BOB BAKER &
THE GIFT, THE FRIENDLY INVASION, THE AXONS & THE VAMPIRE FROM SPACE
'THE CLAWS OF AXOS' SPECIAL EDITION DVD (BBCDVD3670) RELEASED IN OCTOBER 2012.
WHEN A DAMAGED SPACESHIP CONTAINING BEAUTIFUL HUMANOID CREATURES CALLED AXONS LANDS ON EARTH, THE DOCTOR, JO AND UNIT ARE SENT TO INVESTIGATE. IN RETURN FOR THEIR HELP, THE AXONS OFFER THE GIFT OF AXONITE, WHICH WOULD END WORLD FAMINE. IT ALL APPEARS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE - SO WHAT SECRETS ARE THE AXONS HIDING ON BOARD THEIR SHIP? AND WHY IS THE DOCTOR'S OLD ENEMY, THE MASTER, INVOLVED?
The Claws of Axos
13TH MARCH 1971 - 3RD APRIL 1971
At the time of its release, having not seen the serial for many years, I thought that The Claws of Axos was an odd choice for Roger Delgado’s Master’s first DVD. Unlike in the rest of Season 8’s spectacular serials, here the Master isn’t hell-bent on world-domination, or even Doctor-domination, for that matter; he’s at his lowest ebb of the season, desperately fighting for his freedom. What I’d forgotten, though, is that many of the Master’s finest moments are borne of adversity; many of the most magical moments in the Doctor / Master relationship are found where fate forces them into fellowship – or at least, something that superficially looks quite like it. By the same token, The Claws of Axos never leapt out at me as being an urgent contender for a DVD revisitation. Whilst the 2005 disc lacked a substantive ‘making of’ documentary, it was positively brimming with bonus material ranging from fancifully anecdotal to highly technical. However, just as there proved to be a method in 2|entertain’s madness back in April 2005, there is once again today.
Like a lot of viewers, I was disappointed with the quality of The Claws of Axos itself when it first appeared on disc, particularly the serial’s second and third episodes. I can’t commend the Restoration Team enough for their ingenious and laborious recolourisation of the surviving film prints using off-air NTSC recordings made by fans Stateside, but it has to be said that the episodes as put out in 2005 didn’t stand up well when compared to those rendered from surviving colour prints and put through the VidFIRE process. Comparing the two is analogous to comparing a VHS master to a second or third generation copy of it. This special edition release finally redresses the balance, sharpening the images and seemingly deepening their colour – something that really stands out in a production as brazenly colourful as Axos. Watched on an upscaling DVD player on a 40” LCD TV, spaghetti monsters and psychedelic spaceships have never looked so good. It might not be HD, but I’d wager it’s an improvement upon what even the most expensive 1971 colour TVs could offer.
This is especially pleasing as The Claws of Axos is a belter of a tale, and one that exemplifies the UNIT era of the series as well as any other. Not only is the Bristol Boys’ first script for the series built upon a strong, central premise – the arrival of an apparently-benevolent alien race with a potentially world-changing gift - but it oozes wit and charm throughout. Buoyed by some deliciously-dry deliveries from those playing them, characters such as Chinn and Filer prove irresistible foils for the regulars – the first episode’s exchange between the Doctor, the Brigadier and Chinn remains one of my favourite UNIT scenes, for instance. Even practical problems thrown up by the beleaguered location shoot are turned into mischievous asides by the series’ wily script editor, Terrance Dicks, who shoehorns lines about “freak weather conditions” in at the eleventh hour, as if making Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s impracticable debut script practicable wasn’t enough.
Most remarkably of all though, The Claws of Axos looks fantastic. Like its early ’70s peers it is still troubled by the overuse of colour separation overlay and the normal budgetary restrictions, but the design itself is absolutely inspirational (it’s up there with The Robots of Death, in my view) and director Michael Ferguson’s vibrant execution is mind-blowing (literally so, I fear, if you’re prone to strobe lighting-induced seizures). Even aurally, Axos is a success as Bernard Holley bestows it with a voice that’s booming and powerful, yet somehow sympathetic – a far cry from your more obvious Valentine Dyalls and Stephen Thornes.
Turning to the bonus features, the special edition’s focal Axon Stations! documentary is a tremendous improvement upon the far less vivacious interview with Michael Ferguson that crowned the original release’s collection of extras. Beautifully framed by Axos-themed CG imagery, this near-half-hour feature boasts interviews with surviving members of the cast and crew, including Katy Manning, whose astonishing endurance of freezing temperatures during the location shoot is explored in almost as much detail as what Bernard Holley did to hide his penis whilst wearing that unforgiving leotard (Holley himself doesn’t comment on the matter, but the ever-iniquitous Manning is of the firm view that he tucked it between his legs “like drag queens do”, and I daren’t repeat what she said about the orifice-like opening to the Axon ship. She gets more like Iris with each passing interview.)
his willy inside his costume and what the Axon spaceship resembled in Axon Stations!
Of more interest to me, though, was Living with Levene – another gift of a Toby Hadoke documentary in the style of The Sensorites DVD’s Looking for Peter, albeit one with its focus on a living and notorious subject as opposed to a dead and enigmatic one. Like many Doctor Who fans, I have a real soft spot for the UNIT era of the series, and particularly for the often put-upon John Benton, who some would say was the heart, if not the backbone, of the hush-hush paramilitary organisation – Benton actor John Levene the most vociferous of them.
Above: Toby Hadoke questions the wisdom of meeting one’s heroes in Living with Levene...
Levene’s immodest eccentricity has been well-documented over the years, but never more explicitly than it is in the first twenty minutes or so of this programme. As Hadoke notes in his narration, the man is clearly “putting on a show” for the cameras – everything here is embroidered and grandiose; everything is deliberate. He just happens to have a guitar handily placed in the corner of his kitchen as he’s cooking breakfast so that he may crack out a riff for Toby; he reels off tale after tale in which he’s cast as a larger-than-life superhero, whether it’s being chosen to be the voice of brail by a blind woman who heard him crying in the rain, or saving somebody’s life in duly heroic fashion. Levene even draws old ladies walking by into his hyperbolic world, regaling them with tales of his time spent working on Who and proffering autographs. Of most interest to viewers of this DVD though will be his memories of the UNIT family, which as Hadoke observes, heckles visibly raised, don’t sit well with the recollections of others that have been documented over the years. In Levene’s mind, it was him; Jon Pertwee; and Katy Manning that were the true UNIT family - a trio of natural comedians that the less comically-gifted Nicholas Courtney played off whenever he could drag himself away from the pub. The pub bit, at least, fits with most accounts.
However, as the programme draws towards its close, Hadoke is able to claw his way through Levene’s grandiloquent veneer and, for the first time, show us the man that lies beneath. Instead of a past-his-best actor prone to overstatement, Living with Levene paints a picture of a man who was “born breach, jaundice and dead” and spent half his youth battling life-threatening illnesses. It shows us an indomitable character who, keen to controvert his boxing champ father’s view of him being “a sissy”, worked his arse off to carve himself in a niche in the acting world, whether it involved encasing himself in an unforgiving Cyberman or Yeti suit, or being thrown about every which way as the redoubtable and robust Benton. This programme lifts the veil on a man who, quite rightly, takes great pride in his accomplishments, and - unconventional, divisive or otherwise – will forever be remembered as one of the best-loved stars of one of Doctor Who’s greatest eras.
Above: ...and concludes that one most definitely should!
This special edition release also preserves most of the features found on the 2005 release, including the aforementioned Directing Who featurette with Michael Ferguson. There are also masses of raw studio footage found on this release - far more so than I recall being present on the original edition – offering us a thorough, if not all that fascinating, insight into the realities of studio recording in the early 1970s. Conspicuously absent though is the serendipitously-named Axon Legacy reverse standards conversion documentary. Sitting through the thing just the once was enough to make me an expert on converting NTSC to PAL and vice-versa though, not to mention a little spooked - the inventor of the conversion process was a Mr Axon, and this Axon-packed serial was one of the first programmes to be converted!
And so 2|entertain’s friendly invasion of our high street shelves continues apace, undeterred by the fact that there are now just a handful of classic Doctor Who serials that have yet to be released in this medium. But if they keep making them like this, we’ll keep buying them – especially now that the sore-thumb ‘SPECIAL EDITION’ legend has been dropped from the reversible cover’s spine.
Copyright © E.G. Wolverson 2006, 2013
E.G. Wolverson has asserted his right under the Copyright, Design
and Patents Act 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Unless otherwise stated, all images on this site are copyrighted to the BBC and are used solely for promotional purposes.
‘Doctor Who’ is copyright © by the BBC. No copyright infringement is intended.