and the Excalibans from the original Star Trek's "The Savage Curtain"), but the humanoid forms- with their golden skin, sculpted-looking hair, and strange golden bug-eyes, were quite effective (if goofily clad in flower-child hippie attire) and very alien- with excellent mannerisms and voices. Little alienesque touches abound- the biological technology and protruding claws, the use of tentacles primarily (resulting in a number of shocking moments, from the hauling in of the vagrant- WHY did they have to keep cutting to him so often? It got obnoxious- and Bill, to the stabbing of Bill with a tentacle in episode 3, to the explosive effects during the outdoor battle... all of which were superbly realized, creepy, alien, and disturbing), the wonderfully funny moment in which the Axons assume that frogs are one of our primary food animals, and embarrassingly continue with "Well, pretending that they were..." after finding out otherwise, the hanging alien eye (again, like an unholy crossbreed between a Star Wars dianoga and Max the computer from Fligth of the Navigator) with it's weird, biological, pulsing background, the round, mushroom-like protrusions making up much of the floor and the oddly-configured chair, and most excellently, the view screen!

A humanoid-Axon's head appears, slowly rotating left as it talks, then fading seamlessly to a straight-on gaze which slowly rotates to the right... then back to the center, rotating left, and so on... all done in one take with no rotation of the head, change in tone, or break in continuity- it is all one continuous take (probably accomplished with dual cameras)- it most definitely ISN'T the actor reciting part of the line, then going back to the middle and trying to mimic his own performance- it's one seamless, unbroken take that is marvelously alien and astoundingly creative; I have seen something this innovative and unique, yet simple and effective, since... well, since Matt Smith and new Doctor Who, actually. It's crackling full of Doctor Who brilliance- a little moment of conversation on a view screen that cold have easily been just a head talking, and no one would have thought twice about it- but instead, this little extra touch, just to make things more ALIEN, calls attention (in a good way) to the truly unfathomable weirdness of this species, to great effect. Everything involved with the Axons is brilliantly realized and tremendously creative; this is a totally alien culture and technology branch, and ti shows... and it WORKS. I cannot give high enough kudos to this effort- I haven't been this impressed with innovation in film-making technique and overall method to set a mood in Doctor Who (or anywhere else!) since The Mind Robber! And the effects (which we'll get to shortly) only add to the effect! (Ironically, the legacy of this serial, brand new as of 2011, goes completely WITHOUT any visual components- The Feast of Axos, a sixth-Doctor (why does he get all the legacy stories, seriously?!? Jamie, Zoe, Axons…) audio drama which features Bernard Holley reprising his role as the voice of the Axons.)

But, what of the other star of the series... the TARDIS. My jaw hit the floor when the Master entered into the TARDIS... and the camera followed him in! I was not expecting to see a TARDIS interior until The Three Doctors in series 10; the Earth-exile is not ended, but here we have the new console room, a new console... the first TARDIS interior we've seen since the War Games, and the VERY FIRST TARDIS interior in the color era! What a milestone- and it looks great! The cannibalized, under-repair TARDIS as the Doctor left it, the repaired and function version- the old girl actually FLYNG again!- one of the roundels functioning as a view screen just like the end of The Wheel In Space... and oh, OH, OH!!! did it feel good to be flying in the TARDIS again!!! This is the way it was always meant to be, and the thrill of the Doctor escaping in the TARDIS at the end was truly tangible! It was familiar and wonderful, and I think we shall be rushing through the remainder of Series 8 and all of Series 9 in order to get to the return of that era; it's truly been missed. This, then, supercharged the already exciting atmosphere and perhaps pushed the serial over the top- this is what the audience wanted, and it feels GOOD.

Added to that, of course, is an unflagging pace. (Which is ironically only an after-effect of the over-budget preceding Mind of Evil; its expense caused the original seven-episode serial- already whittled down to 6 by the producers who were starting to realize that 7 parts was too long- to be whittled down to 4, the action relocated from the originally-planned later-Doctor Who cliché of Battersea power station, and overall tightened up). The plot keeps along at a fair clip in this shorter, 4-part serial... and it takes numerous twists and turns; first an alien-visitor story in which it is UNIT vs. Chinn, the foolish bureaucrat- then, just as that is getting resolved, we discover that the aliens aren't what they seem, and the Master is involved, having sold out Earth... and our characters are prevented from finding out about it, as Chinn takes over and unlawfully imprisons our heroes- now, it's a race to escape and a tense journey of exploration, to see if they can discover the plans of the Axons before it's too late, with a 72-hour ticking clock... then, a brief plot about doubles and the Doctor's abduction segues us into a marvelously clever Master and UNIT vs. the Axon invasion- a standard army-vs-aliens plot enlivened by fantastic effects and an uneasy alliance- then, the Doctor escapes (and you have to love that moment where he strides in the door just as the Master reaches it, foiling the latter's escape; it was a bit of a cheer-out-loud, "I am that man!" moment)... and it becomes an apparent conspiracy, the Doctor and the Master working together to escape a doomed Earth- you know that each is playing the other, but you don't know HOW- (between this and the Mind-of-Evil-climax exchange betrayal, the two can never have any trust between them; or, I'd suspect, work together ever again!)- and then, it becomes a traditional, and much-appreciated, Doctor Who ending- the Doctor in the TARDIS, pulling a last minute trick to defeat the bad guys and escape... with a fine little comedy ending in which the Doctor finds he can't explain the concept of a time loop to the Brig, and that he's stuck on Earth due to TARDIS programming (another great moment that, like his entrance above, probably should've gone into the Doctor's paragraph as examples of some of his positive moments). It goes all over the place, offering us so many different KINDS of stories within its short run- so much variety and fun, it never fails to keep interest.

And, of course, all of this is aided by fantastic effects. They blew the budget on this one, I imagine- not only is it bluescreen-crazy, but we have the opening (okay, a little cheap-looking) model shot of the ship, that fantastic entrance with its irised-portal, a magnificent matte-painting establishing-shot for the particle accelerator, and best of all, some fantastic practical effects in battle. The moment in which an Axon tentacle stabs a man, who instantly explodes, is incredible- one of the most seamless effects I've ever seen- with no jump or awkward cut; it's very smooth, and very effective. Shots of the Axons outside- including one strange, dream-like shot of an Axon marching down a tunnel from far off, and with a strange frame-rate- compliment the action well, and the practical-effect work of the deflating heads sucking into themselves is gruesome and appropriately creepy. There was only one major effects failure, and that was the scene of the Axons taking over a jeep (which was excellently staged, with great stunts and pyrotechnics)- the blue background behind the truck (either supposed to be a dark sky-blue background, or an unkeyed bluescreen that hadn’t been replaced with anything- accounts differ) doesn’t even REMOTELY match the overcast gray/white sky of the exterior scenes; the effect is quite jarring and confusing, even after one realizes what one is looking at. It’s a severe and disorienting mismatch. Of course, it's all accompanied by the same awful music; this lot is better than Mind of Evil, with some actual melodies and tone-appropriate-ness, but my long-desired GOOD score to a Pertwee serial, it ain't.

All in all, Claws of Axos blew me away with its great story, excellent pace, amazing effects, aura of excitement, and incredibly creative Axon effects. It's a winner for sure, and exactly the kind of serial that the Third Doctor needed to inject the sense of adventure back into the show.

Great Moments:
The fight in the particle accelerator. The Doctor and Jo’s recitation-escape through the disorienting vessel. The Axon on the catwalk.

I want to subtract some points for the obnoxious opening and annoying Doctor characterization in the first half... but I can't. I honestly can't justify taking a single point off for this serial, and though the opening isn't perfect, the overall serial more than makes up for it's flaws. 5 out of 5 Tumbling Autons- the second perfect score, and the first true classic on the level of Marinus and Mind Robber, for the Third Doctor's era.

With its high-tech accelerator, international manhunt for the Master, and general high technology throughout, I think I'm going to have to give this one a near-future-80s vote by a narrow margin.