Sunday, 20 May 2012

Why I love 'The Gunfighters'

I wish to go on record declaring my love for The Gunfighters. If ever there were a misjudged, unjustly maligned story, then The Gunfighters is it. Common knowledge paints it as the worst of the Hartnells, a misfire in his desperate final year cursed with crushingly poor ratings. In truth, the audience for The Gunfighters was no worse than any serial of 1966, and far better than some; and although it may not be to everyone's taste, it is a far better story than most will accept. The reason why? Because it's funny.

So many people seem to miss the point with this story. So many critics view The Gunfighters as if it were intended as a serious historical drama. Its comedy credentials are clear from the off. The Doctor, having just defeated the godlike powers of the Celestial Toymaker, is defeated by nothing more unearthly than a toothache. Mistaken for Doc Holliday, Seth Harper informs him that he won't be leaving Tombstone. The Clantons, all four of them, lean forward and intone, as one man, "Alive, that is!" Why aren't fans performing these routines at conventions?

It's William Hartnell that makes it. Nowhere is his unerring talent for verbal and physical comedy more apparent than here. Witness him, locked up and smuggled a gun for his escape. He spins the gun on his finger, chuckling as he amuses himself. "I say, Mister Werp, can you do that?" I fail to understand how anyone can watch Hartnell in this scene and not laugh.

"I say, Mister Werp!"

It's silly, it's childish, it's dated, but so what? That's what makes it so enjoyable. Back in the sixties Westerns were a staple American export. Doctor Who, in one its most experimental seasons, was subverting a genre prevalent in the public mind. Peter Purves is almost as good as Hartnell in the comedy stakes, playing a time traveller wearing a flagrantly camp fancy dress cowboy outfit, a quarter of a century before Back to the Future III did the same joke.

I accept, the ongoing Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon stretches the patience. Yes, the accents travel everywhere from Birmingham to British Columbia, not once intersecting with Arizona. There's too much to love here to let these quibbles bring you down. Anthony Jacobs is a brilliantly likeable rogue as Doc Holliday. Kate's charms are a good deal more... frontal than we might expect from the time. It takes the mick throughout, yet ends in a truly tense and well-shot gunfight. There's a genuinely witty script there from Donald Cotton. If you really can't stick Lynda Baron's singing, at least read Cotton's novelisation. Then maybe you'll realise what you're missing.

This wee article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Panic Moon fanzine.

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