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Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

BBC Worldwide // Unrated // July 12, 2011
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted June 21, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Show:

One thing that you have to give to the early Doctor Who stories: they were willing to try new things. Case in point: The Gunfighters from the show's third season. This old west adventure was the first Who story set entirely in the US but they also decided to have a song narrate the show. This tune, the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon acts as a sort of Greek Chorus. It was an interesting idea that was mildly entertaining at first, but the song quickly wore out its welcome and became grating by the time the serial was finished. That song probably has a lot to do with this story's infamy among Doctor Who fans. Often cited as one of the worst stories ever, it's actually a decent, if minor adventure that works fairly well despite some hard to ignore flaws.

The Doctor and the crew of the TARDIS (Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) and Dodo Chaplet (Jackie Lane)) find themselves in Tombstone, Arizona, circa 1881. When they realized just where and when they are, Steven and Dodo run into the TARDIS and excitedly change into western garb, excited to check out the local scenery. The Doctor, however, has a very bad toothache and runs off to see the local dentist while his companions book a room for the night at the local saloon/inn. At the saloon Steven and Dodo meet the Clayton brothers, Ike, Phineas and Billy, who are looking for the gunslinger Doc Holiday. They blame him for the death of their other brother, Reuben, and plan to kill him. Meanwhile The Doctor has found a physician, none other than Doc Holliday himself who has just been warned that the Clayton's are gunning for him.

After pulling the diseased tooth, Holliday notes a very vague resemblance between himself and his patient. Not charging him for the service, Holliday even gives The Doctor his six-shooter when he hears that the old man is going to the saloon. As Holliday predicted, once the Clayton's hear Steven refer to his friend as "The Doctor" they assume that the time-traveler is the gunslinger and no amount of talking will convince them otherwise. That looks like a sticky situation but just add in sheriff Wyatt Earp, his two brothers Warren and Virgil, along with Bat Masterson and the desperado Johnny Ringo and the travelers find themselves about to be caught in the middle of one of the most famous gunfights of the old west.

Seeing this story for the first time makes me realize that it has been unfairly maligned in the past. This adventure has a lot going for it, especially since they're doing a western. There's a lot of action, the sets look decent (much better than a lot of the other adventures from this time), and the humor works well. It's actually one of the more violent episodes from this era too, which isn't a bad thing. The gunfight at the OK Coral that ends the story is exciting (even if it has nothing to do with the real event) and there's even a bartender who gets shot in cold blood just for speaking a name! That's what the target audience wants when they think of a western.

It has been said that William Hartnell really wanted to do a western and if that is the case, it shows here. He's at the top of his form in this serial. He rarely blows a line (something that happens all too frequently in this part of the show's run) and he genuinely seems to be having a lot of fun. He gets into his role as time traveler (and later as deputy) and plays it very well.

If the show has so many good points, why does it have such a poor reputation? Well, there are a few flaws, all of them hard to ignore. While William Hartnell does a splendid job, Peter Purves, dress up in a garish nightmare of a western outfit, overacts to a large extent. It's not as bad as in The Chase, but he really needs to tone it down some. For American audiences especially, the accents that everyone employs are absolutely wretched. Haven't these people ever heard an American talk? If so, they don't have the ability to duplicate it. There are a couple of plot holes too (why does The Doctor take a gun every time someone hands one to him??).

The main reason that I think this story has gone down as one of the worst however is one single stylistic choice: the use of a song running through the serial. I'll give them credit for trying something new, but stringing in The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon though each and every episode, adding more verses as the story progressed, just didn't work at all. At first the song was nice, establishing the setting with a few lines:

On your way then you cowboys
The time will be soon
When there's blood on the sawdust
In "The Last Chance" Saloon.

But they used it again, and again, and again. It was supposed to be some sort of Greek Chorus, but it only retold the events that we've already seen:

Johnny Ringo has found her
Johnny Ringo's found Kate
The gunslinger's got her
Now what is her fate?

Yeah, we know. It's arguable the worst when Steven and Dodo sing the song (several times!) in the saloon. You just can't get away from it.

If you can manage to ignore, or just tune out, the long repetitive song, this is actually a solid, if minor, Doctor Who adventure.

The DVD:

This four part adventure comes on a single DVD.


This show comes with the original mono soundtrack that fits the show just fine. The dynamic range is nothing to write home about, but the dialog is generally crisp and clear and there is no background noise, tape hiss, distortion or dropouts. There are optional subtitles in English.


The full frame B&W image is impressive. The Restoration Team did an excellent job, really making the most of what they had to work with. The image is nicely balanced and the definition and level of detail is very good. The contrast has been adjusted too to create a very pleasing image. The blacks are deep and inky and the whites are solid without blooming. This is an excellent looking picture.


This disc has some great extras included, as is the standard for Doctor Who releases. There is a commentary track for all episodes featuring actors Peter Purves, Shane Rimmer, David Graham and Richard Beale, production assistant Tristan de Vere Cole and moderator Toby Hadoke. These Who commentary tracks are just about always enjoyable to listen to, and this one is no exception. Peter Purves has great recall of the taping of the show and is forthcoming with a lot of fun stories. I especially liked when the contributors got around to discussing the horrific Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. It's pretty entertaining.

Other featurettes include The End of the Line: Doctor Who (43 min) a very informative look at the behind-the-scenes changes that took place during the third season and beyond, changes that could have derailed the show. The documentary focuses on the various producers who manned the show after Verity Lambert departed and their different takes on the Doctor as well as some of the problems that occurred during the transitions (mainly when one producer bought a story for the successor). This is a great look at the nuts-and-bolts of the early stories and a must-see for any die-hard Who fan. That documentary would be enough for most shows, but they've always gone the extra mile on these classic Doctor Who releases. There's also a Tomorrow's Times: The First Doctor (14 minutes) where excerpts from reviews of Hartnel's Doctor Who stories are read that were originally published at the time of the show's original airing. I found it fascinating to hear what they said about the first story as well as the critic's thoughts on the over-exposure of the Daleks.

In addition there is a pop-up informational text option which is very informative as always. It does give some dry statistics, like how many people viewed each episode, but there are also some interesting notes such as script changes that were made and background information on the supporting characters. The extras are rounded off with, a couple of photo galleries, and the listings from the Radio Times in .pdf format.

Final Thoughts:

This installment of Doctor Who has been unfairly maligned as one of the worst stories in the series. It's not that bad by a long shot. There's a solid story, some good action (it actually gets fairly violent at the end) and some amusing situations. On top of that William Hartnell does a great job in this one and the Restoration Team has really worked their magic too. If you've been avoiding this because of the serial's reputation, do yourself a favor and check it out. Recommended.
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