Dr. Moo takes a trip to the dentist.
Ask a group of Doctor Who fans to pick what the worst serial of all time is. There’s a long list of possible answers you might be expecting. Maybe one of them will say Time & The Rani, another possibly The Twin Dilemma, Fear Her is a popular one as well, as is my personal choice Love & Monsters.
But there’s a good chance someone will tell you it's The Gunfighters – even though that’s totally the wrong answer!
Received wisdom will tell you that The Gunfighters is awful, and I mean embarrassing to watch. It allegedly passes the point of being “so bad it’s funny” coming right back to being just plain bad. It’s supposedly unwatchable and one of those episodes that everyone wishes had been wiped by the BBC instead of some of the good episodes we lost instead but, while there is a certain frustration that comes from having the entirety of The Gunfighters available while the likes of The Massacre Of Saint Bartholemew’s Eve or Fury From The Deep are gone forever, there’s nothing particularly awful about this serial in itself. This is one of those instances where the serial’s reputation is not deserved. Not at all.
Of course the Worst Episode Ever reputation, while not even close to being true, has to have come from somewhere, so let’s start by looking at the negatives.
For starters there’s the setting. We’re in pure historical mode this time as the TARDIS materialises in Tombstone Arizona on the eve of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the Doctor explains he’s come here to get dental assistance from Doc Holliday. Don’t question why a man who can access all of space and time gets his dentistry done by someone in an era where anesthetic hasn’t been invented yet, just go with it.
It’s not long before we realise that the pure historical setting has been somewhat distorted by a lack of research by writer Donald Cotton. The historical characters have different motivations and allegiances than they did in real life and the Doctor himself acts out of character by trying to prevent the gunfight from taking place, in direct contrast to his famous words to Barbara back in The Aztecs. As I said before, you just have to go with it.
Another issue has got to be the accents. This is supposedly set in Arizona, USA, but the American accents are awful. The very first line to come out of Billy Clanton’s mouth may as well be cockney and this sets the tone for the accents to come. Johnny Ringo is the worst offender with his actor not even trying to do anything but English. The rest are all at varying levels of competence, switching at a moment’s notice which side of the Atlantic they’re meant to be, even Australia getting a look-in on a few occasions.
Maybe they could have considered casting these American characters with American actors? I know, it’s a radical idea – but it might just have worked!
Then there’s the gunfight itself. They can’t be more than a few feet from each other yet everyone keeps missing their targets! Also there’s no need for Dodo to get involved with anything in this story, but that’s par for the course with her.
Those are all the major issues with this story, so let’s take a look and see what the positives are.
First up we have the tone. This story is definitely a dramatic one, what with there being a gunfight and a whole family getting massacred, but it’s also one filled with comic moments. When the drama and comedy genres come together it all too often falls flat, but here it works well. The writing is superb and there are so many little things that work nicely. Whether it be the Doctor’s reaction to meeting the Clanton Brothers, his being mistaken for Doc Holliday, the way he keeps calling Wyatt Earp “Mr Wurp”, the bit where his gun keeps being pushed around while still in his hand, and a host of other things, it all comes across well and the humour actually works!
Hartnell’s acting is also pretty good here, apparently he’d wanted to do a western episode since he first got the part and his delight at finally getting one comes across. While his acting in The Daleks’ Master Plan remains his finest hour this is right up there. Not just him either, Peter Purves and (for possibly the first and only time) Jackie Lane are both great too, and they, like Hartnell, are clearly enjoying themselves. All three show off a comic talent and they’re clearly loving every minute of it – and when the cast have fun so do the audience.
I also want to praise the costumes and set design. I’m no expert in the western genre (my knowledge of which extends to this, another Who serial from 2012, that one Red Dwarf episode and the third Back To The Future movie) but it certainly fits with all the trappings of the genre and it looks the part. They even got horses!
Also there’s that infamous song: The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon. It’s repetitive, it’s strange, it’s intrusive and the story would probably lose nothing if it were removed entirely. But despite these things it’s still an interesting stylistic choice and it makes for a very original framing device. Credit where it’s due for trying something different. Can anyone tell me how it is that Dodo can play the piano so well without a moment’s notice or how Steven could possibly know the words? Never mind that, who cares! It’s just a bit of fun.
Actually that’s a good description of the whole of The Gunfighters right there, so let me repeat myself: It’s just a bit of fun.
Nobody’s going to convince you that The Gunfighters is top ten material, nor even top fifty, but dammit if it isn’t funny! Its reputation as being the worst of all time is seriously off the mark and a reevaluation is required. If you have accepted the received wisdom that this is the worst of all time then I urge you to give it a try and prepare to be surprised – I know I was.
When he's not obsessing about Doctor Who whilst having I Am The
Doctor play in his head, Dr. Moo can usually be found reading up on the
latest in Quantum Physics. As you do when you're a physicist.