Monday, December 10, 2012

Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos Special Edition DVD review

“Look, Lois, ever since marijuana was legalized, crime has gone down, productivity is up, and the ratings for Doctor Who are through the roof!” - Brian, Family Guy, “Episode 420”

For no less than three different reasons, that remains some of my favorite Family Guy dialogue ever written. It’s anyone’s guess how many Doctor Who fans watch the show in altered states of mind, but now, here in the States, folks in Washington can at least do so openly and without fear of persecution. They can hold massive, marijuana-fueled Who marathons, and any such festival will most surely want to include “The Claws of Axos,” which is not necessarily one of classic Who’s greatest stories, but it’s certainly one of the trippiest.

The plot is no great shakes. It’s a standard alien invasion yarn, that’s hook is “they appear to come in peace, but actually have ulterior, sinister motives.” This is the sort of sci-fi tale that’s been told thousands of times, and by that measure, “The Claws of Axos” will not rock your world. However, Roger Ebert’s old rule – one by which I live and never pass up the opportunity to quote - is, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” And it’s the “how” of “Axos” that makes it such a classic. Just recently one of my Whovian brethren, Lee Hurtado, of The Hurtado Street Theater, was telling me how he got into Who, and explained that even though he’d seen several stories prior, it was “Axos” that eventually sold him on the series. The serial is so damn committed to its own weirdness, that you really cannot take your eyes off of it, and it does sort of beg the question, for the uninitiated at least, “What the fuck is this!?!?”

The first ten minutes of the first episode alone declare, like Laverne and Shirley, “We’re gonna do it our way,” due in no small part to the character Pigbin Josh, a filthy, disgusting, seemingly homeless man (played by stuntman Derek Ware), whose sole function in the story is to be the first victim of the claws of Axos, so that the viewer knows right off the bat that the golden Axons are hostile, despite their benign presentational ruse later on in the tale. Anyway, during this first ten minutes, the action cuts back and forth from the arrival of the Axons, to the Doctor and UNIT, to this character, Pigbin Josh, wandering around in the snow, doing an awful lot of talking to himself, and none of it intelligible. Thankfully, somebody has transcribed some Pigbin speak and put it on the official BBC classic Who website for all to attempt to decipher:  

“Furge thangering muck witchellers rock throbblin' this time o' day Ur bin oughta gone put thickery blarmdasted zones about, gordangun, diddenum? Havver froggin' law onnum, shouldnum? Eh? Eh? Arn I?”

Ahem. Ah, well, yes. If youre an American fan raised on the Peanuts, you’ll quickly begin referring to him as Pigpen Josh, because that makes more sense to a Yank. Now if only Josh were the end of The Weirdness of Axos, which would’ve been a wholly appropriate name for this tale. The Axon ship, years before Farscape’s Moya, is a living ship. Its organic interior is the sort of thing to be hallucinated in the most unsettling of LSD trips, and even as I sit here trying to think of how to describe it, I’m resigning myself to falling back on some sort of clichéd “it defies description” type of line. Really it does, much of which is due to Who’s low budget. Had millions been pumped into this, we may have had a place from which to start talking, but as is, it’s just weird a hodgepodge of bizarre soft angles, vaginal doorways and the occasional crab claw. Oh, and plenty of acid slides. 

Nothing will prepare you for the arrival of the eyeball of Axos, which dangles in exactly the same way a limp penis might, and issues commands and orders in a creepy, hollow voice. Then there are the golden Axons themselves, who are such a striking creation that even in a story that’s as visually whacked as this one, they’ve sort of become the thing “Axos” is most well known for. Or are they? Because later in the story, the Axons reveal another form, which is a hulking, red mess of tentacles - a look which is almost as iconic as the golden versions of Axos. It is debatable, I suppose, which Axon form is the more iconic; the tentacled version has actually been turned into an action figure, while the golden has not (updated 01/06/2014 - now it has), which could be part of the debate. In any case, the fact that the production team achieved two entirely different looks for this race that are both iconic to such degrees is high praise indeed.

So, I’ve pretty much gotten to the point where I’m realizing exactly how balls out crazy I’ve made “Axos” sound, which was sort of the point, because you’ll see things here you can’t unsee, or see in any other Doctor Who story. Should you, as Dazed and Confused advised upon its release, “See it with a bud!”? Most certainly, if and only if that’s your sort of thing. The story works just fine, however, if you’re sober. For a more coherent breakdown, and one mired in actual criticism, I turned to the aforementioned Lee Hurtado, who, to the best of my knowledge, does not engage in the sorts of activities spoken of here. He laid it out thusly:
“There was alchemy at work in the story, something that brought its disparate elements together in a way that shouldn't have worked as it did. The limited production values, the garish visual aesthetic of the Axons, a plot that's at once simple and well over the top, and (of course) the marvelous performances of [Jon] Pertwee and [Roger] Delgado - all combined to create something I recognized as truly alien, and therefore truly original. From then on, my fate was sealed. I was, and am, the Doctor's.”

On a completely different, and in my opinion far less interesting level, anyone who owned the original DVD of “Axos” no doubt knows that the quality of Episodes Two and Three was dodgy at best. New tech has emerged since then, bringing both eps up to a quality comparable to Episodes One and Four, and therefore totally justifying this special edition. For the hardcore Who nut, this isn’t just double-dipping for double-dipping’s sake, it’s quite possibly an essential.

DVD Extras: Almost everything that was on the original DVD (including the commentary with Katy Manning, Richard Franklin, and Barry Letts) has been ported over onto this new double-disc set, except for a ten-minute documentary entitled “Reverse Standards Conversion: The Axon Legacy,” which was a look at the restoration given to the story for the original DVD release; that information is not applicable to this new release, so it has been excised. No new doc, detailing the recent restoration work, was produced to take its place, however there is a fresh, new article up at the Restoration Team’s website detailing the work that went into this special edition.

New to the table is a 26-minute making of doc entitled “Axon Stations!,” which, amusingly, goes into detail about the sheer drugginess of this story, and also spends time discussing the story’s writers, Bob Baker and Dave Martin (the former went on to write Wallace and Gromit). Quite possibly the best extra, however, is “Living with Levene,” in which Toby Hadoke spends the weekend with John Levene (Sgt. Benton), who comes across as a fascinating eccentric, and quite possibly Doctor Who’s most uncelebrated MVP. Finally, partially new to the table is 73 minutes worth of rare “Axos” studio recording, some of which appeared on the old disc in a much shorter version (inexplicably duplicated here as well on Disc One). The Radio Times listings are also presented in PDF form. Additionally, there’s a coming soon trailer for the long awaited release of the unfinished story “Shada,” which will be hitting DVD in January, in a box set along with the 1993 documentary “More Than Thirty Years in TARDIS.”