Sunday, September 18, 2016
The Tenth Planet is the final story of the William Hartnell era. He is, from this point onwards, not The Doctor but the First Doctor. It is also the first story to feature the Cybermen and - arguably - the first proper 'base under siege' story, which is about to become something of a Doctor Who staple.
Let's begin with the Cybermen. Here in their earliest incarnation, they are a little lumbering. They're World War One tanks to the later World War Two tank Cybermen. They carry their weapons and they have still human hands, which is a creepy and effective touch that lets us know before we are told, that the Cybermen were once like us. They have weird sing-song electronic voices, which are delivered not by the actors playing the Cybermen but by Roy Skelton and Peter Hawkins. They actually sound very much like early voice synthesisers (and I had an Intellivision - Google it young people - that had such a synthesiser for the rather brilliant B-17 Bomber game. It didn't sound dissimilar to these voices, except with an American accent.) They're an effective new monster. The problem with the Cybermen will be that the television series can (almost) never make them as terrifying as the idea of them should be. I'm not the first person to say this but it is Star Trek: The Next Generation that does the Cybermen most effectively and it calls them The Borg.*
The other enemy the Doctor faces in this story is General Cutler played in fine shouty form by Robert Beatty. General Cutler is in charge of the Snowcap base and is clearly a man on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Indeed, there's a line from Good Morning Vietnam** that might apply but this is a family blog. Sort of. General Cutler is going to be the first in a long line of highly strung men who are psychologically incapable of running a bath let alone having authority over men with guns. Or ridiculous bombs. It doesn't help that Snowcap base is trying to save Cutler's son who has been sent on a suicide mission. Cutler goes so far off the deep end his death at the hands of the Cybermen feels like a rescue.
The rest of the cast do a fine job of being staunch and serious. It's supposed to be set in 1986 so it has an unusually international cast. Beatty is Canadian, John Brandon is an American playing an American Sargeant, Steve Plytas - a face familiar from British TV in the 60s & 70s - plays Wigner. Plytas himself was Greek but Wigner is non-specifically European (but based in Geneva), Alan White (Australian) and Earl Cameron (Bermudan) play the ill-fated occupants of Zeus IV and Wigner's office staff includes a gentleman in African dress (but who never gets to speak.) It makes for a nice change.
Then English actors fill up the rest of the cast. David Dodimead does a fine job as Barclay, the scientist with doubts about Cutler's decision making whilst Dudley Jones brings a certain amount of reality to the rather cynical and pathetic Dyson. There's only one really dud performance and that's Shane Shelton's Tito.
Michael Craze and Anneke Wills do a fine job too. Polly's courage when facing up to both General Cutler and the Cybermen is exemplary and Ben's pained response to killing a Cyberman is really well-played. However, Polly's courage is stretched to breaking point towards the end. They're a good pair, Ben and Polly.
This though is Hartnell's final story and I have come to praise Hartnell not bury him. He's excellent throughout this story - even though he was absent in Part Three due to illness. I said that The Smugglers was - possibly - the moment the Doctor becomes the Doctor that we know and love but here he is THE DOCTOR. He tries to warn Cutler what is coming and is ignored. He stands his ground and in the final episode he is simply brilliant. I'm going to say more about The First Doctor in another blogpost, which will be coming soon. What I will say here is that Hartnell is a far better Doctor than some people - who think only of Billy-fluffs etc - give him credit for. He's also carving out a part for the first time that others will pick up and run with. It's a part though that no one else has done. He isn't playing the First Doctor is William Hartnell he is just playing The Doctor. There are no others and by the end of his time in the part we have perhaps reached the point at which another actor can pick up and run with the part, taking it in new directions, without breaking it.
I should say that the story itself is mainly pretty good. It's tense, especially the end of Part 3. It's violent - for example, Cutler's attack on Ben - and it is packed full of edgy people on the verge of losing it. People are scared in this story too, which I like. Not everyone wants to be a hero and not everyone can be.
It's a fine ending to the Hartnell years and sews seeds for what is to come. We take regeneration for granted now. After all, there are twelve Doctors now but back in 1966 it must have been something of a shock. Particularly as Part Four ends with the new Doctor's face but not a word. We don't know what's happened but the Doctor has changed and the TARDIS had something of a spasm whilst it was happening. It certainly makes us want to see what happens next. Who is this new man and what's he going to be like?
Let's leave the last word to the Doctor himself:
"It's far from being all over."
*Big Finish, on the other hand, make exceptional Cybermen stories. You should give them a listen. Starting with Spare Parts.
**It is here should you wish to look
Thursday, September 15, 2016
Arr, it be The Smugglers: Doctor Who meets Treasure Island meets Smuggler's Bay.
I'm going to comment on one thing in this story that irritated me and just get it out of the way. People in the past weren't stupid. They might be less knowledgeable but that doesn't make them stupid. The inability for anyone to spot that Polly (Anneke Wills) is a woman is either a joke that doesn't work or an insult to the intelligence of the average 17th Cornishman. The fact that Polly is the only woman in the whole story makes it even more ridiculous. The theory appears to be that because she is wearing trousers she must be a boy. Really? REALLY? Have you seen Anneke Wills? You'd have to be Blind Pew to think she was a he. Even in trousers.
That is all I have to say on THAT point.
Basically, this is a classic case of the Doctor (and crew) stumbling into the middle of something without knowing what the hell is going on and then having to find out and sort the mess out before they're all killed by the bad guys. Of whom, there is quite a number in this story. Fortunately, most of them appear to be greedy, gullible idiots.
There's Kewper (David Blake Kelly), the Innkeeper who is in cahoots with The Squire (Paul Whitsun-Jones) smuggling silks, brandy and the like. The two of them are fooled by Captain Pike (Michael Godfrey) and his grinning, murderous crewman Cherub (George A. Cooper). Pike and Cherub arrived in this unnamed Cornish village on another quest. They are looking for Avery's Treasure, which they believe has been hidden by their ex-shipmate Joseph Longfoot (Terance De Marney). Longfoot is now Church Warden.
It is Longfoot that hands over a Pirate-ish riddle to the Doctor, which reveals the location of Avery's gold. Alas, Cherub kills Longfoot & decides that the Doctor needs to be kidnapped and interrogated. The scenes between the Doctor and Pike aboard Pike's ship are a delight. Hartnell does a lovely job of wrapping Pike around his little finger and then fooling Jamaica (Elroy Josephs) so that he can escape.
Meanwhile Polly and Ben (Michael Craze) have been arrested for the murder of Longfoot by the Squire, escaped using fake witchcraft to terrify a 17th century Cornish teenager, Tom (Mike Lucas), Polly gets re-captured by the Squire, Ben stumbles into and overcomes a man called Blake (John Ringham in good guy mode and therefore a lot less interesting than his last Doctor Who performance.) Polly and Ben are handed over to Blake as murder suspects and smugglers but Blake lets them go as he trusts them a little more than he does the Squire. With me so far? Good. All this coming and going leads up to an episode of betrayal, battle, and bloody murder before the Doctor, Ben and Polly can return to the TARDIS and flee.
One of the topics of conversation that Doctor Who fans have occasionally is at what point the Doctor becomes The Doctor we know now. There's a tendency to believe it happens in the Troughton era but I'd put an argument that it is in this story that the Doctor becomes the Doctor. Only six stories back the Doctor almost loses Steven in an argument about how The Doctor has treated Anne Chaplet. The Doctor was so anxious not to get involved that he is willing to throw Anne to the Catholic wolves (or to try not to think about it at all.) In The Smugglers though he says to Ben and Polly that he has to stay to prevent Pike and his men from destroying the village even at the risk of his own life. Indeed, his behavior shames the Squire. This, surely, is the moment the Doctor become the Doctor?
Hartnell is excellent in this, his penultimate story. He's sharp, smart and out-wits pretty much everyone. This is also Ben and Polly's first adventure with the Doctor as companions. Ben is the first companion that doesn't seem to want to be there. He spends chunks of time complaining about wanting to get back to his own ship. He also gets lumped with the refusal to believe the TARDIS is a time machine. But both Ben and Polly are independent and brave.* Ben can be a little shouty but Polly is brilliant, even if the whole 'boy' thing is ridiculous.
It's an enjoyable romp. It's a shame it doesn't exist in the archive as we're missing a large chunk of location footage, which would be nice to see.
Next up, the Hartnell era comes to an end with The Tenth Planet.
*As the Eleventh Doctor said in A Good Man Goes To War, "They're always brave."
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
Is Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) the Doctor Who companion given the shoddiest treatment? Her arrival is tacked on to the end of The Massacre in an attempt to give that story an ending that isn't as bleak as reality and her departure in The War Machines happens off-stage. She says goodbye to the Doctor through her replacements, Ben and Polly.
In between she starts off vaguely Mancunian - which is where Jackie Lane herself hails from - in The Massacre/The Ark before someone, somewhere has a fit of the vapours and Dodo goes all RP. She's got no background and no character. It's as if no one in the production team gave any thought to the character at all except that they wanted 'young woman'. As a result, you've got to say Jackie Lane does a fine job of the little she's given.
In some respects, Dodo reminds me of Mel, except without the showbiz baggage that Bonnie Langford brought with her, who is the other companion I think gets really shoddy treatment in the classic series. You can argue that Susan is also a companion that never quite lived up to her potential but at least she had potential. You can argue that Leela's departure is probably worse than Dodo's in that it really doesn't feel like the reward for either the character or the actress.* But at least Leela has a character for us to feel annoyed on behalf of. Dodo just is.
That's not to say there wasn't potential there, The Gunfighters shows what Jackie Lane could do when allowed to. The scene where she holds up Doc Holliday is funny and sharply played. In The Savages it is Dodo that smells a rat when being guided around this perfect world before she returns to the sort of slight stupidity that seems to be Dodo's default setting. The worst case being in The Celestial Toymaker.
One shouldn't forget that Jackie Lane had to help Peter Purves carry stories when William Hartnell was being nudged out of the way by the production team. Whilst I think Purves does most of the heavy lifting (and has the charisma to be the 'leading man'.) Jackie Lane does her share. This is an odd time to be in Doctor Who with companions being suddenly shown the exit. The lack of sentimentality is the most shocking difference between this period of Doctor Who and New Who, where the series might sometimes err in the other direction.**
In the end, Dodo is doomed to be the least remembered Doctor Who companion. She appears in less than twenty episodes. She never gets a story where she really gets a chance to shine, although The Gunfighters is probably her finest hour. Then she's written out as if she had never been there at all. I suppose the fact that Jackie Lane never speaks about her time in the series contributes to that 'invisibility.'
There's nothing I can say here that is going to see a suddenly change that. Dodo's appearances in other media - books and Big Finish - are limited too, which means she's even more likely to be forgotten. Although Dodo's treatment in Who Killed Kennedy and The Man in the Velvet Mask could possibly make her the most ill-used companion***. As if writer's want to make up for her invisibility by treating her terribly in the hope that it would make her memorable. It doesn't work. Perhaps Big Finish could convince Jackie Lane to do a....but it still wouldn't help. Dodo is doomed to be forgotten.
I'm not sure whose fault that is but it certainly wasn't Jackie Lane's.
*In my head canon Leela goes down fighting in the Time War leading Gallifreyan troops against the Daleks. The nearest thing to a warrior that the Time Lords have to hand. That is a better end than marriage to someone she barely acknowledges in six episodes.
**I'm thinking of the many exits of Rose Tyler here. Mostly.
***Except possibly Peri. Discuss.
Monday, September 5, 2016
The War Machines is a really enjoyable story. It's unusual for the Hartnell era in that the Doctor has stepped into the contemporary world. This story, written by Ian Stuart Black, was broadcast between the 25 June and 16 July 1966. And it feels like it takes place around then too. London isn't quite swinging in The War Machines but a setting like the Inferno club is at least a beginning. As is the introduction of Ben Jackson (Michael Craze) and Polly (Anneke Wills) as two new companions but more about them la...actually that's terrible writing, isn't it. It's as if I gave no thought to this blog at all before I started writing it.
Ben Jackson is a grumpy London sailor whose been left in the lurch whilst his ship has sailed off - with all his mates - to the Caribbean. He's a representative of all those actors that have started to appear on big screens, Michael Caine being the obvious example. He's Alfie in uniform with all his talk of 'birds'. Whilst Polly is the mini-skirted model-actress. If Ben Jackson is Michael Caine then Polly is Julie Christie. They're Doctor Who's nod to a changing world, which means poor Dodo is about to leave.
I've said in recent blogs that it is insulting how badly Hartnell has been treated but that's nothing as to the awful way Dodo gets written out. She doesn't even get a farewell scene. Her goodbye is delivered to the Doctor by her replacements. That's after she's been hypnotized and then bundled off to the countryside. It's no wonder Jackie Lane doesn't really want to talk about her time on Doctor Who but then she's not the first cast member to be bundled out suddenly in 1965/1966.
So the Doctor and Dodo arrive in London. The Post Office Tower - as was - is finished and it gives the Doctor the heebie-jeebies. It leads to the Doctor blagging his way into the company of key scientists working on a massive computer project: WOTAN. WOTAN is going to be the central mind in a worldwide computer network due to be switched on in a few days. The Doctor's blagging skills we don't see but in his novelisation of the story, Ian Stuart Black has a little preview chapter where the Doctor seems to knock up some fake letters.
Everyone knows this isn't going to turn out well. WOTAN turns out to be HAL from 2001 with even more grandiose plans and the ability to take over the minds of various humans to carry out its plans. Basically, because it is a whacking great electronic box that can't move. It can, however, create War Machines to carry out its plans.
It also wants The Doctor on its side. Or, if we are exact, 'Doctor Who is required.' I'm sure no one at the time gave this line another thought but since then it has become one of those things that Doctor Who fans - Whovians if you will - argue about. I'm not sure this blog is the place to rehash the argument as I'm sure those reading it will already know what it is about. But, in brief, there is some discussion about whether the lead character in Doctor Who is called The Doctor or Doctor Who. For some reason, the latter is frowned upon (and don't even start of Dr. Who) when there is a certain amount of evidence from the early years of the series that Doctor Who is what he calls himself. In the end, it doesn't really matter and I leave you to make your own judgment on the subject. If you even care.*
Dodo gets hypnotised when hanging out at 'The Inferno', which is one of London's hottest nightspots. It's there we meet Ben Jackson for the first time. We meet Polly earlier. She's Professor Brett's (John Harvey) secretary. She too will get hypnotized. Thus preparing herself for life as a Doctor Who companion.
The bad guys fail to get the Doctor who works out Dodo's been 'turned'. He undoes the brain-washing and sends her off to the countryside to recover, Never to be seen again.
Thereafter the Doctor relies mainly on Ben for support, whilst Polly gets 'turned'. However, she's not quite 'turned' enough to want to see Ben killed. Oh. Spoilers.
We eventually see the War Machines in actions. They're big chunky boxes armed with fire extinguishers and massive hammers. The army can't deal with them but the Doctor manages to do so. The first War Machine's capture is slightly confusing (and in the novel, Ian Stuart Black gives a clearer explanation of what happens. Or an entirely different explanation if you like.) The Doctor then captures a second War Machine in a tense sequence. At this point, the series is also using journalists and newsreaders to give the story scale in a way RTD would do later.
Indeed this is one of the Hartnell stories that could easily be turned into a New Doctor Who story with barely a tweak. You may, whisper it, think that it has already been done. It's called The Bells of St John.
I've been waffling on for ages now but that's because this is a good little story and one that I'd recommend to new Doctor Who fans wanting to dip into the Hartnell era as with its London setting, use of the army and Hartnell's Doctor-in-chargeness it fills surprisingly modern and is generally quite face paced for the period.
It sees Dodo depart and Ben and Polly join up.
It's rather lovely.
And that's all I have to say.
*Later we will talk about the UNIT dating controversy. Or not.
Thursday, September 1, 2016
Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) made his first appearance in the final episode of The Chase as a prisoner of The Mechanoids. He escaped the destruction caused after the Daleks had arrived and managed - somehow - to bundle himself on board the TARDIS. His first 'proper' story is The Time Meddler, which also happens to be one of the highlights of the Hartnell era.
The Time Meddler dips Steven into the Doctor's world, which he is amusingly cynical about. Vicki, the Doctor and Steven team have a great chemistry and like a lot of the Hartnell era are often forgotten about of entirely when discussions about 'best' TARDIS teams pop up. For me, this is a great TARDIS team.
Alas, it was only to survive three stories: The Time Meddler, Galaxy 4 and The Myth Makers as Vicki leaves at the end of The Myth Makers in unconvincing style. The first of a run of people bundled out of the TARDIS with minimal ceremony and/or death. According to Peter Purves's autobiography, 'Here's One I Wrote Earlier' Maureen O'Brien (Vicki) was presented with the news that here contract wasn't being renewed with minimal finesse. It's a disappointing end to a fine TARDIS team.
Steven's next involved in the epic The Dalek's Master, a story that really demonstrates the danger of travelling with the Doctor, especially when face to eye-stalk with the Daleks. Steven survives unlike Brett Vyon, Katarina and Sara Kingdom. This story, filled with death, ends in a victory of sorts for the Doctor but the price paid is a terrible one. So the ideal situation to find themselves in next is Paris on the eve of the St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre.
Here Steven is pushed almost to mutiny at the Doctor's behaviour after a confusing and difficult adventure. It is important I think to note that Peter Purves is the lead in The Massacre. It is him that we see most of. The Doctor tops and tails the story but this is an episode of Steven Taylor's solo series. It's a lot of weight to put of Peter Purves's shoulders but he has the charisma to carry it off with aplomb. The sad thing is that the series can't have the courage of its convictions in the end and have Steven leave.
So the end cobbles together a scene that allows the arrival of Dodo to restore things to almost normal. Except that it doesn't. The production team is clearly tired of William Hartnell and each story after this, with the possible exception of The Ark found ways of pushing him out of the story. It means both Peter Purves and Jackie Lane have heavier weight placed upon them. It helps Steven to shine but poor Dodo flounders. It's not Lane's fault. It's the lack of character there in the first place.
The Celestial Toymaker seems to demonstrate that perfectly. It doesn't work because Dodo is stupid. Still, Peter Purves puts in another solid performance as he and Jackie Lane end up doing most of the donkey work in this story.
However, both Lane and Purves are excellent in The Gunfighters, which I'm glad to see Peter Purves enjoyed making. This is one story where I think you could see potential in a Steven, Dodo and The Doctor team, but it is doomed to never quite happen because like Maureen O'Brien before him, Purves was presented with the news that they wanted him out. His departure is at least a little more convincing that Vicki's (and I'll talk about Dodo's shortly.)
There's an implication - which non-television media plays on - that Steven is 'ready' to take on the challenge presented to him at the end of The Savages. It certainly seems a better fate for Steven than him running off with the first 'dolly bird' that takes his fancy. I'd like to think though that after things had been sorted out Steven once more went out into the universe. After all, this was a trained space pilot. In a different era, he might have been Captain Jack.
In the end Peter Purves's Doctor Who career isn't what he's best remembered for and it is easy to forget Steven's existence, especially as only 17 of his 45 episodes [I'm counting The Chase, Part Six btw] still exist in the archive. Yet, you could make an argument that Peter Purves kept Doctor Who ticking along whilst everyone tried to work out how to give William Hartnell the boot. If Peter Purves hadn't been so capable and charismatic performer this is the point where Doctor Who might have come to an end.
So, here's a rousing 'BRAVO!' for Steven Taylor and Peter Purves.
Now go & listen to The Myth Makers.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016
Written by Ian Stuart Black, The Savages was broadcast between the 28 May 1966 and 18 June 1966. England still hadn't won the World Cup. That was to come at the end of the following month. And there endeth my only attempt to contextualise a Doctor Who story with its broadcast dates. Except to note that this story goes out in a decade were the British exit from its Empire was speeding up. After all, we're six years after Macmillan's 'Wind of Change' speech in the South African parliament. A speech that clearly indicated that even the Conservative Party could see which way the wind was blowing for Britain's colonies even if it was to take white South Africa another 30+ years to accept it.
Why do I mention all this? Well, I think The Savages is meant to reflect some of the atmosphere of the time. In a similar way that The Mutants is also about the end of Empire. Except that in this story The Savages are white and the Elders black. Or so it appears from pictures and surviving footage. Obviously, this being 1966 we can't cast black actors so unfortunately and uncomfortably the Elders are white actors in blackface.
The original title for this story was going to be 'The White Savages' so I'm pretty sure that my point about the story is correct. This is about colonialism and about one group of humans willingness to profit from the exploitation of another. In this case, it is their life energy. The Savages - and we're never given a name for the group apart from this - are effectively farm animals. They are bred to be drained of energy so that The Elders can life in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. The Elders don't even appear to use the Savages as slave labour. They're simply left to get on with it until someone needs an energy boost. I mean this is a story about what a world would be like with the vampires in charge. Perhaps we're expected to see colonialism as vampiric. Perhaps I'm thinking about this far, far too much.
The truth is this is a bit of dull story enlivened by Jano's impression of the First Doctor or to put it more accurately Frederick Jaeger's impersonation of William Hartnell playing the First Doctor. O and a bit of smashing up of stuff in the final episode as the revolution comes. Frederick Jaeger does a fine job as Jano as head of the Elders. A man satisfied with the way his society is until he ingests some of the Doctor's conscience.
It is the Doctor that is the catalyst for the end of the status quo. The Elders have admired The Doctor on his travels through time and have been expecting him to arrive for some years. The odd thing is having followed him they don't seem to have been prepared for him to question the cost of their lifestyle or who is paying it.
Hartnell's quite good in this too but once more gets to spend a chunk of time unconscious or zombified. You get the impression by this point that Innes Lloyd has done everything short of leaving a sticky note on Hartnell's dressing room door to elbow Hartnell out of the show. Hartnell doesn't go yet, though. However, Peter Purves does.
Steven Taylor leaves at the end of this story. He is chosen by both groups to lead them through the undoubtedly messy process of creating a new and fairer world. It's all pretty sudden and the Doctor seems pleased to have Steven off the premises. Not in a horrible way but in a 'and now you are ready' way. It's all pretty sudden and rushed but in an odd way seems a fitting end for Steven who, on occasions, had beome the lead character in Doctor Who whilst the production team found ways of keeping Hartnell out of the picture. It's not the worst companion exit ever.*
It leaves us with Dodo. Now Jackie Lane's not bad but Dodo is a character with almost no character. She's pretty good in the first couple of episodes. She refuses to believe in the paradise their being presented with whilst Steven seems oddly naive for once but then she starts to fall prey to the stupid. Then she treats a clearly unwell Doctor with all the sympathy of a Jeremy Hunt. I'm not sure Jackie Lane ever really got a break with Dodo. There's nothing to get a hold of, which is a shame.
So, all in all, The Savages is a dull-ish story with some interesting ideas that don't quite work. It's not a terrible story but would be pretty forgettable were it not for Steven's exit. I have barely talked about the other performances: Ewan Solon as Chal, Patrick Godfrey as Tor, Geoffrey Frederick as Exorse, Clare Jenkins as Nanina and Peter Thomas as Captain Edal. Solon is great but Thomas is a bit too obviously marked up as the bad guy from the minute he gets the line about not trusting strangers. Captain Edal would have fitted up the Doctor, Steven and Dodo for something if he'd got the chance believing, like corrupt policemen the world over, that they'd be guilty of something even if he could find out what is was.
The Savages: could do better.
*That's not far away, though.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
In my blog on The Celestial Toymaker I mentioned that fan consensus on that story had changed since I was a wee Doctor Who fan. Where once it was considered a creepy classic. Now it was seen as boring, studio bound and racist. On the other hand The Gunfighters has been making the opposite journey.
Once upon a time when Doctor Who fans didn't have access to so much material we relied on the wisdom of others to tell us what we were supposed to think of Doctor Who stories and one of those wise old men, who will remain nameless, called The Gunfighters the worst Doctor Who story ever made. This was clearly bollocks then. It's even more bollocks when you re-watch it.
The problem with The Gunfighters is that it is The Doctor being dropped into a parody and your tolerance of this story will probably be affected by three things: how much you like comedy in Doctor Who, how much you like Westerns and how much you like songs. If you're a serious-minded Western disliking music-a-phobe chances this is not for you.
The key thing to remember about The Gunfighters is that it is a parody of the Western genre, which was in the late-fifties and early-sixties a mainstay not just of American television but also British television. Even into the seventies and eighties I remember visiting my Nan and there was almost always a Western on the television. I remember Nan loved Westerns. This was a time when there were only three mainstream channels and they filled a large chunk of their time with old films or repeats of programmes like Bonanza.
The real 'Gunfight at the OK Corral' or as it is referred to more realistically in a history book that I can't remember the name of 'The Fiasco on Fremont Street' is - possibly - the founding story of the Western myth. Those involved in it (and the later murder of Morgan Earp & the Vendetta Ride that followed) were to become central to film and American Westerns perhaps helped by the fact that Wyatt Earp himself lived to be advisor to Tom Mix, an early Hollywood cowboy star.
There were television series called Bat Masterson (1958-61), Johnny Ringo (1959-60), The Life & Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61) and Tombstone Territory (1957-1959) to name but four.
These names were familiar to TV audience in the UK as well as the US. It's one of the reasons I suspect the Sheriff in The Gunfighters was Bat Masterson and not Johnny Behan as was the case in real life. After all Behan had no TV series of his own and Masterson was the more familiar figure. The same applies to Johnny Ringo who took no part in the actual Gunfight at the OK Corral itself but is a suitably well-known figure to add to the story.
Television wasn't the only influence. There's films too. Films such as My Darling Clementine (1946) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) being the two that clearly had the most influence, which brings me to the song.
Throughout The Gunfighters the action is chorused by a song, The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. It irritates a lot of people and seems out of place in a Doctor Who episode. I thought, first of all, that this was the result of Donald Cotton having seen Cat Ballou (1965), where Stubby Kaye* and Nat King Cole appear as 'shouters' who sing the 'Ballad of Cat Ballou', almost like a velvet voiced Greek Chorus. And there might be an element of truth in that but most obviously the same approach was used in Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) where Frankie Lane song Gunfight at the OK Corral guided us through the film. It's worth watching to see how they used it (and also because it is an excellent film in the first place) and how The Gunfighters echoes it.
So the song might be out of place in a Doctor Who story but it isn't in a Western for which reason I'm happy to give it a pass.
The Doctor, Steven and Dodo find themselves in Tombstone on the eve of the Gunfight. It's bad timing and the main cast are totally oblivious to what's going on initially. The Doctor, whose toothache has kick started proceedings, goes to see a dentist. That dentist turns out to be Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs) who utterly bamboozles the Doctor and gets him to wander off to the saloon where Steven and Dodo are being bullied into singing by the Clanton brothers. It's worth noting that there's a not disimilar scene involving the bullying of a drunken Shakespearean actor in My Darling Clementine. Anthony Jacobs is superb as Doc Holliday, who really was - possibly - a gentleman from Georgia and dentist.
The Doctor's been set-up by Holliday who knows that the Clanton's are waiting for him at the Last Chance Saloon. Everyone now seems to think the Doctor is Doc Holliday and not Doctor Caligari as he himself told Wyatt Earp (John Alderson) and Bat Masterson (Richard Beale). The confusion lasts for two and a half episodes as Wyatt Earp plays along with the Doctor/Doc Holliday ruse as does Holliday's 'girl' Kate (Sheena Marshe) Although it is blown when Clanton ally Seth Harper (Shane Rimmer) gets gunned down by Holliday in front of Charlie the Barman (David Graham). Charlie can't keep a secret, which will alas cost him dearly when Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne) arrives.
It's all nicely comedic until Johnny Ringo arrives when it takes a much darker tone as did The Myth Makers
Hartnell seems to revel in the chance to do some comedy and his moment of glory is his "People keep giving me guns. I wish they wouldn't." In fact this story is pack full of nice bits around guns being pointed at people who don't want to have guns pointed at them. And Jackie Lane gets to actually do stuff as Dodo for the first time. The scene where she gets the jump on Doc Holliday is marvellous. Meanwhile Peter Purves gets to be his usually excellent self, even when singing badly in a ridiculous shirt.
O, I should point out that the American accents in this story are rubbish. Mostly. It's a contractual obligation when reviewing The Gunfighters. The only one who is really consistent is John Alderson's Wyatt Earp. Perhaps it is no surprise then that Alderson was to go on and have a pretty extensive career in US television, including more Westerns.
The Clanton brothers though have a set of accents so variable you'd demand a DNA test**. Meanwhile the Doctor is locked up for a bit, released and replaced in jail by a pistol-whipped***Phineas Clanton (Maurice Good) who is then sprung by his brothers who kill Warren Earp.****
We're leading up to the Gunfight but not before the Doctor tries to stop it by talking to Pa Clanton (Reed De Rouen). (Again there is a similar scene in My Darling Clementine) so the gunfight is doomed to take place.
I haven't got the space in this blog to outline the actual history of the Gunfight - I'm going to do that in another blog - but in reality the fight lasted less than a minute. It was - fundamentally - an arrest gone wrong. It's main cause a drunken, belligerent Ike Clanton but like almost every event in history one with longer, broader causes. In reality it was Wyatt, Virgil (who was the Marshall not Wyatt) and Morgan Earp with their 'friend' Doc Holliday who faced off against Ike and Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne. Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton would die. There would be a trial but that would not be the end of it. Who was at fault and who fired the first shot are still argued about to this day. Different newspapers of different political leanings took up cudgels for each side. But as I said that's for another blog, which is coming. Honest.
The Gunfight being over the Doctor, Steven and Dodo leave.
It's been fun. There are genuinely lots of laughs in this story, even as it takes a very, very dark turn towards the end. Hartnell is my personal highlight but the whole story is rather brilliant if you ask me and I'm inclined to ignore some dodgy accents in order to see it play out.
Is it Doctor Who's first proper parody? Or does that nod go to The Myth Makers? Also written by Donald Cotton it should be noted who can certainly turn his hand to comedy. It's one of my favourite Doctor Who stories of all time and I suggest if you've not seen it you do. You might not agree with me but I'm old enough and ugly enough to cope with that.
*Stubby Kaye who would later crop up in Delta & The Bannermen. The poor man.
**I know DNA has nothing to do with accents and I don't care.
***Gunfights were actually very rare in the West. Tombstone had strict rules on guns for example, which meant a lot of arrests were done by the officers of law & order using the butt of the gun without needing to fire it.
****O and Warren Earp didn't die then. He would make it to 1900 before being killed in an argument.