It seems fitting that I’ve reached The Gunfighters just in time for the new episode of the new series, A Town Called Mercy, which sees the 11th incarnation of the Doctor returning to the Wild West. As I mentioned in my last blog, for The Celestial Toymaker, this serial was, for many many years regarded as the worst Doctor Who ever made. In that same blog, I refuted the claims of Loficier and Haining, saying that what they saw as an absolute gem was actually pretty appalling – and here, I’ll do the exact opposite. Whilst it isn’t my favourite Doctor Who ever, by any means, The Gunfighters is certainly not the worst serial ever produced – it isn’t even the worst of Hartnell’s tenure. In fact, it’s a delight.
Seriously – it is. For one thing, from the very opening, it has Hartnell back centre stage. After weeks and weeks of gradually being written out by the former production team, and being sidelined for no perceivable reason, he is back in the spotlight, and fortunately the serial plays to his greatest strength – comedy. And this is a comedy. A really, really funny one. It was unfairly referred to as Talbot Rothwell comedy at best – but having said that, Rothwell is responsible for what was voted the greatest one-liner of all time, so that isn’t really a put-down either. Hartnell is rarely better than when he has some juicy and hilarious dialogue, and here, Cotton has provided joke after joke for his deadpan delivery. He isn’t his giggling self here – he’s delivering zingers, turbo-charged with comedy – “Doc Holliday's a great friend of mine. He gave me a gun, he extracted my tooth. Good gracious me, what more do you want?” is a wonderful line – and so here we have him at his best.
What’s more, Purves too thrives on the chance to do comedy again. After his first appearance in the series as Morton back in The Chase, it’s great fun to see him doing his speedy double takes and eye rolling. Even better than Purves, though, is Jackie Lane as Dodo – for the first time, she’s proactive and engaged in a storyline, not feeling like a useless spare part. She shines in this serial – sadly it was evidently too little too late, and she’d already been told that she was to be removed within the next two storylines.
The use of the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon is deemed by many to be the principal shortcoming for this serial, but I think that’s somewhat missing the point – whilst it is invasive, and impossible to get out of your head for days afterwards, it works in the context of this story precisely for those reasons. This season was a completely mixed bag, an eclectic mix of styles which kept the show feeling fresh week on week. Here, Cotton uses the ballad as a framing device for each and every important scene – for the first two episodes, it is Cotton’s arrangement, using similar phrasing and tempo, but then Rex Tucker, the director, uses it in episodes 3 and 4 to even greater effect, using it as a summative device, reflecting all that we see on screen. It is bold and clever, and whilst it may distract slightly from the action, causing the audience to be aware that what they are watching is only a television programme, I think it serves its function perfectly.
The set design is stunning too – whilst the new series had the benefit of visiting a location in Spain for filming (the same set used by Sergio Leone, in fact, for many of his films), here, the crew have made do with a studio in London, and yet it still feels epic. The use of props attached to painted cycloramas really helps to create a sense of depth, as does the use of live horses and props to really sell the idea that this could be anywhere in America. Tucker, as director, has worked wonders too, mixing high angle crane shots with interesting shots taken through scenery, we can really believe in this location. The costumes, too, are stunning, and the makeup department have done a wonderful job with the huge amount of facial hair on display.
Steven and Dodo’s excitement at arriving in the Midwest is brilliant – and their changing into apt clothing before swinging guns and nearly shooting their own feet off is fantastically funny – as is Wyatt Earp’s putdown to Steven who, when he confesses he isn’t a real gunslinger, mutters “You did kinda make that look obvious didn't ya, boy?” Likewise providing me with some geeky entertainment was the assumed names the Doctor gives for the travellers, specifically naming himself after Doctor Caligari, the villain in one of my favourite pieces of abstract cinema from the 1920s.
One of the finest scenes in this serial is the moment in the dentist’s office, with Hartnell and Anthony Jacobs playing wonderfully off each other – the dialogue is rich and luxurious, and dripping with wit, as Hartnell claims he never touches alcohol, but Jacobs’ Doc Holliday assuring him that he does, before taking a quick snifter of liquor. The end shot of this scene, with Hartnell gurning in displeasure as Jacobs looms into shot with the pliers is brilliant.
The episode ends with Purves and Lane being forced – at gunpoint – to entertain the Clanton brothers with their own rendition of the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, once again proving Purves to be a man of many talents. His comedy double-take as he starts to lose focus, before spotting the gun pointed at his stomach is brilliant, and he belts the song out all the louder to keep the gunman happy.
Indeed, the only real fault I can see in the entire production is the casting of the Clantons and their crew– whilst Shane Rimmer shines as Seth Harper, the others from the group vary from average to appalling, sometimes in one sentence. William Hurndell, in particular, has the most sporadic attempt at an accent heard so far in the show. Episode 2 sees the ballad continue – although this time the performer is Kate, Holliday’s beau, who for some reason mimes it dreadfully. It seems like an odd casting choice, since the fact that she is a barroom singer is integral to the characterisation, to have cast a woman who evidently was incapable of singing.
Hartnell continues to impress as he has staggered down the street, face drawn out in agony following the tooth extraction and looking rather glumly at the gun which Holliday foisted upon him in episode 1. His arrival in the bar, believing that he has made friends and suspecting no ulterior motive, is great, as is his accidental shooting of Seth’s gun out of his wrist. His dismissal of being “the great Doc” is fantastic too, as he assures them that he is “reasonably accomplished, but not great”.
A lovely side-note is that this episode was the first connection that one Matthew Jacobs ever had with the show – he was the son of Anthony, playing Doc Holliday, and was given the task of opening and closing a panel in the saloon for one of the cameras – some 30 years later, he would go on to write the script for the movie, featuring Paul McGann.
The episode ends with the rather disturbing scene of Steven being collected by a lynch mob, with the Clantons insisting that the Doctor leave the safety of the prison, before Steven is hung instead. We are even treated to the sight of Purves with a noose around his neck – although not for long, so as not to disturb children watching. The reprise of this in episode 3 also features a lovely moment of realism, as the girls and women from the crowd are ushered away by the men, so that they don’t have to witness the murder.
Episode 3, in fact, is my favourite of this whole serial – the tension is becoming ratcheted higher and higher, as the story makes its way to its inevitable conclusion, and the gunfight at the OK Corral. Admittedly, there are inaccuracies abound as far as actual history goes – the people involved are almost certainly not all the actual participants of the fight, but each character is drawn nicely, and the tension is palpable. Many of the inaccuracies actual come from films made at the time, and so the audience would probably not have known any different.
What massively helps to sell the inevitable gunfight is the arrival of Johnny Ringo, the titular character of this episode. Whilst his accent is miles off, Laurence Payne oozes charm and danger, and his first scene, which seems him be recognised by Charlie the Barman and, as such, executing him in cold blood, is genuinely menacing, and the lingering shot on Charlie’s corpse, spread across the bar, is moving.
My favourite moment of episode 3 is with Jackie Lane and Jacobs – having kidnapped Dodo, Doc Holliday has put them up in a gambling den in a near-by town. Desperate to return to the TARDIS and the Doctor and Steven, she pulls a gun on Holliday, and the performance is smashing – by far her best in her entire time with the Doctor. The look of determination on her face is juxtaposed wonderfully with her apology for pointing the gun between his eyes, and after he agrees, her near-faint and request for water is great – as is Holliday’s acquiescence.
The fourth episode has some oddities about it, too – going against everything the Doctor has ever told his companions, he attempts to intervene and change history. Considering that even Dodo and Steven know about Wyatt Earp and Johnny Ringo, and that the Doctor reacted so strangely to the mention of the Clantons back at the start of this serial, it proves that this event is too well-known to be meddled in – yet the Doctor actively tries to dissuade either side from engaging in battle.
The fourth episode pulls exactly the same trick on the audience as Cotton’s last script did – after almost an hour and a half of laugh-out-loud comedy, the jokes purposefully dry up, and we’re left with a bitter taste in our mouths. The final showdown at the OK Corral looks incredible, shot on film and with some wonderful camera angles, again making use of the crane-mounted camera, and taking in the glorious set design. Whilst the arrival of the Clantons sees Lynda Baron’s ballad performed with an upbeat tempo, it gradually declines into a far more sombre affair, as people are shot left, right and centre, with a grim sense of realism.
The final sweeping shot of the battle, which sees Clanton corpses littering the streets, before coming to a stop at the feet of the two Earp’s and Holliday, is beautifully filmed, and the stark contrast between the bodies, the dark trousers, and the sun-bleached sand is magnificent.
All in all, then, this remains a firm favourite of mine – perhaps not in my top ten, but one I’ll happily rewatch over and over. Yes, the ballad haunts me for days (I’m humming it now). Yes, the performances aren’t magnificent from some of the supporting cast. But what it does do is allows Hartnell to become the main character again, showcases Purves’ skills again as a comedian as well as a singer, and (for once) allows Jackie Lane to shine too. Added to that the excellent set and direction, and the belly-laughs to boot, and this is certainly not deserving of the unfair title of worst serial ever. I could name two worse, and we’re not even at the end of season 3.