This reviewer is a Doctor Who neophyte, having seen only the two mid-'60s feature films starring Peter Cushing and a few scattered episodes (never a complete story) on both on PBS and the BBC while visiting England in the 1980s. Randomly selecting The Claws of Axos, a four part tale that originally aired in March-April 1971, I found the program quite entertaining and the DVD's supplements especially impressive. The $24.98 SRP is steep for what amounts to four episodes of a TV show, but the program and its extras made me anxious to see more of The Doctor's adventures.
Doctor Who began airing on British television on November 23, 1963 (the day after President Kennedy's assassination) and continued unabated until 1989, making it the longest-running science fiction series in television history. Attempts to revive it (including a new series this year) have met with mixed success, though it seems inevitable that one of these eventually will catch on, especially considering how malleable the program was even when it was in full swing.
For one thing, there have been more than eight actors playing the never-named, time-traveling extra-terrestrial Doctor at various times, with each incarnation notably distinguished from the rest. The star of The Claws of Axos is Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor after William Hartnell (1963-66) and Patrick Troughton (1966-69), and this particular story was the third of Pertwee's second series (season).
Watching a show like this mid-stride, this viewer was a bit confused by some of the plot threads and character relationships, but overall the story was easy to follow. An alien being from the planet Gallifrey but marooned on Earth, the eccentric intellectual time traveling Doctor (Pertwee) comes to the aid of the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce (UNIT) when an alien spacecraft lands on the southern coast of Britain, near a massive nuclear power plant that supplies the entire country with power.
The gold-skinned, bug-eyed but Greek god-like aliens, calls Axons, seek refuge after their ship is damaged by a solar flare. It soon becomes apparent, however, that the Axons and their spaceship are in fact a single parasitic organism (though a number of grotesque, lumbering monsters still threaten our heroes) trying to suck the earth dry of all its energy. The Axons play on the British government's greed, particularly that of a stuffy MP, Chinn (Peter Bathurst), and their desire for a miracle mineral, Axonite. Chinn overrides the authority of series regulars Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning), as well as American agent Bill Filer (Paul Grist). Meanwhile, the Doctor must also contend with another renegade timelord from Gallifrey, known only as The Master (Roger Delgado).
Presented much like an American movie serial, The Claws of Axos runs four "chapters" of about 25 minutes apiece. Never dull, the program is full of action and excitement and visually shows much imagination, despite a modest television budget. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin borrow ideas from Nigel Kneale's Quatermass stories (outsider battles single alien parasite holed up at a massive power plant) and elsewhere, but it's still remarkably sophisticated for what began at least as a mere children's show.
Present day audiences might scoff at the rudimentary visual effects, most of which were accomplished on video via chroma key multiple exposure. But the sheer riot of color and imagination makes it easy to suspend one's disbelief. The set design of the alien spacecraft (which like the Xenomorphs in It Came from Outer Space is burries itself underground upon landing) is extremely inventive, vaguely recalling the abstract designs from Fantastic Voyage. The professionalism of the British cast also goes a long way; their sincere performances sell the material.
Video & Audio
Earlier home video versions of The Claws of Axos were marred by inferior existing masters of episodes 2 & 3, which still are problematic but much improved. As detailed in one of the extras (see below), the BBC at this time occasionally wiped clean their 2-inch videotape masters so they could be reused on another program. Apparently this was the case with these middle shows, and the BBC turned to NTSC sub-masters created for the U.S. and Canadian market. New computer technologies have been able to essentially reconvert these sub-masters back to the British PAL format with less conversion problems visible on earlier home video versions. The end result is that the first and last episodes look great, while the middle shows alternate between pretty good with a few scattered shots still looking quite bad (particularly exteriors originally shot on film). The mono sound on all four shows is fine, and optional English subtitles are available.
Very impressive. Considering we're talking about four episodes of a 35-year-old TV show, this Warner/BBC DVD is packed with fascinating supplements. First is an Audio Commentary featuring actors Katy Manning, Richard Franklin, and producer Barry Letts. The commentary can be listened to in conjunction with Information Text which appear like subtitles and provide gobs of background on both the series and this particular episode. The text also appears optionally on the 26 minutes worth of Deleted and Extended Scenes. This is an unexpectedly fascinating extra, which follows the taping of the first episode from its first slate through its multiple takes as cameramen miss their cues, actors flub their lines, microphones breakdown, etc. (Pertwee at one point becomes irritated with some crew members "dancing about" in his eye-line.) Viewed in tandem with the information text, the segment becomes a detailed primer on early '70s British television production, something that a TV production class or medium historian would find as intriguing as Doctor Who fans.
Next is Now and Then: The Locations of The Claws of Axos, a six-minute segment narrated by Manning, which is exactly what it says, and extremely well done for what it is. Reverse Standards Conversions is another fascinating bit of history, a 10-minute segment hosted by Jack Pizzey, about the technical challenges of early videotape production, and now the restoration of these same programs decades later. Directing Who is a 14-minute interview with Claws of Axos director Michael Ferguson, while a 10-minute Photo Gallery is crammed with great color and black & white production photos, as well as stills from the audio commentary recording session.
Doctor Who - The Claws of Axos was a pleasant surprise all-around. Though perhaps not the ideal program to start with, it made this reviewer eager to sample more episodes, though not at Warner Home Video's pricey SRP. Recommended.
Addendum: Reader Jeff Flugel writes, "Really enjoyed reading your newbie's perspective on
The Claws of Axos DVD....Just a quick note about your review: actually, the new
2005 WHO series was a HUGE smash, a clear ratings champ for the BBC and a big winner at the Brit TV Awards. It was so successful that the BBC ordered an additional 2 seasons, even though the new (and 9th) doctor decided to retire his Tardis keys. The new 10th Doctor (played by David Tennant) makes his debut in a
special Xmas episode. So, basically, after a 16-year hiatus, DR. WHO is back, for a good while at least."
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.