Perhaps it would be easier for all of us if The Gunfighters was a musical. In 1966, the relatively modern idea that a drama series might, for an episode, abandon its format and take up the trappings of a movie musical was as far fetched as science fiction. But if it had, then maybe it would all make a bit more sense to us, viewing it nearly 50 years later.
But The Gunfighters is not a musical, it’s a comic Doctor Who historical which features a song. It’s a song which exists in the internal narrative, but also functions as a storytelling tool of its own and as an external commentary on the narrative itself. It’s mind bendingly complex. And it doesn’t help that the song is used to excess and is chirpily irritating.
Perhaps the song would be easier to take if the story was set in a time and place related to the musical genre. If say, the Doctor and co landed on the set of a 1930s broadway show, or a Doris Day film. But The Gunfighters is set in the blood soaked surrounds of the OK Corral. Even if we reason that this story pays more attention to Hollywood’s depiction of the Wild West than its unglamorous reality, it’s still in a genre mainly known for high drama and unflinching violence, rather than jaunty singalongs.
But here it is anyway, a spoof Western with a dramatic sting in its tail, a song and visitors from outer space. Never mind that this is the strangest Doctor Who story ever produced. It’s the strangest piece of television I’ve ever seen. And I’ve watched every episode of Twin Peaks.
It was always designed to be wacky – you don’t recommission Donald Cotton, writer of The Myth Makers so you can remake The Massacre. Cotton had apparently included the song – the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, as it’s known – in the story as background colour, but it was director Rex Tucker who allegedly decided to feature it heavily and integrate it into the narrative. It’s hard to imagine the state of mind that led to this decision. Even if you dislike the script of The Gunfighters (which, save for a few too many convenient plot twists, I don’t at all), what made him think “this would be better with more of the song. Pour it all over it! Lashings and lashings of it!”?
For the first episode, the Ballad is acceptable, if shrill, incidental music. And really, what other sort of incidental music would you have used? It’s hard to imagine Dudley Simpson’s standard electronic buzzs and clicks over the top of this. But then at the end of the episode, Steven (a stoic Peter Purves) is forced to sing it (while Dodo plays a mean piano) and he serenades us into the end credits. Now Season Three of Doctor Who is a rollercoaster ride of genre and quality, but this must have left even the most dedicated of watchers bemused.
In the third episode, the song starts to comment on the narrative, when Wyatt Earp (John, Alderson) knocks Phineas Clanton (Maurice Good) unconscious. “So pick him up gentle and carry him slow, He’s gone kind of mental under Earp’s heavy blow” it croons, and so the song explains to us what we’ve just seen happen on TV. If that wasn’t strange enough, when Charlie the Barman (David Graham) is shot, the verse dedicated to commemorating this act is sung three times. We get it! He’s dead!
But in the fourth episode, the Ballad changes function again. Bad guy Johnny Ringo (Lawrence Payne, who I can’t look at without recalling his appearance in The Two Doctors, where he was dressed like a disco version on The Thunderbirds‘ Brains) has followed Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs) and his girlfriend Kate Fisher (Sheena Marsh) to a nearby but strangely unnamed town.
So Johnny’s outside a hotel. He’s the only person in shot, looking off camera when the song starts again: “Johnny Ringo has found her. Johnny Ringo’s found Kate. The gunslinger’s got her, Now what is her fate?” Now note that this is before we can see Kate, but we can see the look of dangerous satisfaction on Ringo’s face.
More song: “Johnny Ringo has seen her, She’s coming his way. Johnny Ringo and Katie were lovers, they say.” And only now does Kate enter the shot, and we can see that the Ballad has been telling us the story for once, instead of retelling it. And for that moment, it’s intriguing and you can see how it might have worked throughout the whole story.
Meanwhile, Doc Holliday has struck up an unlikely friendship with Dodo (Jackie Lane). When he and Kate flee Tombstone, he insists on taking Dodo, for no discernible reason. So Dodo ends up being an unwilling gooseberry throughout Holliday and Kate’s sojourn to a town called nothing. And although Dodo forces Holliday at gunpoint to return to Tombstone, she’s oddly devoted to him. In the middle of the climactic Gunfight at the OK Corral, bullets flying everywhere, she runs out into it to join him. For no other reason than to be briefly captured by Ringo. Honestly, it’s a contender for dumbest move by a companion ever. This is clearly a Dodo with a death wish.
But this is a black comedy, so black it mightn’t have entirely surprised if Dodo had bitten the dust, followed by a hammy punchline, and perhaps another verse of the Ballad. (“She’s as dead as a Dodo, and it’s all gone to ruin! Vacant room in the TARDIS and the Last Chance Saloon!”). Doc Holliday shoots some folk offscreen while fetching dinner and the other Doctor (Hartnell, having fun throughout) rests his hand absentmindedly on poor old dead Charlie. Grim laughs indeed.
It’s often mentioned that The Gunfighters was the story that really did for the historicals. But it also meant the end for comedy stories for a long time until, what…City of Death? Sure, there were plenty of stories with lighter moments, but outright comedies were no more. And they had been semi-regular in Doctor Who up until this point: The Romans, The Myth Makers and then this. And musical stories? The next story which could make a claim to that would be Delta and the Bannermen 21 years later.
There can’t be many stories that have scared Doctor Who off three genres: historical, musical and comedy. And on top of all that, the director took his name off the last episode, apparently over a disagreement about editing. Another inexplicable decision from Rex Tucker. Of the myriad of weird things going on in The Gunfighters, the thing which really got his goat was the editing? The editing?!
LINK TO The Rings of Akhaten: Songs.
NEXT TIME… AHHHIMMM in charge! Bring out your dead, it’s Dark Water/Death in Heaven