Doctor Who – The Gunfighters

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.

HARPER: Doc!
DOCTOR: What? Yes, yes, what is it?
HARPER: Holliday!
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.

Doctor Who – The Myth Makers. Part Four – Horse of Destruction

The massacre begins and the humour disappears. Probably one of the reasons why this feels especially jarring is the way the audience has been invited to feel comfortable in the presence of both Priam and Paris.

If the Greeks (Agamemnon, Odysseus, Achilles) have been depicted as single-minded warriors, then the Trojans were allowed a little more personality.  This makes their brutal demise all the more shocking.

Donald Cotton later concludes The Gunfighters in a similar orgy of violence, but since the Clantons were positioned throughout that story as “bad” and the likes of Earp, Holliday and Masterton were depicted as “good” it doesn’t have nearly the same impact.

There are some who view the sudden gear-change in Horse of Destruction from comedy to tragedy as a weakness, but to me it’s a clear strength – The Myth Makers shows us that there’s not always a “good” or “bad” side.

Similar themes had been explored in previous historicals, for example The Crusade.  David Whitaker’s script may have been much more straight-laced, but it had a similar sense of ambiguity about which side the viewer should support.

The use of comedy by Donald Cotton throughout this story is revealed in Horse of Destruction to be a dramatic device, designed to lure us into a false sense of security.  It’s a common trick, but not common in Doctor Who, which makes it noteworthy.

Another interesting aspect about the ending of The Myth Makers is just how downbeat it is.  This began a trend (although you could also say that it really started in Galaxy 4, with the Doctor leaving the Drahvins to their fate) which then continued in both The Daleks’ Master Plan and The Massacre.

Normally Doctor Who stories end on an optimistic note – although there’s often been a tremendous loss of life, it’s accepted that the ends justify the means.  Tyranny has been overthrown and the survivors can begin the task of rebuilding their world.

The Myth Makers offers no such comfort as destruction still rages. Steven is injured and Vicki elects to stay in this uncertain world with Trolius, the man she loves.  Possibly the relationship between Vicki and Trolius is the one positive thing we can take from the story (if they can somehow survive).

Vicki, like Susan before her and many companions to come, is shown to have completed a journey by the time she leaves the TARDIS.

When the girl joined the TARDIS crew in The Rescue, her awkwardness with people and her single-minded devotion to the Doctor meant that she spends the next few stories (The RomansThe Web PlanetThe Crusade) virtually glued to his side.

The Space Museum was key in the way that it showed a much more independent Vicki, happy to organise a planet-wide revolution!  After that she seemed much more comfortable by herself or outside of the Doctor’s orbit – which meant that, like Susan before her, she’s now made the transition from child to adult.

The Doctor and Vicki only share a single scene (apart from a few lines in episode one, it’s the only time they talk).  It’s noteworthy that it stops just at the point when Vicki’s preparing to tell the Doctor that she wishes to stay.

Given how both The Dalek Invasion of Earth and some later companion departures would milk the moment of leaving, it’s an odd choice which does leave the audience feeling slightly short-changed.

Whatever Vicki said, it must have been a powerful argument since the Doctor is happy for her to head off alone into the city to try and find Troilus.  This seems uncharacteristic in the extreme, but if writing out Maureen O’Brien was an eleventh hour decision then the options were limited.

An ailing Steven is back in the TARDIS, being tended by Cassandra’s handmaiden Katarina (Adrienne Hill).  The savvy viewer will know by now that as one door closes, another opens – so Katarina must be Vicki’s replacement …..

Doctor Who – The Myth Makers. Part Three – Death of a Spy

When Steven is brought into Vicki’s presence it spells trouble for both of them.  How can Vicki know Steven (alias Diomede) if he’s a Greek warrior?  Cassandra’s convinced that she’s a spy and orders her immediate execution, but the order is countermanded by Paris.  “I will not tolerate interference from a fortune-teller of notorious unreliability.”

Barrie Ingham continues to be the recipient of some first-class lines – Paris then tells his sister to “get back to your temple before you give us all galloping religious mania.”

Priam’s in a quandary.  He likes Vicki, but can’t ignore the fact that she could, as Cassandra says, be a spy.  So he gives her an ultimatum.  “Now if you are what you really say you are, as a pledge of good faith to us, you must either give me information that will lead to our speedy victory, or use your supernatural powers to turn the tide of battle in our favour.”

For all the humour we’ve seen (or rather heard) so far, this is the point in the story where the approaching darkness begins to take hold.  Steven and Vicki are prisoners in the city – locked in the dungeons – with Vicki only given a day to produce a miracle which will bring an end to the ten-year war.  Meanwhile the Doctor, outside the city walls with the Greeks, has been forced to provide a similar solution for them.

Whilst Vicki still has an air of unflappability, Steven can see how perilous their current situation is.  He’s been a member of the TARDIS crew long enough to know that if the Doctor comes up with a successful plan it’ll mean the death of everybody inside the city.

Hartnell’s more centre-stage in this episode, as the Doctor outlines several schemes to Agamemnon.  The first – gliders launched with catapults – is completely ridiculous, but Agamemnon appears to consider it.  He takes the wind out of the Doctor’s sails when he tells him that he (the Doctor) will be the first test pilot!  This is another moment where it’s a pity that Hartnell’s reaction is lost to us.

In desperation the Doctor turns to the wooden horse.  Earlier he’d declared that the horse was a myth (another inspiration for the story title?) invented by Homer, but with time running out he casually mentions to Agamemnon that a hollow wooden horse filled with Greek soldiers should do the trick.

Agamemnon agrees and very quickly it’s built.  Indeed, considering it’s size, it does seem remarkable that it was constructed in a matter of hours.  The Greeks were clearly fast builders.

Apart from the war preparations, another key part of this episode is the relationship between Trolius and Vicki.  As Trolius, James Lynn had a fairly thankless role.  Most of the guest cast were gifted sparkling bon mots, but Trolius was written as young, earnest and a little dull.  However it’s made clear right from the start that he and Vicki are kindred spirits.

VICKI: Well, you’re not in the war, are you? You’re far too young.
TROILUS: I’m seventeen next birthday!
VICKI: That’s hardly any older than me. You shouldn’t be killing people at your age.
TROILUS: Well, between you and me, I don’t honestly enjoy killing at all. But I love adventure.
VICKI: Yes. I know what you mean.

Since all the Greek soldiers appear to have left the plains, Priam is delighted and orders Vicki’s release.  She’s nonplussed, but when Paris pops up to tell them that he’s found the Great Horse of Asia outside, all becomes clear.  Cassandra’s still (correctly) forecasting their doom, which gives Paris my favourite line in the story (the final one below).

CASSANDRA: Yes, ask her! Go on, ask her! She knows what it is. It’s our doom! It’s the death of Troy, brought upon us by that cursed witch!
PARIS: Now understand me, Cassandra. I will not have one word said against that horse.
TROILUS: And neither will I against Cressida.
CASSANDRA: Will you not? Then woe to the House of Priam. Woe to the Trojans.
PARIS: I’m afraid you’re a bit late to say ‘whoa’ to the horse. I’ve just given instructions to have it brought into the city.

Doctor Who – The Myth Makers. Part Two – Small Prophet, Quick Return

The Myth Makers is far removed from the sober, earnest historical stories of season one such as John Lucarotti’s Marco Polo and The Aztecs.  There, historical accuracy was key – with the Doctor content to be merely an observer.  Here, the characters often speak in modern (i.e. 1960’s) idioms with the Doctor merrily changing the course of history as he bumbles along.

But one of the strengths of the third season is that there was room for both The Myth Makers and The Massacre (Lucorotti’s final script for the series) which was bleak in the extreme.  This variety is a strong reason why John Wiles’ time as producer has come to be celebrated by a certain section of Doctor Who fandom.

Conversely, the next producer, Innes Lloyd, has seen his stock fall over the years.  The argument runs that if Wiles favoured innovation then Lloyd (with a reliance on “base under siege” stories and monsters) constricted Doctor Who’s format and curtailed its creativity.  It’s a reasonable point, but it’s also worth wondering exactly what the target audience at this time – mainly made up of children – would have made of The Myth Makers.

It’s packed full of witty wordplay, but most of that would presumably have sailed over their heads.  Any adults watching, or fans in the decades to come, will no doubt derive considerable pleasure from Donald Cotton’s scripts, but it’s easy to imagine that the kids at the time were sighing and waiting for the Daleks to turn up.

So although Lloyd might have tightly formatted the series, he did so because of concerns that the ratings were slipping (it’s all very well being innovative and experimental, but if nobody’s watching then you’ve got a bit of a problem).

Having met the Greeks in episode one, we now run into some of the main Trojans.  Barrie Ingham, as Paris, is a delight – Paris is depicted as a handsome and feckless warrior who’s keen to avoid bloodshed at almost any costs.

Sent out by his father, King Priam (Max Adrian) to avenge the death of his brother Hector, he has to report back that he was unable to challenge Achilles (“I sought Achilles, father, even to the Grecian lines, but he skulked within his tent. He feared to face me”).  At face value this dialogue seems straightforward enough, but it’s played in such a way as to suggest that Paris didn’t try very hard at all.

Priam is less than sympathetic. “Well go back and wait until he gets his courage up. Upon my soul, what sort of brother are you? Furthermore, what sort of son?” But Paris hasn’t come back empty-handed, he proudly reveals his prize – the TARDIS – to a less than impressed Priam.

His sister Cassandra (Frances White) is equally unimpressed – and then prophecies that this strange object will spell their disaster.  It’s an unspoken irony that although nobody ever pays attention to Cassandra’s numerous warnings of doom, she proves to be completely right!

Vicki emerges from the TARDIS to enchant Priam. Maureen O’Brien would be the first companion to find herself written out of the series at short notice – something which would happen several more times over the next few years as incoming producers decided to be the broom that swept clean.

This was a pity, as O’Brien (even if she had little to work with on many occassions) always gave Vicki a questing, mischievous air. And since it can’t really be claimed that her short-term replacements (Katarina, Dodo) were any sort of improvement, I’ll certainly miss her.

When Priam renames her Cressida and she catches the eye of his younger son, Troilus, a section of the audience would probably have been able to guess what was going to happen. But would the child viewers have (excuse the pun) cottoned on, or is this another example of a literary joke that was only accessible to a minority of the audience?

Steven, learning that Vicki is somewhere within the Trojan city, elects to be captured as a Greek prisoner so that he can find her. He does so via a witty scene with Paris.

Paris is stalking the plains, urging Achilles to face him in single combat, but the sense that he isn’t terribly keen for a confrontation is made obvious after he decides to only quietly shout out Achilles’ name! A lovely moment, as is the banter between Paris and Steven.

PARIS: Achilles! (quietly) Achilles! Come out and fight, you jackal! Paris, prince of Troy, brother of Hector, seeks revenge. Do you not dare to face me?
STEVEN: I dare to face you, Paris. Turn and draw your sword.
PARIS: Ah. No, you’re not Achilles. Are you?
STEVEN: I am Diomede, friend of Odysseus.
PARIS: Oh, Diomede, I do not want your blood. It’s Achilles I seek.
STEVEN: And must my Lord Achilles be roused to undertake your death, adulterer?
PARIS: Yes, well, I’m prepared to overlook that for the moment. I assure you I have no quarrel with you.
STEVEN: I’m Greek, you’re Trojan. Is not that quarrel enough?
PARIS: Yes, well personally, I think this whole business has been carried just a little bit too far. I mean, that Helen thing was just a misunderstanding.

Barrie Ingham’s performance punctures the heroic myth of his character and helps to further push the story into being a very ironic retelling of familiar stories.

What of the Doctor though?  He’s about, although he does very little in this episode.  This will be a continuing trend during season three, as Hartnell tends to be moved more to the sidelines.  Was this because of concerns about his increasing ill health?  Possibly, although there are some who maintain that Wiles (and later Lloyd) were planning to gently ease him out of the series – and downplaying his role was the first step.

Doctor Who – The Myth Makers. Part One – Temple of Secrets

John Wiles’ stint as producer was fairly brief and, by all accounts, rather unhappy. His thorny relationship with William Hartnell was a major issue and he was also frustrated that he inherited several scripts (especially The Daleks’ Master Plan) which he would never have commissioned.

The Myth Makers would have been another script commissioned by the previous production team, but it does seem to fit the Wiles mould – since it’s doing something a little different.  We’ve had comedy historicals before – most notably The Romans – but The Myth Makers cranks up the comedy to a higher level.  And then, after three weeks of hi-jinks, everything turns very dark ….

Sadly, John Wiles doesn’t seem to have placed any value in John Cura’s telesnaps as none were taken for the episodes he produced. This is a particular problem for stories like the The Myth Makers as we only have a handful of publicity photographs available to try and conjure up the visual aspects of the serial.

The Loose Cannon recon – complete with numerous photo montages – is a noble effort, but since Donald Cotton’s script is so dialogue heavy (as opposed to say, Galaxy 4, which had long sections of silence punctuated by the beeping of the Chumblies) I don’t find any real hardship in just listening to the audio for this one.

In order to enjoy The Myth Makers you have to accept one basic premise – the Doctor has turned into a buffoon. For anyone who has issues with the more comedic Doctor of the late seventies this may be an issue, but if you can go with the flow then you’ll be able to enjoy one of Hartnell’s best comedy performances.

The Doctor’s startling lack of judgement is shown right from the start, after he observes two warriors fighting an intense battle. He decides to blithely pop his head out of the TARDIS and ask them the way!  When Steven wonders why they’re fighting, the Doctor tells him that he hasn’t “the remotest idea, my boy. No doubt their reasons will be entirely adequate. Yes, I think perhaps I’d better go and ask them where we are.”

The distracting arrival of the TARDIS enables Achilles (Cavan Kendall) to strike down his opponent, Hector (Alan Haywood). Achilles treats the materialisation of the TARDIS as a divine intervention, so it’s plain to him that the Doctor must be Zeus, father of the gods.The

In a script packed with sparkling lines, I love this one from Achilles as he explains his thoughts to the Doctor.  “To Europa, you appeared as a bull. To Leda, as a swan. To me, in the guise of an old beggar.”  It’s just a shame that we have to imagine Hartnell’s offended reaction!

The comedy continues when Odysseus (Ivor Salter) turns up. He treats Achilles with a mocking contempt, demonstrated best after he finds it impossible to believe that Achilles could have defeated Hector in a fair fight.

ODYSSEUS: But what a year is this for plague. Even the strongest might fall! Prince Hector, that he should come to this. You met him here, you say, as he lay dying?
ACHILLES: I met him, Odysseus, in single combat.
DOCTOR: Oh yes, it’s true!
ODYSSEUS: And raced him round the walls till down he fell exhausted. A famous victory!

With the Doctor now in the tender care of Odysseus, who’s not yet sure if he’s a god or a spy, we next meet Menelaus (Jack Melford) and Agamemmon (Francis De Wolff). Menelaus is the reason for this whole expedition, since it was his wife, Helen, who was abducted ten years ago.

Menelaus doesn’t seem terribly bothered about the whole thing though. “It wasn’t the first time she’s allowed herself to be abducted. I can’t keep on going off to the ends of the Earth to get her back. It makes me a laughing stock.”

The wonderful dialogue continues throughout the rest of the episode and Francis De Wolff (who had previously played the much less impressive role of Vasor in The Keys of Marinus) seems, like Ivor Salter, to be having a ball.

Steven heads out in search of the Doctor and finds himself in trouble, whilst the Doctor learns that his temple (i.e. the TARDIS) has, in true cliffhanger fashion, disappeared …..