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The Gunfighters

story 25 | season 3 | serial z
Eddy Wolverson

Watching Donald Cotton’s “The Gunfighters” is simply put, a test of endurance. How many times can you stand listening to the same refrain, over and over again? Across the four episodes of this story, Tristram Cary’s "Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" bookends almost every scene in the whole damn story! If you do as I foolishly did, and sit down to watch all four episodes in one sitting, I swear by the end of it you will feel your grip on sanity sliding. At least back in 1966 when it first aired, the assault on the eardrums was spread out over a month!

It is hard to believe that the same season that spawned the intergalactic blockbuster, “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” futuristic stories like “Galaxy 4” and “The Ark” and even mind-bending serials like “The Celestial Toymaker” could farm out something like this – a tongue in cheek pastiche Western, telling of events culminating in the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona back in 1881. If nothing else, it proves the flexibility of the series’ format! To be fair, it’s not all bad. Well… in terms of the story it is absolute pants, but it is good for a laugh and at the end of the day, that’s exactly what Cotton was aiming for when he wrote it.

“The Gunfighters” sees Steven and Dodo dress up as cowboys, put on Yankee accents and even take to singing in saloons! Even the Doctor dons a Stetson! Remarkably, even Dodo isn’t as annoying as usual – in fact, with retrospect, this is probably her least offensive outing; for once her inherent stupidity and feeble-mindedness fits in well with the comic theme. She even looks a bit better than usual with her hair extensions!

The plot itself revolves around the Doctor being mistaken for Doc Holliday, and that’s about it really! The shoot out in episode four (which is the last episode to have an individual episode title until “Rose” 39 years later!) looks quite good on screen, there’s a busty singer thrown into the mix to help things along, and William Hartnell gives one hell of a performance considering what he had to work with. In all honesty though, unless you’re a hardcore completist you should probably write this one off. There are worse Doctor Who serials out there, but you’ll struggle to find one with a weaker plot and you certainly won’t find one with as annoying a jingle!

Tom Prankerd

We Doctor Who fans, we're a funny old lot. Take our opinions of the merits of stories, for example. Everyone seems to go out of the way to disagree with each other. It would seem that, in about the 1980s, some chap, most likely Peter Haining, decreed a chunk of stories as "classics". Since then, everybody's been disagreeing with this selection, and supplying other "classics". This really came to light in the nineties as video releases began to really pick up, and people started actually seeing things like 'The Web Planet', and pointing out it wasn't a classic. Indeed, poor Mr. Haining's assertion that 'The Web Planet' was one of the pinnacles of the programme is something that some people still mock today - after, what, fifteen years of the thing being routinely slated, some people still think that they're actually being radical in pointing out that it's not this avant garde masterpiece, but actually a bunch of poor chaps in fibreglass stumbling around for two-and-a-half hours. We all like to be contrary and unique, and sometimes it seems like we're kicking against something non-existent, but we have to sound radical, so that's what we'll do.

For an example inverse to 'The Web Planet', we have 'The Gunfighters'. Both Haining and DWM contributed highly to giving this story the "Worst Ever" mantle in the 1980s, when very few fans had seen it [it did get the series' worst audience appreciation figures IIRC, but then those things don't prove a bloody thing, unless you really think 'Aliens of London' is much better than, say, 'Genesis of the Daleks']. But since then, since it entered satellite rotation and the eventual BBC video release, and copies became significantly easier to get hold of, everyone's kicked against this mantle with gusto.

I don't think I've read a negative review of 'The Gunfighters' since the early-1990s. It's been excluded from "worst ever" discussion for a while, replaced by the likes of 'Timelash', 'The Twin Dilemma' and 'Time and the Rani'. I've also read very few reviews from the past 15 years that haven't referenced this "worst ever" injustice, and none that don't declare this story a "lost classic" [which, I believe, is the classification given to any "classic" that wasn't on that fabled list back in the day; it adds mystery, and gives the reviewer a rank of explorer, daring to uncover those classics that we all feared to view.]

Nobody seems to have said that, all said and done, 'The Gunfighters' is actually pretty average. It's got that Sixties languid quality to it - there's padding aplenty, and everything just seems to take ages [this doesn't affect all Sixties stories, and is present in a fair few later ones, but that's really for another time]. It's something immeasurable, really - if you go down all the checkboxes, and most of them are checked. Great performances from the regulars: check, especially Billy and Peter; Good guest cast: check, especially Anthony Jacobs as Doc Holliday, and despite some general confusion as to whether to go for American accents or not; Good production values: excellent, especially when you consider Western wouldn't be one of the historical periods Aunty Beeb would have a vast warehouse of costumes, sets and scenery, and it looks splendid; Dialogue: a few sharp one-liners and nothing that makes you want to crawl into a hole and die; Plot: pretty good, a nice change from the more pious historical stories. "The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" works nicely, a great change from the usual recycled stock music in the Hartnell serials, and it's not too intrusive.

And yet… there's something intrinsically mediocre about 'The Gunfighters'. Something about it just screams "filler story". Once you've watched enough to define it's not The Worst Story Ever [no ludicrous ham-performances, no egg-box monsters, no strings holding things up, etc.] it doesn't hugely hold the interest. There's also a rather out of character Doctor onboard. Watch this straight after the preceding "historical", 'The Massacre'. There the Doctor leaves Anne Chaplet, Nicholas Muss and the rest to their fates at the hands of the Catholics, arguing that history cannot be changed [something that is central to most of the 'historicals' - notably "The Aztecs"]. All well and good, except we get here and the Doctor's actively trying to change history by mediating between Earp and the Clantons… I've heard two different explanations for this. Firstly, that the gunfight at the OK Corral isn't an important enough event for any changes to effect the web of time. Surely that's a big steaming pile of nonsense? Firstly, it's the principle of the thing. Sure, if Johnny Ringo had lived, he wouldn't have invented the microchip or anything. But there's still someone wandering around who should be dead. Secondly, Johnny Ringo, or even someone more minor like Ike Clanton, is certainly a massively more important figure to history than Anne Chaplet. Overall, then, changing history depends on how the Doctor's feeling, right? Of course, most of this is sadly rendered null and void by the historical inaccuracies in the script… Still, they really don't bother me that much, as a) I'm not particularly well-versed in the real history of the Old West (I only knew of the inaccuracies from the excellent video sleeve-notes) and b) as Graham Williams once said "It's all about telling stories, nothing else matters".

Overall, 'The Gunfighters' isn't an especially fascinating story. It deserves credit for trying something a bit different for a historical setting, and for creating a wide group of characters that hold the interest. There's at least one laugh-out-loud moment for the first episode cliff-hanger, and in most measurable terms it's pretty good. However, it's not actually hugely interesting or involving; it seems to be drawing most of its' suspense from whether the Doctor can stop the gunfight happen which doesn't really work, and from who'll win the scrap - and Doc Holliday's just far too self-confident to put much doubt into the outcome. If you're a Hartnell fan, you'll like this as much as you'll like any of the more minor stories. If you're not, despite what others might have told you, this one won't talk you round. Probably the thing that sums 'The Gunfighters' up is that writing this review, getting to go on a tangent and then discussing the implications about changing history was considerably more fun than watching the story itself.

Paul Hayes

I have never been much of a fan of Westerns. Whenever I’ve caught a Western film on the television I have always found it to be a curiously soulless and depressing experience, and it’s probably the one genre that I go out of my way to avoid watching. This, as you can imagine, presented something of a challenge when it came to The Gunfighters, but overall I have to admit that I did end up enjoying myself.

I think one of the reasons the story is effective is because there is not much else you can compare it to in the rest of Doctor Who, either as a television series or anything else you care to throw into the ‘canon’, be it audio, novel or otherwise. Historical stories were common enough in the era of the First Doctor it’s true, but rarely did we get one that was a) set outside of the UK, or did not at least involve British characters in some shape or form, of b) was predominantly played for laughs.

Donald Cotton is of course well remembered now as a Doctor Who scribe who often enjoyed playing his subject matter for laughs, and in this respect he seems to have tuned in well with the desires of William Hartnell, who was always keen to bring more humour to the part. Right from the recording of the pilot episode Hartnell was looking for ways in which to soften the character, having had a background in comedy films yet always being frustrated by having to play the straight man. The Gunfighters allows him to cut loose from the slightly gruff image the First Doctor sometimes had in his stories, although it’s fair to say that he always had that humorous spark to him anyway. This story plays that to the full though, and you can tell that Hartnell is having a whale of a time playing the character in that manner, which makes his performance a delight to watch on the screen.

Peter Purves also shows us another side to Steven Taylor in this story, although of course here he’s operating under the slightly ludicrous alias of ‘Steven Regret’. It’s often pointed out that the Doctor never makes it clear really what was wrong with Dodo and Steven’s real names for this story, although the fact that he gives them such larger-than-life monikers is in keeping with the slightly unusual tone of the whole story. Steven singing is a sight to behold, and like Hartnell Purves seems to be enjoying bringing a more light-hearted touch to the series. It has to be said though that after the first couple of episodes, there are so many supporting characters wandering around the place that Cotton seems to pretty much run out of things for Steven to do, and there’s never much for Dodo to do at all. In fact, the whole story probably would have been able to work almost as well had the Doctor landed in Tombstone companionless, although we do at least get to find out that both of his associates are, coincidentally, proficient piano players. Another error Cotton makes, although this is somewhat pickier, is that in the same episode he has the Doctor tell Steven the gun he has is from his “favourite collection”, he says he deplores violence and doesn’t want to use one. It seems somewhat odd that he would collect guns at all, especially when he confesses this distaste for them in the same episode, although I suppose he could collect them just to look at. Seems odd though.

It seems almost a shame to have to mention the American accents of the supporting cast, given that it’s the most obvious thing anyone can ever bring up about this story. It’s such a glaring problem though that it’s impossible to ignore, even for me as a British viewer and thus normally less sensitive to that sort of thing. Even I had to wonder though at the very beginning whether the Clanton brothers were even supposed to have accents, some of which at times sound more Australian or Irish than anything. I suppose given this accent problem it’s actually hard to tell how good the guest cast really are, although none of them stood out for me as being particularly stunning. Apart from Anthony Jacobs, that is, whose performance as Doc Holliday I did enjoy, having the ability as he did to make the character by turns the drunken comic and at other times actually quite serious.

I am aware that the story is based on a rather famous real-life happening, and I am also aware that it is apparently rather creative in its portrayal of said story, but then when has there ever been a Doctor Who historical that let the facts get in the way of spinning a good yarn? I don’t know all the ins and outs of the real life events myself, and I suspect that most of the watching audience in 1966 didn’t either, and at the end of the day suggesting there were a bunch of time travellers in Tombstone at the time already suggests the event is not being rendered with pinpoint accuracy.

Something that is often praised about The Gunfighters if nothing else is the quality of the sets, and I have to say I agree with that assessment. Barry Newbury was always one of the more talented designers the series was blessed with down the years, and his recreation of a Western town within the confines of a BBC television studio is very impressive. Nevertheless, the whole thing inevitably looks a lot more impressive when it’s out on film with more time and space for the shooting – in all senses of the word!

Rex Tucker – the man who was initially chosen to produce Doctor Who before moving on, of course – brings a good eye to the camera, and I was especially taken with the raised camera he has in the bar room scenes throughout the studio videotape material. The ability to look down at the action from above cannot have been easy with the clunky great beasts of cameras they were using at the time, but the effort to achieve such shots is worth it.

The Gunfighters possesses storytelling flair not just in terms of its camerawork, however. There is also the infamous Ballad of the Last Chance saloon, and using music as a narrative device is something very much unique to this story. On paper the idea sounds absurd, but on screen I think the effect is actually quite charming, and I have to confess I rather liked the song anyway. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want the show to do every week, but as a one-off occurrence it was well worth doing and just goes to show that the programme was sometimes capable of using the infinitely flexible premise the fans have always boasted it possesses.

Such an assessment probably covers The Gunfighters overall, in fact. Comedy historicals with linking songs are not the sort of thing you would have wanted Doctor Who to come up with each and every single story, but it’s always nice to get something new and refreshing from time to time, and I think the production team are to be applauded for having made the effort. While what they come up with doesn’t always work perfectly, it’s never less than enjoyable and I wouldn’t wish it out of the history of the series at all.

Erik Engman

Okay, I'm reviewing this because no one else wanted to. Basically this is one of my least watched episodes because... No, I don't want to say it yet. Because once it starts, it can't stop.

The story starts out when the Doctor, Steven and Dodo land in the Wild, Wild West; Tombstone to be precise, right next to the O.K. Corral. The Doctor has a toothache and so they decide that the best thing to do is to get it fixed right where they are because the Wild West is known for its hygiene and dental technology. They can go anywhere in time and space, but decide to stay in a place where the only anesthesia is a bottle of the ol' rot gut. So they go across town to look for a dentist and...So fill up your glasses/ And join in the song/The Law's right behind you/ And it won't take long. So come, you coyotes/ And howl at the moon/Till there's blood upon the sawdust/ In "The Last Chance" Saloon.

Stop it! I'm trying to tell the story here! Well, as I was saying, the Doctor gets his tooth pulled by none other than Doc Holliday, whom the Clantons are gunning for and...With rings on their fingers/ And bells on their toes/ The girls come to Tombstone/ In their high-silk hose. They'll dance on the tables/Or sing you a tune/For what's in your wallet/At "The Last Chance" Saloon.

I said stop! Anyway the Doctor is mistaken for Doc Holiday and the Clantons...There's gamblers from Denver/ There's guns from the South/And many a cowboy/With a dry, dry mouth. There's a ragtime piano/ And a small back room/ For to sleep off your troubles/ In "The Last Chance" Saloon.

CUT IT OUT! So the Doctor is thrown in jail after he single handedly, while Steven is on his way to be lynched...You've a good chance of swinging/ It's your last chance to hide/ And your last chance of singing/ Till your last long ride. It's your last chance of cussing/At your hard-earned doom/ It's your last chance of nothing/ At "The Last Chance" Saloon.

AAAAAUUUUGGGHHHH! Stop it! Please, please stop!

And that's pretty much the story. You follow the action, and then they force that song on you. It's torture! TORTURE!

When it comes down to it, if you can skip the song (and the incredibly bad western accents), it's really a great little story. It's all a case of mistaken identity and revenge in the Wild West. It's important to note that the episode is obviously a broad comedy, which is undermined by that awful song "The Ballad of the Last Change Saloon". It was written as a follow-up to the tongue-in-cheek "The Myth Makers" as that was a pleasurable experience for both producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh.

It starts out with Steven and Dodo realizing they're in the Old West, then dressing up in the most god-awful, stereotypical western clothes that you might find a small boy wearing at the Universal City Walk on Halloween. It's hysterical! In fact, one of the funniest moments of the entire series of Doctor Who is at the end of Episode One where the Clantons force Steven to sing at gunpoint as Dodo plays the piano. I was reminded of Buster Keaton, it's that funny. Peter Purves is a comic genius as he reluctantly sing that awful song...Johnny Ringo has found her/ Johnny Ringo's found Kate/The gunslinger's got her/Now what is her fate?/Johnny Ringo has seen her/She's coming his way/Johnny Ringo and Katie/Were lovers, they say.

That doesn't mean I want you to sing it!

Really the thing that ruins this episode for me is the production values. It's a very funny episode, but it isn't produced that way. The reason why is that both Wiles and Tosh left Doctor Who, and were replaced by producer Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis. They disliked the historical genre, and disliked comedic episodes more, as they had a more serious vision of Doctor Who. They deliberately try to portray a Bonanza episode, but it's totally not what the script calls for, and writer Donald Cotton wasn't happy about it. And in inserting that incredible annoying song...So the cards they are drawn and/The chips they are down/Them outlaws and lawmen/Are headin' for town. So them bad cruel outlaws/ Are meeting up soon/ And they've had their last drink in/ "The Last Chance" Saloon.

Don't you start! The song really takes away from the story. It's incredibly annoying! Especially in episode one where they play it every two minutes, and that's the problem. It is played so much. But you have to give them kudos for trying something new and different. It's a very different format for Doctor Who, especially at that time when the other stories surrounding it are very much regular Doctor Who stories. But it would have been a much better, tighter episode without the song.

The episode is not historically accurate as the idea was to portray the mythical version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral that everyone knew. According to the website Doctor Who: A Brief History Of Time (Travel) (http://www.physics.mun.ca/~sps/drwho.html): "In truth, Earp was not the sheriff of Tombstone, and in fact had failed in his attempts to bribe his way into that position (his brother Virgil had become deputy marshal of Cochise County, which included Tombstone, in the same manner). Earp and Doc Holliday were both gamblers, and the Clantons were essentially a rival gang. After Wyatt's efforts to frame the Clantons for murder failed, he confronted them outside the O.K. Corral with Virgil, their brother Morgan, and Holliday, and gunned the Clantons down -- although Ike Clanton (and possibly one other member of his gang, which included Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury and, according to some sources, Billy Claiborne) escaped."

It's worth it to see at least once, just keep the remote handy to mute that terrible, terrible song-So beware all you cowboys/ Who's a-yearning' to sin/If the Earps is the lawmen/You ain't gonna win

I give up.

Paul Clarke

Back when I was at school, I got my first access to a Doctor Who episode guide, in the form of Peter Haining's Doctor Who – A Celebration. According to this tome, 'The Gunfighters' is the worst Doctor Who story ever made, and was both "bad" and "ugly". Given this fact, and its negative opinion amongst many fans, I feel that I should discuss its bad points first.

Some of the accents are atrocious, mainly those of the Clantons and Charlie.

OK, that's the bad out of the way. 'The Gunfighters' is in my opinion the single funniest Hartnell story, and possibly the single funniest television Doctor Who story of all time. 'The Romans' and 'The Myth Makers' are quite funny, but this is very, very funny from start to finish. This is due almost entirely to Peter Purves, Anthony Jacobs (Doc Holliday), and, most of all, William Hartnell (and of course, the script). 'A Holiday for the Doctor' contains my favourite scene, in which the Doctor, still suffering from toothache after eating one of Cyril's sweets at the end of 'The Celestial Toymaker', goes to Doc Holliday's surgery to have a tooth pulled. Without anaesthetic! The look on Hartnell's face speaks volumes, especially when Holliday offers him whiskey as an anaesthetic, gets a refusal, and smoothly takes a long swig himself before commencing work. The next time we see the Doctor, he's looking very rueful and notes that it's a good job that he didn't have to have his tonsils out. From here on in, the one-liners flow thick and fast, mostly from Hartnell and Jacobs. The Doctor blusters constantly when threatened, keeps getting unwanted firearms ("all these people are giving me guns, I do wish they wouldn't!"), and postures magnificently when he's holding the Clantons at gunpoint in the bar even though he is clearly out of his depth and completely dependent on Kate for advice on what to do. Throughout all of this, Hartnell's timing is spot on, from his sudden "Oh dear" when introduced to the Clantons in episode one, to his exclamation of "disgusting habit" in episode three, when Johnny Ringo spits in Steven's face. And the Doctor constantly calling Wyatt "Mr Werp" somehow manages to be funny even after the third time he says it. Anthony Jacobs vies with him for the best lines and scenes, most notably when rather gentlemanly "surrendering" to the petrified gun-toting Dodo. Purves' contribution is more visual; note the filthy look he shoots at the Clantons when he is forced to sing The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon yet again, and his double takes on being surprised first by Charlie's presence and later by Charlie's corpse. His facial expressions speak volumes, from the opening scenes when the Doctor introduces him to Wyatt Earp as Steven Regret, tenor. His ridiculous costume and deliberately bad accent (which of course keeps slipping at inopportune moments) add to the general riotous air. Oh, and he sings quite well, too.

Accents aside, the supporting cast is rather good, with Lawrence Payne as the deliberately clichéd Johnny Ringo of particular note. Jackie Lane however, is a revelation. Whilst nowhere near as good at comedy as Purves or Hartnell, after her fluctuating accent in 'The Ark', and her character's irritating portrayal in 'The Celestial Toymaker', here she is on fine form, and proves to be an excellent foil for the obstreperous Holliday. She's pretty plucky too, tackling the homicidal Ringo without hesitation in a bid to help Holliday.

The production is admirable too, with a perfectly adequate representation of the Wild West in a studio-bound set. This is no mean feat, I suspect. The costumes look good too. And of course, I couldn't discuss 'The Gunfighters' without mentioning The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, which narrates from the start and gets gradually funnier as the story progresses. I gather that it really annoys some fans, but I'm not sure why. It's an interesting addition from a series point of view actually, since it continues the experimental feel running through 'The Ark' and 'The Celestial Toymaker'. It has been noted that 'The Gunfighters' is proof that we Brits can't do Wild West stories, but I think this is missing the point. It isn't a serious attempt to recreate the OK Corral, it's a spoof, and as such it succeeds because ultimately, it is hilarious. I sincerely hope that the Hartnell VHS box set will expose 'The Gunfighters' to a wider audience, because it is deserving of reassessment. Have a beer, sit back, and enjoy.

Garth Maker

So here we have another Doctor Who story that I had never seen, and in this case, unlike ‘The Time Meddler’, I was not particularly optimistic about this story. In the end, I feel that the fact that it took so long for ‘The Gunfighters’ to be released on video is the main reason that it has such a poor reputation.

I actually rather enjoyed it. There, I said it. All things considered, it wasn’t a bad little comedy-historical. The characters were, in general, not too badly done, although some of the acting was rather wooden, and I will be a happy man if I never see Jackie Lane attempting to mime the piano again. Hartnell’s portrayal of the Doctor was interesting – at first he seems to be blundering along, unaware of the real danger, and especially of the danger his companions are in. However, somewhere in the middle he becomes rather more like his normal, serious self, as events unfold around him. This was interesting, and perhaps reflected Hartnell’s approach to the decreasing comedic element as the story progressed.

In general, the story itself was simple, if incredibly historically inaccurate, and the sets were quite impressive, given the limited size of the studio, and the interiors are sparse but give a feel of the Wild West. It is in the sets, and some of the better-acted supporting characters that this story really becomes tolerable. It is with that horrendously all-permeating song that it becomes a bit tiresome. Not that it is a bad song, well it’s not brilliant, but it just tends to get in the way of the drama and tends to soften the impact of things such as the bartender’s senseless death.

However, in spite of all that I have complained about, in the end ‘The Gunfighters’ does exactly what it sets out to – give the viewers a fun look at the Wild West and in particular the Earps and the Clantons. It’s only when it takes itself too seriously, like in recreating the infamous gunfight that it falls down. All in all, well worth a look, if only to remove some of the stigma associated with this supposedly awful story.