It may seem unremarkable, but The Gunfighters is important.
Why? Oh, so many reasons, layered on top of one another to provide a fun, twisting adventure instantaneously and a fulfilling, satisfying story in retrospect to leave viewers with a smile on their faces.
It’s notable for being one of only two on-screen serials in Doctor Who’s entire history to be a full-blooded Western, set against the dusty, morally-ambiguous OK Corral. And straight off, it’s different. It’s a far cry from the Daleks threatening all of time with their Destructor; from the Trilogic Game; even from fellow historical, The Aztecs, where there are rules to be adhered to. It’s about jovial as Who can be while there’s the danger of a bullet in the skull to ease that toothache.
Even though his companions, Steven and Dodo, are immediately enjoying the American drawl, the sandy vistas, and the rootin’ tootin’ outfits, William Hartnell was the long-term advocate of a Wild West setting – and he clearly loves it. The three are easily relatable: Steven enjoys being the ‘action hero’ (but gets frustrated by the locals); Dodo gets caught up in all the excitement of actually being at the OK Corral (and gets kidnapped, for good measure); and the Doctor doesn’t like the dentist.
It’s not the Doctor’s day: he’s landed at a time where there’s no antiseptic, and the only anaesthetic is alcohol – and, of course, the Doctor never touches alcohol! (Jon Pertwee never got that memo.) Oh, and his dentist is the infamous Doc Holliday.
Like many Who serials – and especially historicals – The Gunfighters relies heavily on misunderstandings, and if you can’t guess that the Doctor’s going to be mistaken for Doc Holliday (particularly under the clever title, A Holiday for The Doctor), then you probably shouldn’t be a Who fan. Anthony Jacobs’ Holliday is well-presented as a slightly creepy bloke who’s somehow surprisingly likeable, set against the highly-moral, up-and-at-them Wyatt Earp (John Alderson) and the looming Clanton brothers (William Hurndell, Maurice Good, and David Cole), who are mainly played for laughs. In fact, the whole production feels like every character is going to wink at the camera at an opportune moment.
Rex Tucker’s direction is fantastic though, and the cameramen who worked on such a limited set deserve BAFTAs. Five cameras are mainly used, but a sixth – on top of a 10ft tower, looking down on the action – provides a unique perspective. The opening scene, a slow pan across the dusty ground from behind a wagon, sets the tone beautifully and a shot in episode one which shows the full length of the studio proves how incredible the 1960s crews really were. They created whole planets and civilisations in a studio the size of an average flat. Compared to the lavish productions of the current series, it’s almost unbelievable.
The cameras operate brilliantly between transitions (as episodes generally had two recording breaks), aided briefly by Anthony Jacob’s young son, Matthew. And here’s just one reason why The Gunfighters is important. Matthew Jacobs remembered his trip to set and would pen the 1996 Doctor Who movie… in which Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor would don a Wyatt Earp costume!
Of course, however important and far-reaching it is, The Gunfighters has also got some substantial problems too. So let’s address the issues that have marred this serial for so many years.
Firstly, it’s not historically accurate. It’s really not. Right from the off, we hear of the murder of a non-existent Clanton brother. Then there’s the long-deceased Pa Clanton (Reed De Rouen), turning up alive and well. And the amount of deaths in the gunfight. There seems to be a hooded-cloak theme here. Of course, it could just be our historical records that are wrong. No…?
There are several players that weren’t actually in Tombstone in 1881 either, and after a while, the various Earps, Clantons and gunslingers get all muddled up together. It helps to remember that the bad guys are usually the ones sneering. One might even use this as a reason for the show’s repeated avoiding of “pure” historical adventures; certainly many feel that the similar setting of A Town Called Mercy was a missed opportunity for fans of that type of adventure.
If you don’t know much of the Wild West, this isn’t going to taint the tale. What might, however, is The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, sung by Lynda Baron (Enlightenment; Closing Time). It suits the serial to a certain extent, but it just gets annoying, particularly as there’s no other music (apart from the Doctor Who theme tune, naturally).
The low point comes when a background character, Charlie ‘The Barman’ (David Graham) is killed by outlaw, Johnny Ringo, merely because he knew his reputation, and is – for reasons unknown – incorporated in the ‘song.’ “So it’s curtains for Charlie; he knew Johnny’s name” – clang! Oh dear. Stop repeating it!
The worst part is it’s so damn catchy.
It shouldn’t detract from the otherwise-excellent story… but it does upon first viewing. However, once you’ve come to terms with its existence, it’s not so bad on second viewing.
In fact, Steven’s impressive singing (at gunpoint) almost justifies Baron’s version throughout episode one, but it will still niggle at viewers, and his exasperation at the Clantons wanting him to sing it again – “the same one?!” – echoes the audience’s sentiments perfectly. However, this threat to Steven, Dodo and the Doctor provides a great, surprisingly-upbeat and therefore contrasting cliffhanger. The song also gives us some of the funniest (if unintentional) moments in a tale already littered with jokes. Firstly, Holliday’s lover, Kate (Sheena Marshe), gives us some terrible miming – which is always good for a laugh – and took five takes to get, uh, ‘right.’ And secondly, Dodo’s fake piano-playing is hilarious.
It’s a shame Peter Purves (Steven) hated filming The Gunfighters – though, in retrospect, he now thinks it’s a very good story – as it’s really time for him, William Hartnell and Jackie Lane (Dodo) to shine. Behind-the-scenes tensions with director, Rex Tucker, vanish whenever they’re on screen; in fact, it seems as if all parties are really enjoying themselves, and there’s a lovely inclusive feel for the audience. I love Steven’s initial reaction to finding a heavily-intoxicated (ie. dead) Charlie.
Surprisingly, Charlie’s also a reason the serial is important: it’s a chance to see David Graham, best-known for voicing the Daleks since 1964, and the Mechanoids from The Chase (1965), as well as The Thunderbirds’ Brains and Parker!
Steven’s likeability makes the end of episode two (Don’t Shoot The Pianist) and the beginning of episode three (Johnny Ringo) so wonderfully distressing: the noose going around his neck is a stark, bold image, particularly as there has been complaints about similar scenes on television – which had led to copycats. It’s removed soon afterwards, but it just hangs in the background ominously. Conspiracy theorists would argue it’s a sign that Steven and Dodo are to leave the TARDIS, and that plans are afoot to replace William Hartnell; film-snobs would argues that it’s a physical manifestation of one of the serial’s themes; and sceptics would ignore it completely.
Three things really make The Gunfighters brilliant: the cast, the script and the set. Everyone immerses themselves in the story completely; Anthony Jacobs is especially great as Doc Holliday and Alderson’s Wyatt Earp is subtly excellent. However, it’s only when Laurence Payne’s Johnny Ringo arrives that the action really shifts into gear. He’s certainly memorable as the token ‘big bad’; if the Clantons are the simple enforcers, Ringo is surely the Kingpin. Both up-and-coming Doctor, Patrick Troughton and Who veteran, Philip Madoc, were considered for the role, but I wouldn’t have it any other way: Payne (The Leisure Hive; The Two Doctors) is exactly what you’d want him to be.
Donald Cotton’s script has been praised time and time again, so I won’t go into this too much – but needless to say it’s just so clever. All the pieces fall into place, ready for the gunfight, and the dialogue sparkles, helped by the comedic performances of cast members like Peter Purves. William Hartnell must get special credit though: he’s on top form – brilliant at bumbling about, too – and added a lot to the script during rehearsals (such as the Doctor calling Wyatt ‘Mr. Werp’).
All this is propped up by a truly exceptional set. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a convincing set in Classic Who. It may not stretch out into the distance, but it still feels more extensive than, say, The Aztecs. It’s the production’s nice little touches that make it so special: posters advertise the newly-opened railway; Dodo’s costume actually gets grubby after riding through the desert; the alcohol glugging out of the bottle after Charlie’s death is an arresting image and perfectly sets up the following scene… There’s even a bullet hole in the ‘No Shooting’ sign!
Then there’s three more things that make The Gunfighters important. Most notably, The OK Corral is the last episode to have an individual title until 2005’s Rose. The following serial is simply named The Savages.
It’s also the last story commissioned by outgoing team of producer, John Wiles, and script editor, Donald Tosh, leading to the new team (Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis) telling the crew to focus on the lighter side of The Gunfighters. Tosh later stated that he felt this was a mistake, as was Baron’s singing. Sydney Newman – the man largely responsible for Doctor Who’s creation – also said The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon was terrible… and everybody agrees.
The last point to make about The Gunfighters importance is quite a negative one. The last episode garnered one of the lowest AI ratings – a genuine surprise, as I thought it was particularly enjoyable – helping back Innes Lloyd’s argument against historicals. With a Wild West who’s who, it’s the last to feature a historical figure until 1985’s The Mark of the Rani!
But enough about how important it is. That’s not why you should see The Gunfighters; instead, you should watch it for being a genuinely enjoyable tale with a genius script, fantastic performances, one of the best sets in ‘60s Who… and a song that will stick in your head for at least a week afterwards.