Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos Review
This is where I came in.
Saturday 13 March 1971, 5.15 pm. The new Doctor Who serial, The Claws of Axos begins. 7.3 million people were watching. One of them, aged six years and five months, in the Hampshire town of Church Crookham, was me. Whatever its strengths and weaknesses – and I’d not put it amongst the very best Who serials, though it’s far from the worst – it was the first one I ever saw. Along with the original series of Star Trek, my basic education in televisual SF began here.
A large alien spacecraft called Axos lands on Earth. The spacecraft is inhabited by gold-skinned humanoid aliens, the Axons, who seem benevolent, on a mission to bring gifts to humanity. But the Doctor and UNIT are not so sure. And what is the Master’s involvement in all this?
The Claws of Axos was the third story in Season Eight, Jon Pertwee’s second as the Doctor. By now, the producer/script editor team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were making their presence felt. Somewhat dissatisfied with the somewhat more adult, hard-edged tone of the previous season, they had made several changes. Out went sophisticated scientist Liz Shaw (Caroline John was pregnant and couldn’t return anyway, but this wasn’t known when the decision to replace her was made). In came Jo Grant (Katy Manning). Another UNIT regular, in the form of Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), arrived. He was envisaged as a possible love interest for Jo, but this didn’t come to pass. Generally, Letts and Dicks wanted to move the series back towards its family-viewing roots. Due to complaints about scary scenes in the Season Eight opener Terror of the Autons (people swallowed up by armchairs and suffocated by plastic daffodils shooting out clingfilm), The Claws of Axos lost its original title The Vampire from Space at a very late stage and a couple of its more gruesome special effects (the collapsing faces of the Axos victims) were toned down – or rather whited out.
And then there was The Master, played by Roger Delgado. Introduced by Letts in order to provide the Doctor with a Moriarty figure – and given a name also equating to an academic qualification, though I doubt that The Bachelor would have the right ring to it – the Master was partway through appearing as the villain in all five Season Eight stories.
Colour had arrived in Doctor Who the year before, but in this story certainly uses colour rather than simply being made that way. The interior of Axos is a riot of colours and oil filters borrowed from Top of the Pops. It simply screams SEVENTIES – as does Jo’s miniskirt and many of the men’s haircuts. This gaudy colour scheme would no doubt have been lost on all those (including me) who were watching it on black and white TV sets. In fact, we’re lucky to be able to see it that way today – it looks like you’d imagine The Year of the Sex Olympics might have, if the colour original had survived – but I’ll continue this theme when I discuss the extras below.
The storyline does become muddled, with characters changing sides – there’s even a moment when the Doctor looks like he’s going to leave Planet Earth in the lurch, shock horror! – but The Claws of Axos, the debut of future regular writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin, is a solid, holding-pattern story that sits at the beginning of the Letts/Dicks/Pertwee era and contains most of the items which it was best remembered for.
To begin with the basics, The Claws of Axos is transferred to DVD in its correct 4:3 ratio. The much-discussed junking of 60s episodes (for further details, see my review of the Lost in Time set. This practice affected the Pertwee era as well, though in this case black and white 16mm telerecordings did survive. Many of these lost colour episodes were recolourised from NTSC sources, either returned colour tapes or off-air recordings. Some episodes still remain black-and-white only: this story’s immediate predecessor, The Mind of Evil is the worst affected, with only a few minutes of colour footage from its final episode. (If anyone reading this knows of colour recordings of this, or Episodes 2 to 7 of The Ambassadors of Death, Episode 1 of Invasion of the Dinosaurs or Episode 3 of Planet of the Daleks, or for that matter any copy of the 108 missing black and white 60s episodes, get in touch with the Doctor Who Restoration Team straight away.)
In the case of The Claws of Axos, Episodes 1 and 4 survive as the original PAL videotapes, but only NTSC colour copies exist of 2 and 3. A newly-developed process called Reverse Standards Conversion (see below) has been developed as an improved method of converting the NTSC video (itself converted from PAL) back to PAL. The results are certainly better than the previous video releases, though the difference is still noticeable. The RSC’d episodes are grainer and softer with less definition and visible line structure – this is much more noticeable, to be fair, on progressive-scan equipment such as a PC monitor, much less on a standard TV, even the 28” widescreen I watched this on. I can’t criticise as, short of the unlikelihood of the original PAL videotapes turning up, this is as good as it will get. Some of the best Pertwee stories only exist in colour from NTSC sources, so we can anticipate that RSC will be used to enhance the quality of their future DVD releases.
Little needs to be said of the soundtrack, which is mono as you’d expect. It’s a professional BBC job, with dialogue, effects and Dudley Simpson’s score well balanced. There are six chapter stops per episode and the disc is encoded for Regions 2 and 4. Subtitles are provided for the feature and all the extras, including the commentary. As usual on a Who DVD there are useful information subtitles, this time provided by Martin Wiggins.
The main extra is the commentary, from Letts, Katy Manning and Richard Franklin. There’s clearly a rapport between the three, though Letts and Manning speak the most, the latter not lapsing too often into the little-girlisms that become an annoyance on some of her other commentaries.
There’s another sizeable extra with “Behind the Scenes” (26:57), a surviving unedited videotape of the studio recording, which still comes up on the opening titles as The Vampire from Space. We see retakes due to fluffed lines, Pertwee asking technicians to stop “dancing about” as it was distracting to him, and the only existing behind-the-scenes footage of Roger Delgado. Information subtitles, this time provided by featurette producer Richard Bignell, are an optional extra.
“Now and Then” (6:33), narrated by Katy Manning, looks at the locations in and around Dungeness, now and at the time of the story’s making. Having recently reviewed Derek Jarman’s The Garden on DVD, I recognised some of the locations!
“Directing Who” (14:42) is a brief featurette where Michael Ferguson talks about his experiences of directing Claws of Axos. One of the more stylish Who directors, his interview is a little dry. “Reverse Standards Conversion” (10:08), presented by Jack Pizzey, talks about the need for TV standards conversion – originally prompted by the BBC’s need to show NTSC colour pictures from the Mexico Olympics in 1968 – and talks to the developers of RSC, comparing RSC’d clips of Claws of Axos to the previous NTSC-colour-signal-plus-b/w-film-recording process used for the earlier VHS release. It’s interesting, though deliberately non-technical, if rather spoiled by an unfunny joke at the end. The extras are completed by the usual self-navigating photo gallery, which runs 10:54. There are no Easter Eggs this time round.
Although this is the story that got me started, in retrospect it’s probably not the best introduction to the Third Doctor’s era. It works as a solid, entertaining serial and long-standing fans will snap it up. The disc benefits from the Restoration Team’s usual careful work and well-chosen extras. The RSC process is an important addition, so lets hope that other DVDs using it will follow in due course, Inferno and The Daemons to name but two.