Back in the olden days (let’s say up to the late eighties/early nineties) we all knew for a fact that The Gunfighters was an embarrassment. It was the lowest rated Doctor Who story ever (except it wasn’t) and choc-full of terrible performances (except it wasn’t). Jeremy Bentham’s summation in Doctor Who – A Celebration (1983) was typical of the lack of love it generated at the time. “The script was pure Talbot Rothwell, the acting was not even bad vaudeville and the direction was more West Ham than West Coast. It was not good. It was bad and ugly”. Ouch!
If you’re a Doctor Who fan of a certain age, then you probably grew up learning about the series’ illustrious past in great detail before you ever got the chance to watch it (in the UK, repeats of older stories were scarce to non-existent). But by the late eighties this was changing – most of the available episodes could be accessed in wobbly quality if you had a contact in the pirate video network and by the early nineties they were being broadcast in a more watchable form on UK Gold.
It was around this point (when we could actually see The Gunfighters) that opinions about it began to shift. Indeed, early 1990’s A5 DW fanzine culture was a bracing thing – full of twentysomethings who delighted in overturning the received opinions of their elders. So for a while, Pertwee was definitely out of fashion whilst the previously neglected Hartnell era was reassessed much more favourably.
Quite why The Gunfighters should have been the target of so much vitriol is a bit of a mystery, but when stories like that were out of circulation it shows how just a handful of people (Jeremy Bentham amongst them) could shape the debate. We took it for granted they knew what they were talking about ….
I will concede the some of the American accents (yes, the Clanton brothers, I’m looking at you) are a little suspect. Even more suspect is the way the story plays fast and loose with historical fact – if you want to learn about what really happened at the O.K. Corral then it’s best not to trust Donald Cotton.
But those quibbles apart, I can find little to complain about. Hartnell’s in great comic form during the early episodes as the Doctor, suffering from toothache, is forced to seek respite with Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), who by a remarkable coincidence has just opened up a dental establishment in Tombstone. The fun keeps on coming after the Doctor then runs into Seth Harper (Shane Rimmer) who’s teamed up with the Clantons in order to run Holliday to ground.
DOCTOR: What? Yes, yes, what is it?
DOCTOR: Holiday? Yes, I suppose so. Yes, you could call it that.
From such small acorns do mighty oaks of confusion grow. With the Doctor mistaken for the infamous Doc Holliday, comic sparks will fly. After being sidelined during The Celestial Toymaker, Hartnell is now back to his best – give him some decent material to work with and he’d never let you down.
Peter Purves and Jackie Lane both fare very well too. Purves disliked this story for decades as he found director Rex Tucker a difficult man to work with. But even if Tucker didn’t give him a great deal of direction, Purves still emerges with honour (like Hartnell, he was able to pepper the episodes with sharp comic touches – such as his exaggerated double-take when he discovers Charlie’s dead body).
Dodo falls into the company of Doc Holliday and Kate (a delightfully blowsy performance from Sheena Marshe) and during this association is gifted a handful of good lines and bits of business (drawing a gun on Doc Holliday, for example). It’s not much, but considering Dodo’s lack of character development so far it’s a lot more than she’s been used to.
And that’s a real shame because there are signs here that, given the right scripts, Jackie Lane could have been an asset for the series. But her time is already almost up (we’ll discuss the terrible way she was dispensed with in a couple of stories time).
John Alderson (British born, but American based, so his US accent sounded authentic) and Richard Beale were another couple of strong additions to the cast. Alderson’s byplay with Hartnell is always entertaining and Beale was the sort of dependable supporting player who would never leave you down. Add in David Rimmer as the permanently nervous barman Charlie (who comes to a sticky end) and Lawrence Payne as the man in the black hat and you’ve got a very strong cast (far removed from the embarrassment we were told about).
As with The Myth Makers, the story gets darker as it goes on. Steven nearly gets himself lynched whilst the hapless Warren Earp (Martyn Huntley) is murdered by Billy Clanton. And suddenly the Clantons don’t seem quite so comic …
Another criticism of the story is that the Doctor takes no part in the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (although how exactly would he have fitted in?). True, this means that the climax of The Gunfighters doesn’t involve the Doctor, but this sort of thing was a problem that the historical stories often struggled with.
Oh, and I’ve always found the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon (another aspect of the story that many dislike) to be good fun. The way the lyrics continually keep updating in order to archly comment on the unfolding narrative is a little touch of genius.
One thing that even the carping 1980’s reviews couldn’t disparage was the quality of the sets. When Seth Harper takes a fatal bullet and slumps on the bar of the Last Chance Saloon it wobbles in a most unconvincing way, but apart from that the sets look solid and convincing (plus you get real horses during the Ealing filming!). Whilst it seems that Rex Tucker had his issues when directing, there’s no sense that he was slapdash or disinterested – often we see shots from unusual angles (either low or high) which suggests he was keen not to settle for anything too obvious.
It’s not perfect (but then what is?) but I’m happy to give The Gunfighters 4 TARDISes out of 5.