This month, perhaps due to the release of a modern-day Doctor Who set, only one of the classic serials gets the DVD treatment, instead of the usual two. But it’s a pretty good one, and a Special Edition, at that.
Titled The Claws of Axos, these four episodes aired in the middle of season eight, way back in 1971. The most interesting thing about this, that will set it apart from many of the other old releases, is that season eight has a large arc, spanning multiple serials. As such, The Claws of Axos exists as a stand alone story, but also as part of something much bigger. Allow me to explain.
As the episode opens, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is trapped on Earth, the Time Lords having taken away the memories he needs to fix the TARDIS. He is growing weary of UNIT and the other military-minded humans, wishing he didn’t have to bear witness to their violent streak. When something crashes near a power plant in Britain, the tension between the Doctor and UNIT comes to a head, as UNIT wants to fire missiles, and the Doctor thinks that they need to figure out what the aliens’ intentions are first. The Doctor scores a point when he decrypts a distress call from the ship.
At first, the aliens seem friendly enough. They need fuel, and are willing to trade Axonite, a rare material that can replicate, for it. This would end hunger and starvation for the entire world. But then, a friend is captured by the Axons, and finds the Master (Roger Delgado), whom they thought had left Earth, within the bowels of the ship. Clearly, there is more going on here than first glimpsed.
I really like the clash between the Doctor and the humans in this episode. Being played by a human, of course, and looking like one, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the Doctor is an alien, and not like everyone else on Earth. This is not the case in this serial, where he very obviously considers himself apart, and better. While UNIT has to remain somewhat sympathetic, as Lethbridge Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) and Benton (John Levene) recur on Doctor Who often, Chinn (Peter Bathurst), who tries to cut the UN out of any deals with the Axons, hoping to win rewards solely for Britain, has no such constraints. The Doctor does still love humans, but this is exactly why he can’t live and work among their government, at least not in the present. We are just too flawed a species.
The Doctor usually seems more evolved than mere mankind. Obviously, he travels through time and space, and so has seen a lot. But he also often has a stronger sense of right and wrong than most species, or, at least he believes that he does. The Claws of Axos actually tests this mettle, and see him making what appear to be some questionable choices in the service of escaping our planet. Not only is this more relatable, allowing chinks in the armor of the character, but it also knocks him down off his high horse, even while allowing him to be right and save the day.
The visual effects in The Claws of Axos are attempted too early in film history. In the special features, you will hear about how the people making Doctor Who just couldn’t wait to use the latest technology! And yet, while the result may have been impressive in the day, it seems incredibly hokey now. The disappearing effect is OK, considering, but some of the aliens get just a bit too laughable, like piles of spaghetti, or someone rolling around in a colored blanket. It’s a good thing that there’s a strong story here, with wonderful moments for several characters, especially the Doctor, so this can be overlooked.
The special features on the Special Edition two-disc DVD include an audio commentary with Barry Letts and actors Katy Manning and Richard Franklin, far less crowded than the normal large group. There are almost a half hour of deleted and extended scenes, some PDF materials, and a photo gallery. Something cool for die-hard fans who wish they could be on set is seventy three minutes of studio recording that survives, which includes things like background conversation and recording breaks.
Among the featurettes are a “Making Of” and an interview with Michael Ferguson, who directed the serial. Katy Manning narrates a look at the locations that were used in shooting. But the best inclusion is “Living with Levene,” in which frequent Doctor Who DVD contributor Toby Hadoke spends some time in the recent past with John Levene. Levene puts on a bit of a show, as Hadoke notes, and tells some stories that not all of his former co-stars might appreciate! It’s really a fascinating thirty-five minutes, for the personality showcased, as well as the tidbits from the past.
The Claws of Axos Special Edition is definitely worth a look, even if you checked it out back in 2005, when it was originally released on DVD. The writing holds up beautifully, and the extras make it a pretty cool find.
Doctor Who The Claws of Axos Special Edition is available now on DVD from the BBC.