Thursday, May 16, 2013

"The Gunfighters"

Aired Apr 30 – May 21, 1966

Episode 1: A Holiday for the Doctor
Episode 2: Don't Shoot the Pianist
Episode 3: Johnny Ringo
Episode 4: The OK Corral

Story 25

Written by Donald Cotton

Directed by Rex Tucker


The TARDIS lands in the Wild West town of Tombstone in 1881. The Doctor, suffering from a toothache, seeks out the local dentist, who turns out to be none other than the notorious Doc Holliday, currently engaged in a feud with Pa Clanton and his sons Ike, Phineas and Billy. Lawmen Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson are meanwhile doing their best to keep the peace.

The travelers become entangled in this conflict, with the Doctor mistaken for Holliday, Steven pressed into helping with jailbreak, and Dodo kidnapped by Doc.

Despite his best efforts to resolve the situation peacefully, the Doctor is unable to help and, in the climactic shoot-out at the OK Corral, the Earps and Holliday defeat the Clantons and Ringo, who are all gunned down. The Doctor and his companions say goodbye to Kate and Holliday, with Holliday giving the Doctor one of Doc's wanted posters as a parting gift.  


North American actors often get a lot of flak from Brits when we attempt any sort of accent having to do with the UK. The implication is that we Colonials simply can't manage a decent accent, while classically trained British thespians can master any accent. Well, to those people I would suggest they watch any classic Who where an American accent of any kind is attempted. They are mostly laughably bad. And The Gunfighters is no exception.

But The Gunfighters is not a serious attempt to depict the Wild West, nor is it even a serious attempt to depict the event it is supposedly about. Writer Donald Cotton expands upon his aims, begun in The Myth Makers, to undermine any sense of historical accuracy in favour of a comedic look at our expectations of certain periods in our history and our fascination with creating myths around them.

That may sound highfalutin', but really the whole point of this story is to be funny. And it is. It's probably the last truly deliberately funny episode of the classic series until City of Death. And it's arguably the best comedy of the Hartnell era. There are countless great jokes throughout, mostly coming from the TARDIS crew's inability to navigate the American setting. Their expectations are all based on Hollywood movies and dime novels, resulting in some great fish out of water moments. Hartnell particularly excels here, and his exasperation about all the guns being given to him is hilarious. There's a particularly great moment where Hartnell absentmindedly places his hand on the dead barman, realises what he's doing, and then pulls it away. It's a tiny thing, but Hartnell plays it brilliantly. His portrayal is so often described as stern, but he is so delightful in the comedic episodes.

The idea of the ballad that threads it way throughout the whole story is a solid one, and even though the song is somewhat awful, it is insidious, and you will find yourself humming it for days afterwards. Only you can decide if that's a good thing. But even the song is played for laughs, the final great joke being Hartnell dragging Dodo away irritably as the ballad plays for the final time, not even letting her hear the end.

The story moves along well, even if there isn't a ton of incident, most of the characters are interesting enough that we can spend time with them without being bothered that it doesn’t move the plot along. Oddly, in a genre(and a series, frankly) famous for its copious violent deaths, they all really seem to matter here. Even the death of a minor character like Charlie the barman is given a moment of pathos, and the shootout at the end is a small masterpiece where all of the deaths have weight and impact.

The Gunfighters is just pure fun, and well deserving of its critical reassessment in recent years as a tiny masterpiece.

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