Saturday, March 15, 2014
The Gunfighters : Part One - A Review
Once upon a time before fandom had access to DVDs a Doctor Who uber-fan claimed that The Gunfighters was the worst Doctor Who story ever made. I can't remember who said this and nor do I intend to be rude about a person with such deficient taste. All I will say is that they were, are and will always be wrong.
The Gunfighters is a wonderful story. I won't claim it to be flawless but it is as far away from being the worst Doctor Who story as it is possible to be unless you are The Armageddon Factor. In which case your prize awaits.
It features one of William Hartnell's finest performances as the Doctor because he gets a chance to show how good his comic timing is and there I suspect is the reason why some people hold it in such low esteem. Because - for the most part - The Gunfighters is a comedy. A parody in fact.
A lot of lip service is paid by Doctor Who fans to the flexibility of Doctor Who's format. It can be anything we say and there is a certain amount of truth in that. Doctor Who has the potential to do any kind of story and fit it inside that Blue Box. But I'd argue that the series has never been as radical as it was during The Hartnell era when they seemed happy to try different things with every story and The Gunfighters is one of those experiments: a comedy western parodying the Westerns that were regular visitors to the screens of Britain big and small.
The late-50s and early 60s saw a rash of Western Television series, particularly featuring genuine historical figures from the 'Wild West' and The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral became a particular focus. Relevant to the cast of characters in The Gunfighters in particular were Johnny Ringo (1959-1960) and Bat Masterson (1958-1961). Both characters that feature in The Gunfighters but had nothing to do with the real Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
But there was also The Life & Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961) and Tombstone Territory (1959-1960) and that's just those Western series based on and around figures and places involved in The Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall. A glance through the Radio Times from 1963 onwards shows the regularity of Westerns on British television: Wagon Train, Laramie, The Lone Ranger, Wells Fargo, The Virginian and on the same Saturday that saw the broadcast of the first episode of The Gunfighters: A Holiday for the Doctor at 7pm, BBC1 was showing Belle Star's Daughter in a regular Western film slot.
British television viewers were as familiar with Westerns as American viewers. And the people who featured in The Gunfighters would have been known names. Wyatt Earp had cropped up in films since silent films - in fact you might argue that the cultural significance of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral as an event starts with films - but My Darling Clementine (1946) and The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) are two obvious examples. In fact I'd argue that the scene at the Clanton's house in The Gunfighters is a distant echo of a scene in My Darling Clementine.
It's always dangerous to try and pinpoint the influences on a writer but Donald Cotton's choice of Bat Masterson as Tombstone's Sherriff, instead of the actual Sheriff John Behan, and the involvement of Johnny Ringo indicates an awareness of names viewers might be familiar with from film and television.
But perhaps the most two most obvious source for influence are Carry On Cowboy (1965) and Cat Ballou (1966). Both are comedy Westerns, which hints at something in the air which Donald Cotton might have picked up on. Most obviously though Cat Ballou features a chorus - Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye (who would eventually turn up in Delta and the Bannermen) - who pop up occasionally to sing a song that comments on and narrates the story.
So The Gunfighters 'Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon', which is one of the most criticised bits of the story, might be better seen as lampooning Cat Ballou or at least 'borrowing' the idea. Parodying a major film of that year makes a small amount of sense.
The barman , Charlie, is surely also an echo of the barmen who crop up in countless Westerns, including My Darling Clementine. And the Clanton's persecution of Steven and Dodo forcing them to sing The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon definitely reflects a scene in My Darling Clementine, when the Clanton's - again - bully a drunken English actor of the old school who is reciting Shakespeare.
I mention all these sources because I want to emphasise that the best way to enjoy The Gunfighters is to watch it knowing that this isn't a proper historical but a parody. It's Doctor Who as comedy.
Now I suspect how you feel about The Gunfighters is reflected in your feelings about comedy in Doctor Who but I enjoy it, particularly when it is done well, and I'd argue that Donald Cotton, who wrote the story, writes good comedy. Take a look not just at The Gunfighters but at The Myth Makers too. Indeed for me The Myth Makers is the missing Hartnell story I'd most like to see.
Yes, the problem with the comedy parts of The Gunfighters is that there is a wee bit of a jarring clash once Johnny Ringo arrives and everything becomes much darker. Johnny Ringo brings genuine nastiness (which might unintentionally reflect the fact that the real Johnny Ringo was actually as nasty as fiction would have us believe based on what little is known about him). The real Johnny Ringo wasn't present at the O.K. Corral, as I've already mentioned, but his life was to end in unpleasant and mysterious circumstances, possibly as part of the on-going fall out from the deaths of the Clanton's at Tombstone. (I may say more about this is in the second part of the blog or not. I suspect it depends on the space I have.)
But in the main it is genuinely quite funny. Hartnell shines now he has a chance to let down his comedy hair so to speak and there's hardly a fluff to be heard.The first two episodes in particular are filled with genuinely good stuff from Hartnell. His scenes with Doc Holliday in his 'surgery' are very funny and nicely played by all concerned.
Peter Purves too is expertly deadpan. The supporting performances are of variable quality and the accents drift all over the place. Sometimes very, very far from the mid-West of the USA. Even Dodo doesn't annoy me as much as usual and her attempts to get Doc Holliday to take her back to Tombstone are well-done.
However John Alderson does a stout job as Wyatt Earp. Indeed Alderson had a career in the US appearing in Western series such as Gunsmoke, Bonanza and The Wild, Wild West (amongst others). Anthony Jacobs is great as Doc Holliday too. It's funny to think Holliday was genuinely a dentist. There's seems something odd about that. (In My Darling Clementine they make him a medical Doctor btw so it isn't just The Gunfighters itself that is packed full of historical inaccuracies). Laurence Payne's got a fine touch of nastiness about him as Johnny Ringo and Richard Beale does an OK job with the rather dull part of Bat Masterson.
The rest of the Clanton's and the Earp's are playing it much more straight and are therefore much less interesting.
Apart from Dodo there's only one other female character in it and that's Kate (Sheena Marsh). In real life 'Big Nose Kate' was a long time 'friend' of Holliday's and so she's partly there for that and partly to play a sort of traditional Western role : the woman to whom the gunfighter can return. In fact the triangle between her, Holliday and Ringo might have been picked up from My Darling Clementine too (where Linda Darnell plays Chihuahua*, Doc Holliday's lover and bar room singer). Or from The Gunfighter, a 1950 film starring Gregory Peck as 'Jimmy Ringo' and Helen Westcott as Peggy who is - to quote the poster - "His only refuge..."
Once again making guesses about what influenced a writer's decisions in terms of character or plot. It could be none of these things but if you watch The Gunfighters alongside some of these films there's enough resonances to make you think. But equally that's because some of these things had become clichés by 1966 and part of the fun of The Gunfighters is that it is mocking these clichés.
The other good things about The Gunfighters are that the sets look great and the gunfight itself is really well directed (and varying accurate but again more detail on that in part two). The build up to the fight is delightfully tense and Hartnell's visit to Pa Clanton to try and stop the fight is nicely done.
As I said at the beginning. The Gunfighters isn't flawless and your tolerance for The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon might effect how you see this story but if you step back from looking at it purely as a Doctor Who 'historical' and see it for what I think it is : a parody of Western television and film using Doctor Who's flexible format to do it then I think it is one of the Hartnell eras more entertaining stories.
In the second part of this column I shall try and put some genuine history behind the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral or as one writer describes it better, 'The Fiasco on Fremont Street'.
*Yes, she really is called Chihuahua.