Doctor Who (Classic): S03E08 “The Gunfighters”

Season 3
Directed by Rex Tucker
Written by Donald Cotton

Good news everyone! This week we are rebounding from a lackluster installment in “The Celestial Toymaker” with a completely intact serial. The bad news is that serial is “The Gunfighters”. I’ve discussed last week and before that Doctor Who isn’t all that great when it goes for comedy, but what about when it goes musical? It’s a bold decision for sure and a big step outside of its comfort zone. Not to mention, the distinctly British series is taking its first step into the Western genre and first full step into the US (“The Chase” made a quick lackluster stop in New York City to introduce us to Peter Purves for the first time). It is also the first historical since “The Massacre” and only second and final one this season (though “The Daleks’ Master Plan” took a three episode stop in Ancient Egypt and “The Myth Makers” was a historical in all but truth).

Eating the candy from last time has left The Doctor in need of a dentist and boy is that a disappointing follow up to the cliffhanger. A toothache is just about the least dramatically interesting injury and it is the second straight time that something serious looking start to happen to The Doctor (last time it was The Doctor starting to disappear) only for the show to massively pull back on its seriousness and basically play it for laughs only to forget about it completely after an episode. It is here that The Doctor is treated by and then mistaken for Doc Holliday thanks to a little help from the man himself and The Doctor’s unique combination of at times cluelessness and his desire for other to always think he knows what’s going on. The strains the story goes to get this point are simultaneously creative and painfully forced as it requires The Doctor to be at his most oblivious and also to assume he has a giant blind spot when it comes to US Old West history.

The history itself is spotty at best but I’m not going to pretend that I expect any accuracy out of the show even with its occasional attention to detail as the show has long since moved past any assertion to that ideal. It’s depiction of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral is inaccurate and far inferior to the many other depictions of it in cinema. It’s understandable that a low budget British TV show wouldn’t be able to reach the same heights as a Hollywood film but where some of these historicals go wrong is by trying to make themselves like those films instead of leaning on the show’s strengths.

All the regulars take a back seat to this low quality B-Western and Dodo is such a minor part of the serial that at one point I had to check to see if I had missed her departure since I forgot she was even there. I’ve frequently called the show out for doing this and for every “The Massacre” where it works, we get far more stories which are dragged down by the new additions. There isn’t a single interesting or memorable one of them aside from maybe the overacting Kate who is practically a parody of the usual bawdy female types in Westerns. In fact, the more I think about it (okay and read about it), I think “The Gunfighters” was supposed to be a comedy but failed so badly it just comes off as a bad drama. The plot seems hardly worth repeating as the Doc and Kate seek to leave while a bunch of indistinguishable outlaws and the law duke it out. We watch the show for The Doctor and to a lesser extent his companions, not for third rate productions of better films.

The poorly done musical elements remain mostly off-screen and add nothing except something else to annoy me and the opportunity for Jackie Lane to hilariously fake play the piano and Purves to warble an awful tune. Honestly, what were they thinking it would add by just having someone singing in the background? It’s not even the background of the scene, it’s usually just in the background while there is no one around who could be/is singing. They exist because I assume someone said “wouldn’t it be cool if we had a musical episode?” and only too late did they realize that they had no way of making it realistic or at least falling under musical logic.

“The Gunfighters” is one of those rare serials where there is nothing positive to say about it and it may be the worst serial thus far (only “The Sensorites” can compete). I went in with even lowered expectations considering my opinion of it last time and it still managed to disappoint. The worst part may be that despite my numerous complaints, most of it isn’t even interesting to hate and the bad parts aren’t even hilariously bad. I guess I can say the serial moved faster than some others but that is largely because it is intact and I didn’t have to pause it frequently because I just couldn’t bring myself to care about taking notes. When the best thing you can say about a story is that it is over quick, you know its trash. Just watch My Darling Clementine or Tombstone instead and just pretend The Doctor wanders in on occasion.

Grade: D (Saved from the minus because I’m just happy it is intact)

Stray Observations

Doctor Who has never been accused of featuring good American accents and it certainly didn’t start here.
– Steven’s get up is so embarrassing looking that I wonder if Peter Purves ever woke up with night terrors about it.
– Lady-wife is a term I will never get tire of using.
– The Doctor apparently never touches alcohol which makes complete sense considering how he always wants to be the cleverest person in the room and there’s no way I could see him knowingly affecting his brain.
– The Doctors avoidance of guns is played for “laughs” here as he winds up shooting someone by accident and we are treated to a number of painful scenes whenever the two mix together forcing The Doctor to play broad (William Hartnell is not great at playing broad comedy which I can’t hold against him).
– I guess I should give the story credit for still being understandable despite not being able to remember anyone’s face other than Kate and Doc’s from scene to scene.
– The serial was so badly received it basically killed off the historical genre of episodes.
– It is also the final serial to have names for each episode. I haven’t discussed the episode titling before because they are frankly pretty irrelevant, but they were a nice change of pace from the boring if thankfully for writing these up and remembering serial titling.
– Patrick Troughton (the Second Doctor) was almost cast as Doc Holliday. I think we all lucked out he wasn’t dragged into this.
– This Week in Cliffhangers: The Doctor once again is convinced he knows where they are but despite his assertion that they are in an age of prosperity, we can see a savage approaching on the monitor. This is without question the highlight of the serial and not just because it means I got to stop watching it.

Next Up: The completely missing “The Savages” as we look to get back on track in terms of quality.