Doctor Who Reviews: The Gunfighters

At the time of writing this, it’s three days before Easter Sunday, a time that teeth don’t like. Kids, in particular, gorge themselves on hot cross buns and chocolate non-stop - so much so, that I’m amazed that newborn babies aren’t issued with a pair of false teeth the moment they enter the world.

Even The Doctor’s prone to a bit of toothache. In Planet Of The Dead, he’s probably got toothache after gorging on an Easter Egg (and probably earache too, after being on the receiving end of Lady Christina of Bad Acting’s posh prattle throughout). And at the end of The Celestial Toymaker, he foolishly reduces one of his teeth to gravel after chomping enthusiastically on one of Cyril’s sweets.

So where does The Doctor go to get his teeth sorted out? You would have thought that he’d pay to some swanky space-age dentist, who’s found the cure for pain-free drilling. But no. He chooses to land in Wild West Tombstone, home of Doc Holliday, a man that offers no such comfort. Apparently, you can hear the screams of his victims, sorry, patients in Timbuktu.

So begins The Gunfighters, a story that’s had a less than glowing reception in the past. As a kid, I remember reading books and magazines telling me that the story was a travesty with lower ratings than a repeat of Eldorado at four in the morning. In fact, there have been other stories with far lower ratings: The Trial Of A Time Lord clearly hadn’t been produced by the time these allegations were bandied around.

As to its quality, well, it’s had a growing band of followers in recent years, who have praised it for its use of humour and a willingness to do something different with the Doctor Who formula. The second argument is definitely true. Going through these Season Three stories, I’m struck by how much diversity there is. Epic sci-fi drama. Greek comedy. Doom-laden historical. Surreal wackiness. And now Western. Hats off to the production teams of the third season for producing such a broad range of styles and genres.

Problem is, I’m still not convinced by the reappraisal that The Gunfighters has recently received. I guess my instincts tell me that it’s a WESTERN, a genre that I despise. For me, the only good thing about a western is that it will send me to sleep just like that if I’ve got a bad case of insomnia.

Westerns, in my eyes, are exactly the same. Cowboy struts around town. Frowns like a geriatric with a constipation problem. Shoots people. The End. I’m sure there’s more to them than that, but I just can’t see the appeal. So, I’ve always found The Gunfighters just a little bit dull.

It’s back to Donald Cotton-style humour, which, like The Myth Makers, works in some cases and falls flatter than a pancake in others. Ironically, the real laugh-out-loud bits for me are down to the lead actors and their facial expressions and reactions. The Doctor, shuffling around uncomfortably in his Western garb, is very amusing, as is Peter Purves’ priceless reaction when he’s being forced to play the piano.

Otherwise, we’re back to stock clichés, even more so than in The Myth Makers. The Clanton brothers are an identical bunch of hotheads. Doc Holliday, predictably, dupes The Doctor. We even have our very own Thunderbirds corner where Brains and Scott Tracy flit in and out of the action (that’s David “Kerensky” Graham and Shane Rimmer to the non-Thunderbirds fans). Because Cotton tends to write in broad, comedic strokes, none of the characters stand out, exactly because they are stock stereotypes that could have fitted into any Western movie.

To add insult to injury, we are treated to regular renditions of The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon. Not only does this ubiquitous dirge bookend each episode, it crops up in between. Now then, imagine one of your least favourite songs, let’s say, in my case, Angels, by Robbie Williams.

Say that I wake up in the morning, there’s Williams bellowing his dull ballad into the microphone on TV. I go to work, it’s playing on the radio. I get a sandwich at lunch, it’s playing in the shop. I go for a meal with my wife, it’s playing in the restaurant. I hear it last thing at night on the radio. That’s what The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon is like: If you haven’t taken a hammer to your Gunfighters DVD by the middle of the story, you’ve managed a considerable achievement. Incidentally, the song’s sung by Lynda Baron: Good thing that she never made a 1983 Imagination remix with Leeeeeeeeeeeeeee John on background vocals…

In the story’s defence, the story looks really good. Given that Doctor Who always had to contend with a paltry budget, Barry Newbery’s designs are outstanding. The expansive Tombstone location looks very impressive, as does the interior for the Last Chance Saloon. Rex Tucker manages to direct the story well, and adds a bit of pace to Cotton’s script. Apparently, Tucker’s daughter, Jane (of Rod, Jane and Freddy fame) appears in a blink ‘n’ miss it cameo.

Some of the actors also give it their best shot. Laurence Payne is good as Johnny Ringo, as are Richard Beale as Bat Masterson and Anthony Jacobs as Doc Holliday (Jacobs Jr, Matthew would go on to write the wretched TV Movie of 1996). The three leads also do well with the comedy, even if their characters are shoehorned into a plot that doesn’t really want or need them. I like the idea that both Steven and Dodo are both professional pianists: Perhaps The Doctor took them to see Chopin for a brief crash course in piano training.

At the end of the day, The Gunfighters is mildly diverting. The production team should be applauded for attempting something different in Doctor Who. The problem is, a lot of the humour seems too forced, and lacks the style of Dennis Spooner’s Romans story. Despite the excellent set design and some good performances, the story’s drowning in paper characters and lazy clichés. Given that I’m not a fan of Westerns, the fact that I stayed awake right to the end of The Gunfighters is a miracle. It’s just not a story I’d put in my favourites pile, that‘s all.

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