Saturday 19 December 2020


Written by Donald Cotton
First broadcast April/ May 1966
Plot spoilers? None for anyone who's ever seen a Western

“The Doctor picks a gunslinger for a dentist.”
- From the BBC Episode Guide

”Now the fans go a gunnin’
“Sayin’ this story’s so wrong
“Them accents is awful
“But what’s worse is that song”

As I may have already mentioned, the Radio Times’ ’Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special’ brought two problems to my young mind. I just could not reconcile the plot descriptions of two storylines with the show as I knew it.

The first being ’Edge of Destruction’, and the second was... oh, you guessed. In one they never step out of the Tardis at all, the other they arrive in the Wild West. But how could not just a science fiction show but the science fiction show of my day possibly transform itself into a Western? Or, more inexplicably still, a comedy Western?

As I was later to be told, the answer to the riddle was simple – it couldn’t. It was quite simply a stupid idea to begin with and that was all there was to say about it. Even the BBC’s own on-line guide paints it as Auntie’s least favourite nephew. It quotes Ian Levine: “This story in short should never have been made, and will for ever remain a true embarrassment to ‘Doctor Who'.”

And this argument’s ace card is always the recurrent dirge of a song, which keeps coming back whenever you think it’s over in order to handily tell you about something you just saw happen. (The closing juxtaposition between that song and the familiar 'Who' theme, with barely a respectful couple of seconds to divide them, must be one of the show’s strangest moments. Despite stiff competition.)

”Friend, if yer aimin’ to watch this
“Ye may wanna think twice
“That song works on the drama
“Like a Brecht alienation device”

But in more recent years this story has had something of rehabilitation. An Outpost Gallifrey poll gave it over 3 out of 5 points, putting it (if marginally) above the bottom ten Hartnell stories. (Though this may be because the story the fans reallywant to vent their hatred over is its predecessor, ’The Celestial Toymaker’.) Or a simple and entirely understandable unwillingness to agree with Ian Levine.)

Indeed, once seen in the context of it’s era, ’The Gunfighters’ starts to make a lot more sense. There’s an early gag where Steven and Dodo’s flamboyant disguises are contrasted with the more practical wear of the real Wild Westers. But overall, the last thing this story does is try to tell the West like it was. It’s more significant they decide to put on cod Western accents, something they’ve bothered with noplace else pardner.

For the Tardis doesn’t land in the West, it appears inside a Western - like they've ported between genres. Virtually the first line is a reference to the Last Chance Saloon, and virtually the last line is the Doctor accusing Dodo of having fallen for “every cliché-ridden convention in the American West”. Just in case we hadn’t noticed. In a Western, all roads lead to the OK Corral. And indeed, here it is...

Donald Cotton’s previous script, ‘The Myth Makers’, had been about showing us up close the grubby reality behind the legend. But by this point things had already got meta. ’Doctor Who’ had become something of a wild card in the schedules, travelling not through time and space but every other genre currently being broadcast. In which case, why not a Western? Westerns were then perennials on TV schedules, including ‘Gunsmoke’ (1955/75) and ‘The Virginian’(1962/71).

Besides, science fiction often overlapped with Westerns. ’Star Trek’ was dubbed “Wagon Train to the stars". And both it and ’The Prisoner’ featured their own metafictional West stories, with ‘Spectre Of the Gun’ (1968) and ’Living In Harmony’ (1967) respectively. (Both take the meta thing further, heightening the artificiality of their environments. But all three visit a Land of Tropes, and do so quite overtly. ’Spectre’ was notably another take on that OK Corral business.)

Though strangely this may be clearer now, after those Westerns are gone from the airwaves. As Wood and Miles say in the 'About Time' guide “a generation weaned on 'Blazing Saddles' 'gets this story better than the people who missed the point in 1966.” It's closest cousin in 'Star Trek' is not ’Spectre’ but the gangster planet story 'A Piece of the Action', where Kirk and company beam down into a gangster movie and start talking like da wise guys. (Ostensibly a society modelled on a history book, not a movie. This fools no-one.)

One being cowboys and the other gangsters is merely a surface difference. In both it's tropes are encountered by characters outside of them and turned into gags by their touch, a fictional world rubbed against another to spark metafiction.

And the story's nearest direct relative is the not-a-historical-but-outright-farce ’The Romans’. Again, there’s nothing really wrong with this idea. Westerns are quite often structured like farces, milking limited sets for misunderstandings and mismeetings, dominance and submission games etc. (Think for example of Howard Hawks.) Even the infamous song may not be such an alienation device, there to remind you this is all been staged. Many Westerns were built around narrative songs, for example 'Rancho Notorious' or for that matter 'Gunfight at the OK Corral'.

But if ’The Gunfighters’ presence on the schedules makes some sense, that doesn’t necessarily mean the story itself is any good. Firstly, as mentioned with ’The Romans’, a farce is dependent upon a strong cast to carry it off. But by this point the original cast had broken up, leaving us with Steven and the notoriously poor Dodo.

The humour does have it moments. The Doctor’s line “I do wish people would stop offering me guns” has now been chalked up a classic. And Sheena Marshe’s rambunctious, larger-than-life portrayal of Kate is also fitting. Caught out in a lie when valiantly misleading the villainous Clantons, she cries out archly “well ain’t my face a-blushin’!” But too often the humour feels closer to the end-of-term sketch show style of ’The Chase’ than ’The Romans’. In both, you do sometimes wonder if the participants weren’t having more fun than you.

How did things degenerate from the genuinely good ‘Myth Makers’ to this?  As Shannon Sullivan recounts, Donald Cotten’s script had fallen to Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis to produce. Neither liked the historicals in general, or the comic bent on offer here in particular. (Though two more historicals still followed.) Meanwhile, director Rex Tucker decided to play up the farce elements and (yes it was him) foreground the infamous song. Perhaps that led to the strangely abrupt shifts between the farcical and the more dramatic moments, leaving the story with a dissatisfyingly uneven tone.

”That song’s like a sore tooth
“It turns viewin’ folks mean
“It comes back when it looks over
“And tells you things you just seen”

The script also makes a clunking functional error in clearing up the Doctor Who/Doc Holliday confusion halfway through. This not only dampens narrative momentum, but unleashes the most perennial problem of the historicals – finding a way to integrate the travellers into the action.

Lacking any other means, it mostly achieves this by forcing the pieces. Doc Holliday takes Dodo with him when he leaves town, then the gunslinger chasing him decides to drag along Steven – amenably slowing down their travelling time to keep us up with the storyline. The Doctor agrees to talk to the Clantons about coming along all peaceable like, but there’s no earthly reason why they should listen to him and they don’t.

But worst of all is the climactic and titular gunfight at the... okay, you already guessed where. It’s established the Doctor disdains guns and those who use them, which (by this point in the show) is entirely in character. But as this means none of the travellers should have anything to do with the gunfight itself, Dodo is prodded into the middle of it with little reason at all. Which contrasts with 'A Piece of the Action', which is all about Kirk deciding to go native and put on the gangster swagger himself.

Cotton himself seemed to recognise this problem with his 1986 novelisation, which places the Doctor there instead. (Of course it could be claimed that, were there more sparks to the farce-playing, you’d be less likely to notice this sort of thing. Much like magic tricks, farce is the art of audience distraction.)

What we end up with is not some strange anomaly but a story which actually falls far too neatly in place – its merely second helpings after ’The Romans’. If it’s not the disaster that some more single-minded fans insist upon, neither is it a neglected jewel. The story’s ‘rehabilitation’ will probably wind up as a correction, which is closer to the way it should be. And that really does drag upon your nerves...

”There’s bodies a-pilin’
“In this here story to tell
“But some say it turned so bad
“It killed the histori-er-cal”

Coming soon! To savagery and beyond…

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