Recently released to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, Celebrate Regenerate is a fan produced chronicle of every broadcast episode of Who. Available as a free PDF download from http://celebrateregenerate.weebly.com/ this mighty tome features a page long article on every serial. The authors of The Gunfighters article, Mike Greaves and Andrew Boland, succinctly summarize received fan wisdom on this Western adventure. Dreadful, terrible, boring, and badly made are some of the words and phrases used by Greaves and Boland to describe the average fan’s dismissal of this tale. So convinced were they that the viewing experience would be tortuous and entirely unenjoyable that once viewed, they questioned whether they’d watched the right serial. Were there two 1960s Doctor Who Westerns, they wondered. There was indeed only one and clearly there was something peculiar going on. Greaves and Boland had actually thoroughly enjoyed The Gunfighters.
Phil Sandifer in his book Tardis Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell examines this received wisdom in depth and identifies three distinct stages of fan criticism. The first he describes as 1980s fandom; the second as the Great Re-evaluation of the 1990s; and the third, the Reconstructionist era beginning in 2002. The first era occurred in a time when there was neither video releases of Doctor Who nor the internet. Fan opinion was derived from memories of the programmes when originally broadcast and a limited number of books, the most notable of which was Peter Haining’s 1983 Doctor Who: A Celebration. This coffee table book was almost seen as the Bible of Who and its critical analysis of episodes taken as Gospel. Haining’s review of The Gunfighters was scathingly negative and it is most probably from this source that received fan wisdom grew.
The Great Re-evaluation that followed the release of stories on VHS cassette was not so much a detailed reappraisal of stories, but rather discussions to produce a general consensus on the relative merits of each story. It was not until all existing stories had been released on VHS, and Loose Cannon had completed their reconstructions, that what Sandifer describes as the democratization of fan criticism began. The ordinary Who fan was now in a position to access the stories for themselves and with the re-launch of Who in 2005, new fans had little concern for what the Classic Series critics of old said. With the pervasiveness of the internet and instant access to television programming everyone had become a media critic.
It is from this new position of fan criticism that The Gunfighters has been reappraised. That the story is unique cannot be denied. It is the only Doctor Who story with a sung narration, in the form of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. Sung by Lynda Baron, the Ballad is heard at times of climatic tension throughout the serial. The lyrics change to reflect the action and it’s also sung by Steven and Doc Holliday’s girlfriend, Kate, in the saloon. It’s the latter renditions that are posted below for your viewing pleasure.
The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon
Written by Donald Cotton, the author of The Myth Makers, the serial has a similar comedy format to Cotton’s previous Who outing. Again it mirrors the events in Troy when episode four descends into tragedy. The Gunfighters is set in 1881 America and follows the film The Gunfight at the OK Corral as one of its primary sources. Doctor Who would not return to the American Wild West until the Eleventh Doctor’s 2012 adventure A Town Called Mercy. Having broken a tooth eating one of the Cyril’s lollies in The Celestial Toyroom, the Doctor uses his unexpected arrival in the American mid-west to procure the services of the local dentist, Doc Holliday. He is immediately mistaken for Holliday by the town’s residents and hunted down by the Clanton family. Throw into the mix the Earp brothers, Virgil and Warren, and add Johnny Ringo (who historically wasn’t involved in these Tombstone, Arizona events), and you have a ripping good yarn.
William Hartnell absolutely shines in The Gunfighters, undoubtedly because it was a comedy and the genre in which he most enjoyed to act. The Doctor is given some fabulous lines and rarely does he stumble on them. Except, of course, when he refers to Steven as a “she”! Peter Purves does a superb job, as always, and Jackie Lane, as Dodo, is at last afforded the opportunity to act. Her scene with Doc Holliday when she threatens him with a gun is just fabulous. The set work was superb even if the stair railings did wobble when Ike Clanton fell to his death. The Doctor Who production team must have recently found the services of an animal wrangler. Less than two months earlier they’d had an elephant in the studio for The Ark and this time a horse. I wonder what the cleaners thought at the end of the day’s filming!
There are a couple of interesting facts to note in this serial. The original working title was The Gunslingers, and as anyone who has viewed the Series 7 episode, A Town Called Mercy, would be aware, there’s a character by that very same name. The Gunfighters also stared the Thunderbirds voice artists, David Graham (Brains) and Shane Rimmer (Alan Tracey). Graham played the unfortunate barman, Charlie, and Rimmer the character of Seth Harper. Lynda Baron, the off camera singer of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon appeared in the Series 6 story Closing Time as Val.
©Vivien Fleming, 2013.
Lewis Christian (ed), Celebrate, Regenerate. http://celebrateregenerate.weebly.com/, 2013.
Phil Sandifer, Tardis Eruditorum Volume 1: William Hartnell. Self published, 2011.