This is one of those stories where Doctor Who crashes into another genre and sees how well the two fit together and how well the Doctor copes with being outside his usual comfort zone. Broadly speaking there are two approaches to this: scary or funny. For most of the story The Gunfighters is a comedy, but Donald Cotton’s previous Doctor Who story should give us a clue that this won’t last, and things are going to take a turn for the dark. It just happens much sooner here and is focussed on much more.
I think it is fair to say that Cotton had little interest in choosing a period of history and then showing us an accurate representation of what happened. His scripts simply don’t do that. The Myth Makers stood on the border between history and myth, while his third script would have been about the Loch Ness Monster. Here we have Doctor Who crashing into a western film, so the history aspect is a step removed. In fact the comedy approach actually makes this Doctor Who doing comedy doing western doing history, and it’s not a million miles away from being a musical, removing it one further step from the historical source. So The Gunfighters is clearly not historically accurate; far from it. But that’s not the intention. If you are looking for a realistic portrayal of the gunfight at the OK Corral then the omniscient singing narrator might give you a clue that you are looking in the wrong place.
So if we start looking at the story for what it actually is, we can see how much it achieves and how effective it is. Peter Purves might not have liked the scripts much at the time, but he is a pro, has a natural talent for comedy, and never gives anything less than 100%. Jackie Lane at last gets something significant to do in a story and shows how brilliant she is when she is given the chance. I won’t hear anything against Dodo. She was a magnificent companion who was rarely given a chance to shine. If the story about her contract not being renewed because she looked too old on screen is true then that was revolting.
As for the Doctor, he is clearly somewhere he doesn’t belong here. He has a gun collection but it is just that: a collection. He doesn’t actually use them. This is not his world, but a world where the gun rules and his clever words and brilliant mind are of little use to him, so we are right back into the style of Doctor Who in history in which the Doctor just has to escape and can’t take any positive action. But the strength of the story is in the comparison it makes between the two genres: westerns and Doctor Who. Fresh from one of the most surreal adventures he has ever had, his first encounter with a god-like being in another dimension, the Doctor arrives in a western and the dissonance there is striking, especially when the laughs give way to the horror. So when the Doctor keeps needing to use a gun and keeps fighting against that, saying things like “I certainly disapprove of violence”, we are right there with him. We have seen his world, and we know that it is better than this. Ultimately the values of a western are rejected, and shown for what they truly are, with the horror laid bare.
The moment that happens is the death of Charley, with the camera zooming out from his corpse lying on the bar. And things continue from there, with the third episode ending on a shot of Warren’s corpse (or so we assume at the time), and the final gunfight not shying away from showing the brutality of that moment. It pushes on the boundaries of family entertainment. When Doctor Who merges with a western, it is fun and comedy and singing and leaning on the fourth wall with a musical narrator, and all the usual brilliance we expect from Doctor Who, but then the western refuses to be subverted and rises to the surface. In that moment there is nothing else for the Doctor and his companions to do but leave. In their truest forms, the two genres are incompatible, but the clash of the two has been fascinating. RP
The view from across the pond:
Over the years, it’s been called the worst episode in the history of Doctor Who, but The Gunfighers is only the worst if you go into it expecting a weekly dose of science fiction, monsters-of-the-week, spaceships, and evil plots. The fact is, the storytelling style of Doctor Who is far from restricted which might work against it if one goes looking for a cookie-cutter television series but equally, it may be the secret of its nearly eternal life for those with an open mind. The Gunfighters is a terrible science fiction story because it totally fails to even try to be science fiction. It’s yet another retelling of the gunfight at the OK Corral. Unlike Star Trek’s Specter of the Gun, which is a completely fictional tale, this lands the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo in Texas where the Doctor happens to be in need of a dentist and bumps into some notorious gunslingers.
While I have seen far worse episodes, I would not put this within miles of The Romans either. But being fair to the episode, this is wonderfully banal. The Doctor has a toothache. We so rarely see something so basic happen to the crew that it warrants a story of its own for being so unique. But how is it that the Doctor, of all people, does not have something on the TARDIS to take care of a toothache? He lands in Texas and goes looking for someone who can help which leads to some slapstick comedy, a dreadful (yet magnificent) song, and some playful silliness as only Doctor Who could provide. No alien race controls these people, Doc Holiday is not a robot, there’s no evil plot by the Master to erase Wyatt Earp from history…. It’s just a fun excursion into the past. It also features the Ballad of the O.K. Corral, an offscreen song that plays throughout the story. It’s terrible. Like that accursed song by King John in The Kings Demons (which has been stuck in my head since I’ve done the review of that episode weeks ago…), this one also can get stuck in your head. (I’m intentionally avoiding listening to it again so I don’t have two ballads competing for dominance!)
In the spirit of watching this one for a laugh, one can’t blame it for getting things wrong. It’s meant to be fun, not accurate. But I confess that it is actually surprising considering how little would have had to change to stick with established history. I can’t help wonder if maybe writer Donald Cotton didn’t have an encyclopedia available. Since Wikipedia hadn’t been invented yet, things were not always at our fingertips, but if I were writing an historical episode, I think I would have popped over to the library! So when characters who were not present at the actual gunfight die, one can’t help but wonder: is this an alternate Earth? Maybe one where a guy named John Lumic will eventually be born? (The TARDIS crew did just leave the Celestial Toyshop. Perhaps they are not back in our universe yet. OOH, I’m onto something… I like this idea: it would even help explain some things: why WOTAN calls the Doctor “Doctor Who” and why the Cybermen of The Tenth Planet shoot from the wrong parts of their bodies when we get around to Twice Upon a Time! Maybe the TARDIS crew fails to return to our universe until The Mind Robber. Come on, it’s not bad!) But that’s the essence of this story: it’s a fun distraction. If you try to take it seriously, you’ll be disappointed. If you go into it with an open mind and accept that it’s a rare stop in Earth’s past with a twist of comedy, it can be a very enjoyable.
And it’s got one of those things that makes me smile. Unlike that atrocious use of “Doctor Who” in The War Machines, the name drop in this one is fantastic. The Doctor claims to be Dr. Caligari; an apt name for a man with a magical cabinet. Unclear, Bat Masterson asks, “Doctor who?” to which the Doctor dismissively replies, “yes, quite right!”
There are better episodes, but there are also worse. I’m probably biased because I loved the Hartnell era, but you will just have to see it for yourselves to decide. ML
Read next in the Junkyard… The Savages