The Gunfighters

The GunfightersAirdates: April/May 1966 (4 episodes)
Written by: Donald Cotton (book); Donald Cotton & Rex Tucker (lyrics); Tristram Cary (ballad music)
Screen Credit to: Donald Cotton (script); Tristram Cary (ballad music)
Directed by: Rex Tucker
The Story So Far:
So the Earps and the Clantons are aimin’ to meet
At the OK Corral near Calamity Street
It’s the OK Corral, boys. of gunfighting fame 
Where the Earps and the Clantons, they played out the game
They played out the game and we nevermore shall 
Hear a story the like of the OK Corral
Novelization by: Donald Cotton (January 1986)

If I had to make a list of the Doctor Who stories that I’ve watched the most, The Gunfighters is almost certainly in the top five.  I first saw it in movie format on New Jersey Network, the New Jersey PBS station which broadcast the Hartnell stories starting in late 1985.  It wasn’t until a few months later, when I bought Doctor Who – A Celebration, that I read Jeremy Bentham’s famous paragraph about it being the worst Who story of them all.

Obviously, history has proven Bentham wrong — he wrote that paragraph before The Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani were produced, obviously.  But, apart from that, The Gunfighters is just pure unmitigated awesomeness.  I knew that even before re-watching the story this week… but this time, the story surprised me in a way I’d never considered before.

Steven Taylor's pop gun appears to be the cause of the Doctor's toothache.

Steven Taylor’s pop gun appears to be the cause of the Doctor’s toothache.

I am happy to announce, first of all, that the behind-the-scenes is remarkably free of drama this time.  The only things of note are A) that the story was left over from the Wiles/Tosh regime, and was intended to be very much in the style of The Myth Makers, and B) that the new Lloyd/Davis regime wasn’t really enamored of that style — either the historical element, or the comedy.  Episode 4 of this story, which, as we’ll see below, is in many ways just about as powerful as the final installments of The Massacre or The Daleks’ Master Plan, was low-rated and had the lowest-ever Audience Appreciation figure calculated by the BBC.  Based on that, Lloyd/Davis felt justified in eliminating the historical story altogether — there would only be two more in the 1960s after this one — and, even more importantly, this story developed its fan reputation as The Worst Story Ever, a title it would undeservedly hold for the next 30 years.  The ratings bit is somewhat accurate — with the show now on the air for nearly 3 years and with Dalek-mania having subsided, ratings were down and would continue to sink over the next three stories.  But the rest of The Gunfighters‘ reputation is, fortunately, bunkum.

During those 30 years of living in fandom’s scorn, the two most derided elements of this story were the Western accents, as realized by BBC actors, and “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”, a song played (some, not me, would say incessantly)  as backdrop over the first two episodes and narration over the final two.  And yes, the accents are a bit of a problem.  Even The Discontinuity Guide, which was really the first published book to celebrate The Gunfighters, notes: “The Clanton gang have amazing accents, Billy obviously having been to finishing school, and Johnny Ringo to the RSC”. But, as for the song… well… the entire world is wrong about this one.  It’s perhaps the most clever narrative technique in Doctor Who since the flashbacks used to punctuate An Unearthly Child and Galaxy 4.  At two points late in the story, the song literally becomes performance art.

Don't shoot the pianist!

Don’t shoot the pianist!

The story opens not with a TARDIS scene, but with the ballad being played over establishing shots of the OK Corral film set.  Several verses play throughout the first episode (given the lovely pun name, A Holiday for the Doctor). The cliffhanger then gives us our first live musical number since way back in Marco Polo; Steven and Dodo are held hostage by the Clanton gang, who are laying a trap for the Doctor, believing him to be Doc Holliday.  That’s the cliffhanger moment — Steven quite literally singing for his life!

Granted, things drag a little bit in Episode 2 — the line “Blood upon the sawdust” is played a few too many times.  But, starting with Episode 3, the production team decided to actively work the song into the narrative, with director Rex Tucker penning several new verses.  Now, bear in mind that for 1960s’ BBC programs, essentially shot live-to-tape, there was no post-production.  So, all sound effects and incidental music were literally played live into the studio, via gramophone (by a production crew member called the “Grams Operator”).  This means that the actors are actually listening to the ballad as they perform their scenes.  And that’s when Rex Tucker does something very, very clever.

Apart from letting Sheena Marshe wear this partciular top during aSaturday tea-time family-oriented program.

Apart from letting Sheena Marshe wear this partciular top during a Saturday tea-time family-oriented program, that is.

As many times as I’ve watched The Gunfighters, I literally did not notice the following until this past weekend.  In Episode 3, gunslinger Johnny Ringo sees Kate (pictured above) and slowly approaches her.  On its surface, this takes too long, and if you were already fed up with the song, Lynda Baron singing Johnny Ringo has found her, Johnny Ringo’s found Kate would cause you to momentarily check out (if you haven’t already). But, watch it again… actor Laurence Payne is moving in time to the music!  Even better, in Episode 4, when Wyatt Earp announces the gunfight, the piano slips into a minor key, and Baron starts singing the “OK Corral” verse transcribed at the top of this entry.  This follows a lengthy bit of business with Earp slowly walking towards his desk, sitting down, and loading a gun — again, in time to the music.  John Alderson, who played Earp, had danced backup to Stanley Holloway in My Fair Lady and also acted in numerous American TV westerns, so clearly knew what he was doing.  This whole minute is just… brilliant.

(And not to forget Maurice Goode, as Phineas Clanton, who’s seen bopping his head in time to Peter Purves’ singing…)

The acting in The Gunfighters is also much better than it’s given credit for.  Yes, the accents are ludicrous in many instances.   William Hurndell, who name comes second in the credits, presumably because of its eerie similarity to “William Hartnell”, is one-note mean and nasty as Ike Clanton, with bizarrely clipped speech.  Richard Beale as Bat Masterson is about as absent a screen presence as when he played an invisible alien in The Ark.  But David Graham, the long-time voice of the Daleks, is adorably befuddled as Charlie the bartender; Sheena Marshe does exactly what she needs to do as Kate, the thinly-veiled prostitute; and of course Alderson is an utter pro as Wyatt Earp.  I’d like to say more nice things about Shane Rimmer, a Canadian who later played authentic Americans-in-England in two James Bond epics, and Batman Begins.  But his part here is small and thankless; as a gunfighter hired to kill Doc Holliday, he does little but stand around for two full episodes, before getting gunned down by Holliday, too slow on the draw.

It's curtains for Charlie, that barman of fame...

It’s curtains for Charlie, that barman of fame…

Anthony Jacobs, as Doc Holliday, gives just about as riveting a guest performance as we’ve seen to date.  He’s playing a charming sociopath, and savors about a dozen great lines given to him by Cotton; he’s largely a Southern gentleman, but with a decidedly homicidal streak.  In the novelization, it’s made clear that he’s marrying Kate only because he hired her as a prostitute but couldn’t afford to pay her.  On TV, he gets this amazing sequence where he kidnaps Dodo, pretends to let her beat him on the draw, and then pulls out his second gun on her — after agreeing to return her to the Doctor and Steven.  And, lastly, in the blackest of black comic sequences, Jacobs walks off-camera to find a meal, gunshots are heard, Kate rolls her eyes, and he walks back into frame, announcing that he “just ran into an old friend and he, uh, kinda lost his appetite.”

I mean, with lines like that, you can even forgive Jacobs’ son for, 30 years later, having written the Doctor Who TV movie.

"You kill a guy out of sheer professional ethics, and then you've got three of his brothers chasin' after you to leave at once. That makes me real angry!"

“You kill a guy out of sheer professional ethics, and then you’ve got three of his brothers chasin’ after you to leave at once. That makes me real angry!”

Meanwhile, praise has to be heaped on all three regulars, but not in the order that you’d expect.  Much has been written elsewhere about the comedic abilities of William Hartnell and Peter Purves.  Purves was dealt variable hands by series writers in terms of what was expected from Steven Taylor — hero, buffoon, everyman; here, he’s written as something of a klutz, but Purves throws himself into the part with zest, tripping over his spurs and fumbling with his gun.  Dude can also carry a tune!  I also love his double-take at having guns pointed in his face while he’s trying to sing.

Meanwhile, Hartnell plays straight man to just about everybody.  There are a thousand great little moments — his delight at realizing he can twirl a gun around in his hand, or his reaction after realizing that he’s leaning on Charlie’s corpse, or his verbal fencing with “Mr. Werp”. There are no signs here at all that Hartnell was suffering from early dementia.  Maybe it was the relief at Wiles being off the show. Unfortunately, he would not get too many more triumphs as the Doctor…

Now Charlie the barman has gotten a shroud.

…now Charlie the barman has gotten a shroud.

But who I really want to talk about here is Jackie Lane.  She didn’t have much luck with the way Dodo was written by others.  Even her being given the role in the first place was kind of accidental.  Wiles’ first choice as female-companion-to-replace-Maureen-O’Brien was Adrienne Hill, whose character proved impossible to write.  Jean Marsh was hired next, but reportedly could only commit to four additional weeks after Daleks’ Master Plan and so was simply written out at the end of that story.  So Lane found herself as Wiles’ third choice, was given a weak character brief, and then was hastily shoved out the door by Innes Lloyd, who replaced Wiles before the ink was even dry on Lane’s contract. And it’s Dodo who gets the bad rap in all this, for some reason.

But Lane’s interpretation of Dodo here is awesome, because she nails just about every scene: her glee at finding out she’s in the Wild West; her flouncing up the stairs after Kate orders her away from the Last Chance piano; her reluctance when trying to hold Doc Holliday at gunpoint, her visible relief when he quickly capitulates, and her cute little faint when she finds out Doc had a second gun the whole time.  But my favorite little moment is when Doc returns her to the Sheriff’s office, announcing that Dodo has beaten him… and she then waltzes into the office behind him, does a little pirouette, and twirls her gun around in the air.  Jackie Lane deserved far better during her all-too-brief time on Doctor Who.

"Oh, my dear Dodo, my dear Dodo. You know, you're fast becoming a prey to every cliché-ridden convention in the American West!"

“Oh, my dear Dodo, my dear Dodo. You know, you’re fast becoming a prey to every cliché-ridden convention in the American West!”

The director of this story was Rex Tucker, in his only credited Who work.  Tucker is best known for two things: having been the original producer assigned to the Who project before Verity Lambert, as well as having been tentatively in line to direct the show’s second serial; and for being blamed by Peter Purves for not paying enough attention to the regular cast (not, obviously, that they needed much direction in this story).  Tucker’s work on The Gunfighters, though, is marked by surprising visual flair, and if all you know about this story, even today, is the bum rap that it got from Jeremy Bentham, then, again, take another look.

Tucker works with a very crowded studio here: lots of extras (including two men who show up in almost every set in Episode 1, probably acting out a little marginal drama of their own), a live horse in Episode 2, and a tower-mounted camera for lots of high angles. There’s also the choreography I noted above; the menace in the prolonged scene where Johnny Ringo is clearly going to kill Charlie (including Ringo’s pause to light his cigar in a working kerosene lamp prop); and the Clanton brothers speaking either in near-unison (“Alive, that is!”) or in alternating words (“His kid!” “Brother!” “Warren!” “Earp!”).  Check out also a pan across the Clanton kitchen in Episode 4, starting with the brothers having a little food fight and ending on Steven and Kate whispering conspiratorially.  A lot of care went into staging these episodes — and Tucker wrote the best ballad verses, too.

And that's the tooth!

And that’s the tooth!

But the biggest revelation I had about The Gunfighters this past week was not about the comedy, or the song, or even the acting.  It was, rather, about how uncompromising the story is.  Graeme Burk in Who’s 50 calls this a parody of Westerns; I share his love of the story but believe (now) that it’s a bit deeper than parody.  Oh, the novelization clearly is parody, but on TV it’s pretty darned straight, come to find out.  As in Donald Cotton’s own The Myth Makers, the farcical comedy turns into outright horror; but here, the transition is smoother, and telegraphed earlier.  For one thing, this is a story where, with all the best historicals, the mere presence of the main characters serves as a catalyst that ratchets up the pre-existing suspicions and conflicts.  In The Massacre, Steven’s being an Englishman in the de Coligny house made the Catholics even more disposed to killing Huguenots; here, it’s the Doctor’s mistaken-identity plot that escalates the Earp/Clanton feud to the danger level.  Then there’s Charlie’s slow-burn death scene, introduced by a menacing shot of Ringo entering the saloon — an interesting bit of psychological horror.

And then, the gunfight at the OK Corral.  While much longer than the actual historical event, here the extra time — and the film studio setting — makes this thing pretty graphic. Dodo gets actively involved in the Ringo/Holliday feud, and directly leads to Holliday winning (never mind that in real life, Ringo wasn’t in Tombstone in October 1881, and didn’t die until 9 months later).  Then there’s the Clantons — each gets his own death scene, in reverse age order from youngest to oldest, exquisitely staged and increasingly tragic.  By the time Ike is blocked in at the top of a wooden staircase and out of ammo, he’s then coldly gunned down by the Earps without even a chance at surrender. We end with a lengthy shot holding on the Earps’ black boots and pants legs, looming over the three Clanton corpses.  This is way too gritty to be a parody; there’s no joke about that gunfight.

The Deputy Sheriff isn't saving many lives.

The Deputy Sheriff isn’t saving many lives.

I went into The Gunfighters expecting to once again to bask in one of my favorite comic romps.  I wanted to enjoy the song; I wanted to enjoy the Doctor and Dodo seated around at a table in the Last Chance, each drinking milk; I wanted to enjoy the dialogue, which is about as rapid-fire and as complex as what the New Series routinely gives us; I wanted to enjoy Phineas starting to make unconscious-face in Episode 3 even before he’s slugged on the head; I wanted to enjoy the first of many “Doctor who?” jokes that would become the norm during the Innes Lloyd/Gerry Davis era.

But, as I’m watching the series in order these days, this is just another bleak, depressing, tragic, and powerful Season 3 drama.  And then the Next Episode caption unrelentingly promises us: “DR. WHO AND THE SAVAGES”.  Honestly, if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry…

If even The Gunfighters can’t improve my mood
There’s too much blood upon the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon…

About drwhonovels

An incredibly languid sojourn through the "Doctor Who" canon, with illustrations from the Topps 1979 baseball card set.
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7 Responses to The Gunfighters

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  2. Aaron says:

    The Gunfighters is still underrated by many. I had never noticed that about the song before, well spotted! (And very cool.)

  3. Pingback: The Savages | "Doctor Who" Novels

  4. You bring up a lot of interesting aspects of this story, many of which I hadn’t noticed. When I watched it, I didn’t hate it, but it wasn’t one of my favorites. Unfortunately, I got really sick of the ballad. I also have spent a lot of time in Arizona and am well acquainted with the gunfight at the OK Corral, so I was way more distracted by the inaccuracies than I usually am in the historicals. After reading this post, however, I’m tempted to watch it again. I might appreciate it more the second time around!

    • drwhonovels says:

      Yeah, detailing the historical inaccuracies would be a whole other post! When Allan Barra, the sportswriter, did his biography of Wyatt Earp about 15 years ago, he watched “The Gunfighters”, and specifically laid into the story in his own book for getting everything wrong. Then again… even with most other DW historicals, the writers tend to have a habit of just making up whatever they want in order to facilitate the kind of story they want to tell. And, just seen on its own merits, “Gunfighters is dramatically pretty tight; Wyatt Earp has a pretty hard fall in this story! Let me know if you do give the story a second try!

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