The Axons appeared in The Claws of Axos, a Doctor Who story made in 1971 starring Jon Pertwee as the Doctor. They featured only once in the classic series and have so far not been invited back in the revived version, although an Axon can be seen briefly in S01E02 of the unaffiliated Who spin-off K-9.
A strange, organically-formed spaceship arrives in Earth orbit, and the occupants, a quartet of golden-coloured humanoids called Axons, send a distress signal asking for assistance. In return, they offer Axonite, a substance able to mimic other molecules, with wide-ranging applications including the creation of unlimited food supplies for the Earth. However, the humanoids are not what they seem; they and their spaceship are actually part of the same single life-form, Axos, a galactic parasite intent on sucking the life out of planet Earth. When the Doctor uncovers their plan they drop their pretence and adopt a more threatening physical form, bipedal monsters covered in writhing root-like excrescences, and mount an attack on a nearby nuclear power station…
Voice of Axos: “Axonite is simply bait for human greed. Because of this greed Axonite will soon spread across this entire planet, and then the nutrition cycle will begin … Slowly we will consume every particle of energy, every last cell of living matter. Earth will be sucked dry!”
The Claws of Axos was the first story written for Doctor Who by the team of Bob Baker (writer of the Wallace and Gromit films) and Dave Martin. Location shooting took place in the first week of January 1971 in Dungeness and other Kent locations, with the studio material shot between 22nd January and 5th of February.
Transmitted over four weeks between 13th March and 3rd April 1971, it scored 7.3 million viewers for its first episode, rising to 8 million for the second, dropping to 6.4 million for the third and finishing on 7.8 million. The original colour materials were lost in the BBC’s purge of videotape and film prints in the 1970s; fortunately, prints sold abroad were found in Canada, and the story is now available in its entirety on DVD.
Episodes One and Two were filmed as “The Vampires from Space”, and credits were completed with this name before being replaced with the final screen title. Prints bearing “The Vampires from Space” were accidentally circulated abroad and can be seen in the extras on the BBC DVD release.
Amid the spectrum of alien menaces in Doctor Who, the Axons fall into the category of monsters with no redeeming features, with whom there can be no dialogue or compromise. In this they embody an ‘old-school’ attitude to the monstrous; the creatures are designed purely to frighten young viewers. In later years such ‘one-dimensional’ threats fell gradually out of favour in Doctor Who (to the point where even the Daleks were deemed unfit for total destruction in stories such as 2005’s Dalek and 2008’s Journey’s End).
The Claws of Axos can perhaps best be summed up by the phrase “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” (from the story of the Trojan horse in Virgil’s Aeneid, a pertinent reference given that the scripts were first commissioned under the title “Doctor Who and the Gift”). Initially, the Doctor is angry with UNIT (The United Nations Intelligence Taskforce) for firing on the Axon spaceship without making contact with the occupants: on seeing the golden humanoids for the first time he sarcastically remarks, “There’s your enemy” to the soldiers and politicians, as if the aliens’ attractive appearance says all there is to say about them. However even he changes his view, later on describing Axos as a “cosmic bacteria”.
In design and conception, the Axon monsters are among the most extravagantly weird creations of the Pertwee era. Coloured reddish-orange, spitting smoke and electrical sparks from their ‘hands’ and walking with a distinctive rolling gait, they cut a fearsome, fantastical sight. Combining aspects of Lovecraftian horror with a vibe redolent of the 1950s pulp scifi comics, they combine a high-concept backstory with a generous helping of the bizarre.
Also striking is the malleable, ever-changing manifestation of Axos: from the golden humanoids, to the tentacled monsters, with variations such as a golden humanoid with a tentacled head and an amorphous bag-like creature, The Claws of Axos constantly startles the viewer with a parade of curious monstrosities.
Upon viewing Episodes One and Two after they were edited and scored, producer Barry Letts decided that two key scenes of horror were too upsetting for children and ordered that they be electronically obscured in post-production.
The first, in Episode One, involves the discovery of a tramp’s desiccated corpse; when a soldier touches the body, the tramp’s face collapses like an empty sac.
The second scene, in Episode Two, shows a golden humanoid Axon merging itself into the walls of the spaceship; during the absorption process the face bloats and then collapses, an effect which is authentically disturbing and grotesque. In both cases the effects can still be seen intermittently despite post-production masking.
The UK DVD (recently updated to this ‘Special Edition’ with improved picture quality and expanded extras)
The US Region 1 DVD
The original Target novelisation, published in April 1977 and penned by frequent Who writer / Pertwee-era script editor Terrance Dicks
A second imprint of the novelisation with new cover artwork