Aired March 13 - April 3, 1971
Written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin
Directed by Michael Ferguson
An alien spacecraft approaches Earth, picked up by UNIT monitoring equipment. Meanwhile, a civil servant named Chinn has arrived from the Ministry of Defense, and is irritating everyone by throwing his weight around. UNIT is also playing host to Bill Filer, a secret agent from America who has been assigned to track down the Master.
The spacecraft lands near Nuton Power Station, a nuclear power plant, and UNIT, along with Filer and and Chinn, rush to the landing site. There, they meet the aliens; attractive gold-skinned beings called Axons. The Axons claim to be fleeing a planetary catastrophe aboard this ship, the Axos. The Axos is damaged and needs to stay on Earth for a time while it repairs itself. In return for Earth's hospitality, the Axons offer a living molecule called Axonite, which can cause animals to enlarge and thereby provide an end to food shortages worldwide, as well as provide a source of energy.
While Chinn and the administrators of the Nuton Power Complex welcome the Axons and their gifts with open arms, the Doctor and UNIT are suspicious. Chinn tries to keep a stranglehold on the Axonite to ensure England's superiority, while Filer sneaks aboard the Axos to investigate. There, he finds that the Master is aboard, having brought the Axons to Earth.
The Axons true plan is to have the Axonite distributed as widely as possible, and then sue the substance to drain the Earth of energy; the Axons are parasites, and the Master is working with them to buy his freedom. Once the Doctor uncovers and reveals the true nature of the Axons, he seemingly betrays Earth to work with the Master and offers to link his TARDIS with the Master's to help the Axons boost their energy. In return, the Axons will help him wreak revenge on the Time Lords for his exile.
Of course, this is a ruse, and the Doctor's true aim is to locking Axos in a time loop for eternity. Doing so, the Doctor returns to Earth in the TARDIS, though the Master has escaped once again, this time off Earth entirely.Analysis
There are things to like about The Claws of Axos. Though opinion is split over whether the design and visuals of the story are innovative or cheesy, I land more on the side of innovative. The trippy, psychedelic feel of the story dates it as completely of its time, but within that there are numerous bold visual touches that are quite good. This was Michael Ferguson's last directorial outing for Doctor Who. He had previously helmed The War Machines, The Seeds of Death and The Ambassadors of Death, all of which succeeded largely on the energy and skill he brought to bear. I'd have to say that this might be the weakest of his stories overall, but those aforementioned visual touches mean that it also contains some of his best work.
That fact that it doesn't quite gel is the result of the plotting. The ideas contained within the scripts are solid, focusing on an invasion accomplished not by force or weaponry but by trickery and exploiting your enemy's failings and prejudices. That's actually a novel approach for Doctor Who, and when the plot focuses on that, it feels fresh.
But that's not all the plot focuses on. This is the first instance of the inclusion of the Master actually hurting the story rather than helping it. Once the story turns to him, we lose the initial conflict of the Doctor trying to force humanity (in the form of Chinn) to look beyond its own greed and self-interest to see the true threat. The Master's scheming is not as interesting, and it reduces the conflict to standard alien invasion stuff. The Doctor's betrayal isn't believable for a moment, and the inclusion of Bill Filer, though the character is well performed by Paul Grist, is unnecessary considering his role would have been better filled by an existing regular such as Mike Yates.
All told, The Claws of Axos includes too many elements we've seen before. I will say that none of it is badly done per se, and I never was bored, but it does mean that in the end, it degenerates into a routine story elevated by some solid direction.