Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Serial 25: The Gunfighters

Doctor: William Hartnell (1st Doctor) Companions: Steven, Dodo

Written by: Donald Cotton Directed by: Rex Tucker

Background & Significance:
There's a weird thing in Classic Doctor Who, where incoming producers and script editors are shouldered with some leftover stories commissioned by the previous production team. This happened with the first season of Hinchcliffe/Holmes, in which the two of them were forced to produce a commissioned Dalek story by Terry Nation and a commissioned Cybermen story by Gerry Davis even though Holmes had zero interest in returning Doctor Who villains (especially The Daleks), or even with Nathan-Turner, where he and Chris Bidmead were forced to produce "Meglos" despite knowing that it was totally ensconced in the previous regime's tone and feel rather than their focus on "hard science" (ha!) instead of comedic slapsticky.

"The Gunfighters" is that for Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis.

Commissioned by the previous production team of John Wiles and Donald Tosh, who were interested in another fun historical story from Donald Cotton, who'd previously "succeeded" (as far as they were concerned) with his work on "The Myth-Makers" (which we'll talk about more in a couple of months), this time set in the old west, specifically focusing on the legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral with all the tropes and exciting adventures and all that. Much like with "The Myth-Makers", Cotton chose to focus on the spirit of the story rather than being historically accurate (spoilers for "The Myth-Makers": that story isn't "historically" accurate much at all either).

Personally, I think that's a good approach. I think as a rule I'm more interested in the spirit of the thing rather than complete historical accuracy (I am watching a fictional show, after all).

Unfortunately, "The Gunfighters" is something of a final gasp of air for historicals. Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis were more interested in taking Doctor Who to a more serious and science fiction place (hence the hiring of Kit Pedler) and making the show more focused on entertainment and adventure than the educational whatever place it had been for the previous several seasons. It was this team that implemented the first regeneration, after all, and the one that went head on into big sci-fi stories as soon as they could ("The War Machines", "The Tenth Planet", "The Moonbase", just to name a few), employing the base under siege meme in just about all their stories... I mean, the only time they ever even ventured into the past in any sort of way that mattered was when they picked up Jamie in "The Highlanders".

Regardless. I have made my point. This isn't exactly a story they wanted to make, nor is it one that did exceptionally well when it aired, nor is it one that's been well received in the many years since its airing.

But the problem, I think, comes from... I dunno, people being stupid, I guess. "The Gunfighters" is basically anything you could ever want out of Doctor Who. It's big and exciting and fun and funny and badass and a super huge huge blast. If only the production team at the time could have seen the merits of making a story in which The Doctor goes to the old west to take care of a toothache, because this is the stuff of good and continues the hypothesis that season three is possibly the weirdest and most eclectic season of Doctor Who that's ever been made. I mean, this story is basically the why of all that.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

So I must say, I loves me some Westerns.

Going back through this, it strikes me just how much of a “swashbuckling Western” this really is. It’s definitely more in the vein of Back to the Future Part III than something like Unforgiven or one of those Sergio Leone westerns, with everyone calling each other pard’ner and going more for a comedic tone and having a bunch of fun with cowboys and horses and gunslingers than getting down into the nitty gritty of moral relativism, the bleak, harsh reality of life on a frontier, and the lawlessness-almost-nihilism of pocket-bubbles of society.

Or at least, that what I see in Westerns a lot.

But "The Gunfighters" takes a different approach. As I stated in the background, Donald Cotton was more about throwing history aside and telling a cool story based on historical events and people rather than going for historical realism (as someone like, say John Lucarotti did in “The Aztecs” and “Marco Polo”). And that’s true right from the get-go. All these people talk like they’re in the movie version of the western rather than the old west. There’s a saloon, a nervous barman, a giant tooth dangling from a sign to signify the dentist’s office, and a singer singing a seemingly old timey ballad written especially for this story called, “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”.

More on her and that a little bit later.

This first part introduces us to a sizeable cast to start. There’s the Cantons who are the people who roll into town at the start of the story (way western, that) in search of the infamous Doc Holliday because they mean to shoot him. There’s the bartender who is (to me) absolutely hilarious in the mannerisms and the way he just sneaks up from below the counter. There’s Kate the chanteuse (?) who works at the Last Chance Saloon as the entertainment/singing person. There’s Doc Holliday who’s on the run because he’s a vicious gunslinger who moonlights as a dentist. There’s Wyatt Earp, who isn’t in this a whole lot yet, but will be going forward… And even in this first part none of it feels especially forced or hard to keep track of. It’s all very organic and presents a good leaping off point for the story.

And stuck in the middle of all this are The Doctor, Steven, and Dodo.

It’s interesting how the three of them are very much ensconced in the traditional Doctor Who role of TARDIS crew in the strange situation. They all land in the old west to take care of The Doctor’s toothache (which is so totally 50s/60s; I half-expect him to have one of those head bandages) and when they realize they’re in the old west Dodo and Steven lose their minds, play dressup, and start play-acting like they’re in the old west. The Doctor wants none of this (his tooth hurts really bad), but he goes along with it for the sake of the adventure or what have you and winds up in Doc Holliday’s tooth salon (or whatever) getting his tooth pulled by the infamous gunman.

What I find most interesting about all this is the… critique of the old west while still attempting for some form of realism. I mean, Steven is the prime example of this. All Steven wants to talk about is how awesome it was when he was a kid and wanted to be a cowboy and that’s all he wanted to do, but he comes off all Marty McFly with how he acts and does, play-acting that he’s a cowboy rather than actually being a cowboy. He keeps trying to quick draw his gun and he keeps dropping it; he trips over his boots and spurs. He keeps calling himself the fastest gun in the west… That’s to say nothing of The Doctor, who tries to pass off Dodo, Steven, and himself  as something of a traveling minstrel team, with Dodo on keys and Steven on vox…
All of this stuff, though… it all backfires.

It’s almost as if Cotton is using all of these conventions to make his vision/version of the Wild Wild West seem more plausible and realistic… And the weird thing is... I think it works.

At the beginning, it really strikes me all the anachronisms of the “written” west, or this swashbuckling west that’s so not like Unforgiven in the slightest. It’s all “howdys” and horseback (oh my god this story has horses! On a soundstage!), but then by the time we see Steven being all “this is how the old west was” we suddenly get slapped with the “realism” of the story and the fact that the Old West might not be as peachy keen as Steven imagines it would be. It’s a good choice, I think. I’m not sure if it’s as conscious as it seems to be, but it definitely makes the swashbucklin’ west this story presents feel much more dangerous and what have you.

Even then though, this is still a straight historical comedy. Hartnell in particular is extremely good here, very funny, but also very much in the vein of the grumpy grandfather that makes Hartnell such a bonkers delight.

And… This episode ends on what I consider to be a phenomenal cliffhanger. I mean, it’s not exactly special, but the episode ends sooner than you expect it to. I mean, The Doctor’s been mistaken for Doc Holliday (he even has his gun slung to his hip) and is heading down the street to the Last Chance Saloon to meet with Steven and Dodo. Unbeknownst to him, the Clanton boys are waiting to ambush him as soon as he enters the saloon and have held Dodo and Steven at gunpoint doing sing-songy things because they want some entertainment…

So we expect The Doctor to walk into the saloon. The Clanton boys pulls guns on him (or they shoot him). Credits. Easy as pie, right?

But that’s not what Cotton does with the story. Cotton plays the tension of the moment, of The Doctor walking down the street and the song singing its song and the Clantons ready and the music swells and it.. ends. It ends before The Doctor even gets to the saloon. That’s an odd choice, I think. But a brilliant one. You WANT to know what happens next because it ends before you’re expecting it to. And I love that. If it had ended how I predicted I’d be like “oh sweet” but it doesn’t and now I’m even more enticed to continue because clearly The Doctor is not the pianist in the title for the next episode.

Which is “Don’t Shoot The Pianist”.

And like I said, The Doctor isn’t that character. Dodo is. But Dodo’s playing the piano. So now she’s in jeopardy? That title card is far more ominous than it should be, and that’s because anything could happen next. 

Part 2:

Spoilers: it’s still a blast.

One of the things I like about this as one of the few Doctor Who western stories (the only Doctor Who western? Stetsons don’t count) is that it’s allowed to really breathe. You couldn’t do this story under the Moffat era or even in the modern era. No. Stories nowadays have to be swift paced and racing along and don’t get the time to breathe or develop. I’m not saying they really do anything with their running time (cuz they kinda don’t), but it gives them an opportunity to really let a scene play out and ratchet up the tension, even if this wasn’t quite intentional when Donald Cotton was doing the writing.

The scene I’m talking about is the scene in the saloon that takes up the first third of this episode.

Nowadays you can’t really do something like this. But this scene is something I think you see a lot in Classic Who and especially more prominently the earlier you go. Television back then was treated like a play what with the sets and the cutaways and the staging and the acting and the pacing. Scenes were given room to go on for way too long and there wasn’t fast editing or whatever. So this scene allows the power dynamic to shift all around. In the beginning it’s with the Clantons. And then it twists to Kate. And then it moves to The Doctor. And then it jumps to Wyatt Earp, all in the span of about eight minutes.

It’s one of the hallmarks of letting your story live and breathe. I find that scene in particular particularly captivating because it’s hard to tell what’s going to happen next. Sure, it’s not the most intense scene (Breaking Bad does it better, but then again that’s Breaking Bad) but it definitely does the job and is plenty entertaining, especially when there’s a giant thing of dramatic irony undercutting the whole scene what with the real Doc Holliday just upstairs with his small derringer, ready to spring into action should any trouble arise… (But will trouble arise? It seems weird that he cares about The Doctor and his companions that much. Maybe it’s about Kate, but that’s not clear; and besides: it’s not like anyone’s actually paying much attention to him).

Regardless, it’s a strong scene that lets the characters play off one another, and one that subverts what we might think. We expect the Clantons to shoot The Doctor straight off, but they don’t. They have a different agenda, which is intriguing.

And on top of all this Hartnell is acting his ass off here. Maybe I haven’t seen a lot of Hartnell lately or I’m not watching him that closely, but this is some of the best Hartnell I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t fighting with the producer anymore or because he’s so dialed into having a good time (it’s probably both), but that doesn’t really matter. I love how he manages to play aloof but grounded all at the same time. It’s really something to see, especially because he’s so… Good. He’s mischievous and manipulative, but charming and funny and witty. It’s just a sight to behold.

The rest of this episode is mostly inconsequential. The Doctor is sidelined into a jail cell by Wyatt Earp and the rest of the characters are brought forward.

More than anyone, the person who comes to the forefront in this episode is Doc Holliday. He’s intriguing to me because I don’t really know what he is. Most everything is based on hearsay and rumour. He’s supposed to be a brutal, ruthless gunslinger, but nothing in this episode [initially] points to that. He comes across as shady and manipulative, but never the cold blooded killer you expect to see in the old west. And I like that. In a lot of ways the only bad thing he does is hold Dodo at gunpoint and detain her with him in his hotel room, waiting for this whole thing to blow over. In that, it’s hard to get a bead on him.

And then. All of a sudden. He guns down a dude in a quick draw “holy crap this is the old west” sorta moment.

I love that this moment doesn’t show up until the last minute or so of this episode. Giving it too much too soon really defines the character of Doc Holliday too early. For the most part I’m left in the dark when it comes to his character because I’m not really super familiar with the shootout at the O.K. Corral (that’s where this is going, by the way) so I’m not sure if I really do buy Holliday as a killer. But then he guns down this guy and everything we’ve suspected about this guy crystalizes in that one moment. He just did a murder, and now with one action he’s defined himself as "a bad guy”. Crazy sauce.

Of the rest, the only part that’s the most interesting to me is the ending, where Steven is tied up and placed on a horse (why? So that the mob can walk and the prisoner can go for a sweet ride, I guess) and it puts The Doctor in a dilemma.

I find myself interested in all this. It’s all… rather dramatic, isn’t it? We have The Doctor out of his jail cell and he has to figure out how he‘s going to get Steven and himself out of the tricky situation and we’re left on The Doctor’s perplexed face. It’s a totally badass “oh snap” moment, I think because it really does hit the moment at its most dramatic. What is going to happen next? And there’s a time table and stakes and all that jolly. It’s the good stuff, I think. Not perfect, but a strong cliffhanger, especially when you can’t really see how the two of them are going to get out of this.

Part 3:

But get out of it they do.

Honestly, it’s something of a clever thing, not helped along by strong writing, of course (it’s akin to The Doctor and Grace escaping by fire-hosing off the roof in the ’96 TV Movie) because all that happens is Wyatt Earp sneaks around the back and knocks out one of the Clantons, thereby scaring everyone and getting the upper hand of the situation. It doesn’t really make a whole lotta sense, but it does get them out of the problem, even if it does give them less than an upper hand.

It also helps that the bartender watched Doc Holliday murder one of the Clantons, but that’s not what diffused the situation. That’s just a thing that further diffused the situation.

Honestly, that’s not the most interesting part of the story, even though it does rather work. No. This episode really sees all the pieces that we’ve had so far start to expand and grow outwards towards the forthcoming gunfight at the O.K. Corral. For the first time all story we get a second western town, and while the scenes involving said town are relegated almost exclusively to scenes between Doc Holliday, it still increases the scope nonetheless. That’s a strong choice, I think, because it gives makes the story feel bigger than it actually is (Holliday might as well be hiding out in Tombstone at another inn for all it matters) and that only ratchets up the stakes for our forthcoming finale.

The real secret to this episodes success, though, is the arrival of the episode's eponymous Johnny Ringo.

I’ll start off by saying that Johnny Ringo is a bastard. Cold and true. The first thing we see of him is him rolling into town, all dark shadows and lighting his cigarette by a gas lamp. And then we get a scene of him and the bartender, where he learns that he’s sought after by the Clantons to help them bring down Doc Holliday (little do they know that Johnny Ringo is a lone wolf. He works for no man.) And then when he’s milked the bartender for information, he guns him down, simply (as the song goes, “for knowing his name”).

And it’s a brutal, needlessly violent sorta sequence. This story has been very [western] violent up to this point, but this raises the stakes and makes it a whole new ball game at hand.

Suddenly, all of the deaths in this story become more serious and the story gets that much grizzlier. Now that Ringo is around and proves that he has no problem with murdering someone in cold blood, suddenly everyone who crosses him is in danger. The Doctor and Steven are in danger when they even start talking to him the next morning, and you can feel it in the scene as it plays out. The Doctor and Steven don’t know it’s Johnny Ringo, but they can already tell they don’t want to cross him. And you can tell when Johnny Ringo meets up with Kate at the end of the episode that she’s panicking and dancing circles, trying to get out of his way so she’s not in his line of fire.

So really, Johnny Ringo infused a whole buncha life into a story that already had a buncha life.

Not only that, but the final beat of the episode features two Clanton boys bursting into the sheriff’s office and rescuing their brother, but not before gunning down Wyatt Earp’s brother. That alone is a dark sorta grizzly place in which to end the episode, but in the grand scheme of things what with Johnny Ringo making death suddenly matter in a silly old western like this story is, the death becomes a huge “oh shit” moment and leads to much nail-biting as we prepare to head into the fourth episode and race towards the shootout finale.

But what else?

It’s interesting that The Doctor, Steven, and Dodo feel rather inconsequential to the proceedings in this story. Harkening back to the other historicals I’ve seen I’m reminded of how much The Doctor and his companions are (however unwillingly) forced into the main thrust of the action. In “Marco Polo”, it’s the TARDIS crew who are constantly bounced around the situation. In “The Aztecs” everyone can’t be more involved. In “The Romans” everyone is part of their own story. But this is different and feels very much like it was commissioned by the previous production team. Thinking about something like "The Ark", it reminds me of how The Doctor and crew are carried along by the current of the story, interfering, but watching everything happen around them.

Now I’m all for active main characters, but I do enjoy when The Doctor and his companions are inconsequential. They can’t be the center/focus of every story (they can in the Tom Baker era, but there you go…) and it’s nice to watch them kinda ride along for a bit.

It’s also nice to listen to this singing, which I haven’t really mentioned before now, and ummm…. I wasn’t a fan of the singing till this episode. Still amn’t, really. But all of a sudden every last lyric and line becomes absolutely hilarious and feels deliciously satirical. The murder of the bartender is underscored by this silly notion of him getting gunned down because he knew someone’s name and the beatdown of the Clanton brother at the top of the episode is undercut by the humour of the lyrics there. I think it’s a riot and adds to the humour that’s in this story, but also helps to completely subvert that by being extremely graphic and macabre.

Just an observation.

Final observation: did no one else notice the bartender lying dead on the counter all night? Because that’s tremendously silly and I love it.
Part 4: 

Yes yes yes.

So finally we come to an end, and oh boy what an ending it is. And this might not matter to you because you might not have watched it, but Jesus Christ. The shootout in this is everything you could want out of a shootout in a western. Sure it’s silly and there’s huge parts of it that don’t make sense, but I could really, honestly care less. All that matters is that it’s super awesome and super badass. It's gun slinging, heart pounding, kinetically action packed and totally totally rad.

Eff me that’s the good stuff.

Normally I'd put a youtube here, but the BBC blocked it because they like to be dicks. So it's really your loss.  But there's a lot to love, in this shootout which, granted, is not perfect (the Earps walk down the street and keep doing so and don’t take cover until long after the Clantons start shooting; there’s no way a six shooter can shoot that many bullets without reloading… etc) but it does exactly what this sort of story needs to do. It gives you some really excessively badass Doc Holliday (seriously, I’m gasming from the badassity) and it settles the score between Holliday and Ringo. It also gives Wyatt Earp the chance at avenging his brother’s murder, but that’s something I’ll talk about later.

It’s not the most choreographed thing, but man is it thrilling and exciting and exceedingly well directed by director Rex Tucker, who all through this has had a really good eye for framing and pacing. He really did a good job casting just the right people for all the parts (did I mention Patrick Troughton was almost Johnny Ringo?) and keeping the pace moving. There’s some wonky camera stuff early on (they cut to a camera before it’s ready so it’s maneuvered a little too fast), but it’s definitely ambitious and gets a great sense of vertical space when he needs to. I mean, the shot when the deputy marches into the Clanton base and basically squares off with them is… awesome. Greatly cinematic and a good use of lighting for some of the dawn stuff.

But even beyond just the gunfight and the direction, there’s a huge attempt to make everything really sing in terms of story.

The biggest thing for me is the sort of… story of Wyatt Earp, who’s driven mad by the death of his brother Warren (who was killed at the end of the last episode) and will stop at nothing to get revenge, even if it means turning in his badge when it’s all said and done. Just that shot of him slowly and wordlessly loading his six-shooter is tremendous and really gets into the headspace of a man driven to exact this revenge. I just love him. Sure, it’s all backgrounded, but it’s honestly amazing that the character work is even in here this deep. But it’s all brought to life by a handful of choice scenes from Cotton and John Alderson.

Other than that, it’s more tension ratcheting. The Doctor and Co. are still caught in the middle, but I can’t pretend that I don’t love The Doctor running around the old west with a deputy badge acting all sheriff like. I especially love when he goes into the Clanton base and comes across Papa Clanton and the two people reveal to the other the actual mechanics of what’s going to happen. “Ah ha! But they have Johnny Ringo coming up from behind” “Ah ha! But we have Doc Holliday!” “Holliday? Oh snap!”. And sure, it does sideline all the players for the final showdown (Dodo is the only one who’s even on the scene when the shooting starts), but at the end of the day that doesn’t really matter because it wasn’t the story of The Doctor and Steven in the O.K. Corral. It was their part in helping events sorta come together in the background.

I mean, it’s not like you expect The Doctor to be the hired gun in “Revelation of the Daleks” do you? No. That’s not what Revelation is about. For good or ill.

And besides. The Doctor has no place in a shootout like this, and Steven woulda only gotten his dumb self killed (not that Steven’s dumb; he just wasn’t the brightest at how the Old West really was). 

Final Thoughts?: This is hands down one of my favourite Hartnell stories.
One of the things I love about the Hartnell era (especially this last season) is the constant attempt to try and reinvent the show, and how it kept doing that over and over again. This is one of those things that (in my opinion) they got exactly right.

Now, if you're not a fan of westerns, you wouldn't like this story. And if you are a fan of westerns but you like your westerns with the smell of old whiskey and a nice healthy dose of grizzle on top rather than that silly "howdy partner" nonsense, you might not like this. But I think the more you go through it the more you get the sorta thing that's really special and really clever and right up your alley of sorts. Sure it's silly and sure it's comedic, but it's also capturing the zeitgeist of old school westerns, when you could make them for children and they weren't always the hardcore badass things you see today.

Not that there's anything wrong with that sorta story. I love those sorta stories. But this one...

What this comes down to is... This is the quintessential Doctor Who western. It's everything you could ask from Saturday night family hour fare, curled up with the family and the kids while watching The Doctor and his companions go through a western adventure. It's fun, it's rootin tootin, it's got some serious gravitas (Johnny Ringo anyone?), it's way way badass, and a super mega blast. In the end, I can't even complain about the singer (but my gosh do I understand those who do) because she contributes to the tone and the feel and is at least something new or different than what you normally see (and she's made me laugh; which is always a plus).

It's a totally forgotten and underrepresented gem of the Hartnell era and one that I know I'm down to watch just about every time. It's some solid Dodo (even though I REALLY don't think Jackie Lane is that much of an actress, I do find I enjoy her) and it's some great Steven (at least in the first episode and a half; he rather disappears through the rest) and it's some superb Hartnell (you can tell he's having such a good time and is totally so way into this). Pile on some great, memorable (at least within the story) characters, a heaping dose of genre, and a kickass final shootout that makes me want every other thing I ever watch to end like this, and you have "The Gunfighters".

It's the sorta story that makes me love that I watch Doctor Who. And there can't possibly be higher praise than that.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Romana II (or is it I?)! More of my slow disillusionment of K-9! A super sweet bad guy chick person! Metal hunters! A giant green blob (with awkward appendages)! And the possibly most going-off-of-the-rails-at-the-last-possible-minute I've ever seen in a Doctor Who story! Seriously, you might not wanna miss this one. "The Creature From the Pit!" Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. The Gunfighters is such a wonderful story. I love it.

  2. As someone who's been researching & writing Western history, I was nervous about watching this story. Now that I know what to expect, I'll have to give it a look when I have the time.

    I wanted to add that I found your blog because of my latest novel, True Friends. I have a scene where some Who fans mock Horns of Nimon. I needed a recap to refresh my memory. Classical Gallifrey came up in the search. I found what I needed, poked around, and now I'm hooked onto this and the Doctor's Companion podcast.

  3. Hey thanks a lot, man. Means the world. Glad you're enjoying and hopefully we here at the blog and podcast can continue to provide reasonably entertaining and insightful content.

    Seriously, though. That thing about meaning the world is apt.

  4. I also didn't mention it on the blog (because it's all over elsewheres) but this story takes a lot of liberty with the O.K. Corral. Apparently Warren Earp (the guy killed at the end of episode three) actually died in 1900 and Johnny Ringo wasn't really at the shootout at the end in real history.

    So they do take tons of liberties, but it does make the story more exciting.

  5. I wasn't concerned so much with liberties taken. I mean, of the many movies about "The Gunfight," only Wyatt Earp seems to have come close to accurate. I was wondering if the story was any good, and if the American accents were bearable. One of these days, I will get around to watching all the episodes.

    One of these days...

  6. I hear ya. It's worth the effort, but it's a LOT of story. Over seven hundred episodes (and a bunch of really awful ones)? Hell of a commitment, that.

    But The Gunfighters is worth the watch. Such a blast.