Despite flimsy sets and cheap special effects, many classic Doctor Who stories succeed through a combination of inventiveness, wit and menace, not to mention loads of fun. These stories feature the Doctor and his companions running about small sets that imply larger worlds, and there’s a sense of wonder that’s contagious, that there really is a whole universe waiting to be explored as soon as the TARDIS roars to life. A good story, whether it costs $200 million or just $200 to produce, obscures the artifice, welcomes the viewer into its world and holds the attention throughout.
“The Gunfighters” isn’t one of these stories. It’s insular, dull and unfocused, like a stranger’s forgotten snapshot found in the back of library book. It’s interesting at a glance, but hardly worth a second look.
When the TARDIS arrives in Tombstone, Arizona, site of the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral, Stephen (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) are very excited to find themselves in the wild West and quickly outfit themselves in the proper attire so as to fit in with the locals. Despite his protests the Doctor (William Hartnell) looks good in a cowboy hat, like a retired marshall or a railroad tycoon, but he’s waylaid by a toothache that leads him to the recently opened dental office of Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs). Soon he’s caught up in a case of mistaken identity as Holliday tricks a group of outlaws called the Clanton brothers into gunning for the Doctor instead of Doc.
Westerns are all about taming, civilizing, even controlling some great unknown, themes equally at home in science fiction, so the story’s failing isn’t in its playful genre-hopping. The series was known for traveling to Earth’s distant past as much as to imaginary parts of the universe, and westerns’ popularity in the ’60s, practically demanded at least a token shootout from other shows like Star Trek and The Prisoner, but like Stephen and Dodo the show is doing little more than playing dress-up. Purves and Lane are solid, but Hartnell, in poor health and nearing the end of his run on the show, plays the Doctor as a buffoon, like Mr. Magoo with a time machine. The Clantons, Holliday, Wyatt Earp (John Alderson) and the other residents of Tombstone speak in poor approximations of American accents which fluctuate from the laughable to the unintelligible. With the sets, the accents and the gunshots we see all the strings, and they’re hanging limp and lifeless.
“The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”, a barroom ditty that plays throughout the story, is a leitmotif which adds a bit of welcome humor at the story’s opening, but soon devolves into little more than a rhyming rehash of events just past in the story. It’s inclusion is the boldest element, but one that ultimately proves more annoying than useful. This sentiment is echoed by script editor Gerry Davis in the thoughtful bonus feature “The End of the Line?” The song, says Davis, “…didn’t add anything, held up the action and wasn’t the greatest song ever written.”
Dodo seems to think otherwise. After the Doctor and his companions become reluctant participants in the shootout at the O.K. Corral, Dodo hears the song coming from a nearby saloon, her eyes wide with all the possibilities of the West. As the Doctor rustles her back to the TARDIS tsks, “My dear Dodo, you’re fast becoming a prey to every cliché and convention in the American West.” You too, Doctor. You too.