Probably the major problem is that The Gunfighters is a great comedy, but not necessarily great Doctor Who. With events innovatively being narrated by song, and cod American accents seemingly there to spoof rather than recreate the western genre, it's as if the Tardis crew haven't landed in a genuine historical setting, but a fabricated pastiche. I must admit, I wasn't keen either the first time I saw it, because it's so hard to get used to. Much as fans love to praise Doctor Who's elastic format, the same fans secretly hate it when it's not a traditional monster show, and The Gunfighters offers no solace for those who take stock for narrative credibility. This is Doctor Who as the ultimate post-modern metawork, the sort of thing that X-Files fans would be raving about if written by Darin Morgan three decades later. It's almost as if the BBC took the programme off the air for four weeks and commissioned a specially made comedy serial starring William Hartnell and Peter Purves, who just happen to be called The Doctor and Steven. Purves shows unexpected comic ability, and as I've said elsewhere, Hartnell might not be to everyone's taste dramatically, by my God, he's bloody funny. It's this professional understanding of genuine comic timing that prevents the humour present from becoming broad and self-satisfied, an inherent danger thankfully avoided. Oh, and Jackie Lane is along for the ride, too, and to be fair, this is probably her best outing.
The whole plot travels along on a series of humorous misunderstandings, using verbal wit rather than silliness. Look at this dialogue exchange, where Bill is mistaken for Doc Holliday: "Doc?" "What? Yes, yes, what is it?" "Holliday?" "Holiday? Yes, I suppose so. Yes, you could call it that." The whole series of perilous situations that the Doctor unwittingly puts himself in are fabulous, and there's also this introduction: "Your humble servant… Doctor… Calligari." "Doctor Who?" "Yes, quite right." This in itself deserves special mention for being the ONLY time the "Doctor Who?" gag is actually funny. If nothing else then you have to admire the shameless ambition of a budget television series that constructs a western town in a studio, complete with horses.
Rex Tucker is a nice director, and he also composes the ballad lyrics to accompany Tristram Cary's music. It would have been so easy for Who to coast after three years on air, but with stories like The Gunfighters it refused to take the safe option. For reference's sake then this episode also contains the only Billy fluff all story: "Tomorrow morning we're going to leave to- Tombstone." Give the guy a break - he did have toothache after all. Contrary to popular myth (even repeated on the official BBC site), Billy's line about "Thanks to you, and many of them" isn't a fluff. Far from being a misplaced rejoinder to "Goodbye and good luck" it's a perfectly logical pronouncement - he's offering many thanks, get it?
Outside of The Massacre this is the finest third season story. Witty, ambitious and daring, it's a thoroughly rewarding experiment that, with its offshoot presentation of television as work of fiction, is far more ahead of its time in ways that even the surrealistic Celestial Toymaker could be. Unfortunately, while the low ratings were a myth, the low audience appreciation figures weren't. It's this initial negative reaction, maintained by scathing reviews over years of Who writing, that has kept it in low regard for so long. A gem, and one with an undeserved reputation.
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