Monday, January 30, 2017

Intro: Doctor Who "The Gunfighters"

As my regular readers know, I recently had both of my wisdom teeth removed.

Here's the big bag of used gauze I've been creating to prove it.
Since I've been watching some Classic Doctor Who during my recovery (which helps take my mind of the fact that I can't really eat anything more complicated than sloppy joe meat, sans bun), I figure it's the perfect time to begin venturing forth into episodes that actually got made, as opposed to my earlier Recap/Review of the perpetually incomplete Fourth Doctor serial "Shada."

I will be doing this out of order, thanks to the difficulties with watching the series in its "proper" order. Attempting to watch Doctor Who in its broadcast order is a madness-inducing exercise in futility that puts many people off the Classic Series before they ever learn that they're not required to start at the beginning. The biggest obstacle in this respect, of course, being that some early episodes are either partially or completely missing, which I'll go into detail about in a future post.

As long as you know that the Doctor is an alien time-traveler who flies around in an oddly disguised time-ship alongside his often-human traveling companions... then you know all you need to know to start reading these Recaps. Heck, that single sentence was all you really need to begin watching the Classic Series, really.

But before we begin with today's story, "The Gunfighters," it's probably a good idea to go into why and how this story even exists. Especially since, as I'll later elaborate upon, there are plenty of people who wish that it never did exist.

And... well, I'll admit that I'd prefer this serial be one of the missing episodes rather than something like "Fury of the Deep" or "The Abominable Snowmen." But we can play the "What If?" game another time. Right now, it's time to play the "Why?" game.

And the "Who" game. Pun definitely intended.
If I may grossly oversimplify a rather interesting, if lengthy, sequence of events, nobody wanted to work on Doctor Who. Now let's begin the Recap!


Okay, maybe I oversimplified it a little too much. I'll try again.

The year was 1965, and Doctor Who was a big hit. The show had not only caught on with both children and adults, but it was enjoying something that Doctor Who still hasn't quite managed to reach today: Undeniable mainstream appeal.

I say "undeniable" because whether or not this cult classic show can be said to have gone "mainstream" in the past few years is something I've seen debated across the internet. But in 1965, Doctor Who could be described as must-see TV. Everybody was crowding in front of the UK's little monochrome TV sets to watch the Doctor fight alien menaces. Especially the Daleks.

...By which I mean the Daleks were the alien menaces. They weren't crowding in front of anyone's TVs.

But while millions of people were excited to watch Doctor Who, very few people were excited to be making it.

When you look at Doctor Who as a whole, backstage issues seem to be par for the course. In the 60s, we're talking staffing issues. In the 70s, it was union issues. In the 80s, BBC controller Michael Grade was actively setting the show up to fail. In the 90s, it was finding an American channel that was willing to help produce a continuation. The one thing that never changed was the budget issues.

Heck, the early 2000s are no stranger to behind-the-scenes issues. Why do you think Christopher Eccleston left after only one season?

Verity Lambert, one of Doctor Who's considered "creators" (the show was essentially created by a committee, with the two primary contributors being Sydney Newman and Verity Lambert) had been working on the show since its beginning. But for various reasons, by 1965 she had decided to move on from her position as producer. And the script editor at the time, Dennis Spooner, had decided to do the same soon after.

Spooner was replaced by a man named Donald Tosh, who previously helped make the now-long-running soap opera Coronation Street. The BBC basically said "You wanna do Doctor Who?" and his response was an overwhelming "Yeah, I guess so."

Verity Lambert was replaced by John Wiles, who was an experienced writer/script editor in his own right... but he certainly didn't want to be a producer. He was a nice guy, by all accounts. He just didn't want the job he'd been handed.

So Wiles and Tosh were a bit of an unlikely pair to be working on Doctor Who. One of them didn't want the job, the other didn't really care one way or the other. But by God, if this is what they had been handed, they were determined to leave their mark on the show.

Here's the problem.

Verity Lambert didn't just hand John Wiles the key to the TARDIS and say "Don't scratch the paint." He had to essentially do a transition period where he'd be shadowing her.

Which means that she was still doing her job after he came in to replace her.

Which means that she commissioned some episodes that she didn't stick around to actually produce.

Which means the job fell to, you guessed it, John Wiles.

Remember, Wiles came in wanting to shake things up. And now he had to produce episodes pertaining to somebody else's vision of what Doctor Who should be. Specifically, a twelve part Dalek story.

Daleks were the breakout villains of Doctor Who, and Lambert knew it. Every single Dalek story had raised the stakes from the previous one, so hiring someone to develop a 12-part Dalek story to end all Dalek stories was a no-brainer. And since Verity Lambert fought tooth and nail to feature the Daleks in the first place, it makes sense that she'd be the one to get the gears into motion. Shame about the timing, though. At least, Wiles and Tosh thought so.

In the end, making the Dalek story work was simply a grueling exercise in creating something they didn't want to create in the first place, despite very good ratings. And unsurprisingly, Wiles and Tosh ended up giving up and deciding to move on to other things. Which was a pretty ironic turn of events when you realize that the two had been trying to get rid of the lead actor, William Hartnell, since almost the moment they took over the show, and now he was outlasting them.

Now, that's not as terrible as it sounds. It sounds a lot like two people who couldn't care less about Doctor Who came in out of the blue and tried to change the lead actor for no reason. But there were reasons. Good ones, to be honest.

William Hartnell suffered from arteriosclerosis, hardening of the arteries. The disease led to vascular dementia, which led to emotional outbursts and difficulty remembering things. Everybody who worked on the show knew how difficult it was for Hartnell to deliver many of his lines. Since TV was shot in largely one take like a live show, you can see a lot of these "Billy Fluffs," as the cast and crew called them, in the finished product.

John Wiles did not get along well with William Hartnell, who was already becoming increasingly hard to work with in general. Not helping matters was the fact that Wiles wrote the character Vicki out of the show, since he was under the impression that the actress (Maureen O'Brien) wanted to leave. Oops.

Hartnell was very upset over this, since he saw the show as his baby. He was the Doctor, and he was very opinionated on what was best for the show. And writing out an actress he had become fairly close to was not what he would consider "good."

It got to the point that Wiles and Hartnell had to talk through intermediaries. Staff members even used coded phrases to tell each other that John Wiles had shown up, since they didn't want Hartnell to know when he was around.

Before Wiles and Tosh left, they commissioned a few final episodes which they would not end up seeing through to completion, ironically (again) recreating the circumstances that led to their own disillusion with the show.

Their second-to-last-commissioned episode was an odd little number called "The Celestial Toymaker," with which they planned on taking advantage of the surreal story to write out William Hartnell. The titular Toymaker would render the Doctor invisible, and he would reappear with a different face. Well, when it came time to do it, the Doctor reappeared still looking very much like William Hartnell.

John Wiles and Donald Tosh were being replaced by Innes Lloyd (producer) and Gerry Davis (script editor), respectively, and they took it upon themselves to transform the quirky, offbeat, surreal episode into something more akin to a classic Star Trek episode if it were set in Wonderland. And the one where Dr. McCoy runs into the White Rabbit... well, I guess that kind of counts. The Toymaker himself became something of a precursor to Star Trek's numerous equally childish and omnipotent beings

The postponed recasting of the lead role had the effect of turning the last Tosh and Wiles serial, "The Gunfighters," into a William Hartnell story. Which must have delighted Hartnell, as he had apparently been wanting to do a Western for quite some time.

But William Hartnell was, by and large, the only person excited to be working on the episode. Lloyd and Davis, like Wiles and Tosh before them, wanted to start working on their own vision for Doctor Who. As such, Lloyd had Donald Cotton rewrite the script to add a bit more humor in the hopes of lightening up the episode.

Luckily for Lloyd and Davis, "The Gunfighters" gave them the excuse to prevent any more stories like it or "The Myth Makers," an earlier Tosh/Wiles-commissioned story (written by the same writer, Donald Cotton) that bears many similarities to this one; both stories took place in the past and featured about three episodes of comedy mixed with an episode of drama.

A common myth is that "The Gunfighters" has the worst ratings story of the Classic Series. This is not technically true. That (dis)honor goes to "Battlefield" with 3.1 million viewers at its lowest point, while "The Gunfighters" never dipped below 5.7 million viewers. But all that means is that a lot of people tuned in. This serial does have the lowest audience appreciation score of any Doctor Who serial (a measly 30% for the final episode), which gave Gerry Davis the excuse to suggest that the writers focus on creating "escapist futuristic science-fiction stories, with a strong scientific concept, and loads and loads of menace." Yes, you can thank Gerry Davis for encouraging the eventual Doctor Who stereotype of "run from the monster" episodes.

For additional reasons, this episode was referred to for a very long time as the worst Doctor Who serial ever, but I'll get into that in the Review.

But before I review, or even recap, I think it's also important to quickly explain the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which is where the Doctor will find himself today.

There are a few classic Wild West legends that could have been drawn from. Of them, the story of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was chosen, probably because the story of two posses having a shootout perfectly encapsulates the pop culture version of the Wild West.

The audience at the time would have immediately recognized the phrase "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," but the story isn't exactly as famous as it used to be, thanks in no small part to the decline of Westerns in the popular consciousness. To be fair though, the kids these days probably know some of the classic Old West names, if not the stories associated with them. Billy the Kid. Doc Holliday. Sheriff Woody.

But the Wild West wasn't as full of gunplay as people tend to think. "Cowboys" were basically itinerant farmhands, shootouts at noon were a rare occurrence, and public places usually made you check your weapon at the door. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is primarily famous simply because it actually was one of the few times real Wild West history matched up with what we see in the movies.

Essentially, it was a thrity-second Old West gang fight, with one gang (the Clanton family and their pals) throwing down with the closest thing the town had to a police force, primarily consisting of gamblers. Details are largely irrelevant to discuss here, since this serial plays fast and loose with history for the sake of the story.

But is it a story worth telling? Decades of Doctor Who fans say "no." Well, although I love the show to death I've seen Doctor Who deliver some utter crap, so that's no small claim. Let's see which holds up, the claims or the serial.

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