Home : Archive : TSV 51-60 : TSV 56 : Feature

The Gunfighters

A Tale of Two Ivories

By Andrew Pixley

The Bottom Ten No. 9
DWM Score: 49.97%
DWM Placing: 151st

Menace and danger are often more effective when they come from unexpected sources, and the black comedy of The Gunfighters is a highly effective - and entertaining - example of this premise. The cliffhanger to A Holiday for the Doctor alone is a stunning example. The Doctor has been suckered into posing as Doc Holliday by the Doc himself, and steered towards a deadly appointment with the Clanton brothers at the Last Chance Saloon; clutching his sore mouth from where a bad tooth has so recently been extracted, he is more concerned about his jaw than the borrowed six-shooter he is waving about. In the bar, Steven and Dodo are forced to sing and play the same terrible ballad over and over again while the Clantons lie in wait. As the absurd situation reaches its climax, the threat is hidden amidst the comedy as the picture fades to black and the action is ruled off by the final tinkling piano notes, the sickeningly jolly melody masking the murder in store.

In this comedy of errors, the clues of misunderstanding are carefully laid as in the best farce, right from the moment that Steven jokingly pretends he is a sharp-shooter in the barn, through the Clantons and Harper realising that none of them know what Doc Holliday looks like, the Doctor's horrifically unlikely yam of how he and his cohorts are travelling performers (“Come fellow thespians!”), and Kate and Holliday a-kissing and a-cuddling when the Doctor barges in as a ready-made scapegoat. The viewer - like Sheriff Bat Masterson - sees all this building from early on, and can only agree with Bat when he tells Wyatt Earp: “You and me's headed for a load of trouble boy!” Half the fun is that we can already see what is coming, and are not disappointed.

The comedy dynamic between the regulars sparkles from the moment that the Doctor sits, slumped and suffering from a toothache caused by his own rash actions - while his companions bounce noisily with glee at their latest point of arrival. He moans at the “absolutely absurd” Tom Mix get-up Steven adorns with. Then there are also the nice moments of absent-minded banter and the Doctor's usual fudged explanations (“Dr Caligari “- “Dr Who?” - “Yes, quite right”), plus his continual mispronunciation of Wyatt's name as “Mr Werp” (to the extent that even Steven starts saying it - that said, Earp gets his own back by calling the Doctor “Pop”). The jailhouse scene in which the Doctor spins the revolver forced upon him by Steven around his finger and calls “Mr Werp. I say, can you do that?” is a gem. The Doctor - or “old timer” - really is on fine form, reluctantly made Deputy Sherriff of Tombstone and protesting ineffectually at the continual use of firearms. Steven is totally out of his depth as he is lucklessly swept into various dangerous situations - but his reactions are a treat. Dodo too has some charming moments, dumbfounding Earp with her breath-taking desire to meet him (“Well the Lord sure do move in mysterious ways” says the bemused lawman calmly) and showing a streak of courage when she gets Doc Holliday at gunpoint (although she almost faints afterwards).

“You can't walk into the middle of a Western town and say you've come from outer space!”
- The Doctor

As for the guest characters, Doc Holliday is an inspired creation, vividly embodied by Anthony Jacobs. The man is a charasmatic rascal, exasperated when the standards of others fail to match his own (“You kill a guy out of sheer professional ethics...”), a cocktail of charm and menace; a card and whisky-loving, silver-tongued rogue who can either kill or cure. He is also a man who has his priorities right: “They got my operatin' chair!” he exclaims at Steven's “neck-tie party”. Holliday's reactions to Masterson's serious warnings are a delight, as is the scene where he administers dental treatment to the Doctor; discussing a form of anaesthetic, the Doctor says he does not want Doc's proffered slug of rattle-snake oil, to which the dentist declares “Well I do” and swigs away. “I'll be back just as soon as you've finished breakin' up my character” he remarks as he takes his leave of Kate and Dodo, although Kate knows he is a real gentleman deep down - i.e. he doesn't kill his friends (although he does appear to shoot one old friend merely to steal his supper) and he keeps promises made on his oath as Gentleman of Georgia. Also, Doc usually has the decency to remove his hat after shooting somebody with his hidden derringer ... even if the homicides are at an ungodly hour (“Quite why these get-togethers have to be sun-up ... ain't civilised”). Holliday is the best in an entire population of grotesques for Tombstone; the nervous-talking barman Charlie, the bible-bashing Marshall Wyatt Earp, the stuttering Phineas Clanton, the brassy Kate Fisher ... and the sadistic psychopathic Johnny Ringo.

[First Doctor, Steven, Dodo]

In terms of production, director Rex Tucker performed miracles with some nice atmospheric film sequences (notably with shots of the protagonists' legs), and excellent use of the Molecrane Richardson camera for notable high angle shots; watch Dodo and Steven exploring the feed store, Kate dancing in the Last Chance Saloon and Holliday looking down on the injured Harper. Donald Cotton's script sparkles with nuggets of humour and character play, and even one speech where each Clanton speaks a word in turn! The mood of the piece gets darker as it moves towards the bloody conclusion - and the humour gets blacker. The Doctor and Steven's discovery of Charlie's corpse is such a moment, followed by the Doctor absent-mindedly leaning on the ex-barman. Steven drops his fake accent, but still has some great moments; Virgil Earp offers to take Steven with him from the Clanton ranch to which the astronaut initially exclaims “Yeah, I'd like to” adding “Somehow I don't think it's going to be possible” as Pa Clanton swings a shotgun in his face.

William Hartnell is clearly very happy, back in the world of comedy, with some impeccable timing - witness the Doctor's effortless euphemistic comment that the giant molar outside Holliday's premises is not a subtle form of advertising and his sudden “Oh dear” on meeting the Clantons. Peter Purves milks every comedic moment with some of the best double-takes since Will Hay, Peter Glaze and Sooty; his attempts to spin a revolver (the barrel of which ends up facing him), his reaction as the ghoulish Charlie looms up from behind the previously empty bar (and the ensuing unappealing pitch for singer and pianist), his nervous glances at the Clantons' firearms and his snarling refrain that forms his fifth rendition of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.

Yes, the ballad. A true source of experimental style which emphasises both daftness and danger, blends killing with chuckles and mixes pantomime with the wild west. Seldom is humour in Doctor Who better than in the lament for the gabbling Charlie:

So it's curtains for Charlie
That barman of fame
He met Johnny Ringo
And he knew Johnny's name
He knew Johnny's name
And he spoke it out loud
Now Charlie the barman
Has gotten a shroud.

Yes sirree, all's OK at the Corral! “Goodbye you-all!”

#8 : Paradise Towers

This item appeared in TSV 56 (October 1998).

Index nodes: The Gunfighters