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8x03. The Claws of Axos
Writers: Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Director: Michael Ferguson
Script Editor: Terrance Dicks
Producer: Barry Letts

Synopsis: A UFO lands on Earth and turns out to be Axos, an enormous collective life form. The Axons, humanoid beings representing an aspect of the life form, claim that they need to replenish their energy and offering humans "Axonite," a supposedly valuable substance, in return. But the Axons have in fact made a deal with the Master and plan to consume all the planet's energy, destroying the human race and the Doctor in the process.

Review: "The Claws of Axos" is one of those average-quality Doctor Who serials that leaves me without too much to write about. It follows what is emerging as the Season 8 formula -- in which the Master teams up with a hostile alien force, threatens the Earth, and at some point collaborates with the Doctor -- and adds in a dose of Season 7-style politicking, but without the depth that characterized Pertwee's first year. It's better than "Terror of the Autons," but not as good as "The Mind of Evil," and it leaves me still a bit uncertain about the current direction of the Pertwee era.

Like the Nestenes/Autons, Axos is a collective life form, but it makes for a more satisfying adversary. Somewhat paradoxically, the detached monotone of Axos' central intelligence and the impassive way in which the Axons lie to the humans is more frightening than the overt malevolence of Channing, the only character ever to "stand in" for the Nestenes as a whole. Axos is as ruthless as any Doctor Who villain, but in a more detached way, preferring to use the Trojan Horse of Axonite, resorting to direct attacks only when the Doctor and UNIT begin to unravel their scheme. Unfortunately, the design of Axos and its various manifestations is sometimes a letdown. The idea of making it an enormous organic life form traveling through space is a good one, and some of the interior sets aren't too bad, but the "monster" forms occasionally assumed by the Axons are so over-the-top in their attempted grotesquerie as to be laughable. I realize the creative team can't be blamed for the low budget, but it would have been a good time to observe the "Don't show the monster" rule if this was the best they could do. As it is, a number of the action scenes are undermined -- I can only watch a jeep full of UNIT soldiers being attacked by giant piles of spaghetti for so long before I start to snicker. For that matter, what was the point of this alternate form anyway? Why not just have them attack in their humanoid form?

I mentioned that there's some politicking in "The Claws of Axos," and it's to be found mostly in the conflict between the Brigadier and Chinn, a bureaucrat from the British Ministry of Defense who distrusts UNIT and wants to monopolize control of the Axonite for Britain. Chinn, unfortunately, is pretty much a one-note character, and it's obvious we're meant to dislike him from the moment he appears. The Brigadier, however, gets some of his best writing of the season to date. Despite his somewhat hawkish tendencies (he initially seems to support Chinn's decision to destroy Axos before it has a chance to land, leading to a rather predictable argument with the Doctor), he clearly takes his obligations to the United Nations very seriously, opposing Chinn's attempt to keep the Axonite from other countries to the point of getting himself arrested. He also proves himself to be the Doctor's equal in willingness to sacrifice his own life for a higher good. Under siege from the Axons in the Nuton Power Complex, the Brigadier refuses the Master's offer to help in return for his freedom, until it becomes clear that the entire planet will be destroyed if he doesn't let the Master attack Axos. The Brigadier is most appealing as a character when he's written as a competent and professional military officer with strong but reasonable views, and writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin strike the right notes in that respect.

Baker and Martin also do some nice work with the Doctor, whose new incarnation had, in the last two serials, been occasionally edging close to the line between having deep convictions and a proactive nature and simply being an annoying blowhard. In some respects, he's a bit more like his two previous selves in this serial, hanging back from the action at times and keeping his true intentions hidden so as to get a better idea of what's going on or to outsmart his enemies. When Jo seems to uncover evidence that the Axons are holding an American representative prisoner, he believes her, but pretends to accept the Axon's claim that it was an hallucination so as not to arouse the new visitors' suspicion. Later, he even fools the Master and the Axons into believing that he's prepared to betray Earth in return for having his TARDIS repaired. It's a ploy, of course, and though he manages to escape from the time loop in which he traps the Master and the Axons, he was clearly aware that he could have ended up stuck there too. At the same time, it's interesting that, while Jo and the others are outraged at his apparent betrayal, they also all seem to believe it, and he only comes back to Earth after defeating the Master and the Axons because the Time Lords have rigged the TARDIS to return there. Despite his strong moral code and humanitarian tendencies, the Doctor is still a rather enigmatic alien who maintains a certain distance from those around him, and the script effectively underlines that without making him unsympathetic.

"The Claws of Axos" features some good characterization and an interesting idea for an alien race, but at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it still lacks the complexity that initially distinguished the Pertwee era. There's a trace of the idea that humanity can be its own worst enemy -- the Axons correctly guess that the apparent material benefits of Axonite make it an effective weapon -- but none of the characters who unwittingly facilitate the trap are as interesting as the guest cast of serials like "The Ambassadors of Death" or "Inferno." About the only element that's really new or challenging is the Doctor's fake betrayal, which, had it been real, probably would have represented more of a "victory" for the Master than destroying Earth or killing the Doctor, in that the Doctor would have been abandoning the altruistic ethics that the Master despises. Other than that, this is a story that mostly plays it safe.

Other notes:

- At the risk of further displaying my scientific ignorance, it sounded to me like one of the scientists was proposing to create time travel by accelerating particles beyond the speed of light. Shouldn't that be impossible according to relativity? And even if it's possible in the Doctor Who universe, isn't it pretty implausible that someone could do it with a human-made particle accelerator in the near future?

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)