The Gunfighters

Written by:
Donald Cotton
Directed by: Rex Tucker
Starring: William Hartnell
Year: 1966
Video Availability: Try

Thankfully we're now in an age where I really don't have to reappraise The Gunfighters too much any more. I've spoke before on this site about stories that have achieved a vastly altered critical reception amongst fans of the series - most notably Kinda and The Web Planet - but The Gunfighters, while not as drastic in its revision, has now shifted from an all-time nadir to a story that more and more people admit to liking.

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?
* * * *

More of the same as The Gunfighters defies its still not completely discarded reputation by being a slick and well-made Doctor Who story. The plot is pushed forward, Hartnell rages about being called "Pop" and Steven gets a noose tied around his neck - quite daring for a family tea time. The Gunfighters plays games with stock western conventions and reworks them with irony more sophisticated than it might first appear. It also does so with great affection for the genre, and although a man falling dead against the bar causes it to shake here, there's a very real argument to be had that this is the best production of the entire Hartnell era.
* * * *

"So it's curtains for Charlie…" Yes, the Last Chance Ballad, with its progressing lyrics is probably the biggest contention for detractors (or even supporters in some cases) as it features no less than twenty-one times throughout, as well as a couple of renditions by Steven and two more by Sheena Marsh as Kate. By any standards it's overdone, though the story as a whole is completely undeserving of the condemnation by, amongst many others, Ian Levine (producer of Doctor In Distress and active advisor on Attack of the Cybermen) with "This story, in short, should never have been made, and will forever remain a true embarrassment to Doctor Who."
* * * ½

"I'll take 'em from behind while you fleece 'em." "Never figured you for a backshooter, Ringo." Classic unintentional (?) innuendo in the final instalment there. The attention to detail in the direction is praiseworthy in the direction, and I have to confess that the episode reviews are shorter than usual because I've gotten so engrossed in the story I've been forgetting to take notes. One odd element with the story is that the conclusion veers back into serious Who wrap territory, almost as if trying to suggest that it was a serious story after all with just a few jokes. This makes the Ballad even more retrospectively jarring, and a humorous pay-off would have worked a little better, rather than a staid lead-in to The Savages. Still, a good one.
* * * ½

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.
* * * *