The Gunfighters [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but until recently rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  This has changed in the last couple of years as I have been using birthday and Christmas money to buy some of the old episodes, usually enjoying them with one or two of my nerdier daughters. This year, though, my wife and I bought a year of Britbox for each other as a gift, which gives me access to nearly all of classic Who.

The Gunfighters

Starring William Hartnell as the First Doctor
Companions: Peter Purves as Steven Taylor and Jackie Lane as Dodo Chaplet.
Written by Donald Cotton.  Directed by Rex Tucker. Produced by Innes Lloyd. Script Edited by Gerry Davis

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  April – May 1966 (Episodes 34-37 of Season 3). Individual episodes are known as A Holiday for the Doctor, Don’t Shoot the Pianist, Johnny Ringo and The O.K. Corral.

The Gunfighters, as it is known, is not the last pure historical story that Doctor Who ever produced on TV, but it is the last one that still exists (discounting Black Orchid, which while sort of fitting the “pure historical” criteria, isn’t really the same type of story at all). Given that, it’s American setting, and and a few other unusual qualities, it reads today as quite the oddity in the series’ history. I’d watched it previously on a fuzzy UHF channel, and so this was my first time seeing with proper clarity.

Spoilers Ahead!

The Gunfighters has a bit of a reputation, and that reputation is that it is really, really bad. A reputation that sometimes says this is just the lowest point of the whole franchise. But that is certainly overstated. It’s not good, exactly, but it’s passable, and has a plot that I’d say is more interesting than Revenge of the Cybermen, for example (the story I watched before this one).

The main problem with The Gunfighters is just that’s kind of silly. And realistically, there was no way Doctor Who in the 1960’s was going to pull off the old West and not make it look like a bunch of British guys walking around on a hokey set. The serial has the same sort of artificial theatricality that earns people’s criticism about the caveman sequences of An Unearthly Child. But like that earlier serial, there is still an earnestness about the performances and storytelling which earns my respect.

Of course, there’s no point pretending that it’s particularly good either. The serial is full of exaggerated old West tropes and characters who stand around looking and sounding pretty awkward. Its especially blatant at the beginning of the story, as we are being introduced to everyone. Steven and Dodo are just hopelessly inept at time traveling, doing everything they can it seems to get themselves in trouble. And the gang of barely distinguishable bad guys at the start have terrible American accents. It picks up a bit with the introduction of John Alderson as Wyatt Earp, whose performance is more convincing and is I’d say one of about three guest characters who really well in this story.

The other two are Anthony Jacobs as Doc Holliday and Laurence Payne as Johnny Ringo. Both of these guys have a sense of menace around them that most of the others lack. It doesn’t mean they all aren’t Western caricatures, but there is enough nuance in the performances to make these three guest characters more believable and memorable than everyone else, including the regulars! Over the entire story, Steven, Dodo and the Doctor get good moments but they are a bit few and far between compared to what the Doctor and his companions usually get in this era.

Amongst the high points of the story are the Doctor’s extremely uncomfortable visit to the dentist, including the sitcom-like misunderstanding that leads the Clantons to believe that he is Doc Holliday. William Hartnell’s reaction as he is about to have his tooth pulled is pretty funny.

Even better is the sequence where Dodo confronts Doc Holliday at gunpoint and convinces him to take her back to Tombstone.

There’s not a lot of Dodo Chaplet that is available to be watched (she wasn’t in that many to start with, and the purging of many of the show’s early episodes has wiped out half of these) but this has surely got to be one of her best moments. Dodo gets to be brave and determined but not unrealistically so, and Jackie Lane shows excellent comic timing.

More disappointing is the lackluster gunfight at the story’s climax, which is quite the let-down given that we are waiting for the whole story for it to take place.

The shows staging just isn’t up to creating the pulse-pounding showdown that we are hoping for. “I thought you’d do better than that, Mister Ringo,” says Doc Holliday as Ringo dies…and so did we, as their part of the sequence is perhaps the least exciting.

Another point of irritation about the story is the nearly ubiquitous presence of the original song, The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, being sung over nearly every single transition for the entire serial. It’s sung by Lynda Baron, an actress who later appeared on Doctor Who with both the Fifth Doctor (Enlightenment) and the Eleventh Doctor (Closing Time), and who sadly died shortly before this writing. The performance is fine and the idea of an old-style song narrating and commenting on events throughout the story is potentially clever, but the end result is tiresome and repetitious, especially if you watch more than one episode in a row. When you also hear both Steven and Kate singing the same song in the context of the story, it’s just too much–you find yourself crying at the screen, “How much can they play this one song?!” Or at least that’s what my daughter and I did.

Apparently, real-life history wasn’t much of a concern for writer Donald Cotton, as the serial plays pretty fast and loose with the real-life events that inspired the story. Who was present in Tombstone, what their roles were, who was involved in the shoot-out, who was injured, who was killed, who was already dead…none of it is as presented on screen. Doctor Who has always had the capacity to be a little loosey-goosey with historical facts (all fiction has, really), but it somehow stands out more strongly with this serial–maybe it’s because it’s such recent history that it’s more obvious. But its clear that the priority here was not to create a faithful re-enactment of the true story, but to use the popular myths around the shootout at the O.K. Corral to build a fun Doctor Who adventure full of Western tropes that would have been recognizable to the show’s family audience.

In the end, The Gunfighters isn’t a great story, but it’s not boring to watch and is often a fair amount of fun. As such, it’s better than a lot of the worst of Doctor Who, and certainly better than the popular view would often suggest.

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