We return from my musings on the newest series to return to a time when BBC Producers (and Mary Whitehouse) would have had multiple heart attacks at the prospect of a Timelord changing their gender – but even as the serial was being filmed, were considering the unthinkable – replacing William Hartnell.
In contrast to most of my serials outside the top 100, I have no intention of rubbishing The Gunfighters, or sharing the undoubted agreement of those who say it is deservedly outside of the top 100 – I was very pleasantly surprised when I finally got around to watching this serial on DVD, having heard so many dire warnings, not least of the overuse of “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.” Yes, the song is used to the point of almost comic overuse, but it also makes for a serial that feels uniquely different, and ensures the occasionally heavy scenes (like the bartender being shot in cold blood) are offset by a certain levity.
The plotline is not at all complicated, and in many ways typifies a standard Doctor Who stereotype – arrive at a point in time, get involved in a local dispute by sheer mischance, solve the dispute and then escape in the TARDIS. Only in this serial,the intent is that the Doctor fancies a nice relaxing holiday – something which seems to have been eluding him ever since Ian and Barbara stumbled through the door in Totters’ Yard, 1963. He gets mistaken for local outlaw Doc Holliday, and involved in a cowboy gang war of spaghetti western proportions, before extracting his companions and effecting an escape. Simple and straightforward – which in some ways is a welcome release from the mind-bending concepts later writers have been known to come up with!
I think the best way to think about The Gunfighters is to contrast it with A Town Called Mercy. It is of course not comparing apples with apples – Matt Smith’s era is very much in the age of “we don’t do historicals unless there’s an alien involved somewhere” – but Moffat and co were still trying to present the story as moderately historical and falling somewhat short. In Hartnell’s third season the producers took a lighter touch on realism and it is the better for it – you are freed up to disengage your brain and enjoy the sight of the Doctor donning a stetson and companions Steven and Dodo attempting to blend in. It is surprisingly funny on occasion, and the character of Doc Holliday is rather engaging for a despicable rascal.
It’s by no means a classic story, nor one you would use to introduce someone to Doctor Who – for one thing, Dodo again exhibits that she is too cheery and cheerful to make a good companion, not exhibiting the same kind of bullish spirit that her replacement Polly would demonstrate, while Steven doesn’t get much scope to demonstrate his considerable talents. It is nevertheless a great demonstration of Hartnell’s third season and a flavour that fans of the show will enjoy – besides being notable as the final story (until the relaunch of Doctor Who in 2005) to give individual names for each episode. Several fans deride The Gunfighters – I definitely do not count myself in their number!