Friday, July 29, 2011

This Pretty Little Thing Here (The Claws of Axos)

I'd make a snarky comment here, but A, nobody ever even
mentions the captions in the comments, and B, what is
there to say about this picture that the picture doesn't
say itself?
It's March 13, 1971. Mungo Jerry is at number one still, followed by dueling ex-Beatles with McCartney and Harrison. But it's week two of the story where it finally happens. T. Rex hits number one with Hot Love, establishing glam rock as no longer the next big thing but simply as the big thing. It's worth pausing here and looking at T. Rex's Top of the Pops appearance for this song just to see the way in which the visual styles of pop music and Doctor Who had merged into a single aesthetic. Elsewhere in the charts are Deep Purple and John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band.

In real news, Bangladesh splits off from Pakistan, William Calley is found guilty of the Mai Lai massacre, the Ed Sullivan Show airs its final episode in the US, and the 47 day British postal workers strike ends. There's going to be a lot of strikes over the next few years, so keep your eyes on that.

But let's get back to T. Rex. T. Rex is one of those bands that really consist of a single creative force - Mark Bolan. This was, to be fair, not always true. In the late 60s, under the fuller name of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Bolan and Steve Peregrin Took brought psychedelic folk to not quite the masses before Bolan sacked the hobbit and created glam rock. The nature of this transition is a watershed moment in popular culture, and gets at a point I made some time ago and didn't really pick up on - the fact that the crash-and-burn of 60s counterculture that occurred in France and the US simply didn't happen in the UK. Instead, after a bit of fussing about, the psychedelic and counterculture aspects of culture made a coherent and traceable transition into glam. 

But actually defining glam is hard. And since this isn't primarily a music blog, I'll leave that to more capable people. Instead, let's note that glam and Doctor Who existed in parallel and developed together. Doctor Who from 1971-1973 is as glam as glam rock, and what we called Ballard Pertwee on Wednesday can just as well be called glam Pertwee - perhaps even more accurately. 

All of which is an extremely lengthy way of circling around to the fact that The Claws of Axos pushes this aspect of the series further than it has been pushed to date, and in some ways further than it will ever be pushed again. Tat Wood refers to this story as the moment when Doctor Who was more glam than glam rock. And much as with Mind of Evil on Wednesday, the same bits that make it brilliant are the bits everyone complains about. So just as on Wednesday we explored what made the action Pertwee version of the show work, let's look at how the glam version works. 

We should start, perhaps, with the writing. This is the debut of Bob Baker and David Martin, who will go on to write eight stories over eight years, with Baker writing one last one on his own. Somewhat surprisingly, the Bristol Boys, as they were known, are not regular mainstays on people's "best writers of Doctor Who" lists. Admittedly none of their stories are obvious shoo-ins for classic status save perhaps The Three Doctors. But on the other hand, Bob Baker is the writer of several Wallace & Gromit cartoons, including Curse of the Were-Rabbit, which means that Bob Baker is the only writer of Doctor Who to have won a film BAFTA or to have written for an Academy Award winning film. So we're probably forced to concede that Baker knows what he's doing as a writer, and presumably that Martin does as well.

There's a degree, however, to which one must cling to this assumption like a warm blanket while watching The Claws of Axos, because it is very easy to lose faith and conclude that the show has no idea what the heck it's doing here. If The Mind of Evil was extremely competent television, this walks the line of being extravagantly incompetent television. Never before has so little effort been made in establishing the logic of events. Characters are introduced without meaningful explanation, behave in seemingly insane ways, and interact with a sprawling plot that just about hangs together so long as you don't do anything unexpected like think about it. 

But for the most part, the absurdities of the plot are simply extensions of things the show had already been doing, largely under Robert Holmes. In Spearhead From Space we introduced the Brigadier proper, a character who worked by being resolutely sane even as the world went mad around him. In other words, he is a character who operates according to a defined logic that is not quite the appropriate logic for the world in which we see him. He is a cool, calm, and capable military leader who keeps a level head in tough situations, but he is repeatedly put in situations where freaking out is probably the sane thing to do. 

Then in Terror of the Autons, we introduced two more such characters - the Master, who is always an evil schemer with elaborate villainous plans regardless of how these plans relate to the world, and Jo Grant, who is always plucky ditz who approaches any circumstance with eager determination. Again, both characters are consistent - they behave according to a rock solid, immutable logic. It's just that the logics they embody are fundamentally off for a world as full of insane things as the world of Doctor Who. 

Now The Claws of Axos takes us to a new level - a story in which every single character is a Brigadier-style character. Nobody behaves in any way like a person in a recognizable or understandable world. Instead, every character is a programmatic high concept character. This has its plusses and minuses. Its most obvious minus is that all notion of human storytelling goes out the window. There are no people in this story. There are just plot roles interacting. And so even as the Doctor reaches new levels of sheer unpleasantness to everyone around him, it hardly seems to matter. He's only insulting caricatures and parodies. (In fact, to some extent this is the ultimate deflating of the Pertwee ego balloon. At last he's allowed to vamp and mouth off to everybody, but there's no point to it and the real joke is that he doesn't realize that he's as much of a ridiculous caricature as the people he's mocking.) 

But as I often point out, this is only a problem if you assume that the story is supposed to be a character drama in the first place. What if, as I am wont to query, it is in fact supposed to be something completely different? Well, then the obvious question is "what is it supposed to be?" 

Thankfully, The Claws of Axos is not particularly subtle about what it is trying to be. Much of this comes down to taking the story on its own terms. And looking at it, it's very clear that what this story is interested in is throwing as many wild and interesting ideas together as it can possibly fit. This is characteristic of Baker/Martin scripts, which tend to be distilled down and simplified from far more elaborate and over the top plots. The Claws of Axos originally involved a gigantic skull spaceship landing in Hyde Park and dispensing wishes, for instance. Later, a giant carrot crashes into the earth.

It's really only in comparison to something like that, however, that The Claws of Axos can possibly be considered low key. And unlike skull spaceships in Hyde Park and flaming death carrots, the spectacle that Claws of Axos offers is intensely doable by the BBC. More than any story to date, The Claws of Axos takes advantage of the fact that it's made in color. The Axons are a blur of colors not usually associated with aliens. Their evil form is a mass of orange tentacles. Their spaceship is a garish yellow. The inside of it is similarly all yellows and oranges with pulsing lights. The result is like nothing else seen on television. Similar touches abound - the collage of gold-faced Axon heads and evil tentacle axons swirling as the Doctor and Jo stagger through a pulsing, strobing Axon spaceship is an amazing visual sequence.

Never before have we seen so much effort put into sheer spectacle as in this story. And the effort pays off. The visuals on this are... the temptation is to say stunning, but that's not quite it. Alluring. Fascinating. Yes. That's it. The entire point of this story is to swirl previously unimagined sights in front of the audience for twenty-five minutes. It is, in other words, The Web Planet for the 1970s.

Except that The Web Planet was about showing strange and unimagined things to the audience. The point wasn't that the Zarbi or the Menoptra looked strange. It's that Vortis as a whole was a strange place full of strange creatures. The entire setting and logic of the place is supposed to be alien and strange. That's not true of The Claws of Axos. The Claws of Axos is set in our world. It operates along a logic that's basically familiar. This is where the programatic characters come in - all of the characters are recognizable in an archetypal sense. We know everything they're going to do. Even the aliens aren't, conceptually, that strange. The basic plot is just the Trojan Horse from Troy's perspective. 

Instead, The Claws of Axos is presenting strange images. Both in the rawly visual sense - the swirling and bizarre colors - and in a broader narrative sense. This is again a factor of the programatic characters. By boiling the characters down to broad types, the story can begin offering compelling and strange combinations of characters. Usually it accomplishes this by taking two characters that are a reasonably interesting pairing to begin with - the Doctor and the American action hero - and throwing them with a third item that is thoroughly strange - floppy orange Axon monsters. The result is a plot comprised, much like Terror of the Autons, out of a series of strange and fascinating set pieces, all surrounded by a bewildering and amazing visual aesthetic.

It's tempting to simply be snooty and suggest that there's some falling off involved in moving from presenting strange things to presenting strange images. That, in other words, the show has become superficial. But this is where we really turn to glam and to Ballard, both of which provide compelling, intelligent takes on the interplay of images. The Atrocity Exhibition was all about the deep power of superficial images. 

Glam rock, similarly, is in part about taking the opulence of conspicuous consumption and rearranging it into the wrong aesthetic. It's all the over the top excess of the luxury associated with power and authority, except it's all put together pointlessly and haphazardly. It revels in decadence and consumption while denying the systems that ostensibly justify that behavior in society. 

Does The Claws of Axos follow this approach? Largely, yes. On the one level, the pleasure of The Claws of Axos is a revelry in spectacle and glitz. We are meant to enjoy its images for their own sake. On the other hand, look at its ostensible plot, which is a straightforward anti-consumerist parable. The Axons are beautiful creatures of gold who offer untold wealth and then drain the world of its resources. But look, these two things don't go together at all. The story is simultaneously reveling in superficial images and warning of their malign influence. 

But this isn't a contradiction or a case of sloppy and incoherent execution. This is what concern about the rise of a purely image-based culture of spectacle (which was one of the major concerns of the Situationalist International in France in '68) looked like in 1971. The critique of images was phrased in an image-based, superficial form. The Claws of Axos is designed to make the viewer feel uncomfortable about the pleasure they are taking in the object. It's constantly reveling in images that are not fun but rather lurid and unnerving - images that are over the top and unlike what things should look like - while simultaneously cautioning us about the very pleasure it is taking.

Which, at long last, brings us around to the Master. One of the critiques of Season Eight is that the decision to use the Master in every story robs him of the element of surprise. This makes sense only if you assume that the Master is supposed to be a surprise. Yes, after this he will function that way, with the twist in stories being that it's been the Master behind it all along. But assuming that's how he works in Season Eight is just wrong. Only The Mind of Evil actually uses the Master's involvement as a revelation past the first episode, and even it doesn't make a cliffhanger out of his involvement. No. The audience is clearly supposed to have figured out by this point that the Master is going to be in every story for a while. His involvement isn't supposed to be a surprise any more than stories taking place on Earth is supposed to be a surprise. That's how the show works now. Consistent setting, consistent antagonist. 

Given this, then, Baker and Martin delight in playing with the audience expectations. Because the Master is supposed to be the secret villain behind everything, Baker and Martin do everything they can to keep him from actually playing that role. So his first appearance here is structured visually as if it's supposed to be a big surprising reveal in classic "Oh look, the story that says it has Cybermen in it has Cybermen in it" fashion. Except the reveal is that he's chained up in the Axons' prison. Eventually he manages to sneak out, but then he has to slum it in a team-up with UNIT, spending an episode basically playing the Doctor's role while the Doctor goes and does more important things.

This also shows an interesting new approach to Pertwee. Simply put, they've built a story where his charismatic leading man confidence is pointless. Since Pertwee plays the part as a set of tics and catchphrases for the audience to delight in, Baker and Martin write a script that's nothing but tics and catchphrases. Since the story is all artifice and image, Pertwee's performance of the part no longer stands out. Pertwee is just another generator of spectacle in a world that consists of nothing but spectacle. His spectacle happens to be "leading man," just like Jo's is ditz and the Axons' is pulsating orange hues. But in a world where everything is spectacle, "leading man" becomes a flavor, not a role that gives the text a center of gravity.

The result can be read in two ways. In one, it's a continuation of what we saw in Terror of the Autons, where this version of the Pertwee years functions by critiquing the Doctor from within his own narrative. Here the critique comes by making an entire world that looks like the Doctor and then taunting the audience for enjoying it. It's effective and it's interesting, and finds a new and challenging take on the era. You couldn't do every story like this, but the point of Doctor Who in the past was to always do something new, so the fact that the idea would be tedious much past four episodes is hardly a fault in a four episode story.

But there's another possibility that's even more interesting. The leading man role is, in many ways, the most superficial role available in the story. It's a part defined by male power and charisma, and a part that by its nature demands that everything else cater to it. The leading man is a decadent role - someone who is the center of attention because of their charm and sex appeal rather than their competence. And it is a part of pure consumption. The leading man exists to be pleasurable for the audience, and he functions by demanding the adoration of the world. He is both the ultimate consumer in his own world and a commodity to be consumed in ours. 

But that's not what the role of the Doctor has historically been. Under Hartnell, the Doctor was manifestly not the leading man, vanishing off to the sidelines of stories, and often getting taken out of the story and put in a coma or otherwise incapacitated. He relied upon being underestimated so that he could then roar up and take control. Troughton introduced leading man charisma to the role, making the Doctor someone we liked and wanted more of - a consumable product. But as we discussed, he used that charisma to constantly take a surprising position in a scene or in the narrative. This is what made him mercurial and fascinating - the way he always slipped out of your grasp even as he charismatically drew you in. Troughton took the leading man role, but then never quite gave you the moment of pleasure as you get to watch him vamp around. (Indeed, the only times he vamps in his tenure are at the very beginning in The Highlanders when he's taunting the audience with not being William Hartnell, and in The Dominators when he finally gets to the point of just giving up on the part.) He made himself into a consumable product, but then never allowed himself to be consumed.

But Pertwee, thus far, is playing the part as a pure leading man in the traditional sense. In this story it even gets off-putting - the Doctor is basically not nice to anyone at all until the second episode of the story, instead marching about shouting and being rude to people. This is something we've never seen in the Doctor before. Pertwee's Doctor is obsessed with people's approval in a way Troughton and Hartnell never were. Every character must either respect him or eat crow. But despite this all, the narrative still allows him to be more clever than everyone else and thus to win out. He may act in a way that's actively contrary to what had previously been one of the most defining traits of the character, but the things he does within the story are the traditional Doctor things. 

In other words, he's still mercurial - in the David Whitaker alchemical sense - even as he is a figure of decadent consumption. But this is just the juxtaposition we've already said was the entire point of The Claws of Axos. Which means that the Doctor here becomes a glam figure as well. Which makes sense. Although Pertwee does not dress in a glam manner as such, his fashion sense provides essentially the same effect we ascribed to glam. He is clearly a luxury-loving aristocrat, but he's the wrong sort of aristocrat. He's part of the establishment, but getting it slightly wrong and turning it into a mockery of it.

In which case the leading man performance on the Doctor is another case of getting it slightly wrong. He's a leading man, but in the wrong sort of part. He's the dashing hero who fixes the problem by fiddling with a control panel somewhere. He may run around and have action scenes and car chases, but at the end of the day he's just going to reverse the polarity of something. The story doesn't need his charisma. It has enough swirling and superficial images. And when every character operates by an unchanging logic, so that the Brigadier will always be calm, the Master will always be scheming, and Jo will always be plucky, his charisma becomes wholly impotent. A story like The Claws of Axos doesn't need a leading man. It already has the Brigadier, Mike Yates, Sergeant Benton, and Bill Filer. And yet there's the Doctor, pointlessly being a leading man even though that's not his job in the story. 

But since the Doctor is the clever one who figures out what's going on, this becomes self-aware. Especially because he's slightly different from the other programmatic characters in the story. The Brigadier, the Master, and Jo are all too good at their roles - capable of maintaining their roles even when circumstances say they should change. The Doctor, on the other hand, is not quite doing his role right. He's playing around as the leading man and getting it slightly wrong. In a world where everyone's mask is too big, his is just a bit too small. And so he's the one person who gets to break the rules of the world. And so he plays the glam rock hero in his own era, mocking the job of UNIT's dashing scientific advisor even as he performs it.

The effect, if you will, is a variation of the Emperor's New Clothes. Nobody is allowed to say that the emperor is naked. Except here, the emperor knows full well that he's naked. He's enjoying the power of making everyone allow him to strut around naked without being allowed to comment on it. Pertwee's Doctor is a ridiculous joke of a character. Everybody knows that Pertwee's Doctor is a ridiculous joke. But because he's the leading man, they have to take the joke seriously, no matter how many ridiculous things he tries to get away with. And thus, by seemingly abandoning his mercurial nature for crass consumerism, he gains an even more powerful version of that nature.

There are of course problems here, not the least of which is that Pertwee is clearly not in on the joke on any level. But in the hands of clever directors and writers, that can be made to work. Pertwee's failure to get the joke he's performing just becomes another layer of the miscasting - another aspect of the way in which the Doctor doesn't quite play the leading man role correctly. Pertwee may not be in on the joke, but it's not his joke. It's the Doctor's joke. Jon Pertwee, just as much as Chinn inside the story, is being outfoxed by the Doctor. The part, if you will, is playing the actor.

12 comments:

  1. I was going to post a pithy comment about the picture but decided not to, since my role as commentator does not include posting comments about pictures.

    As soon as you mentioned 'image' and a monster bearing the image of gold, I knew it was only a matter of time before alchemy showed up. I miss Whitaker already.

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  2. "The visuals on this are... the temptation is to say stunning, but that's not quite it."

    I think you need the word "lava-lamp-ilicious".

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  3. "There are of course problems here, not the least of which is that Pertwee is clearly not in on the joke on any level. But in the hands of clever directors and writers, that can be made to work. Pertwee's failure to get the joke he's performing just becomes another layer of the miscasting - another aspect of the way in which the Doctor doesn't quite play the leading man role correctly. Pertwee may not be in on the joke, but it's not his joke. It's the Doctor's joke. Jon Pertwee, just as much as Chinn inside the story, is being outfoxed by the Doctor. The part, if you will, is playing the actor."

    I'm afraid you've lost me a bit in this article. I'm not quite sure what you mean when you talk about Claws not needing a leading man when it has the supporting cast, or indeed why Pertwee's Doctor isn't a leading man in "the right sense". And when you say it's all a big joke, but a joke that Pertwee isn't aware of, but the directors and writers are in on it... I can't help but feel you're assuming a lot of everybody involved and seeing things that aren't quite there. That may be because I don't quite understand your fundamental points.

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  4. Well, I should perhaps be specific about what I mean by "leading man." Which is not just a main character, but a character who is central to the story precisely because of his charisma - someone who is both the central character and a "star," so to speak. The thing about the star role is that it's a role that expects everybody to close ranks around it. The star is supposed to be the center of gravity of the entire story, and every other character is supposed to be defined by their relation to him. That's how the leading man role works, classically.

    But in a story where every single character is Brigadier-style and programmatic, there's no point in a leading man. The leading man usually functions by being the only programmatic character in the story. When every character is just a stock role played inflexibly, there stops being a point to having a leading man.

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  5. I'm finding your Pertwee-era posts harder to relate to than with Hartnell and Troughton. I keep feeling as though you and I are watching two different Pertwees; I just don't see Pertwee the actor as a humourless, clueless egomaniac, nor do I see his doctor as an unlikable clubbish Tory. I see Pertwee as a brilliant comic actor, and I see much more continuity than you do between his playful, impatient, subversive Doctor and Troughton's -- the major difference being that Pertwee's Doctor is more unflappable.

    On another note: My Lai (rhymes with "free sky"), not Mai Lai.

    Since I notice I seem to comment only on points where I disagree, I should mention that I'm greatly enjoying this blog; I've plugged it here:
    http://aaeblog.com/2011/07/25/keep-warm-part-2

    And I do like the captions!

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    1. Completely agree. I'm watching the entirety of the classic series having never seen it and I'm considering not reading the Pertwee entries until I'm done with his era since I find that it's sort of influencing me to dislike his performance. Before I started reading this blog (just over a week ago though I'm mostly caught up) I had seen the Pertwee stories up until Inferno and found him quite charming and Doctor-esque (as I tend to with any incarnation of the Doctor). I mostly attributed his testy nature to his frustration at being exiled and his cockiness as a sign that he has become quite used to saving the world. I fear that this blog's constant insistence on Pertwee's and the Third Doctor's egomania will make me enjoy these next few seasons far less. Not to say that this isn't an excellent blog, because that it is.

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  6. You know, you may have just made Axos slightly watchable again for me. Not having ever taken the time to understand what Glam was trying to do, I was always mystified by this story.

    Oh, and just because we don't comment doesn't mean we aren't appreciative. Personally, I took your Yeti post's image and caption around the office and showed it to all the geeks, barking like a loon.

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  7. Great/awful lines in this story. "You stupid quack!" and "Can't ya stop it, Doc?" stand out for me. Plus the scene where the Doctor and Jo are attacked by, as Miles & Wood have it, a pile of spaghetti bolognese and an ambulatory duvet cover.

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  8. I'm afraid this one went right over my head. But one thing that is crystal clear - Pertwee is definitely NOT "my" doctor. He's my mother's Doctor, in fact the Pertwee era is the only time she's been interested in the show, but if asked to list all Doctor's from favourite to meh, I'd have to put Pertwee at the bottom of the list. Perhaps this is why I'm struggling a little with your Pertwee essays - I'm just not interested enough in the leading man.
    But it's not going to stop from keeping on reading though!!

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  9. Philip Sandifer:
    "Never before has so little effort been made in establishing the logic of events. Characters are introduced without meaningful explanation, behave in seemingly insane ways, and interact with a sprawling plot that just about hangs together so long as you don't do anything unexpected like think about it."

    Sounds like a 70's Bond movie.

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  10. "But this isn't a ... case of sloppy and incoherent execution."

    Yes. Yes it is. Possibly not in the script, but in the direction, this is an absolute mess, the worst story in several years of Doctor Who. And while you try to defend it as being somehow cleverly innovative and in touch with the glam zeitgeist, I largely see a bunch of people who've stopped trying to impart any meaning or nuance to their roles because none of them have a damn clue what they're trying to achieve.

    There are a few flashes of character from Delgado as The Master, but that's probably it. At one stage in the 'climax' of the final episode, Katy Manning is the very essence of a stunned mullet, staring blankly at the camera. And that's just the one I remember because it was near the end. The actor playing the American agent is absolutely woeful most of the time.

    And then just before this, you have The Mind of Evil, which you grudgingly admit is well executed television, only you think it's not the 'right' kind of television for Doctor Who. I understand your point, but give me the polished execution of The Mind of Evil over this shambles any day.

    Because to me it's absolutely no use having interesting ideas if you can't actually get them onto the screen properly. This isn't a screenwriter's workshop, this is about the end product. And the sad thing is, I actually think the ideas in the script are intriguing.

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