Friday, 24 July 2009

The Gunfighters

Previous viewings - one

As a television programme, Doctor Who's main purpose is to entertain, so I approach this story with some trepidation given its shockingly low AI figures, and a setting which seems to jar with the non-violent character of the Doctor. A comedic Wild West story is no more of a risk than anything in Season 2, and with Donald Cotton writing after the excellent The Myth Makers I'm somewhat reassured.

The Gunfighters places the TARDISeers at the OK Corral in 1881, in the events leading up to the gunfight between the Clantons and the Earps. A search for a dentist leads the Doctor to Doc Holliday, who takes advantage of the Clantons thinking the Doctor is him to slip away with Dodo in tow. There would probably have been a Western setting evenually, and although technically a pure historical it doesn't feel like one, having nothing to do with the politics of the time, but merely jumping on a Hollywood bandwagon. Its not history, its movie cliches. This is not a bad thing, but future historicals will be more in this vein that what we're used to so it's farewell to the 'proper' exploration of history.

My first reactions to the story probably mirror those of most people. Those accents! That ballad! I didn't think the American accents were that bad, they were deliberately exaggerated for the purposes of the story, even the TARDISeers put on pretend American accents (Steven's is especially bad). I can't defend the ballad, although I can't deny that the decision to have singing every few minutes is gutsy. It continues until the very end of the story, so that when we hear the Doctor Who end credits music again it seems weird. It's almost turning the show into an actual Western rather than simply having Tombstone, 1881 be the setting for a Doctor Who story. Yes, it's repetitive, but in the context of the rest of the story, makes complete sense and is even quite innovative.

The scene where the Doctor has his tooth pulled is a classic and sees Hartnell on fine form. It's weird seeing him so worried about the pain, as it's a very human concern we're not used to seeing in the Doctor. Doc Holliday, despite giving the Doctor his gun so that the Clantons will think he's Holliday, is the most entertaining of the guest characters, as he's the only one who's funny but still seems like a threat. We've seen the Doctor mistaken for someone else before, but the characterisation of the Doctor in this story is very curious. The Time Meddler showed us a Doctor who can sometimes seem absentminded, but then surprise us and the villains by showing that this is only a facade. In The Gunfighters, despite the historical setting he usually impresses in, the Doctor's act as the bumbling grandfather makes him look feeble and ineffective, and at certain points in the story he seems to have got the wrong impression (for example the way he keeps insisting that Holliday is a friend of his because he gave him his gun, not having realised the real reason). Whatever the Doctor's been like before, he has always convinced me that he's on top of the situation, but in this story I had my doubts.

Anyway, the story twists and turns a bit. The Doctor is in the Sheriff's custody and Steven is left to deal with the Clantons, who try to hang him, while Holliday, Dodo and barmaid Kate are long gone. Dodo is a surprise in this story - nothing she does goes along with her usual stupidity, making this her best story. I wouldn't go as far as to say that she's great here, just that her being bearable is a nice surprise. Jackie Lane doesn't seem to have Peter Purves' ability to give more for the character than the script deserves - she just delivers her lines with a touch of enthusiasm, and here they happen to be decent lines. There is never a sense that Dodo is a person with a life.

Gunman Johnny Ringo appears as the title character in Episode 3 and gives the story an extra dose of menace by shooting the likeable bartender dead. The Doctor doesn't have much to do after being freed from the jail as his role in the plot has largely ended, getting Dodo back is the only pertinent priority left. By this point, more Earps arrive and with so many Clantons around, I'm starting to get confused keeping track of so many characters. My main complaint so far is that none of them really stand out, or are even interesting - history would record who took part in the gunfight, so they have to be there, but there doesn't seem to be much of an attempt to distinguish them or give the Clantons much to do except act like Western rogue stereotypes. However this is partly because they're mostly in busy bar or crowd scenes - Johnny Ringo instantly stands out despite having the same personality and demeanour, because of his opening scene. As time goes on, although I'm keen to see the finale, no further attempts have been made to rectify this. Everything is a means to get us to the end. The pacing is fine, but there isn't much inclination to care - and we really need it considering the TARDISeers's involvement thins as the story wears on. With the shooting of the younger Earp, I was suitably interested, as the story was starting to slow down.

The gunfight, although exciting and well directed, suffered from the same problem - it was exciting because it was action, I knew the Earps would win anyway and the Doctor was nowhere to be seen. Was this a disappointment? I wasn't really expecting anything more, the Doctor clearly wasn't going to shoot anyone and I would think less of Steven or Dodo if they got involved, and I had had enough of the bumbling Doctor who was clearly a few steps behind everyone else. So ultimately despite it being little more than a necessity I think it did satisfy as a conclusion.

As they return to the TARDIS, everybody is back to normal, as we get a cliffhanger pretty much identical to the one in Episode 1 of An Unearthly Child.

I can forgive some characterisation flaws given the comedic nature of the story, like I did in The Romans. It was a lighthearted adventure romp that I enjoyed a great deal, and although it was nowhere as enjoyable as Cotton's earlier The Myth Makers, I'm shocked by the low reputation of The Gunfighters in fandom. What's so bad about it? I'll have a read of the rest of this thread and maybe someone will point out something I missed, but beyond some dull side characters and the Doctor acting a bit too absentminded, I struggle to think of any serious flaws.

Horror quotient - Okay, so it's a comedy, and a lot of the violence is cartoon violence, so this isn't scary or horrific.
Comedy quotient - Few one-liners, but it's a story that sends up the genre, and is an admirable attempt at a Western given it's a British TV show (is it unique in that respect?)
Drama quotient - This is another story that leans more towards comedy than drama, but in such a way that whenever there is drama, it feels real. Some clever writing there.

For being the first time I've had a real problem with the Doctor's characterisation, I'm marking it down, even though it does provide a few laughs. However, the plot is engaging and the story is entertaining, so as an experiment I'd say it's mostly successful (except with the audience of course).


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