Well, gentlemen. There’s your enemy.
From the very beginning of Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s “The Claws of Axos” (Story Production Code GGG), it’s clear that the titular aliens differ from the gold-skinned idealized humanoids they’ve disguised themselves as. Their claws are in the story’s title, after all, and if that’s not suggestion enough, the initial shots of their spacecraft approaching Earth are intercut with quick frames of unnervingly quivering heaps of tentacles. The viewer operates with advance knowledge of what is to come, a fairly rare occurrence in Doctor Who, and yet this story nevertheless provides a moment of real surprise.
The story’s opening moments with the Doctor, the Brigadier, and the bumbling bureaucrat of the day, Chinn, center around UNIT finally deciding to do something about the Master. We’re expecting him to be involved somehow, and soon, given that this is a four episode story. It’s to the writers’ and director’s credit, then, that when the Master does finally appear near the end of the first episode, we’re genuinely surprised: he’s a captive, bound to the walls of a living spaceship, in one of the most shocking and well-earned narrative revelations in the Third Doctor’s era.
Craven as ever, the Master has bargained with the parasitic, space-travelling, hive-mind organism known as Axos, leading it to the rich feeding ground of Earth in exchange for his freedom. Axos buries itself, as aliens always do, in southeast England, and calls for help. The British government’s response to a first contact situation near a massive power plant is to appoint a minor functionary, Chinn (Peter Bathurst), with full military and diplomatic powers to act on behalf of the government. It’s as though this kind of event happens every day, which, as the show’s history suggests, isn’t far from the truth…
Chinn’s first response is to launch a full-scale missile assault, which fails. But would you trust this man with anything sharper than a butter knife?
When Axos reveals itself (fraudulently, as the viewer already knows) as an assortment of gold-skinned humanoids who offer up Axonite, a “thinking molecule” capable of enormous energy output and the ability to cause matter to shrink and grow, the bureaucrat immediately acts to secure “exclusive worldwide distribution rights” for the United Kingdom. All the Axons wish for is to be allowed to remain on the planet while the organic technology of their spaceship recharges. The Doctor seems suspicious, questioning how, if they possess this wonder material, they could ever run out of fuel.
Before he’s able to follow up on his questioning, he’s arrested by Chinn, who has brought in the regular Army and taken over control of the spaceship site from UNIT. It must be said that the regular Army is just as bad as UNIT at their primary security function, only putting a single soldier on guard front of Axos and allowing the Master, who has escaped the tentacles holding him captive, to roam free. And the Master’s first act is to impersonate a high-ranking UNIT leader and have the TARDIS brought to the nearby power plant.
It’s shocking, the extent to which the Master takes on the Doctor’s role in this story. Paul Kirkley, in volume one of his history of Doctor Who, Space Helmet for a Cow, suggests that Jon Pertwee and Roger Delgado got on well, but that relationship may have been strained by one particular scene in this story. We have not seen the interior of the Third Doctor’s TARDIS before, nor ever the TARDIS interior in color. And who debuts our initial glimpse? The Master, of course, who can even pick the lock on the police box door.
We’ve seen the console in color before, in “Inferno” (though this model appears slightly different, with a more colorful central rotor interior), but not the cream-and-white interior and the sparse decorations; the set dressing of wires everywhere and dust on top of the rotor casing adds a nice sense of dishevelment and chaos, suggesting that the Doctor has tried just about everything to fix it. It’s a signal moment, and indeed the TARDIS proper features prominently in the story for the first time in years, but again, mostly because the Master manages to repair it so that it can dematerialize and travel through time and space once more. Is there nothing this renegade Time Lord can’t do?
Well, come up with a good plan, really. In this case, the Master has teamed up, albeit unwillingly, with Axos to destroy Earth, not seeing, as in the case of the Autons, that any force capable of destroying this planet he despises so much will likely have little need of his services—or continued existence—thereafter. For a supposed evil genius, the Master harbors an odd sense of loyalty and honor about himself: he fully expects Axos and, later, the Brigadier, to release him after holding up his end of the bargains with them. They don’t.
The Axon charade ends after the Doctor unwittingly starts the Axonite feeding process in a “light accelerator” at the power planet. He realizes that Axonite, the Axons, Axos itself, all are one unitary creature, and the material, which has been sent around the world already, will consume every living thing on the planet. Axos has travelled the universe for countless years, devouring all life it encounters.
The Axon sub-entities revert to a more normal state and capture the Doctor and Jo, hoping to derive the secret of time travel from the Time Lord’s mind. Given that they already had a Time Lord and his working TARDIS prisoner, one who didn’t have the secrets of time travel blocked from his memory, it’s uncertain as to why they didn’t just take the information from the Master’s mind.
The Master, caught by the Brigadier while trying to use the power plant to jump start the Doctor’s TARDIS and escape, uses the TARDIS to create a power feedback loop with Axos, which has connected to the power plant to generate enough energy to jump through time using the information plucked from the Doctor’s mind. It doesn’t quite work, but the ensuing chaos allows the Doctor and Jo to flee the rumbling Axos.
Once the Doctor and the Master are together in the power plant, the Doctor plays on the Master’s gullibility once more and convinces him to repair the TARDIS so that they can both escape, leaving the hapless humans behind to their fate. But, of course, the Doctor has other plans, and he uses the now semi-operational TARDIS to materialize inside Axos. The Master realizes what the Doctor is up to and escapes in his own TARDIS, conveniently parked nearby. The Doctor links the TARDIS with the organic ship-entity and forces it into a timeloop. It’s stuck in time, repeating a small segment of time over and over again somehow, never to bother the universe again but not killing it outright.
Like much of novice series writers Baker and Martin’s story, it doesn’t make much sense—even the Doctor isn’t able to explain quite what he did—and director Michael Ferguson knows it, devoting extended portions of the final episode to action sequences instead. The essential notion of seemingly friendly aliens who harbor sinister motives carries much potential, but the decision to reveal the aliens to the viewer right off the bat squanders the narrative suspense. Some stories are stretched to fit six episodes; this one feels crammed into four, and I find myself wishing that a slower pace had been taken at certain points.
Too, the possibility that beautiful aliens could be evil (or horrendous ones, good) has been explored before in “Galaxy 4,” but here that inversion of expectations does not take place. Even the Doctor initially seems taken by the Axons appearance, mocking Chinn for having feared them enough to launch a preemptive strike.
I dare say poor Katy Manning was not in any rush to extend the story. Jo had to scream and yell and clamber around in an exceedingly short skirt in freezing temperatures far too frequently, a real step back for Jo’s characterization. The able and competent companion of “The Mind of Evil” is here incessantly sidelined by the Doctor and the Brigadier and serves no real function other than to be threatened by Axos as a means of coercing the Doctor to share time travel knowledge.
At least the story brings the word “companion” back to the series after a very long absence. Last used in Patrick Troughton’s swan song, “The War Games,” here Axos uses it to refer to Jo:
Axos: Now we have arranged for your companion to age to death before your eyes.
We also learn that the TARDIS, though nominally repaired, has been programmed by the Time Lords to return always to Earth. They’re crafty enough to have realized that the Doctor would eventually fix the TARDIS, one way or another. So, even though the Doctor complained, perhaps disingenuously, his fear that “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a heap of dust on a second rate planet to a third rate star,” he’s stuck here.
Except that, as the next story shows, he’s not.
(Previous Story: The Mind of Evil)
(Next Story: Colony in Space)
Post 59 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project