CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Claws of Axos / Special Edition DVD Review

The Claws of Axos was certainly a long time gestating under the auspices of 'the Bristol Boys', Bob Baker and Dave Martin and they came to write for Doctor Who by a slightly unusual route.

Bob, a monumental mason, film maker and an animator had been making short films for Vision On (1964-76), created by Ursula Eason and Patrick Dowling and presented by Tony Hart and Pat Keysall. While refurbishing a shop and considering how to write the script to an animated film of the Peter Grimes section of George Crabbe's poem The Borough, Baker met Dave Martin, an advertising copywriter, after Martin came into the shop as it was closing.

'It was lucky for me that Dave could type and that he owned a typewriter!' recalled Baker about collaborating and writing their script for Peter Grimes. They both tried to get director Clive Donner, whom Baker had been working with as a location scout, interested in the project. Although the film never got off the ground, they were encouraged to keep writing and 'we just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote – piles and piles and piles of scripts'. (1)

Both were close friends of the late Keith Floyd, who would eventually become a television chef of some repute, and their comedy play about Floyd's life in the Army, A Man's Life, had found its way to Terrance Dicks via the BBC's Script Pool. Dicks was then working as script editor with Peter Bryant, Derrick Sherwin and Trevor Ray on the transformation of Doctor Who from its black and white origins to the colour series that would launch the seventh season in 1970.

... astronauts turning into carrots
Dicks, Bryant and Sherwin, mindful that they needed fresh blood to write for the show as well as commissions from tried and tested writers like Mac Hulke and Robert Holmes and intrigued by A Man's Life, met with the pair and in due course asked them to submit ideas for the series. Their first attempt, called The Gift, was an epic that could have filled a seven part story and featured ambitious ideas involving skull shaped spaceships landing in Hyde Park, huge space battles with jellyfish-like ships and astronauts turning into carrots.

The central premise of The Claws of Axos was present in The Gift, namely an alien humanoid race generously offering humanity a gift to mask their real intention to destroy the Earth. By the time Dicks had mentored the two writers to scale back their idea for a potential six part commission in December 1969, Jon Pertwee had taken on the title role and his first season was already lined up for transmission.

When the script of the first episode finally arrived the following April, it was rejected. Following producer Barry Letts' advice to concentrate on the idea of benign aliens actually turning out to be evil, 'themes involving trade, greed and capitalism were worked in' after Dicks commissioned them for a six part story The Friendly Invasion. (2)

During the summer of 1970, Baker and Martin were then asked to include the Master, the Doctor's Time Lord arch-enemy devised for the eighth season, into what had then become The Axons. The first episode of The Axons was commissioned in September and Dicks continued to mentor the two writers.

Dicks offered ideas, suggesting for example that the Axon ship was organic and could drain the energy from its surroundings, and requested the roles of Filer and Chinn be expanded. He sent them scripts from Terror of the Autons and The Mind of Evil as specific examples of what the production office were looking for.

As Bob Baker explained about the writing process, 'Dave and I learned the ‘Doctor Who’ formula with The Claws of Axos. It took us a year to write that. The formula is to have a little something every couple of minutes, a small climax every five minutes, something big every ten minutes, and something huge at the end. It’s a structure you work to, using your characters to shape it. And it’s good fun.' (3)

By November 1970, all four scripts for The Vampire from Space, a title suggested as more Who-ish by the production office, were delivered as the production crew was being assembled under the direction of Michael Ferguson who had previously directed The Ambassadors of Death and had just finished work on Paul Temple. 

Ferguson had proved to be a very visual director on Doctor Who. He was interested in the technologies now available to colour television production and, with the more exotic requirements of the script in mind, he booked an experimental studio session on 22 December 1970 to try out a number of CSO effects, using Axon costumes and make up already prepared by external contractor Jules Baker, and to work with designer Kenneth Sharp on how to blend studio sets and backdrops keyed in with CSO. He also experimented with video discs, lighting effects previously used on Top of the Pops, front and back projection techniques.

Location filming began on 4 January 1971 in Dungeness, Kent with film cameraman A.A. Englander. The first sequence shot on that misty, snowbound afternoon was Derek Ware's turn as Pigbin Josh on the rubbish tip and then cycling into the icy waters of a ditch. Pigbin Josh's demise was also shot using a wax model of Ware's face to achieve the effects of his face disintegrating. It was considered so overtly horrific by Letts, concerned about recent complaints suggesting Doctor Who was too scary for children, that in post-production a white-out was added to the end of the sequence.

The regular cast of Pertwee, Manning, Courtney, Franklin and Levene were joined by Donald Hewlett (Hardiman), David Savile (Winser) and Peter Bathurst (Chinn) to film all the sequences outside the Axon ship in freezing conditions. The following day saw the filming of the arrival of UNIT's Mobile HQ (in reality a BBC Outside Broadcast van) including Army men provided by the Risborough Barracks and a gun mounted Land Rover.

The freezing temperatures caused Courtney's false moustache to fall off when the glue holding it on froze while Manning's feet were almost frostbitten and she required make-up to disguise the effects of the cold. As a consequence, many of the cast and crew took to warming themselves over running car engines. On 6 January, they were also joined by Roger Delgado for more sequences outside the Axon ship. The ship was a prop built from foam and latex on a chicken wire frame and came complete with opening doors and a tendril manipulated by wires.

Ferguson, Englander, Derek Ware and the HAVOC stunt team filmed a number of sequences on 7 January including the Master's jump, performed by Jack Cooper, from a bridge onto a passing lorry and the Axon attack on Yates and Benton complete with exploding Land Rover. Filming then switched to the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station, doubling for the story's Nuton Power Complex and this covered various Axon attacks on UNIT personnel and scenes involving the TARDIS.

Before studio recording began on 22 January in TC3, model sequences of the radar station seen in the first episode, the emergence of the Axon ship and the Nuton Complex being blown up in the last episode were all filmed as rehearsals continued at the 'Acton Hilton' where the cast was joined by Bernard Holley playing the Axon Man. Holley had previously appeared in Tomb of the Cybermen and had been a regular in Z Cars (1962-78). The TC3 recording first concentrated on scenes at UNIT HQ, in the mobile HQ, the radar station and the lorry cab (with Nick Hobbs simulating the movement of the vehicle in studio but looking as if he's simulating something else entirely).

The second day saw material recorded on Kenneth Sharp's series of connected sets, fabricated in plastic, foam and latex, for the interiors of Axos, using CSO to create foreground and background extensions. Sharp was apparently inspired by the film Fantastic Voyage (1966) to integrate moving sections into the sets to suggest the ship was pulsating with life. The golden Axons, including Bernard Holley, were created using a combination of gold greasepaint, wigs, prosthetics incorporating ping-pong balls to simulate their eyes, and body stockings. Apparently, Holley sported his Z Cars police cap when he first walked on set as an Axon. (4)

Ferguson used some material from his experimental session in December to create the layered psychedelic imagery for the serial and also incorporated spinning lighting effects, back projection, distorting lenses and roll back and mix as well as the combined output of five cameras. 

A further weekend of recording took place in TC4 on 5 and 6 February and this included scenes in the interiors of Axos, the TARDIS scenes using Sharp's new TARDIS interior and a rebuilt console for its first appearance in colour and the CSO ageing effects on Jo Grant. The final scenes at the Nuton Power Complex, including the rigging of the sets to collapse, were completed on the evening of 6 February. During the rehearsals for the final studio session, Letts renamed the serial The Claws of Axos and this necessitated the reshooting of the titles for the first two episodes.
.... some of the strangest imagery ever made for television
The Claws of Axos is perhaps a typical example of the way Letts and Dicks set about altering the constricted format devised by Sherwin and Bryant, changing the sober nature of the Doctor's exile to Earth into something more akin to a comic book adventure. Many of the hallmarks of the format are still there but the development of the UNIT 'family', the presence of Jo Grant and the Master and a conscious development of visual style also change the emphasis.

With the comic book aesthetic and new characterisation comes a need to tell stories visually. Axos is a prime example of this experimentation in season eight, which opens with the similarly louche Terror of the Autons and concludes with The Daemons, a serial where all the fiddling about either starts to pay dividends or marks the nadir of UNIT's effectiveness in Doctor Who, depending on your opinion. The rest of the season offers the more restrained The Mind of Evil, which wouldn't look out of place in the previous season, and the first attempt to ditch the exile to Earth format in Colony in Space.

Baker and Martin's writing style, very much emerging from a collision of their backgrounds in animation and advertising, is to devise as many memorably visual ideas as possible and then throw them at the wall to see which ones will stick. Hence, seven episodes of material was finessed, if that's the right word, into The Claws of Axos. Joining their patch-work quilt of arresting visuals together is Michael Ferguson, a director who relishes in visual experimentation and stretching the programme's resources to breaking point. The results are certainly arresting, distinctly hallucinatory and some of the strangest imagery ever made for television.

The Axons, in their red spaghetti mode, are also superbly realised and highly memorable and the use of CSO and lighting to show them emerging out of the walls of Axos is still very disturbing. However, the strange lump that attempts to attack Winser and the Doctor at the Nuton Power Complex is quite the reverse. It's a man in a sack rolling around the floor of the studio in slow motion and nothing can change that. The golden Axons are also quite intriguing, very simply and effectively realised, even if they are visually the epitome of the Hipgnosis prog-rock aesthetic that dominates the serial.

However, no matter how good Ferguson is at interpreting the ideas from 'the Bristol Boys' and pushing the envelope in visual terms The Claws of Axos suffers from a lack of credibility that is down to weak characterisation and acting. Peter Bathurst, as Conservative MP Chinn, and Paul Grist, as UNIT New York's Intelligence officer Bill Filer, are perhaps the major culprits. Bathurst delivers an exaggerated, theatrical performance throughout while Grist is lumbered with a character whom we have no connection with, a speculative 'love interest' for Jo Grant that never gets off the page. Chinn is a very broad caricature of the establishment-authority figures that nag the Doctor throughout his exile on Earth and there is nothing subtle about the bombast.

The grittier tone of the previous season still lingers in much of the story but it's now competing with an aesthetic that consists of day-go orange monsters, psychedelic space ships and the Holmes/Moriarty subtext of the the season's obsession with the Master. At a time when Edward Heath, a man often as rude as his on-screen representative Chinn, was struggling to maintain relationships with the unions representing the country's power workers, the serial's themes of endless sources of new energy and food, of greed, exploitation and corruption, seem rather apt. However, we do get a nuclear power complex seemingly staffed by one man in a white coat and, when it does vanish in a ball of fire, very little concern for the radioactive fall out the explosion produces.

The establishment figures and their concerns are placed within the series' use of the monstrous embodied not only in extra terrestrial forms but, most importantly in an anxiety about new technologies, processes and materials, consumerism, nuclear facilities, laboratories and space missions. Martin's background as an advertising man is perhaps symbolised by the gift of Axonite, a material that falsely promises to alleviate all the world's worries about power and food but in fact is the tool by which the Axons will bring about its exploitation and destruction.

The uneven quality of The Claws of Axos is perhaps a result of Letts' overstretching ambition to transform the grim, adult world of season seven into something more family friendly. The problem is that the comic book broad strokes produce a story that does not belong to either camp, with the often excessive visuals being smothered in a relentless synthesiser score from Dudley Simpson that is all too much, too soon perhaps. This is in contrast to the grittier elements lacking conviction from an ensemble of players where the regulars are just about keeping their heads above water and Ferguson seems to have no control over guest actors. Even the Master, attempting to operate the Doctor's TARDIS, presciently remarks of the situation, 'Overweight, underpowered and a museum piece. No proper stabiliser. Oh... let's try again. Might as well try to fly a second hand gas stove.'

(1) Laurie Booth interview with Bob Baker, About Bob on www.bobbaker.tv
(2) Andrew Pixley, The Claws of Axos, DWM Archive, Doctor Who Magazine 264, May 1998
(3) Bob Baker, Doctor Who Interview Archive
(4) Andrew Pixley, The Claws of Axos, DWM Archive, Doctor Who Magazine 264, May 1998

Special features

Commentary
Originally recorded for the 2005 DVD release this features Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Richard Franklin (Captain Yates) and producer Barry Letts and is a friendly, chatty conversation between three people who clearly enjoyed working on the series. Letts as ever concentrates on the qualities of the production, often praising director Michael Ferguson's experimental approach to creating some of the layered images in the episodes. Manning and Yates enrich this with anecdotes about the rest of the cast and their experiences freezing on location, working in the studio and the impact of the sound and visual effects on the final show.
Axon Stations! The Making of The Claws of Axos (26:39)
Chris Chapman's wonderfully retro documentary about a story that director Michael Ferguson describes as 'a very good trip' delves into the origins of the script, via Keith Floyd's experiences in the Army, and how Baker and Martin were commissioned and nurtured by Letts and Dicks. 'We didn't know they couldn't do this sort of thing,' recalls Baker about their storyline to land a giant skull in Hyde Park and Dicks recalls 'one of their more sensible ideas' was to have the pilot of a spaceship mutating into a giant carrot. What evolved into The Claws of Axos offered Ferguson another creative opportunity and he regales us about the disastrous weather conditions that affected location filming and Derek Ware's 'sweating and shivering' experience as Pigbin Josh, the Mummerset legend inspired by an acquaintance of the writers. Katy Manning, as usual, cuts to the chase and variously describes the entrance to the Axon ship as resembling 'a part of the female anatomy', the Lycra clad Bernard Holley, playing an Axon, as 'a pale giraffe' who 'tucked it all between his legs and hoped for the best' and the Axon tentacles grabbing her boobs. Interviews with Ferguson, Manning, Baker and Dicks are supplemented with appearances from Paul Grist (Bill Filer), said Bernard Holley and stunt man Derek Ware. Grist's anecdotes about his son watching his dad and his doppelganger fighting on telly are lovely and Ferguson's enthusiasm also shines through for the 'sensible silliness' of The Claws of Axos.
Now & Then (6:33)
As seen on the 2005 edition of this story, an informative but brief return to the Kent locations, particularly the Dungeness coast and the Dungeness A and B power stations used in the filming that took place in January 1971. Narrated by Katy Manning.
Directing Who - Michael Ferguson on The Claws of Axos (14:43)
Another feature ported over from the 2005 edition. Ferguson discusses what it was like working on a multi-camera show and the creative opportunities brought about by the arrival of colour television. He discusses Barry Letts as a producer sympathetic to the directors working on the show, working on location at Dungeness with A.A. Englander and achieving video effects in the studio through post-editing mixing and playing in material during recording.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (37:07)
From the first recording block of what was then called The Vampire from Space. Excerpts from the full 72 minute session, also included on this special edition, this is an edit of the various takes, fluffs and camera resets of the first two episodes - so the radar station material is here, complete with studio chatter from director Mike Ferguson and floor manager Marion McDougall; the introduction with Chinn (Peter Bathurst's first take of 'who is he and where does he come from' is even more overblown than the actual take!); Pertwee's face-off with Chinn and so on and so forth. Note that the decomposition of poor old Pig Bin Josh is not subject to the whiteout in the transmitted version and the effect is actually more horrific. This also includes a set of production information subtitles for your delight and delectation.
Studio Recording (72:50)
The full recording from which the deleted and extended scenes were extracted. It offers a fascinating glimpse at the actual recording of the first block in TC3 on Saturday 22 January 1971 and is complete with playing in of location footage.

Living with Levene (35:09)
Quite simply the raison d'ĂȘtre for considering a double dip with this release. Toby Hadoke seeks out John Levene, familiar to Who fans as Sergeant Benton but who has developed something of a reputation, shall we say, for being quite 'off the wall'. Hadoke journeys to Salisbury to meet Levene and on the way, as well as finding out about John's childhood (he was quite a sickly boy), breakfasting with John's lovely old mum, his life in LA (John receives a number of phone calls from American colleagues), playing a round of golf with John and his old school friend, he learns about what it was like working on Doctor Who in the Letts era, Tom Baker's ego and whether John acknowledges that people often regard him as a bit 'odd'. What emerges is both hilarious (John ingratiates himself with several old ladies outside Salisbury Cathedral who don't know him from Adam) and very moving when John embraces his eccentricities as a survival instinct that has emerged from a childhood spent either ill or failing to live up to his father's expectations. Terrific.
Easter Egg: Reverse Standards Conversion - The Axon Legacy (10:10)
From the 2005 DVD release, ex-Nationwide reporter Jack Pizzey explores the process of converting 525 NTSC recordings to 625 PAL format. This featurette details the history of converting programmes for overseas sales and the work of the team at Kingswood Warrenm, the centre for BBC research and development, under the aptly named Peter Axon, to record programmes on video tape. If you love the technical side of television production and recording, you'll enjoy this as it delves into the BBC's award-winning development of standards converters and brings the history bang up to date with the research conducted by Jim Easterbrook and James Insell who devised a way of unscrambling the multiple conversions and returning programmes converted from PAL to NTSC back to an original PAL quality as seen in episodes 2 and 3 of The Claws of Axos.
Production Information Subtitles
A highly informative track, courtesy of Martin Wiggins, that covers the development of the script, the location work, studio production and other ephemera related to the story.
Photo Gallery
A substantial collection of black and white and colour material, of production and behind the scenes images, and images of the Letts/Mannng/Franklin commentary being recorded all backed with a suite of Brian Hodgson's unearthly soundscapes.
Coming Soon
A trailer for January's Legacy box set containing Shada and 30 Years in the TARDIS. 
Radio Times listings

Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos
BBC Worldwide / Released 22 October 2012 / BBCDVD 3670
4 episodes / Broadcast: 13 March – 3 April 1971 / Colour / Running time: 97:19


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Comments
3 Responses to “CLASSIC DOCTOR WHO: The Claws of Axos / Special Edition DVD Review”
  1. Zee Jai says:

    Your review absolutely hits the nail on the head. I've been rewatching the '70s, in order, from the beginning, and by sheer coincidence just watched Axos tonight. I've found season 8 a very difficult leap (into the gutter) after season 7, with Terror of the Autons being particularly disappointing (Mind of Evil, as you pointed out, isn't too far from season 7's big balls). Axos is better; the visuals are great, but, like you, I found Chin too much of a mess, and the score overbearing. Maybe the current cheap knock-off of Doctor Who by that slag Moffat took inspiration from Axos - all fantastic visuals and too much OTT music. But then, in its grim '70s way, Axos has got balls, and Moffat's cosy Disney Junior Dr Who ain't got any.

  2. It's a shame Michael Ferguson didn't direct more Who in the 1970s. He's a chap who enjoys pushing the boundaries.

    I'd rather believe that this period of the show is more akin to RTD's era than Moffat's. There's an attempt to devise an earthbound 'family' in both eras that often works effectively.

  3. I'm sure if I remember correctly from the making of documentary, the depression left by the Axon's ship is still there in the shingle pit, over 40 years later.

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