The gunfighters (1966)
About this serial
This is a four-part serial, first broadcast between 30th April - 21st May 1966. The serial was written by Donald Cotton, produced by Innes Lloyd and directed by Rex Tucker. The script editor was Gerry Davis.
The Tardis lands in Tombstone, where gunfighters are gathering to meet at the OK Corral.
Let's start with some good things about this serial:
- An entirely studio-based Western seems like an awful idea, but the whole thing looks fantastic. It's a great example of what the makers of this type of television were able to achieve in those days.
- It's based on a clever script, and a lot of the serial is genuinely funny (though I realise it may not be to everyone's taste).
That said - it's one of the weirder Doctor Who serials. A key aspect is that it is about a genre (the Western) rather than about a historical time and place (the US in the late 19th century). In that sense it's more 'Pyramids of Mars' than 'Reign of Terror' even if, apart from the Tardis' presence, the science fiction element is missing. From the 1970s onwards genre spoofs would become a staple of Doctor Who, and seen from that perspective 'The gunfighters' is way ahead of its time.
There's no incidental music other than the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. The Ballad is mostly performed off-screen, with the lyrics commenting on the action and occasionally adding background information to it, though at one point Steven is forced at gunpoint to sing it and we also see it performed by the bar girl. (Just when you start wondering how many more times you're going to hear the Ballad in this serial, there's a slightly meta moment when Steven complains about having to sing it for the fourth time - after which the bar girl invervenes, only to give us her own rendition.)
- The use of the Ballad adds to the weirdness of the story, especially since, when Steven and the bar girl sing it, several events that are covered by the complete lyrics haven't happened yet.
- There's potential here for a story with a stronger science fiction element, with the Ballad as a sentient meme that snares time travellers and either kills them or only releases them after its entire narrative has played out.
Even considering that the whole thing is comedy, there are some puzzling plot points:
- The serial begins with the Doctor having a toothache. Though this gets him to earth and into Doc Holliday's chair, the idea of the Doctor getting toothaches and requiring an earth dentist's assistance is - odd.
- When the regulars meet the locals, it's clear that at least the Doctor and Dodo recognise their names and realise what's going to happen. And yet, the Tardis crew do little to stop the gunfight from happening and don't appear to be affected by it once it has taken place.
Also, the gunfight makes no sense:
- At the beginning we see the Clantons blasting away at the Earp brothers who are walking towards them from a fairly short distance, and who are making no effort to take cover. Yet, no one gets hit.
- The amount of gunfire that we hear seems excessive compared to the number of people with guns present at the scene.
- Random gunfire apparently never hits anything. It's only when the camera lingers on the shooter taking aim and pulling the trigger that bullets hit anything - and in these cases, it tends to be lethal.
The bottom line
Not among the worst of Doctor Who, but certainly among the weirdest.