Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters DVD review

With “A Town Called Mercy” debuting this weekend, it seemed like a good time to go back and take a look at the DVD of the last Doctor Who story that tackled the western, which was a long time ago - like, 46 years. Yes, we’ll have to travel all the way back to 1966, the third season, when William Hartnell was still the Doctor – the first Doctor…

The TARDIS arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, in a stable near the O.K. Corral. Predictably, it’s just days before the infamous shootout, but the Doctor hasn’t chosen the time and place on purpose. No, the TARDIS has randomly chosen Tombstone, while the Doctor has a serious toothache, and is in need of a dentist. Bizarrely, the fact that the American Old West may not be an ideal place to seek medical attention only becomes an issue when it's too late. The Doctor heads out into the town, along with Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) - collectively one of the least effective TARDIS teams, perhaps never more so than here – in search of a dentist. He finds one in the form of Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs), who’s just set up practice, and the Doctor is his first customer.

Post surgery, our Doc is mistaken for the other, and the first couple episodes mostly revolve around the time travelers being threatened and intimidated by the Clantons. But then Johnny Ringo (Laurence Payne[1]) shows up in episode three (aptly titled “Johnny Ringo”; “The Gunfighters” is in fact the final story to give individual episodes their own title), and events escalate towards the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, around which the final episode is set.

“The Gunfighters,” back when I was a teenager, had one of the worst reputations of the entire series. People don’t say quite as many bad things about the “The Gunfighters” these days, but then again people don’t really say much about it at all. According to Wikipedia, back in ’66 it wasn’t the ratings that were a disaster, but rather the Audience Appreciation scores, which were among the lowest Doctor Who has ever received. It’s sort of easy to see why, too, for much of “The Gunfighters” is intentionally played for laughs, yet the jokes exist side by side with a fair amount of ruthless bloodshed.

So, “The Gunfighters” is funny and violent, and neither thing, at that time anyway, was Doctor Who necessarily well known for, never mind mixing them together. Add into that mix some frequently dodgy accents (though they’re not nearly as bad as reputation suggests), and the song The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon[2], which plays ad nauseum throughout the entire four episodes, essentially narrating the story in a Greek chorus kind of way, and you’ve got a recipe for potentially one of the worst Doctor Who stories ever.

Except that it isn’t. Not quite. Looking at “The Gunfighters” through the eyes of today, it holds up well enough, all things considered, and kudos should be given to something that dared to be so bold and different during what was a fairly turbulent time for the series. Its moody lighting and the direction from Rex Tucker are also rather impressive. 

If it fails to engage, it’s not because its tone shifts all over the place, but rather because the leads are so ineffectual and unimportant to the storyline. The Doctor is utterly ill-equipped to deal with these ruthless sorts of folk. He’s out of his element here, and Hartnell seems to grasp that, and in turn does a remarkable job of doing almost nothing, aside from being a flustered old man. He’s hardly the hero of the tale, which makes for a much different dynamic, as one character after the next has no patience for this seemingly doddering geriatric and his goofy companions. It’s as if the story happens around them, and they have little effect on the outcome of events. On the other hand, it could be argued that this is a strength of “The Gunfighters”; that the Doctor cannot stride into every situation and have influence on the outcome. Indeed, the events of the O.K. Corral may very well be a fixed point in time, of the type that was outlined in “The Waters of Mars.”

It’s tough to recommend “The Gunfighters” to anyone but completists and the like, but at the very least, it’s certainly a more entertaining viewing than something like, say, “The Ark.” By premature comparison, “A Town Called Mercy” likely has nowhere to go but up. Last but not least, I would personally love to someday see the Doctor’s extracted tooth come back into play ala the Tenth Doctor’s severed hand. Silly fanboy wish; nothing more.

[1] Laurence Payne would go on to play major roles in the 80’s Doctor Who stories “The Leisure Hive” and “The Two Doctors.  

[2] The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon was sung by Lynda Baron, who 17 years later played Captain Wrack in “Enlightenment,” and then 28 years after that, played Val, the department store clerk in “Closing Time.”

DVD Extras: Easy enough to recommend is the fascinating 43-minute documentary on this disc entitled “The End of the Line,” which details all the behind the scenes turmoil of the show’s third season. It’s worth checking out this disc for the doc alone. Beyond that, there’s a commentary track featuring actors Peter Purves, Shane Rimmer (Seth Harper), David Graham (Charlie), Richard Beale (Bat Masterson), and production assistant Tristan de Vere Cole, all moderated by the mighty Toby Hadoke. “Tomorrow’s Times – The First Doctor” is a featurette which looks at press coverage of the series during the Hartnell era. There’s also a photo gallery, production notes subtitle option, Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Paradise Towers.”