‘The Claws of Axos’ is regarded by many Doctor Who fans as a classic adventure. Broadcast in 1971, the serial formed part of Season Eight and saw the Third Doctor doing battle with shape-shifting, tentacled beasts. And the Master.
But how was this achieved on the show’s modest budget, and what went wrong with the Master’s handcuffs?
Like many Doctor Who stories, ‘The Claws of Axos’ had a lengthy development process. It was originally conceived as a seven part adventure titled ‘Doctor Who and the Gift’ in 1969, deriving from an idea from the relatively inexperienced writing team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin.
Baker and Martin had written very little television prior to ‘The Claws of Axos,’ but Doctor Who‘s script editor Terrance Dicks saw great potential in the pair, and decided that they were worth nurturing. Ultimately, ‘Doctor Who and the Gift’ was chosen from a thick stack of pitches that the writers had produced – a stack that was almost the size of a full-length script, according to some reports.
And as much as Dicks liked the story outline that eventually became ‘The Claws of Axos,’ he did have issues with Baker and Martin’s cinematic vision. An early draft saw a skull-like spaceship crash-land in London’s Hyde Park – during lunchtime – after which the invading Axons began demolishing key parts of central London, together with an epic chase sequence through Battersea funfair.
“We’re not MGM!” was Dicks’ succinct response, and Baker and Martin were instructed to scale down some of their ideas in order to make them affordable.
Indeed, budget had always been a concern on Doctor Who, and ‘The Claws of Axos’ saw a number of other cost-cutting measures being implemented. One of these was the decision to drop HAVOC – the stunt team that had been in situ throughout Season Seven. The producer Barry Letts concluded that the show’s budget should be spent elsewhere, and as a result ‘The Claws of Axos’ was the last serial in which the complete HAVOC team participated.
This was off-set, however, by considerable support from the British Army. They appreciated Doctor Who‘s positive representation of the armed forces, and donated considerable amounts of equipment and services to ‘The Claws of Axos’ – namely, a mounted Wombat gun, a Land Rover and 10 soldiers, all coming from the Risborough Barracks in Shorncliffe, near Folkestone.
Despite this, ‘The Claws of Axos’ was by no means a cheap production. The tentacled suits for the Axons themselves, for instance, were amongst some of the most expensive ever made for Doctor Who. This was because their base material was chamois leather, chosen for safety reasons because latex was considered to be a fire hazard.
Similarly, the UNIT sets were bedecked with a top-of-the-range, futuristic-looking array of television sets – which sadly couldn’t be used in the programme, as they were stolen from the studio during a lunch break!
But the attention to detail was certainly in evidence throughout ‘The Claws of Axos.’ For example, the production team exceeded their design budget by adding a lock to a door that previously didn’t have one. This was because, in episode two, some of the UNIT personnel were being held prisoner in one of the rooms, and it was considered to be unrealistic if the door didn’t have a lock. (Although this isn’t always an issue, as anyway who’s seen ‘The Day of the Doctor’ can attest.)
Even the handcuffs that were used to restrain the Master were a proper working set – which quickly became an issue when somebody lost the key and temporarily incapacitated the actor Roger Delgado!
Indeed, the ambition to make ‘The Claws of Axos’ a polished, ambitious production was in evidence throughout its making, despite the modest budget. Of course, Doctor Who was never going to be able to live up to the production values of movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, but this 1969 classic was cited as an inspiration by several members of the production team. For example, the story’s opening sequence, which shows the Axon ship drifting through space, is evocative of the ‘waltzing spaceships’ scene from Stanley Kubrick’s famous movie.
Even the story’s psychedelia took inspiration from 2001. As the Doctor and Jo try to escape the flailing Axon craft – and are bombarded with strange images, sounds and lights – the script writers instructed the production team to make it look like ‘the trip’ sequence from A Space Odyssey. To achieve this, ‘The Claws of Axos’ crew enlisted the services of Pat Chapman from the Crab Nebula Light Show, who had created similar other-worldly effects for the BBC’s popular entertainment show Top of the Pops.
And this precise attention to detail continued even as the actors went before the cameras. For the first few weeks of production, ‘The Claws of Axos’ was officially titled ‘The Vampire from Space,’ but as time rolled on the script editor Terrance Dicks felt that the use of the word ‘vampire’ gave away too much too soon. And he was also concerned about the horror implications, with Doctor Who continuing to receive scrutiny as to its suitability for children after the somewhat controversial ‘Terror of the Autons,’ which had just been broadcast.
So ‘The Vampire from Space’ soon became ‘The Claws of Axos,’ although a miscommunication in an internal memo temporarily dubbed this serial ‘The Clause of Axos.’ Which would have looked a little strange our DVD shelves.
Thankfully this problem was soon corrected, and we now have the completed ‘The Claws of Axos’ to enjoy on DVD. And it will seen get a whole new lease of life on the upcoming Season Eight Blu-ray set, which is due to be released in the UK on the 8th March.
Are you looking forward to re-watching this classic Third Doctor adventure? Or perhaps you’ll be watching it for the first time? And if you’ve seen it before, what is your favourite moment from ‘The Claws of Axos’? Let me know in the comments below.
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