Doctor Who #116: A Holiday for the Doctor

"I got no pianist on account he was shot last week; and I do have a singer, but she's always out someplace."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 1 of The Gunfighters, available on DVD. First aired Apr.30 1966.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS lands in the Wild West, a short time before the fight at the O.K. Corral. The Doctor goes to dentist Doc Holliday, and Steven and Dodo are roped into singin' a song at gunpoint.

REVIEW: Donald Cotton is back on writing duties and treating the Old West in much the same way he did the Iliad in The Myth Makers - as a black comedy. Forget history, events in this serial are closer to a Hollywood version of events. Director Rex Tucker does a wonderful job filming his studio-bound western with help from a multi-leveled set and actors with pretty respectable accents (better than you'd expect, at any rate). His camera work is agile, going for unusual angles, often riding close to the ground, panning to reveals, and adeptly mixing in insert shots. And look! Real horses in the studio! In comparison to the expertly crafted period design, Steven and Dodo's attire is really more Grand Old Opry, though the Doctor's new hat is very suitable. The sense of period is further complimented by the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon (more on that below).

Of the historical celebrities, Doc Holliday is the funniest, his dialog full of the kind of matter-of-fact brutality of the period. He talks about ethical shootings and gives the Doctor a choice of anesthetics - a quick rap on the head with the butt of his gun, or a swig of liquor! Though one of the heroes of the O.K. Corral story, Cotton makes him less than heroic here (just as he did with the Greek heroes), using a misunderstanding to pass the Doctor off as himself in front of the bloodthirsty Clantons. He and his girlfriend Kathleen make a fine, charismatic double act. Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson are more dour, so less interesting. The bartender is a fun comedy role. And the Clanton Gang hold surprisingly naturalistic conversations, and are smart enough to know something's up when Steven and Dodo walk in as musicians, yet are still packing guns.

It's nice to see Dodo and Steven having real fun after the forced games of the Toymaker. It's all a big holiday for them, at least until they're forced to sing and play at gunpoint, and the Doctor has ample reason to be annoyed that they're more interested in playing cowboys than helping him with his toothache. We may be surprised to find Dodo can play the piano, but at least Steven looks uncomfortable running through a song he's never heard before for the Clantons' pleasure. Their scenes add jollity to the proceedings, but the best comedy comes from William Hartnell himself. There's a cute (and as yet not over-used) inside joke when he introduces his party to the lawmen as Dodo Dupont, Steven Regret and Doctor, uhm, Caligari ("Doctor who?" "Yes, quite right."). His lack of confidence in the Old West's dental practices is funny as well, wanting to back out as soon as he sees the giant wooden tooth acting as a sign over Holliday's door. Finding Doc fooling around with Kathleen in the back of the store, then finding out he's his first customer, just add to his malaise. I'm sure the kids can identify with his fear of going to the dentist. There are some inconsistencies with the Doctor's portrayal however, such as his having a prized gun collection (really?) and his claim that he never touches alcohol when we've seen him do a fair bit of drinking, and not just on Christmas.

The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon... Let's talk about it because it's pretty much at the root of why fan wisdom placed this story at the very bottom of the pile for decades (which I don't believe is deserved). At first, it seems like a unique (for Doctor Who) way to bookend the episodes, but then it returns again and again until many viewers will find it an annoyance. I don't mind it that much because its lyrics and tempo are always different - and will eventually integrate the action of the story - but where it goes wrong is in the repetitive use of the line "When there's blood upon the sawdust/At the Last Chance Saloon!" squeezed into a very short silent beat, as a transitional element. At that point, if feels like it's acting as incidental music and calls too much attention to itself. And of course, when Dodo chooses a song at the piano, it just had to be this one, didn't it? They just gave the audience an overdose, is all. Still, a fun piano flourish to start the credit roll on.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Not at all deserving of its bad reputation, the first part of The Gunfighters mixes danger and comedy, has real directorial flair and more than passable accents, and if the song is the major complaint, it's not much of one.


Anonymous said...

I don't care about fan wisdom, "The Gunfighters" is a top-ten Doctor Who story for me. It's just so much fun to watch. Well plotted, too, for what it's worth.

And I could watch Kate all day. :-)


Siskoid said...

Testify, brother!

Martin Gray said...

Sounds excellent, I'm going to have to search it out. I've never seen any S and D eps.


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