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Best, brightest and The Claws of Axos (1971)

axos

In a swirl of psychedelic colour and with a fanfare of tinny electronica comes The Claws of Axos. So Pertwee it hurts, this marks the point when the third Doctor’s era turns from hard nosed grittiness to something more comfortable and familiar. The bouffant starts here, you might say, as the show becomes more fantastic and more confident in its bold, brassy house style.

Somewhere, there’s a fan for whom The Claws of Axos is his or her favourite story. I mean, every story is probably someone’s favourite, maybe even Time-Flight. But a recent online conversation has got me thinking about the difference between “favourite” and “best”. With all the love in the world for it, I don’t think Axos has featured too much on anyone’s “best of” list.

So let’s award it a few unexpected best ofs, because there are a few lurking in there, waiting to emerge in a flurry of orange tentacles.

Best obnoxious government official. In a highly competitive field, including a strong contingent from the Pertwee era, Axos comes out of top here. Chinn, as played by Peter Bathurst, is surely the grubbiest, most infuriating of the lot. He blusters and bullies his way through four episodes. He’s obnoxious, he’s annoying and he doesn’t even have the good grace to be killed by Stuart Fell in a rolling orange duvet. But here’s the real kicker about Chinn, with his bull at the gate, Britain for the British nonsense. He was right all the time.

First thing he wanted to do when Axos flew its big yellow leechy self into the atmosphere was blow it up. That namby-pamby Doctor (Jon Pertwee, something dancing in front of his eyeline) wanted to make friends with the bad guys just because they were asking for help. If only Chinn’s plan had worked, a nuclear power station would have been saved, a tramp would have lived and, most tellingly, the Master (Roger Delgado) would have been destroyed.

Best performance in a yellow unitard. You can’t look past (literally, no matter how hard you try) Bernard Holley as the cheerily named Axon Man. I imagine it takes some guts to climb into a lycra bodysuit, but ironically once inside, you must spend a lot of time sucking that gut in. Fair play, Holley pulls it off, after pulling that saffrony horror on. And on top of all that, a mumsy golden wig and ping pong balls for eyes. That he manages to come out of the affair with his dignity intact is testament to his acting talent and a rigourous fitness regime.

Best unnecessary American. Step up Bill Filer (Paul Grist, clearly auditioning for an unmade cop drama). To create a character who features so heavily in a story, and yet is so uncalled for, is quite a feat.

Filer, y’see is a US special agent, billeted out to UNIT in order to capture the Master. Why the US is suddenly interested in the Master is as unremarked upon as why they are never interested in him again. At no point does he need to be American for the plot to function. At no point does he do anything which would require him to be American. He gets captured, duplicated, has a fight with himself, gets a bit suspicious of the Doctor. Nothing which couldn’t have been done by say, an expanded role for Captain Yates (Richard Franklin).

Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin would go on to create other great unnecessary characters, like Mr Ollis or Tala in Underworld. Characters who add little, but are there anyway. But none so prominent as Bill Filer and none with an unnecessary nationality. It’s a real achievement.

Best unintelligible yokel. Imagine going into a script meeting these days and saying, “here’s an idea. Let’s spend 5 minutes of an episode on a character who interacts with no one else. He’ll be a kind of mad, homeless person and he’ll talk to himself, but we won’t be able to understand anything he says! Then he’ll ride his bike into a pond and get eaten by the monster. It’ll be awesome!” I don’t think we’ll ever see the like of it again, so well done Axos.

Best Mastery Stunt. In Episode Two, the Master jumps off a bridge and onto a moving truck, clambers down the side of it, clings on like a limpet and hypnotises a UNIT driver (Nick Hobbs) via the side mirror. Roger Delgado seems to perform a significant portion of it too, crawling along the top of the truck’s canopy, inches from the top of a tunnel the truck’s travelling through. The Pert used to say Delgado was a committed coward, but this sequence shows what a mistruth that was. And if an impressive stunt starring the Master wasn’t enough, there’s also in this sequence, at least according to some corners of Twitter which have bred the most lascivious things…

Best hunky UNIT soldier. Apparently, the sight of Nick Hobbs jiggling up and down on that car seat, eyes glazed over through hypnosis gets a certain set of the viewing audience’s hearts racing. Pity for them that when he returned to the show, they covered him up in a big furry bear outfit. And while we’re talking about lascivious things…

Best giant cock shaped prop. You know the one I mean. You can’t miss it, it’s hanging from the bubbly ceiling of Axos, staring at everything with its big circumcised eyeball. Put a cloak on it and it could be Alpha Centauri.

Best unnecessary Special Edition DVD. Now with slightly better picture quality! All the better for you to see the big penis dangling from the ceiling!

And finally…

Best throwaway line. Really, this blog is supposed to avoid the same old, same old about Doctor Who. But in compiling a list of Axos’s best ofs, I can’t avoid the old “freak weather conditions.” A piece of impromptu genius from script editor Terrance Dicks to paper over deficiencies in the location footage. It says something about the way fans view the show, that they’ve embraced that line as a knowing insight into the way the show’s made. But still, it says something about this story that it’s most memorable piece of dialogue is a workmanlike covering line which has discovered a second life as a celebrated in-joke.

LINK TO The Vampires of Venice. Axos’s original title was The Vampire from Space. The loved things either from or in space in the early 70s, didn’t they? Spearheads, colonies, frontiers, arks…

NEXT TIME: Okay, kid. This is where it gets complicated. It’s The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.

 

 

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Unholy rites, unwarranted slights and The Dæmons (1971)

daemons_1

I’ve got another potential DVD box set for you. It’s called Doctor Who – Unholy Rites. Contained within, The Dæmons, The Masque of Mandragora, Image of the Fendahl, The Stones of Blood and K9 and Company. It’s a collection jam packed with chanting men in robes, pagan temples (above and underground), sinister rituals and would-be human sacrifice. If we squint, we might even find a place for The Awakening, which although being more secular than the others, still includes an malign influence festering underneath a church. And let’s face it,  you can shoehorn that story into any old box set, eh, Earth Story?

Everything I know about occultism I’ve learned from Doctor Who. Apparently, it’s very popular in rural English villages. There’s often a handy group of superstitious yokels ready to help out and indulge in some cosplay. The deity they worship will be an alien of some kind, whose influence can be traced throughout history. They talk a lot about sacrificing a companion, but never quite get around to it. And when people start dying, you don’t want to be one of those robed extras; they’re always the first to go.

Plus the Doctor will be on hand to debunk the whole thing and point out that there’s a good scientific explanation for everything. Just before he waves his magic wand (sonic screwdriver, he prefers), invokes a magic incantations (technobabble, to you and me) and disappears into thin air in his Police Box shaped spaceship. I know, right? Who’d be dumb enough to believe in magic?

*****

Anyway, to the The Dæmons. And to a question it poses which is far more important than whether science trumps magic. It is this: why does sweet, spunky little companion Jo (Katy Manning) put up with this condescending boor of a Doctor (Jon Pertwee)?

Over the course of five episodes, he accuses her of wasting his time, calls her a ‘reasonably intelligent young lady’ but with ‘absurd ideas’, berates her for misreading a map, accuses her of fussing (after she’s just helped him recover from being frozen stiff), smugly points out that she can’t speak Latin, is exasperated when she doesn’t understand e=mc squared, and berates her for calling the Brigadier’s plan idiotic – when he did exactly that just seconds before.

What really takes the biscuit is his reaction after Jo offers to give up her life so that the Doctor might live.

DOCTOR: Well, by a ridiculous and foolhardy act of self-sacrifice, Jo here has managed to save us.

Well, you might call it ridiculous and foolhardy. Others might call it brave and compassionate.

DOCTOR: You see, Azal couldn’t face an act as irrational and as illogical as her being prepared to give up her life for me.

I’m right with him there, mate. She must have been remembering how much she liked you from previous stories, because there’s no indication in this one why she should feel so strongly about you.

DOCTOR: Look, Jo, why don’t you go and get out of that ridiculous garb?

On this planet, we say ‘thank you’. You big velvety jerk.

*****

Jo’s altruistic offer to save the Doctor is a big problem at the end this story. But let’s start at the other beginning.

It’s got a cracking first episode. Beautifully put together. I love the way that the framing structure of the television broadcasts and their countdown to the opening of the barrow delivers the exposition subtly, while also serving to gradually draw the Doctor into the story. Supporting characters like batty Miss Hawthorne (Damaris Hayman) and grumpy old Professor Horner (Robin Wentworth) (of Which University) can be introduced with ease. The Master (Roger Delgado) appears at just the right point in the episode to up the ante. And in the second half, the Doctor’s attempts to get to the barrow hit just enough problems so that everything coincides nicely as big rock is pulled aside, all icy hell breaks loose. Cue credits, job done nicely.

It’s got a reasonably entertaining middle. Lots of running around, with much for UNIT lads Yates (Richard Franklin) and Benton (John Levene) to do, including wear some garish civvies. There are plenty of good set pieces, like the helicopter chase, Benton’s run-in with the invisible forces in the cavern and the attack of the morris dancers (a great unmade Doctor Who story, there). Walking statue Bok (Stanley Mason) is a novel although never entirely convincing monster. And the Master gets a great moment when trying to smooth talk the townspeople, by proving he knows all their secrets. “And you, Mr Grenville,” he purrs. “Has your wife come back from her sisters’ yet? Will she ever come back, do you suppose?” “And who are those muscular young men I see cutting your hedge every Thursday morning?”, I keep wanting him to say, but he never does.

Oddly, the Brig is sidelined, kept outside the main action by a heat barrier until a diathermic heat exchanger (that’s science, you know) can be lashed up by Osgood the First (Alec Linstead). He never gets to meet the mighty Azal (Stephen Thorne) or catch more than a glimpse of the Master. The Doctor too, keeps getting his appointment with the climax delayed. Sometimes by various plot misfortunes, but partly because he takes time out in Episode Three to run the world’s worst PowerPoint presentation on horned beasts throughout the ages.

So anyway, the middle’s fine. But it’s got a terrible ending. After much running around, the Doctor and the Master finally meet in the cavern, with UNIT reunited outside to do battle with Bok. The Doctor’s diathermic wotsit blew up and as he was planning to use that against Azal (who has now grown to enormous size, but somehow doesn’t bump his head on the cavern’s roof), he now has to improvise desperately. The scene is set. That’s when after a brief war of words, Jo offers her life in place of the Doctor’s and Azal goes all purple and blows up.

It makes no sense. Azal is, we’ve been told, an immensely powerful being. He crafted humanity’s progress throughout the ages. Now he meets one pretty blonde girl and is so confused he can no longer function? (Well, it’s happened to the best of us, I suppose.)

My point is though, that endings are hard. They’ve got to be obvious in hindsight, but unsuspected until then. They have to make logical sense, but not able to be pre-guessed. They can’t be coincidental and they can’t cheat. They’ve got to be consistent with the story’s themes. They’ve got to be novel. They can’t be signposted too early. And they can’t just be, “oh, I’m so confused, I think I’ll just give in and blow up a church.”

Think back to that opening episode and how right they got that. Imagine if the final episode worked just as well. For whatever reason, things didn’t fall quite so neatly into place. It shows that telling stories is a science, but telling them well requires an unpredictable element, something we might call… magic.

LINK TO The Husbands of River Song: Hmm, Doctors with red jackets and snowy, voluminous hair?

NEXT TIME… This, sir, is protracted murder! No, it’s just The Savages.

Heroes, gods and The Three Doctors (1972/3)

Folks, join me in considering the near complete pointlessness of Mr Ollis (Laurie Webb). He exists to be accidentally transported to a distant world and thus to kick start the events of anniversary shindig, The Three Doctors. His face screams out of an X-ray giving the Doctor (dandyish Jon Pertwee) a clue as to what’s happening and a way into the story. Then, his usefulness is at an end.

Nevertheless, he’s hangs around. Ollis turns up on the barren world to carry a rifle, look unfazed by events and follow everyone else around until he’s returned home at the end of the story. By rights, the trip through the heavens to the world within the black hole should have killed him. But as it didn’t, he just kind of hangs around for the rest of the story.

Noticing Ollis and his superfluousness is a dangerous thread to pull at. Suddenly you realise that none of the supporting characters are needed. Certainly not Dr Tyler (Rex Robinson), once his plot function to bring Ollis’s disappearance to the attention of UNIT is achieved. He too is transported to this neverworld, and once there, he also has nothing to do but splutter bewildered statements and make conversation with the Doctor and Jo (ever devoted Katy Manning). But when you think about it, Jo has no significant contribution to make either. Nor do UNIT men the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, at prime pompousness) and Sergeant Benton (John Levene, at prime gormlessness).

That’s all of this story’s supporting cast – save for a nagging wife and a flummoxed corporal – accounted for. And none of them are really necessary. They’re there simply to keep our leading men company – to pass the silicon rods and tell them how brilliantly infuriating they are. Which is understandable, because the main event is the Doctor meeting his former incarnations. A situation we’re used to after years of such match ups, but which at the time of The Three Doctors, must have felt a giddyingly exciting treat.

****

Who is the hero of this story? It’s a contentious point.

Patrick Troughton is on hand to steal the show away from Pertwee. Many tales have been told of the initial tension between them, generated by their contrasting approaches to the part; one serious and methodical, the other playful and instinctive. If Troughton was trepidatious about returning to the role, there’s no sign of it here. Instead he seems re-energized by the role and more than happy to let Pertwee carry the plot and think he’s the star. Troughton is content to be a constantly distracting presence, reminding the audience that the Doctor can be funny and naughty and whimsical. But this time in colour.

Pertwee sends four episodes trying not to notice. He’s behaving as if Troughton’s another supporting artist in his show, in an attempt to counteract Troughton’s pulling focus. But to no avail. Troughton’s presence pulls the show out of shape. Look, for instance, at his effect on the Brigadier. With Troughton around, the Brigadier becomes slightly unhinged, failing to believe the evidence of his own eyes and making post hoc rationalisations about Cromer. This is really the first story that turns him into a figure of fun, with comedy double takes and wry one liners. Because suddenly we have a Doctor cracking jokes again and he needs a straight man.

Then there’s poor William Hartnell. Hardly old at 64, but clearly very ill, so he needs to be confined to a space infirmary. He’s a shadow of his former Doctory self, his voice uncertain and unfamiliarly light. It’s not just difficult to watch, but also difficult to see – the combination of that strange pyramidal frame he’s perched in, plus the replaying of his footage onto the glarey TARDIS monitor screen. In all, there’s no tangible sense of the first Doctor being present, not just because he only appears in pre filmed segments, but because Hartnell has changed so much since he gave up the role. Given the dubious decision to put such a sick man onscreen in the first place, you have to ask if it was really worth it.

****

Then there’s Omega (Stephen Thorne), a kind of lonely god, sitting in a world incompatible with our own. With that booming voice and his platform boots, he clearly thinks he’s the story’s hero and these Doctors mere distractions.

Around this time Doctor Who built stories around a number of these demigod like super beings: your Azal, your Kronos, your Queen Spider and Omega form a little pantheon that stretches back to the Toymaker and forward to Sutekh. In each case, these beings are so powerful the Doctor cannot hope to defeat them with might. He must use some guile or trickery to defeat them. In this sense, the two Doctors’ approaches to fighting Omega are telling. The Third Doctor tries to mentally battle Omega (which means wrestling with Stuart Fell in a dream sequence) to no avail. The Second prefers a psychological approach; he needle away at Omega with trivialities to test his self control. It’s this method that eventually works.

It makes sense because as the story reveals, Omega has no physical presence; he exists only through force of his own will. He’s pure thought, so it’s fitting that he’s defeated by not being able to see through a trick designed to exploit his emotional instability. No mistake then that his Greek theatre style mask is shaped into a permanent wail of despair.

That mask, apart from being a great piece of design, is significant. It gives The Three Doctors its most effective moment, when the Doctors remove Omega’s mask to reveal that nothing but air fringed by a yellow CSO halo lies beneath. Masks are a common feature of Doctor Who, and usually a signal of villainy at the highest level. They hide a character’s true nature, often, disappointingly, the deformed features of a monster. In Omega’s case, though, it hides a man who’s not there, eaten away by the world which has kept him alive. It’s poetic, but it does suffer a bit from Guy Crawford syndrome, characterised by never thinking to look in a mirror.

Still, it turns Omega into that rarest of things in old Who, a villain who is also a figure of sympathy. The Doctor is remorseful at story’s end that he couldn’t save his people’s mythic hero, not even when multiplied by three. Though as later events will prove, it’s pretty hard to kill someone who exists only as a kind of robed stubbornness, so he needn’t have worried.

****

And how does this momentous story end? With multiple Doctors and Time Lord gods or the renewed TARDIS flying triumphantly off into the vortex?

No, of course not. It ends with inconsequential old Mr Ollis! He returns home to his long suffering wife who understandably wants to know where he’s been. And here’s the most amazing thing of all, he can’t be bothered telling her! That’s because he knows he’s actually the hero of this story! And from his point of view… not much really happened.

LINK TO: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.DBoth feature not-quite-as-we-remember-them first Doctors.

NEXT TIME: We meet The Husbands of River Song. I hear they automatically believe any story they’re the hero of.