The Case for…The Gunfighters
Guest contributors William Atkinson and Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull defend Doctor Who’s first trip to the Wild West.
Howdy partner! This week the Doctor’s squaring off against an alien gunslinger in the wild west of…Spain. Anyway, this isn’t the first time that everyone’s favourite intergalactic time traveller (copyright-BBC in the 80’s) has rode on down to a one horse town via a red sunset as long ago when he was a doddery old man with long white hair (copyright-BBC in the 70’s) in 1966’s “The Gunfighters”. To say it wasn’t held in high regard would be an understatement but in recent years it has been re-evaluated and I’m here to suggest that it’s worth a trip to the DVD store to pick up a copy of this story.
Firstly, as he’d been asking for a cowboy story for a while, you can tell that William Hartnell is having a whale of a time, flexing slapstick muscles and clutching his lapels with extra enthusiasm. Peter Purves, however, has to suffer indignity after indignity putting on a Yankee drawl that would make Morton Dill sound eloquent, and he has to sing that legendary song, The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. He’s so bad it’s hilarious and you have to feel sorry for him. On the upside, Jackie “Which accent shall I have this week” Lane is at her least annoying here, her endless stupidity fitting in with the events unfolding around her.
And what events.
The Gunfighters is famous for being repetitive, nonsensical and completely inaccurate when it comes to history. This is just half the fun! So what if every scene is bookended by the same song? So what if completely the wrong people die at the end? So what if it makes less sense then a monkey, a leprechaun and the entire population of Romania performing a musical version of “The Bill”? It’s all a bit of fun! It was the first Western made for British television and everyone in it is obviously having fun. The guest cast includes Lynda Byron (Closing Time,Enlightenment) and David Graham (City of Death, Multiple Dalek Stories) and is ably performed with an air of fun and frivolity.
To conclude, this is a great bit of monochrome fun, and while not Doctor Who’s finest hour, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half (Copyright-Me).
By Patrick Kavanagh-Sproull
The serial takes the Doctor, Dodo and Steven to Tombstone, Arizona, a bleak town where the community is held tightly together by violence and distrust. The Doctor is still suffering from the toothache he got in ‘The Celestial Toymaker’ and is in search of a dentist. Dodo and Steven are overjoyed to be in the Wild West and quickly don some cowboy outfits and set off to see the local scenery. The Doctor goes in search of a dentist and discovers Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs).
In the scenes where the Doctor is having his tooth taken out he complains about no antiseptic. Doc Holliday offers him alcohol and the Doctor replies that he doesn’t touch alcohol. This was echoed back over 40 years later in ‘The Lodger’ and ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ where the Eleventh Doctor explains his distaste of wine. While the Doctor is having his diseased tooth taken out, Dodo and Steven (played perfectly by Jackie Lane and Peter Purves) seek out the local hotel. The chemistry between Lane and Purves is excellent and the pair play well off each other’s dialogue. At the hotel they encounter the Clantons, notable historic cowboys who menace the pair. The brothers Clanton are on the look out for Doc Holliday and his fiancée Kate (Sheena Marshe) and mistakenly think the Doctor, Dodo and Steven are referring to is Doc Holliday and so the confusion begins.
Of course, not every serial is without fault and before the TARDIS has even materialised, Lynda Baron (best known for playing Val in ‘Closing Time’) is giving us a Greek chorus of the events in the form of the “Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”. This seems a fun idea to begin with but it wears off quickly and the “blood on the sawdust” line is repeated over a dozen times. The scenes in which Dodo and Steven are forced to sing the ballad and play the piano are horribly cringe-worthy. The main villain, Johnny Ringo only appears in episode three and he is introduced as a cruel and heartless cowboy on the run from the law (as every character in the serial is) who slaughters poor Charlie the barman in his first scenes. The brief dialogue he has between himself and the barman show just how vicious and cruel people could be in the 18th Century West; taking a life without giving it a second thought.
The Doctor has now been confused as Doc Holliday and the Clantons are out for his blood (leaving Steven in a very tight situation in episode two’s cliffhanger) so he becomes good friends with Wyatt Earp (John Alderson) who deputises him at one point. The Doctor’s reaction to this is priceless and my favourite quote from the whole serial would have be when the Doctor is in jail. He is given a gun by Steven and Earp questions whether he’d use it to which he replies – “I have no intention of trying anything only people keep giving me guns and I do wish they wouldn’t”.
The final fight at the O.K Corral actually lasted 30 seconds while it is portrayed as lasting over ten minutes. The effects are rather impressive with guns blazing and people collapsing in every scene. Some deaths were cheesy but when you see past it, it was actually half decent drama.
Johnny Ringo grabs Dodo in one scene and holds her hostage with trying to bargain with Doc Holliday. The dialogue between the pair leaves the situation tenser than it would have been, had there been a bad script.
On the note of the writing, Donald Cotton (writer of ‘The Myth Makers’) hits all the Western clichés to a T. The script is brilliant giving William Hartnell a chance to shine as usual. Dodo is given little dialogue sadly and her character doesn’t get much. Steven is in amongst the cowboys for the majority of the serial so he gets more to say than Jackie Lane but William Hartnell tops them all as usual.
In conclusion, ‘The Gunfighters’ was an interesting story with a great script and good characters. The singing is rather annoying but don’t be put off. Behind the clichés there is a solid piece of drama in this serial.
I hope Toby Whithouse has viewed this serial in research for ‘A Town Called Mercy’ as he could certainly use some of the material and maybe a small homage to the serial but who knows, we’ll find out on Saturday.