Skulltopus 8: Society of the Tentacle
The quasi-tentacular returns in ‘The Claws of Axos’. Big time.
What’s more, this story is an orgy of strange flesh… to the extent of looking like a precursor to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
Now, if my idea is right – that, in the 70s, Doctor Who starts invoking Weird tentacles as a kind of evasion/signification of capitalism when it veers too close to potential systemic critique – then this really, really should show up in ‘The Claws of Axos’.
Not to keep you in suspense: it does.
Taking it on the Chinn
Now don’t get me wrong. I’d hate you to get the idea that I was claiming that ‘Claws’ is ‘subversive’ or anything. I’m not. It isn’t. As political critique goes, objectively, ‘Claws’ is feeble. Yes, it is very cynical about the government, but that in itself doesn’t amount to subversion. After all, Clear and Present Danger (to take an example more or less at random) features a secret plot by the President, the White House Chief of Staff and high-ranking CIA people to launch a covert war in South America – but Clear and Present Danger isn’t remotely subversive… indeed, it is a highly reactionary film that entirely supports the specious ideological assumptions of the American empire. This is slightly unfair to ‘Claws’, since it has, well, sharper claws than Tom Clancy via Hollywood (‘Claws’ is cynical about establishment power, while CaPD depicts the cynicism of powerful people as a danger to a fundamentally well-meaning establishment), but it does illustrate the point that simply depicting the wrongdoing of the state does not necessarily or automatically amount to a radical critique.
With its bourgeois patrician hero, its stiff-upper-lipped and self-sacrificing scientist/peer, its bog-standard sexist representation of Jo as dollybird-in-need-of-saving, its depiction of the American lawman (FBI? CIA? …something like that) as a square-jawed straight-arrow, the comic neutralisation of the issue of poverty, the implication that people starve because there is a lack of food rather than a lack of profit in feeding them, and many other such representations, ‘Claws’ is as well integrated into capitalist ideology, and as likely to ‘manufacture consent’, as any other Doctor Who story, the vast majority of which are straightforwardly and entirely unthreatening to the status quo. What political critique there is consists, for the most part, of moralistic liberal finger-wagging about greed, nationalism and xenophobia, which is itself compromised by the Axons turning out to be evil, shifty, bogus asylum seekers (that sort of thing didn’t start with Gatiss, sadly). Such moralistic liberal finger-wagging is inherently non-subversive and non-radical because it is inherently reformist rather than revolutionary, i.e. vote out the reactionaries, and get the common herd to be less materialistic, and capitalism will be fine and dandy.
However, everything is relative and context changes things.
The fact is, ‘Claws’ has probably the most straightforwardly, explicitly, non-metaphorical depiction of the British state as cynical and machiavellian of all Pertwee stories (though the impact is softened by Chinn’s comic incompetence). In ‘Claws’, the problem isn’t one slimey bureaucrat, one idiotic authority figure, one cowardly warmongering parliamentary private secretary… the problem is Chinn and his boss and the government they work for. …