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The Gunfighters

Novelization of the Doctor Who serial
Michael Baxter

This novelisation of a late William Hartnell story, one that wasn’t particularly popular when it was originally screened, is easy to read and amusingly told, with many witty turns of phrase, as we have come to expect from Donald Cotton. Unfortunately, as is usual with this author’s Doctor Who offerings, the Doctor and his fellow-travellers, in this case Steven and Dodo, have little depth, and in a Doctor Who book this is perhaps not good, though admittedly it would be difficult to achieve anyway as regards the extremely tiresome Dodo. This lack is a consequence of the story being told via frontier journalist Ned Buntline, who is interviewing Doc Holliday in the terminal ward of a Sanatorium in 1887, immediately prior to his death.

This novel was, however, enjoyable enough to inspire me to look into the real historical characters appearing in the story. The facts I unearthed proved to be somewhat thin on the ground in “The Gunfighters”. Where the Clantons are concerned, though cattle rustling is somewhat reprehensible, I can't believe they were quite as black as Cotton and others have painted them. Pa Clanton, in any case, was shot in August 1881 by Mexican bandits, two months before his appearance in Cotton’s story, which takes place in October 1881, so his participation was little short of miraculous. Phin Clanton was not present at the real gunfight either, and actually lived on for more than twenty years. Johnny Ringo, it appears, actually committed suicide, following a bout of depression! It was interesting, too, to discover along the way that Kate Elder survived until 1940, and died in a rest home in her ninetieth year.

Artistic license being what it is, Cotton does put across the popular ideas regarding the shootout, perhaps more romantic than the real thing, the reasons for which are, I gather, still somewhat hazy. Still, this was supposed to be a Doctor Who book, and though I accept the fact that William Hartnell’s Doctor was an onlooker and an observer of Earth history, meant to hover on the periphery of events, perhaps a straight third-person rendition of the story, reminiscent of David Whitaker’s “Doctor Who and the Crusaders” and John Lucarotti’s “The Aztecs”, might have given us a little more of the character we knew and loved, not to mention some expansion on Steven, who is as ill-served in this respect in most novels as he was on television.