Doctor Who Project: The Gunfighters

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Ain’t it wonderful, honey, what a man’ll do for what he truly believes in?

Even the best of the Doctor Who historicals suffer one fundamental flaw: the historical personages tend to overshadow the Doctor and his companions, particularly when the history is well known. In the non-historical stories, the writers cannot afford to have our intrepid heroes off-screen for long, lest the audience wonder just why these generic aliens and anonymous humans are hatching plans to disengage the Framistat of Doom. In the historicals, though, a little bit of set dressing goes a long way, and there’s no compunction about ten minutes of, say, King Richard the Lionheart and his knights conversing about Saladin, or a humorous interlude between Priam, Paris, and Cassandra. Striking a balance between the historical figures and the Doctor takes some doing, and, to my admitted surprise, Donald Cotton succeeds in “The Gunfighters” (Story Production Code Z), despite some rather dodgy American accents.

On the face of it, the premise is about as wobbly as the accents and the bar prop in the Last Chance Saloon: the Doctor needs a dentist (there being no facilities for dealing with dental care on the TARDIS, nor even any painkillers, despite being a craft capable of travelling in four dimensions), so at their very next stop, they must seek one out. Our time travellers just happen to land in Tombstone, Arizona, shortly before the shootout between the Earps and the Clantons. Four episodes of horses and nooses and gunplay and dusty shot glasses are sure to follow, a feeling not diminished by the ever-present saloon ballad that kicks in right after the opening title music. And yet, much like the last historical, “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” Cotton’s story manages to be not about the events at the O.K. Corral so much as about the Doctor’s belief system, all tied together with a rather clever case of mistaken identity.

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For you see, the Clantons are in town, along with a hired gun, to find—and then, as these things tend to happen, to kill—Doc Holliday, who earlier killed a Clanton brother. They’ve never seen Doc Holliday before, but they know of his fondness for liquor and gambling, so they wait for their prey to make himself known in the Last Chance Saloon. When Dodo and Steven enter the saloon to secure lodging for the night (needing a break from the bedrooms in the TARDIS, I suppose), they happen to mention the Doctor. The Clantons put two and two together to get five, assuming that they mean Doc Holliday, the first time in the series that the Doctor’s moniker has put him into real danger.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has his aching tooth extracted by Doc Holliday, who has that very day opened a dental surgery in Tombstone. Holliday gets wind of the Clantons’ intentions and, more importantly, their misapprehension, and frames the Doctor, giving him a gun belt and a revolver with Holliday’s brand engraved on it, claiming the Doctor’s just not dressed right without it. When the Clantons kill the Doctor, they’ll assume they killed Holliday.

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Upon entering the Last Chance Saloon, the Doctor is quickly surrounded by the Clantons. The Doctor knows his American folk history (he’s a big fan of the era, apparently) and knows he’s in a spot of bother. Despite his protestations, the Clantons are sure they’ve got the right Doc. The Doctor draws Holliday’s revolver and the Clantons’ hired gun falls to the ground, shot. Holliday took the shot from a hidden vantage point, allowing the Doctor and Steven to disarm the Clantons. But how is the Doctor, a confirmed proponent of non-violence, to survive in an era and locale where bullets, not words, solve almost all disputes?

“The Gunfighters” brings the concept of the Doctor’s non-violence (as opposed to pacifism, one must argue) to the fore in a manner not yet seen in the series. Certainly he’s previously proclaimed that he only kills (or even injures) in moments of extreme danger, but Tombstone is more dangerous than a room full of Daleks—and in “The Mutants,” he proved capable of killing what he thought was the entire Dalek species. And yet, throughout this story, he neither condones nor commits violence, thinking he can convince a lynch mob not to kill Steven by talking to them and getting angry at Earp for knocking out the man putting the noose around Steven’s neck.

Though he meekly accedes to Holliday and fiancee Kate belting a revolver on him, the Doctor gets plainly fed up with having guns forced on him by the time Steven tries to break him out of Earp’s protective custody by slipping him a gun through the bars, proclaiming, “I have no intention of trying anything, only people keep giving me guns, and I do wish they wouldn’t.” Still, he’s willing to risk much to avoid violence, both towards those he cares about and as a general principle, as when he rides out, as an unarmed deputy sheriff, to the Clanton farmstead to try to talk sense into the elder Clanton and stop the impending gunplay.

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But at the same time, he’s versed in, and has a collector’s appreciation for, weaponry. When Steven and Dodo dig into the TARDIS wardrobe for appropriate Wild West wear, Steven’s rather garish outfit comes complete with six-shooters. Steven has little control of the weapon (and that’s before Wyatt Earp shows up and shoots it out of his hand), prompting the Doctor’s admonition to be careful, not because it’s a weapon but because “that belongs to my favorite collection.” Perhaps the Doctor means his favorite wardrobe/costume collection, but a case can be made that he means a collection of firearms or weapons. When he does feign use of a gun, after disarming the Clantons, he seems fairly well at ease with it, unlike Dodo (who nearly shoots Holliday) and Steven (who can barely hold one without trying to twirl it).

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The overall picture seems to be one of a person familiar with violence and its methods who has chosen against them, a more nuanced understanding than merely someone who doesn’t like to hurt others. Hartnell brings some depth to the Doctor in this story as someone who is frankly tired of violence’s cyclical effects. Once the showdown is complete, with Johnny Ringo and the Clantons dead on the streets of Tombstone, the Doctor seems momentarily perturbed that Doc Holliday is a wanted man for his part in the violence. He considers doing something to right this unjust portrayal of Holliday, then stops, seeing Dodo mesmerized by the music from the saloon. He’s done with the fantasy of the Wild West:

My dear Dodo! You know, you’re fast becoming a prey to every cliché-ridden convention in the American west, and it’s high time we left.

While “The Gunfighters” is regarded by some commentators as a comedy historical in the vein of “The Myth Makers,” the more serious theme of violence—with more shots fired during the shootout at the corral than a barrel full of six-shooters could have managed and quite a few (bloodless) dead bodies—overrides the few direct attempts at humor in the story. Yes, Steven is funny in his Western outfit; no, it’s not so funny to have a lynch mob ready to hang Steven in said outfit.

Not much mentioned within “The Gunfighters” is the Doctor’s rather direct participation in yet another (quasi-) historical event. Non-intervention is his watchword, and yet he’s running around Tombstone with Bat Masterson and the Earps, accepting a deputization, and trying to get the Showdown at the O.K. Corral stopped. To his credit, the Doctor does try to leave as soon as everyone is together (Dodo being kidnapped by Holliday in episodes two and three and Steven by Johnny Ringo in episodes three and four), but he and his companions manage to get in neck deep (Steven almost literally, thanks to the lynch mob). Usually the Doctor tries to hand wave away his participation as inconsequential, but here it’s not even brought up. Perhaps we can assume that the Doctor knows his errand of mercy to the elder Clanton will fail, but he seems quite earnest in his dangerous mission to stop the shootout.

So, if “The Gunfighters” reiterates and strengthens the Doctor’s code of non-violence, it does some minor violence to the tenant of historical non-intervention, but for the sake of seeing Steven (Peter Purves) singing the story’s signature song, “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon,” I think we can accept it.

That song performs an interesting narrative role, serving as the chorus, almost, at once recapping the action and predicting it, weaving through all four episodes. For the first episode, it’s frankly a bit repetitive, but once the action begins to pick up, the ballad starts to work more organically with the plot and providing a nice Western feeling. It’s also the first vocal music to play more than a brief part in the series’ soundtrack.

There’s a bit of silliness with the Doctor’s name vis a vis the name of the series, something we see more frequently in later years as writers think themselves clever. After introducing Dodo as Ms. Dupont and Steven as “Regret,” (a rather awesome nickname), the Doctor comes to himself:

Doctor: And lastly, sir, your humble servant, Doctor Caligari.

Bat Masterson: Doctor who?

Doctor: Yes, you’re quite right.

Sigh.

Further on the name front, the Doctor is often called Doc in this story, a name which previously drove him to heights of irritation, but here, his willingness to be called Doc helps enmesh him in events; instead, being called Pop grates on him. While he does complain a few times, the fact that most people calling him Pop have guns probably stays his tongue. The Doctor also proclaims here that he never drinks alcohol.

Steven and Dodo (Jackie Lane) have fairly minor roles in “The Gunfighters,” the aforementioned singing notwithstanding, though Dodo does manage to involve herself directly in pseudo-history by allowing Holliday to get the drop on Johnny Ringo after being held hostage by the latter. Otherwise, they both play a fairly typical companion role as bait/pawns in larger events that require the Doctor to intervene where he ordinarily would not. Jackie Lane seems in several scenes to have wonderful chemistry with William Hartnell, particularly when she gives the Doctor a cowboy hat, and it’s distressing to think that she and Peter Purves have little time left on the show at this point, both leaving by the end of Season Three, followed shortly thereafter by Hartnell himself. At no point in this story are they referred to as “companions,” continuing a recent trend.

The hat makes the outfit.

Though really just an artifact of plot contrivance, the TARDIS, which the Doctor at this point still cannot steer, has been exhibiting signs of seeming to understand what the Doctor needs in recent stories and delivering him there. Is Steven mad about leaving Anne Chaplet to die in the Huguenot Massacre? Well, let’s land in London to pick up her ancestor! Doctor needs a dentist? Most famous dentist around must surely be Doc Holliday, so let’s go to Tombstone! The Doctor’s inability to control the TARDIS at least makes for acceptable coincidences.

The historicals have always been early examples of genre mash-ups. As a pure Western, “The Gunfighters” fails. But our heroes are self-aware about visiting a much-clichéd era and cognizant that they are outsiders. After Steven complains at their cover story of being a travelling entertainment act, the Doctor reminds him:

Well, I had to find some sort of suitable cover. After all, you can’t walk into the middle of a Western town and say you’ve come from outer space. Good gracious me! You’ll be arrested on a vagrancy charge.

Unlike most historicals, however, “The Gunfighters” provides a pleasant, if not delightful, story made better by our familiarity with the main characters for a change. And one must confess that William Hartnell wears a mean cowboy hat.

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No neat segway connects “The Gunfighters” to the next story, with the ending scene abruptly switching from a farewell to Tombstone to the TARDIS already landed far in the future, on an ostensibly peaceful planet. It’s not, though.

(Previous Story: The Celestial Toymaker)

(Next Story: The Savages)

Post 25 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project

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