Season 3 – Story 25
“I had to find some sort of suitable cover. After all, you can’t walk into the middle of a western town and say you come from outer space” – The Doctor
The travellers arrive in the Wild West town of Tombstone in 1881. A toothache-stricken Doctor’s search for a dentist leads him to Doc Holliday, whose feud with the Clanton family is causing grief for Marshall Wyatt Earp and his men. Steven and Dodo’s enthusiasm for the period evaporates when they are forced to provide the entertainment at the Last Chance Saloon, and have to escape the attentions of gunmen and a lynch mob. The trio leave in the Tardis only after witnessing the gunfight at the OK Corral between the Clanton cohorts and the Earp squad.
1. A Holiday for the Doctor – Saturday 30 April 1966
2. Don’t Shoot the Pianist – Saturday 7 May 1966
3. Johnny Ringo – Saturday 14 May 1966
4. The OK Corral – Saturday 21 May 1966
Filming: March 1966 at Ealing Studios
Studio recording: April 1966 in TC4 (ep 1), April/May 1966 in Riverside 1 (eps 2-4)
Doctor Who – William Hartnell
Steven Taylor – Peter Purves
Dodo Chaplet – Jackie Lane
Wyatt Earp – John Alderson
Doc Holliday – Anthony Jacobs
Johnny Ringo – Laurence Payne
Kate – Sheena Marshe
Ike Clanton – William Hurndall
Phineas Clanton – Maurice Good
Billy Clanton – David Cole
Seth Harper – Shane Rimmer
Charlie – David Graham
Bat Masterson – Richard Beale
Pa Clanton – Reed de Rouen
Warren Earp – Martyn Huntley
Virgil Earp – Victor Carin
Writer – Donald Cotton
Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon:
music Tristram Cary, lyrics Donald Cotton and Rex Tucker, sung by Lynda Baron
Designer – Barry Newbery
Story editor – Gerry Davis
Producer – Innes Lloyd
Director – Rex Tucker
RT Review by Mark Braxton
Welcome to the world of honky-tonk piano, bloodless shootings and brassy molls. Revisionist this ain’t! You’ll know within three seconds whether or not The Gunfighters takes your fancy. A bar-room ballad plays over the opening scene and if you don’t like it, you’re in trouble: the song returns repeatedly as a means of describing the action.
The problem is compounded by a thuddingly obvious studio set. So this is a hokey Corral on two fronts. The audience certainly thought so, with ratings biting the dirt at 5.7 million (The Web Planet drew 13.5 million the previous year). But is it beyond redemption?
Ironically, one of the production’s failings can also be considered a success. Despite the studio-bound nature of the beast, Barry Newbery’s evocative sets do their job quite tidily. They shout out “western” instantly, and are shot from a variety of playful angles (through legs and cartwheels, from above). In addition, the use of horses expands the action, and the crowd scenes are impressively mounted.
Storytelling through song may work well in Annie Get Your Gun but is just plain wrong for Doctor Who. Not that the unseen Lynda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in Open All Hours) sings The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon badly. But it’s the main culprit in trashing credibility: “Beware all you cowboys/Who’s a-yearnin’ to sin”. Oof!
The companions contribute to this atmosphere of breaking the spell. When called upon to perform the dreaded ballad, Steven “Regret” and Dodo “Dupont” both reveal sudden piano-playing expertise. And while Peter Purves makes a fair stab at singing, it’s unlikely to have topped the special skills on his CV. In their Toy Story get-up the duo resemble children’s entertainers – even the Doctor says they look “absurd”.
You would think that between them the actors lassoed in to play the cowpokes could muster a believable American accent. But the only one who passes muster is Shane Rimmer, a Canadian actor. As so-called sharpshooters, they’re also a sorry bunch when it comes to hitting the target. What should have been the fearful spectacle of a climactic showdown is like a clip from a Zucker/Abrahams film.
The difference between most of the historical adventures from this era and those from later on is that the former involve history and nothing but – even if some of it is fabricated for dramatic purposes. So their only science-fiction component is the intervention of our time travellers. Future equivalents would give us a Sontaran in medieval England, Pyroviles in ancient Pompeii, and so on.
The Gunfighters is a good example of the need for this magical “Something Else”. The western/sci-fi hybrid can work wonderfully well: viz the creepy robotics of Westworld or the thrilling dilemmas of Back to the Future III. But, devoid of deus ex machina, these howdy-partner hi-jinks have to stand on their own merits.
The Wild West could have been philosophically fruitful territory for the Time Lord. But the clash of cultures is fudged, and the Doctor’s pacific perspective is brought to bear on a lawless land in dispiritingly timid fashion.
So without a big slug of bourbon to fortify you against what amounts to substandard Quantum Leap, The Gunfighters is misconceived at best, at worst, total hogwash.
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Radio Times archive material
[Available on BBC DVD as part of the Doctor Who – Earth Story box set]