The Claws of Axos

57 claws of axos

Well, there I was all prepared to write a blog post about how this serial is a bit ‘meh’, and then an absolutely fantastic final episode comes along. That really is a great part four, with Pertwee’s Doctor getting some of his best scenes yet. I was genuinely unsure as to The Doctor’s motives at times; I was pretty sure that it was all partly a scheme to destroy Axos, but there was definitely a huge element of truth in the bits about wanting to fuck off away from UNIT as quickly as possible.

I’ve a feeling I’ll be saying it a lot over the next few seasons, but the Third Doctor and the First/Thirteenth Master are such a brilliant combination. They don’t even share that much screen time on this occasion, but The Master’s very existence has added a whole other dimension to The Doctor’s character – The Master has been established as what would happen if The Doctor had gone wrong, and as such he’s brought out that potential for conniving sneakiness that we haven’t seen since early Hartnell.

And this particular story brought us a new side of The Master – for the first time, he’s not completely in control of the situation, and he’s actually quite vulnerable and desperate at times. As such, he has to be extra resourceful and think on his feet. It’s a neat role reversal that the conclusion to the main plot has The Master fleeing because The Doctor’s gone too far for once. Prior to this, though, he’s properly evil, especially when forcing the Brigadier to choose between saving the earth or saving The Doctor and Jo.

But while the conflict between the two archenemies is as strong as ever, the main plot of this serial is a bit flimsy. The stakes are suitably high and the stuff on board Axos was often nice and trippy, but there wasn’t any real substance to it. I was never really sold on the concept that everything Axos-related was part of one huge organism, and I think the slightly shoddy look to the all-organic ship didn’t really help.

The oddest thing was the cast of characters involved. Benton and Yates barely featured other than an admittedly decent car chase towards the end, so it was an odd choice to introduce a (presumably) one-off character in Filer, who simply spent four episodes getting himself into trouble that could have easily been gotten in to by one of the regulars. Chinn was interesting – a more overtly comical character than we’re used to in this era, but he just became less relevant as the plot developed, and disappeared towards the end.

But still, it was bloody good to see the console room again. I hadn’t realised how much I missed the TARDIS, as both a “character” and a narrative device, until it became so prominent in this story’s conclusion. I am very much enjoying the UNIT era, especially with the added element of The Master’s regular appearances, but the TARDIS is such a huge part of everything that came before or since that it’s a bit weird without it.

RATING: 7

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The Mind of Evil

This seemed like at least three stories in one – there’s a machine that can scare people to death and eat their evilness, a murder investigation at a peace conference, and The Master taking over a prison in order to steal a missile. None of these individual threads satisfyingly tied together in any meaningful way. But when The Master is on screen, who cares?

Roger Delgado is simply excellent. Bizarrely, I’d hardly seen any of his incarnation prior to this marathon, whereas I’d seen a fair chunk of Ainley and everything of all the others. He really does shit all over everyone else, doesn’t he? The best thing is that I’m seeing the origins of everything the later portrayals were informed by, as the legend is fleshed out before my eyes.

I was surprised to see his penchant for being-in-disguise-even-when-it’s-not-necessary quite so early, with him wearing a mask to tamper with telephone exchange on an anonymous and virtually deserted street. Then there was that brilliant moment when you saw him in his car with evil incidental music over the top, before the reveal that he was actually playing the evil music to himself on a little radio.

But once again, it’s all about that mysterious love-hate relationship with The Doctor. Like last time, they spend periods working together out of necessity, and make a pretty effective team. The highlight of the whole serial was the reveal that The Master’s greatest, deepest fear is a giant version of The Doctor doing a big lol in his astonished face. An alarming image, and incredibly character-defining.

Meanwhile, The Doctor’s biggest fear gave us a welcome cameo appearance by the Daleks, last seen (properly) bloody ages ago. The Keller Machine bore a passing resemblance to them from certain angles, while the funky effect used when it killed someone was like a more psychedelic version of the classic extermination effect. All in all, it’s made me realise how much I miss them at this stage. I’m pining for their return.

It was another great romp for the whole UNIT crew. Jo showed her compassionate side throughout, and was always a fantastic audience surrogate, especially during the gut-punch of what happened to poor old Barnham. The Brig got to play dress-up too, as well as taking the piss out of all around for the majority of the story. Yates and Benton both got to be very brave and rugged, although there doesn’t seem to be much to Yates just yet, especially in comparison to Benton’s cute doe-eyed enthusiasm.

But the most notable thing about this story? The revelation that Michael Sheard once played someone who wasn’t a complete shit. I kept on expecting him to betray someone, or turn out to be The Master in disguise or something, just because I’ve never seen him play a goody before.

RATING: 8

Terror of the Autons

For the first time in its history, Doctor Who has a status quo other than “madman (and companion[s]) in a box”, and it’s great. It took a while to get there, but with the final tweaks made in this serial, it’s finally been fully established. And it’s largely thanks to the sheer size of the core cast.

It really is a family UNIT now, with the same amount of recurring characters as your average sitcom family. Mike Yates hasn’t done much that isn’t functional yet, but one more non-generic soldier gives us more to cling on to. Jo Grant, on the other hand, makes an absolutely sensational debut. It’s hard to disagree with the Brigadier’s assessment that the Doctor just needs “someone to hand you test tubes and tell you how brilliant you are”, and she does that with aplomb. She’s straight into the thick of it too, being hypnotised into bombing UNIT and rescuing the Doctor from evil carnies within the first two episodes.

I was concerned that the thinking behind the change in companion would be a bit of a backwards step – following the super-intelligent Zoe and Liz, they wanted someone who was less of an equal to the Doctor, and I was worried that might lead to some manifestation of a sexist seventies stereotype. Not a bit of it – she’s not thick or ditzy, she’s just normal. A normal everyday woman who the Doctor inspires to do extraordinary things. It’s the first step in a lineage that goes right up to Rose, Amy and Clara.

But really, this serial is all about the introduction of The Master. Roger Delgado is superb right from the off, with the perfect mixture of charm and sinisterness. And they instantly nail his relationship with The Doctor – a high-stakes battle of wits with undertones of begrudging respect and an uneasy affection. It’s a template that’s remained unchanged ever since. The Master is always the equal and opposite of whichever incarnation of The Doctor he faces, and these two seem to have an amazing chemistry already.

It’s interesting that once again the Autons/Nestene are used as a means of introducing a new character, and as with Spearhead and Rose are really only the side-show to the main story. I guess they work in this role because they can be anything they’re needed to be. Here, they certainly benefit from manifesting as more than just shop dummies – the troll dolls, daffodils and creepy life-sized doll things are particularly effective.

So many memorable moments in this story, such as the reveal of the Auton policeman, the Doctor’s stupid face when he’s being strangled with a telephone wire, The Doctor and The Master briefly working together at the last minute, and the particularly cruel method The Master used to escape from UNIT at the end. My favourite stand-out moment, though, was the weird Time Lord floating around in the sky, all dressed up like a little city gent.Wonderfully stupid.

And when The Doctor reacts to The Master’s name by exclaiming “that jackanapes”, I had to press pause because I was laughing so much. There seemed to be an extra level of flair within the dialogue throughout, with The Master also described as an “unimaginative plodder” and Jo, brilliantly, as a “ham fisted bun vendor”. Now I most definitely get why Robert Holmes has a reputation as one of the best writers the show had, while Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks are taking the show into a brilliant direction. Long may it continue.

RATING: 9

Inferno

Throughout this season, there’s been a sense that the show has been finding its feet again. After a huge amount of upheaval, everyone has been slowly settling in, and there’s been something not quite right. But with Inferno, they absolutely nailed it.

The main thing is that UNIT now feels like much more of a family all of a sudden. Benton has actual characteristics for the first time – he’s boyish and cheeky, and has become the Brig’s right hand man. Simply having that one extra regular character does so much towards building a consistent world, and I now feel that much more invested in the new format of the show, because it’s provided a group of people that we care about.

Of course, all this softening up was necessary to provide a suitable juxtaposition with everyone’s evil counterparts. The parallel universe stuff was absolutely inspired, and the cast are all on top form. I love how Nicholas Courtney uses so much ham for the Brigade Leader, when he’s always the epitome of suave and nonchalance as the Brigadier. Evil Benton was a complete shit, and Evil Liz was great. So much so that it’s a shame that this is her last serial – despite my reservations about Liz’s relationship with the Doctor, who knows what could have developed with more time.

The best thing about the parallel universe is how genuinely grim and disturbing their situation is. The impending apocalypse is fantastically realised, to the extent that it’s horrifying to watch it unfold. The scenes leading up to the Doctor heading home are amongst the most tense and dramatic in the show’s history, especially Liz shooting the Brigade Leader.

It’s a special type of horrifying too, because while you watch The Doctor fixing our universe, it dawns on you that the parallel universe is still doomed, and all those people are in the process of dying painfully. Despite their evilness, they did all come round to The Doctor’s side in the end, and they each showed great courage to rally round and help save our universe while theirs was already beyond saving.

This inherent grimness is counterbalanced by the optimism on The Doctor’s face when he realises that free will isn’t an illusion after all, and that the pattern can be changed. It’s powerful stuff, and it feels like a defining moment for the ongoing development of The Doctor’s character. His little speech subtly carries the spirit of joy and wonderment that so many subsequent actors and writers would bring to The Doctor. There’s also a certain ruggedness and air of defiance throughout Pertwee’s performance, which is what is setting him apart from his predecessors the most, thus far.

RATING: 10

After just four serials, albeit mostly really long ones, it’s milestone time again.

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: 7 of 34
  • Stories watched: 54 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 278 of 813

Wikipedia reliably informs me that Inferno was the last seven parter, meaning nothing will be this long again until Trial of a Time Lord. While Inferno was certainly well worth its running time, it’s rare that long serials don’t slightly outstay their welcome, even by a little bit. After only seeing four different stories in an entire season, I’m looking forward to seeing a greater number of adventures for this newly-gelled UNIT posse, and I’m also looking forward to seeing Jo Grant, cause she is well fit. But above all else, I hear there’s a new villain on the way…

The Ambassadors of Death

Or as it’s emphasised in the funky new title sequence variant, The Ambassadors… OF DEATH! I quite like having the titles interrupted by the cliffhanger resolution – it seems quite forward-thinking, considering pre-title sequences are now the norm for pretty much every type of TV show. This is a mid-title sequence, though, so let’s call it a lukewarm open. Also used for the first time: the scream into the end credits! Lovely stuff – a lot of cliffhangers have fallen flat over the first few seasons due to a lack of punctuation going into the titles.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this one. It nips along at a fair old pace, and I always like a story where it’s not clear who the villain is until late doors, especially when the baddies are more misguided than evil. General Carrington is a xenophobe and a maniac, but he thought he was doing what was right. His complete iron grip on the situation was impressive, and it’s a great performance from Rimmer’s dad.

The rest of the guest cast was strong, particularly the ultra-suave and cool-tempered Cornish, played by one of the Dominators. I also liked Reegan, who made for quite a likeable cold-blooded murderer, and of course the sudden return of Benton! He just pops up out of nowhere in episode five, like the production had only just remembered that he exists.

The story is notable for its vast use of CSO – this show has only been in colour for a few weeks, and already it’s separating and overlaying it. It doesn’t always work, but you simply have to applaud the ambition in making such extensive use of a technology that’s completely in its infancy – again, they were way ahead of their time. The dodgy bits are made up for by some lovely model work and of course the numerous action sequences.

But best of all, the Third Doctor’s character has now very much been established. He’s a product of his environment – no longer free to roam through time and space as he likes, plus he’s got roots for the first time since leaving Gallifrey, so he’s not quite as flighty and impulsive as his predecessors. His natural curiosity is still there though, and he’s channeling that into investigation and research. He’s still a rebel underneath, but he’s prepared to collaborate with others and form part of a team, albeit only on his own terms.

He’s working extremely well in conjunction with the Brigadier, with their deep respect for one another smoothing over their numerous differences in style and philosophy. In many ways, their relationship is similar to that of Bond and M, but they share the roles between them. The Doc reports the results of his field work to the Brig, and tries to influence his approach wherever possible. But it’s the Brig that plunges head-first into conflict, with the Doc hanging back and being more tactical.

The relationship with Liz, however, isn’t quite there, and it’s a shame. I really like her – both character and actress – but she just doesn’t have the bond with the Doctor that previous companions have had. It’s probably because they’re rarely alone together – when you travel in the TARDIS, The Doctor is the only constant in your life, but Liz gets to go home whenever the danger subsides, and presumably gets on with some light admin until the next crisis. It’s also why I’m not keen on the dynamic between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara – life with The Doctor should be the only life that companions know.

RATING: 8

The Invasion

Well, that was awesome. I’d seen it once before, back when the DVD with the animated episodes first came out, but seeing it in context really emphasised the scale of this story’s ambition, in terms of plot and production values.

The stakes have never been higher, because not only is this contemporary Earth, but a version of contemporary Earth that we really care about – it’s a very well-established and consistent world at this stage. It stretches back to Ben and Polly’s introduction, and this is a direct follow-up to The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear – the final stepping stone towards the Pertwee Era.

Following this line of continuity works fantastically, as does the return of the newly-promoted Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. He’s kicking more arse than ever before, with a newfound confidence and a touching level of faith in and devotion to The Doctor. With this strengthening of an easily lovable character, and the establishment of UNIT, it’s clear that the trial run of a potential new format was a huge success.

The plot builds very slowly – the Cybermen aren’t even revealed until the cliffhanger of Episode 4. (How amazing would it have been to watch that for the first time and be surprised?) But while the information is trickled out gently, the pace never drops, thanks to some impressive action sequences and sparkling dialogue. It’s well worth eight episodes – it didn’t feel stretched at all.

Tobias Vaughn stands out as one of the most memorable villains to date. Early on in this story I’d identified him as being rather similar to Mavic Chen, long before I suddenly realised that it was the same sodding actor. The eyes should have given it away, but in my defence, he was blacked up last time. He’s just as hammy in places here, but all the better for it. A magnificent portrayal of a complete and utter bastard.

Meanwhile, Zoe continues to be amazing, especially when destroying an entire Cyberman invasion fleet single-handedly. There were a few strange 60s attitudes towards her and Isobel at times, but at least there’s a fantastically strong female role model to counteract it. Another inconsistency within the story is that while it had plenty of brilliant action sequences, it also skimmed over several – quite a few scenes ended with someone saying “right, we need do this thing” and then cut to someone saying “well, we did that thing”.

Maybe it was a case of sacrificing certain sequences in order to make others better. It was perhaps all worth it for the scenes of the full invasion starting – dozens of Cybermen in the streets of London, emerging from St Paul’s. Lots of lovely model shots too; so many things got blown up over the course of eight episodes.

That’s the last Troughton story that I’ve seen before – the rest of this season will all be fresh to me. God, I’m going to miss him afterwards.

RATING: 10