Sunday, July 24, 2011

Doctor Who Story 025: The Gunfighters


Don't Shoot, I'm The Doctor...

Talk about Cowboys & Aliens.

The four-part story collectively known as The Gunfighters isn't the first time Doctor Who has ventured into the past.  It is, however, the first time the Doctor has ventured onto American soil, specifically into the Old West (and curiously, he would not return to the American West until Day of the Moon Parts 1 & 2, some forty-five years later).  The Gunfighters has the honor of being the last Doctor Who story to have individual titles for each episode within the story (the next story, the now-lost four-part The Savages, had Part 1, Part 2, etc., a tradition that remained throughout the classic series but was abandoned in the revived series with one exception as of the time of this writing: the final David Tennant story being called The End of Time Parts 1 & 2).  It was, as they say, a good try, a good effort for something different, something new.  However, The Gunfighters almost from the get-go is just a bad, bad story altogether that it almost ends up a shame that it has survived while others are now Lost In Time. 

The Doctor (William Hartnell), and his Companions Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane) and Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) have landed in the Wild West right before the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  The Doctor is in desperate need of a dentist owning to a toothache caused by some candy left over from The Celestial Toymaker.  As it so happens, Tombstone does have a dentist, one Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), who treats the Doctor for free (being his first patient and all).  The Doctor, Dodo, and Steven tell the law authorities, one Sheriff Wyatt Earp (Victor Carin) and Marshall Bat Masterson (Richard Beale) that they are travelling performers: cowboy singer Steven Regret with Dodo as the piano player and the Doctor as Doctor Caligari.  The Clanton Brothers/gang, having arrived in Tombstone, mistake The Doctor for Doc Holliday. 

At first Doc uses this as a way out, but his girlfriend, Last Chance Saloon dance-hall girl Kate Fisher (Sheena Marshe) helps the Doctor escape by getting the gang to think he IS Doc Holliday (which affords the Doctor the protection of jail and Doc a chance to escape).  However, the Clantons have Steven as a hostage and Doc has Dodo as a hostage as well.  Enter into the mix the master bandit Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne), who has joined forces with the Clantons to settle his own score with Holliday.  After nearly lynching Steven and Dodo getting Doc to return her (and himself) to Tombstone, the fabled Gunfight at the O.K. Corral takes place.  Once all the shooting is done, the travellers leave the Wild West for another adventure.

In the four episodes for The Gunfighters (A Holiday for The Doctor, Don't Shoot the Pianist, Johnny Ringo, and The O.K. Corral), we are treated to many things, none of them good.  Let me start with perhaps one of the worst things in The Gunfighters (if not the whole of Doctor Who): The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.

I figure writer Donald Cotton was inspired by the 1952 film High Noon when he came up with The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.  Like in the classic Western, the song plays throughout all four episodes of The Gunfighters.  HOWEVER, what neither Cotton or director Rex Tucker (who both co-wrote the lyrics with the music by Tristam Cary) understood is that Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling was used sparingly in High Noon, while The Last Chance Saloon was played incessantly.  I don't know if anyone else has gone through the trouble of counting the number of times The Last Chance Saloon was played in The Gunfighters, but I did.  The number I counted was...drum roll please...THIRTY-FOUR.  That's right: The Last Chance Saloon was sung 34 times over the course of an hour and forty minutes.  Breaking it down, that would mean hearing the song an average of once every THREE MINUTES.  How people with any kind of experience failed to understand that hearing the same song every three minutes would drive audiences crazy I simply don't understand.   I can even break it down for you by episodes:

A Holiday For The Doctor: Ten Times
Don't Shoot The Pianist: Eight
Johnny Ringo: Eight
The O.K. Corral: Eight

In Episode Two, Steven complains to the Clanton Gang, "Come on, we've sung it four times already".  If he thought it was bad having to sing it four times in a row, imagine how dreadful it was having to listen to it thirty-FOUR times over. 

Even if The Last Chance Saloon were as good as Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling (which, sad to say, it is not), the excessive repetition could be forgiven.  What can't be forgiven are the lyrics never being set to the actual story.  Let me explain what I mean by that.  The themes to High Noon and The Gunfighters basically tell the story we're about to see.  The difference is that Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling works both for the film and as a ballad independent of the film.  You can sing the High Noon theme to someone who has never seen the film and understand the story.  With The Last Chance Saloon, lyrics are added to tell you what you've just seen.  Thus, the song grows longer and can only work within The Gunfighters itself.  We see just how wildly wrong this is in Episode Three.  Here, poor Charlie the bartender (David Graham) has been gunned down by villain Johnny Ringo.  As soon as he drops, we hear "So it's curtains for Charlie...", lyrics that had not been heard until now, and which sadly, will only have someone watching start to laugh. 

We have a character murdered in cold blood, and then you hear a song?  It all but demands that you laugh.  Putting a cap on the idiocy of this is the scene right after Charlie kicks the bucket (to put in in good American lingo).  The Doctor and Steven walk down from their rooms at the Last Chance Saloon and up to the bar.  Any sensible person would see from the staircase a corpse lying on the bar, but incredibly, both the Doctor and Steven are completely oblivious to poor Charlie even after they get to the bar, until they turn around and...oh, Charlie's dead.  If you aren't still laughing from hearing the new lyrics to The Last Chance Saloon, you'll definitely laugh at how unaware our heroes are to a dead man right next to them.  In short, the song is making the story more funny, as if the story itself didn't do a good enough job of that. 

Let's move on to something else that goes so wrong with this story.  The Gunfighters may be the first Western in history to have Cockney Cowboys.  It is obvious from the first moments we see the Clanton Brothers that they are not American because they sound so British.  An American would quickly pick up that these cowpokes are as authentic as a three-dollar bill and more likely to say "Cherrio" than "Howdy".  I reckon them boys ain't from around these here parts.  I imagine the British could easily tell all the 'Americans' were having an especially hard time sounding like actual Americans.  Accents aren't easy because you are asking someone to shift their natural sound to something foreign, and in The Gunfighters no matter how they try they can't get it right.  I'd qualify David Cole's Billy Clanton as the worst-sounding of the lot.  To slightly digress, Phin Clanton (Maurice Good) had a stutter throughout the story, and I figure it was done for comedic effect, but I never buy it when people have stutters as a way to have us laugh.  Not only does it ridicule people who do struggle with stuttering (paging His Majesty King George VI) but it adds nothing to the story.

I digress to point out that The Gunfighters is not historically accurate in a myriad of ways. mostly dealing with the fact that the actual Fight at the O.K. Corral didn't actually take place at the O.K. Corral but near it.  Granted, The Gunfighters was really more of a lark, a story that mirrored the image of the American West as opposed to the historical American West, but given how in other history stories (The Aztecs or Marco Polo) the production team went to great efforts to make it as historically accurate as possible, it's a puzzle as to why The Gunfighters was not accorded that same honor.  Yet I digress.

The actual performances, barring the weak accents, are not bad.  Special mention should be made of Jacobs' Doc Holliday--he got the Southern gentleman quality to the character (which was historically accurate).  Marshe's Fisher was also in the vein of the "hooker with a heart of gold", and she looked like she was having a good time. 

Unfortunately, the leads suffered the most in The Gunfighters.  Hartnell was oddly not an important factor in The Gunfighters, not having an important role in resolving the situation they were involved in.  Even worse was the 'comedic touch' of having the Doctor mispronounce Wyatt Earp's name as "Mr. Werp".  Maybe they thought it was funny.  It only ended up being annoying.

Lane's Dodo was still a blundering idiot (her running into the gunfight reminiscent of Grace Kelly doing the same in High Noon but with the effect of us questioning her intelligence) and worse, she was still hopelessly chipper despite the danger she faced.  Purves had nothing to do (except sing that awful song) and worse, didn't appear to think to avoid the Clanton Brothers.  Even worse, he was saddled (no pun intended) with one of the worst costumes in the First Doctor franchise: a star-studded ensemble that country performers known for their outfits (a Porter Wagoner or Little Jimmy Dickens) would reject as far too gaudy.  If you don't know what their outfits look like (some of our readers not aware of American country music), as we say in Texas, take a gander at this:

Porter Wagoner: 1927-2007

Now, imagine something even MORE flamboyant and you'll get an idea of what Steven Regret wore (at least now we know how he got his name). 

As it stands, The Gunfighters has the reputation of ending Doctor Who's historical adventures.  This is not entirely true; we had exactly three further adventures in the past after The Gunfighters: the First Doctor story The Smugglers, the Second Doctor story The Highlanders (which introduced Companion Jamie McCrimmon) but then we had a long wait for another purely historic story until the Fifth Doctor story Black Orchid.  After that, no more purely historic stories. 

Any other story that takes place in the past now is more in the vein of The Time Meddler (science-fiction elements in a historic setting): going from the Fourth Doctor stories The Masque of Mandragora and The Talons of Weng-Chiang through the Fifth Doctor's The King's Demons, the Sixth Doctor adventure The Mark of the Rani, the Seventh Doctor's The Curse of Fenric right on through the Ninth Doctor's The Unquiet Dead, the Tenth Doctor's Tooth & Claw or The Shakespeare Code and up to the Eleventh Doctor's Victory of the Daleks, The Vampires of Venice, Vincent & The Doctor, and up to The Curse of the Black Spot.  (I know I left out a few, but I wasn't aiming for a catalogue of all pseudo-historic Doctor Who stories.  Rather, I was attempting to show every Doctor had at least one story set in the past but not involving the past).  Now, the Doctor no longer is witness to history or affects it: rather, anytime he is in the past it is because something alien is involved. 

The Gunfighters, in that sense, made history of the historic stories.  This is a terrible shame, and the idea that there can't be good historic stories is a myth plain and simple.  There are many good historic stories that in reality are some of the best First Doctor stories and strong Doctor Who stories overall.  However, because The Gunfighters was such a disaster, purely historic stories have never recovered and now are held in disdain. 

The next story, The Savages, sadly, no longer exists save for a few clips.  Those mostly involve the parting of Companion Steven Taylor, meaning that in the story after that (The War Machines) it's just the Doctor and Dodo when we begin our next adventure.

In the end, The Gunfighters is just a massive misfire and as painful as a root canal.


Next Available Story: The War Machines

Wonder why THIS didn't appear in The Gunfighters. Not a pretty picture, ain't it?

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