Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review: Doctor Who "The Gunfighters"

Well, pardners, y'all should feel free as the proverbial bird to disagree with m'opinion. If'n any o' y'all....

Sorry. Got a little too into the spirit of things.

Feel free to disagree with me. You know. In general.

If you like something I don't, or if you hate something I love, I cannot tell you you're wrong. We are each entitled to our own opinions.  Sure, I might end a Review by saying something that sure sounds definitive like "This was an ill-thought out travesty," but that's still merely my own opinion. I may have formed that opinion because of facts, like maybe the lead actor was reading his lines off of a post-it note he had in his hand while clearly drunk, but at the end of the day, each person is allowed to take the facts at hand and form their own opinion on whether or not they enjoyed something.

I bring this up because I feel as though this story has an undeserved reputation.

Doctor Who, a series stretching three decades during its original run, has had its fair share of terrible plots, terrible acting, and terrible special effects. So why is it that a story that has a pretty good plot, some solid performances, and few-to-no botched effects went down in history as the worst story in the show's history, even by people who have never seen the episode?

Many reasons.

First of all, the episode was written basically as filler to placate the show's lead William Hartnell (who had always wanted to do a Wild West episode) before he was forced out of the role, so there was apathy at best from many of the people involved whose name wasn’t “William Hartnell.” And some people ended up resenting the end result, like Steven's actor (Peter Purves) who wasn't too thrilled to be singing on-camera.

Surprisingly enough, there weren't too many people in the audience who were thrilled with the serial. Which was pretty surprising, since Westerns were a big deal in the 1960s. American Westerns were pretty popular with kids on both sides of the pond, but the United Kingdom hadn't actually produced anything in the Western genre until this episode. And I can only imagine that the lack of UK-made Westerns since then might have something to do with this episode's failure....

But why did this episode fail so miserably when Westerns were pretty popular?

Well, this is only speculation on my part, but I think the answer seems to be very simple.

Doctor Who is science fiction.

"The Gunslingers" is what is known as a "pure historical" serial, meaning that there are no sci-fi elements in the story itself. No cowboys and aliens, basically. Sure, our characters are from the future (and one is actually an alien), but there aren't any science fiction elements apart from the vehicle our heroes used to get to the past.

Keep in mind, this is the show that made the Daleks into a bona fide pop culture phenomenon. So you can imagine that when audiences tuned into this science fiction show, they wanted to see science fiction. As such, while plenty of people had tuned in to watch the first episode, viewership went down as the story went on. And the audience appreciation score was the worst in the show's history. Though definitely extreme, this reaction wasn't too surprising. Pure historicals ("The Gunfighters," "Marco Polo," et cetera) were rarely, if ever, as popular as the episodes that went all heavy on the sci-fi. So after this episode aired, Gerry Davis made an official statement to the writers that they should focus on "escapist futuristic science-fiction stories, with a strong scientific concept, and loads and loads of menace."

Originally, the presence of another time traveler hanging out with Vikings was a huge twist for the serial "The Time Meddler." But after "The Gunslingers," jaunts into the past started featuring aliens, robots, alien robots, you name it, which is the sort of thing Doctor Who is largely known for today. Robot yetis, lava aliens in Pompeii, robot mummies, the Rani in the 19th century, robots in Sherwood Forest... Wow, there have been a lot of robots.

But the history/sci-fi blend has pretty much been the case even into the new series. Possibly most notably, the BBC demanded the inclusion of some kind of monster in "Vincent and the Doctor," which would otherwise have just been a simple, sweet little story about befriending Vincent van Gogh.

So long story short, audiences at the time didn't like the story. But the serial's infamous status as the absolute "worst" in Doctor Who history fully cemented itself years later with the rise of a single fan who had made a name for himself: Ian Levine.

I have been dreading having to bring up Mr. Levine, because he's a very polarizing figure within the Doctor Who fandom, to say the least. On the one hand, Ian Levine has contributed greatly to the recovery of missing Doctor Who episodes, as well as the production of numerous documentaries on the Classic Series. On the other hand... well... controversy that I don't want to get into. Flame wars, fandom politics, just... It's really not important for my point here.

But it's hard to deny that Ian Levine was the fan for a while. Heck, the BBC even hired him as a consultant to keep track of their increasingly-complex Doctor Who continuity, as well as try to get an idea of what audiences wanted from the show... but that's a story for another time. Basically, Ian Levine had the clout of a Doctor Who scholar... while also being just as opinionated as the next man. And he was as willing to share his opinions as any modern-day internet reviewer.

Was this a bad thing? Well, no, everybody’s entitled to an opinion. But… it did end up being problematic for this story.

So here's a hypothetical situation.

Let’s say that Adam is a fan of an internet reviewer named Bill. Bill hates a particular movie called Attack of the Rat-Sheep-Zombies VII that Bob has never seen. So Adam trusts his opinion. Adam isn’t a mindless sheep. He simply trusts the opinion of a reviewer he respects. And if Adam were completely unable to find Attack of the Rat-Sheep-Zombies VII to judge it for himself… well, how can he judge it for himself?

The same thing basically happened to Doctor Who fans before the internet came along. In 1988, as there were fewer and fewer people who remembered the First Doctor's episodes, Ian Levine said the following about “The Gunfighters.”

“This story, in short, should never have been made, and will forever remain a true embarrassment to 'Doctor Who.'”

And with neither reruns nor VHS releases at the time to let fans judge it themselves, his opinion was basically taken as gospel. Not everybody agreed with him, but his unofficial positions within the BBC and the Doctor Who fandom allowed his opinion to circulate farther than most other people's opinions could.

And so, "The Gunfighters" went down as the worst serial in Doctor Who history.

In recent years, now that the serial has been released in multiple formats, it's seeing a bit of a re-evaluation. Even people who dislike it tend to agree that while it might not be what they like from Doctor Who, it's far from being the worst story from the Classic Series. (The "true" worst episode is still hotly debated and largely up to individual opinion, with contenders including "Warriors of the Deep," "The Twin Dilemma," "The Horns of Nimon," and "Time and the Rani.")

But when it comes down to it, I really like this serial. I mean that. I like it a lot.

The TARDIS passengers find themselves in the Old West, where trigger fingers are itchy as the Doctor is mistaken for an outlaw. As a story hook, that's a pretty good one. The set-up is fraught with tension as the TARDIS crew get involved in something that won't end well for anyone.

Historicals can run the risk of being a bit boring as most of the conflict comes from the internal politics of wherever the Doctor and company have found themselves. Whether it be cavemen trying to make fire or the beginning of the Reign of Terror, it's always about the struggles of the people in whatever time period the TARDIS team has found themselves in.

Oftentimes, historical episodes fall back on the old cliche of "We have to get out of this time period before a famous historical tragedy happens!" Even the Revived Series has fallen into this sort of plot with “The Fires of Pompeii.” But even though this is once again a story about trying to get the heck away from Tombstone before the historical event can happen, and is also yet another case of mistaken identity for the Doctor, much of the story is played comedically, with some good banter.

And when the story turns serious about halfway through (just like Donald Cotton's earlier story, The Myth Makers), the setting allows for some tense situations, as well. Mistaken identity aside, the TARDIS crew has gotten involved with some bad dudes on all sides, and no amount of technobabble can keep an irate gunfighter from shooting you, should they feel the need.

The real life version of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral certainly bears little resemblance to the Doctor Who version. Partially because Cotton crafted his script based on vague memories of a previous film adaptation, but also because he chose to depict the mythological version of events. The romanticized version. The Hollywood version. You know, the "embellished" version.

In this serial, the participants of the fight are incorrect, as are most of the details leading up to the fight. Not only did "Reuben Clanton" never exist in real life, but Doc Holliday had given up dentistry a few years prior to the gunfight. Ike Clanton survived in real life, and Morgan Earp actually showed up. And there was also a guy on the Clantons' side named "Billy Claiborne," who was actually the only participant I could name off the top of my head before doing research, since that's who Pavel Chekov replaced in the illusionary reconstruction of the fight in Star Trek's "Spectre of the Gun." 

Of course, Billy Claiborne survived in real life, so Star Trek didn't get their version 100% accurate either.
In fact, that's a plot point in the episode.
And the usual sins of the Western genre are committed. No one was really allowed to take the law into their own hands in real life, and gunplay was banned in Old West towns the same way it's banned in... well, wherever you live, probably.

But not every cliche of the genre is on display. There are a few subversions here and there.

There aren't any clearly defined "good guys" or "bad guys," as all the characters have some shades of grey to them. Nobody pulls off spectacular trick shots, no one gets successfully hanged, and the lawman gives up his badge to take revenge, instead of taking revenge while still claiming to uphold the law.  Even the cliche of the "singing cowboy" is made fun of with Steven being made to sing at gunpoint.

The Doctor

Around this time, William Hartnell's health was getting worse. And so was his patience. Or lack thereof. So to see him be able to thoroughly lose himself in his most iconic role and deliver what is quite honestly one of his best comedic performances is... well, it's certainly something to see. At the very least, he delivers some witty lines in a snarky manner that wouldn't be too out of place in a modern production. His line about people handing him guns in particular reminds me of the Twelfth Doctor in a very good way.

His first companion, Susan, always called him "Grandfather" (mostly because he was) but his more overt grandfatherly tendencies are on full display here as he grumps and snarks his way through the Old West while working the whole time to protect his young companions. This is partially why the tension rises so high while the villains actually gain the upper hand in a meaningful way.

The Doctor cannot technobabble his way out. He can't negotiate with these men, nor can he simply leave. These mere men with guns have the Doctor at their mercy. They have no masterplan; the Doctor, for all intents and purposes, accidentally got involved in a petty gang war. At least he avoided getting shot this time....

The goal is survival, pure and simple. And that stands out in a show where the main character is famous for wandering into a situation and fixing everything before leaving.

Dodo Chaplet
Dodo might not be the brightest bulb, but she does get a moment or two to shine, such as when she politely threatened Doc Holliday with his own gun.

Steven Taylor
It's funny to see Steven struggle a bit to play a classic, two-fisted, Old West, cowboy hero, since his primary role in the show was to be the action hero that William Hartnell couldn't be due to his age and health.

Peter Purves has gone on record saying he hates this story, but in recent years, he's admitted that he's more embarrassed of his singing than anything else.

Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs)
The rascally old man may be historically inaccurate, but he's an endearingly-flawed individual who struggles between his urges and his attempts to walk the straight and narrow path with the woman he loves. But his best intentions don't make up for some questionable decisions he makes to try and fix everything.

He's a drunken, murderous piece of garbage who's willing to send an innocent old man to die in his place, but he's genuinely trying to make an honest gentleman out of himself. His struggle to do so is not an easy one, and you can tell that these things are weighing on him as he outwardly laughs and drinks his problems away.

And the fact that the intent to redeem himself does not automatically make it so provides some nice shades of grey to an archetype that could easily be a cliche "heroic gunslinger with a shady past" character. He's a surprisingly complex character for what is ostensibly a show for kids, helped in no small part by the fact that Anthony Jacobs delivers a very solid performance with a rascally charm. 

Kate Fisher (Sheena Marshe)
Kate is your typical hooker with a heart of gold... who is technically never confirmed to be a hooker. And she has a downright mean streak to her, when it comes to her enemies.

Wyatt Earp (John Alderson)
The Old West version of "I'm getting too old for this shit." His struggle to remain an honest lawman while protecting his outlaw friend makes for a rather interesting arc, culminating in the moment where he rejects his badge and vows revenge on his brother's killers.

Bat Masterson (Richard Beale)
He's just kind of... there. He's the relatively blustery man of action, compared to Wyatt Earp's dry wit and calm demeanor. But there's not much that he contributes, story-wise.

Charlie the Barman (David Graham)
Sorry, Charlie.

The doomed barman has a bit of a wandering accent, but he's made his mark on Doctor Who history as a voice for the Daleks, which is apparently much easier than doing an American accent.

Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne)
The ice-cold killer-for-hire. And the serial goes out of its way to show exactly how despicable such a person would be in real life if they behaved the way they do in Westerns.

The Clantons
A rowdy gang of brothers and their crime boss dad. The only ones that stand out are Ike and Phineas, respectively, but only because of the horrible accent and unconvincing stutter. Respectively.  Although Papa Clanton does prove to be the most human out of all of them when he shows genuine regret over sending his sons to die.

Monster of the Week: None
Well, unless you count the urge inside human beings to use violence as a solution. The real monster. 

"Historical" episodes simply didn't have science fiction elements to them. While the final pure historical for a long while would be "The Highlanders," this episode helped to kill the genre. In fact, it wouldn't be until the 80s with "Mark of the Rani" that we would see another historical figure feature prominently in a Doctor Who episode.

With few-to-no complicated special effects, this episode depends on its choreography and cinematography to get by. And it's competently staged and well shot, despite the occasional appearance of a camera in the mirror behind the bar.

Doctor Who usually dabbles in synthesized background music, with traditional instruments showing up either when a story is set in the past or when Murray Gold wants to compose yet another sweeping orchestral music cue. Since this story takes place in the Old West, a ragtime piano was the natural choice.

The people who worked on the episode seem to regret "The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon," though. As I mentioned, Peter Purves disliked having to sing, and even the people responsible for the episode concluded that the repeated verses throughout the story simply held up the action. Personally, I think the song is probably more annoying on DVD than it would be if you waited a week between episodes... but yeah, it gets pretty redundant. Having to watch the DVD multiple times for these Recaps and Review certainly didn’t help me any.

Honorable Mentions
Best Cliffhanger:
"A Holiday For the Doctor"
The companions being forced to play music at gunpoint as the Doctor walks to his impending death is as creative as it is memorable.

Best Episode: "A Holiday for the Doctor"
Some nice fish-out-of-water bits combined with solid character interactions all around, topped off with the best cliffhanger in the serial.

Best Guest Character: Doc Holliday
Complex, charming, crafty, conniving.

Best Line
Doctor: "I have no intention of trying anything. Only people keep giving me guns, and I do wish they wouldn't."

Best Moment
The confrontation between Holliday and Earp in Episode 2 is a legitimately dramatic moment with Doc's conflicting desires and motivations in full view. It's the first sobering moment in what was otherwise a comedic story up to that point.

Dishonorable Mentions
Worst Accents:
Phineas/Ike Clanton Ike has both the most inconsistent and the least-believable accent, while Phineas's attempt at a stutter is just embarrassing.

Final Thoughts
The worst serial in Doctor Who history?

Certainly not.

A lost masterpiece?

Perhaps not.

A fairly successful attempt at both comedy and drama that subverts the usual expectations of the Western genre as well as Doctor Who's own usual cliches?


One of my favorite First Doctor episodes?


Next time, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in an apparent utopia with a dark secret. Yes, I know that doesn't really narrow it down from a lot of other stories.

See you then! ...Well, maybe if the episodes are ever recovered.

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