|I have no need for a gun, my dear boy. One look
at my plaid pants will slay even the most vile
It’s April 30, 1966. Dusty Springfield is politely disclaiming the necessity of us telling her we love her, and next week Manfred Mann is going to sing about a Pretty Flamingo, which certainly sounds exciting. Lower on the charts are your usual mix of mid-60s artists – forgettable pop groups and American imports aplenty, with occasional outbreaks of Cher, The Who, or The Beach Boys. The most interesting thing you get is the chart run of Wild Thing, which never hits number one, but at least does help illustrate the way in which a dirtier, rougher sound was entering mainstream pop music. (Did some blogger just find better UK chart data than he’d been using? Yes. Yes he did.)
In other news, the first episode of today’s Doctor Who story aired on the same day that Anton LaVey formed the Church of Satan, which, as we’ll talk about, must be hilarious for a certain segment of fandom that considers this story to basically be the Devil itself. Other news over the next few weeks will include the launch of some pirate radio stations off the coast of Britain, the resolution of the Moors Murders we talked about way back when Donald Cotton was last writing for Doctor Who, more Rhodesia problems, and more Vietnam War protests. Oh, and Pet Sounds and Blonde on Blonde both come out on the same day, which is actually kind of awesome.
So there’s not exactly any thrills going on in the culture of Britain here. Things are boiling along. The stylized optimism of mod culture and Vicki are not gone, as such – if anything, they’re entering their most important era. But they’re counterbalanced by the fact that the world is as scary a place as it’s been since Hitler was busy taking it over. This is one of those periods that history seems ill-suited to. We know the ending, both the Summer of Love in America, the Underground in the UK, and the final collapse of it all in ’68. At the time, though, everything is up in the air, smoldering tensely.
But that’s OK, because The Gunfighters is one of the few Doctor Who stories it is nearly impossible to take primarily as a product of its times. Because The Gunfighters is, more than any other Doctor Who story, and I include the fanwankiest depths of the John Nathan-Turner era in that, the story that symbolizes Doctor Who fandom.
Let’s have a bit of history, shall we? Up until the 1980s, Doctor Who fandom in the sense we know it today wasn’t really possible. With no Internet and no home video, Doctor Who fans were left mostly with the novelizations (more about which on… ooh, blimey, let me think through all the stuff I’m packing in the next few weeks… how’s April 20th looking for you?) and some hazy memories for the bulk of the show’s run. In the 1970s Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke put out The Making of Doctor Who, and that was actually the first time a complete list of Doctor Who stories was ever published. It wasn’t until the 1980s that publishing the list became routine, due to a swirl of factors we’ll learn more about when we get there, but that, to be very brief, had to do with trying to repackage the show to be more like American cult sci-fi and the buzz over the 20th anniversary. So it was that in the 1980s, Doctor Who fandom was invented.
One of the first and most important consequences of Doctor Who fandom was Peter Haining’s 1983 coffee table book Doctor Who: A Celebration
. This book featured the earliest attempt to systematically review all Doctor Who stories up to that point, in a section written by Jeremy Bentham (Yes, Foucault fans, he is related). Bentham was the head of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s reference department, the fandom before fandom, which, through their diligence, is why we have things like “any Doctor Who stories from the 1960s” and “detailed knowledge of production.” And so this section represented Holy Writ for a long time – the assumed default consensus of fandom.
It’s impossible to overstate how important this book and section is. Even still, it’s the starting point for assessments of the show. Any time you start discussing and debating a story, frankly, you start with Bentham. The Celestial Toymaker is known as a classic in a large part because it was written up as one by Bentham. If you, as I do, say it’s actually rubbish, you know full well that you’re arguing against Bentham here and that you will never, ever actually remove its status as a classic. The story will become a classic that’s fallen from grace, but never a bad story. So what is the default consensus on The Gunfighters? Let’s just quote the review outright, shall we?
If ever reviewers feel tempted to pour scorn on the attempts by America to emulate British costume drama, a good lesson in humility could be learned from studyign this serial as a demonstration of how the British can not do westerns. It was billed as a show about the gunfight at the OK Corral, but it was more the massacre of the OK Corral.
So badly was this show received by the public that its audience viewing figures dipped below the horizontal axis line on the ratings graph in the Doctor Who producer’s office for the only time in the programme’s history!
What made this serial so poor is the cumulative effect of so many bad points which on their own would be forigven in most other stories. The script was pure Talbot Rothwell, the acting was not even bad vaudeville and the direction was more West Ham than West Coast.
It was not good. It was bad and it was ugly. It was certainly the story that decided in the mind of new producer Innes Lloyd that the time had come to rethink the policy of using historical stories in Doctor Who’s framework.
Ouch. And it’s the only story in the book to get a drubbing like that. Some other stories are widely disliked, but only The Gunfighters has the status of clearly and unambiguously being the worst Doctor Who story ever made. And for over a decade, that was all there was to say about it. Doctor Who Magazine took the Bentham position as gospel. The CMS fanzines had a pseudonymous review taking the story to task for historical inaccuracy (but note that Bentham is one of the writers of that issue, so his hand is pretty clearly there). And the Howe-Stammers-Walker Doctor Who handbook (Howe being Bentham’s successor as head of the DWAS reference department) from 1994 declares, “After the high drama of the previous story, The Gunfighters is a disappointment. This is a rare example of Doctor Who attempting something previously untried and failing… Ultimately the attempt to stage a full scale Western adventure in a small UK TV studio proves too much of a challenge and is what lets the story down.”
So it is written, so shall it be. But even now, we should be able to see that there just might be some problems here. For one thing, complaining that the BBC can’t do a realistic Western seems to ignore the fact that the BBC has some obvious problems with a realistic planet of insects
, a realistic generation starship
, or, as Moffat pointed out, realistic cars
. It seems bewildering to suddenly get on the realism bandwagon here of all places. Yes, the moment you hear the Clanton Brothers talk you know full well you’re in a British western, but… well… you are
in a British western. Just like a month ago you were on a British starship in the far future, and before that you’ve been in British 16th century France, British Rome, and British Mexico. I mean, they can’t even keep a consistent accent for Dodo at this point in the series, and she’s supposed to be British
Perhaps the greatest moment in “wait a moment, what show do you folks actually think you’re watching here,” however, comes from the Howe-Stammers-Walker guide, in which they suggest that it is in some way surprising that Peter Purves is a good comic actor. This would be the same Peter Purves whose first appearance on the series was as a drawling Alabama hick in a comic role? And who would go on to be a highly successful host of children’s television? It’s surprising that a host of Blue Peter would be funny? What?
I mean, if these weren’t some of the most devoted Doctor Who fans in the world, I’d be forced to wonder if they actually watched the episode, or simply made things up. Instead, however, we’re left with an even more unsettling prospect. The clue is back in the Bentham review, when the script is described as “pure Talbot Rothwell.” Talbot Rothwell being one of the great comic writers of the 20th century, voted in 2007 as having written the best cinematic one-liner in British film history. Which suggests, perhaps, that the problem is a belief that Doctor Who isn’t supposed to be funny.
But the result is that this story is still widely hated. Case in point, the hilarious anecdote from Shearman and Hadoke’s Running Through Corridors where Shearman talks about a woman who stood up at a panel at a convention in LA and proclaimed “as if she were delivering holy writ, that there were two monsters she didn’t want to see make a return appearance in Doctor Who. The Zarbi were one, and the Gunfighters were the other.” Which captures, I think, the basic issue here. Because “monsters” in the modern Doctor Who sense have very little to do with the Hartnell era. Certainly treating the Clanton brothers in The Gunfighters as having some semiotic similarity to Daleks requires a catastrophic failure to have a clue what is going on in this story.
But let’s be generous here. This is 1980s fandom. In which memory of past stories was as important as actual textual evidence, and in many cases more so. Although I’m pretty sure Bentham had seen The Gunfighters, and sure at least one of Howe-Stammers-Walker did, the fact of the matter is, Bentham was the only source on The Gunfighters most people had for a decade. The novelization didn’t come out until 1985 (after the novelizatons were switching to collectors items, not, you know, books), the VHS until 2002. This isn’t some flaw in the readings of past stories or fan consensus. 1983 was the first year any Doctor Who came out on VHS. Prior to that, treating the history of Doctor Who as something you could visit instead of reading about was not so much wrong as not even conceivable. So inasmuch as The Gunfighters was remembered poorly, poorly rated, and a sort of story that wasn’t like most Doctor Who, it became a scapegoat for utterly understandable reasons.
Then came what we might call the second wave of criticism, in which the 90s came, Doctor Who fans from all over the world started nattering on at each other on the Internet. And without an actual show to watch, and with a healthy release schedule on VHS coupled with the relative ease with which tape trading to acquire other stories, Doctor Who fandom began the Great Reevaluation.
The key text here is Paul Cornell, Martin Day, and Keith Topping’s 1995 Discontinuity Guide. Its reviews were short, but, crucially, the book was an irreverent romp that was perfectly willing to throw received wisdom out the window. It was idiosyncratic in the extreme, but such a massive breath of fresh air that its idiosyncrasies seemed and seem beside the point. But their summary of The Gunfighters – “With Hartnell, Purves and Anthony Jacobs in amazing form, and such a great script, this is a comic masterpiece, winning you over with its sheer charm” – was remarkable because it was more or less the first time anyone had publicly said something nice about the story. Its significance was not that it was terribly well-argued – how the acting went from terrible to amazing and the script became great and a masterpiece in a decade is never quite explained – but that it rang in an era where a motley crew of keyboard slinging Doctor Who fans were going to re-evaluate everything.
The thing about the Great Reevaluation is that it was not a rigorous examination of the history of Doctor Who. It was starting from the received wisdom of 80s fandom, and then arguing with it. Every Doctor Who fan had their pet eras that they could defend the genius of, and their pet eras they wanted to dump on. The result was that every single Doctor Who story save a narrow handful of barely disputed classics acquired a good reading and a bad reading. You can see this clearly if you look at the Doctor Who Ratings Guide
on The Gunfighters, basically what you get is fans arguing between the two poles. So for The Gunfighters, that means “it’s ridiculous and cheap” on one side, and “it’s funny” on the other, and to talk about the story you stake out a position somewhere on that line and stick to it.
The archetypal example of this is probably the 2002 review of the VHS release in Doctor Who Magazine. Which ends up taking the neutral position of pointing out the flaws in most of the arguments against it, before finally suggesting that the root problem is just that Doctor Who fans don’t much like westerns. Which is vintage Great Reevaluation – an argument that is less about the TV episode than it is about reconciling a mass of past consensus on the story. Ultimately, the Great Reevaluation is less about the stories themselves than it is about negotiating the nature of fan consensus in a fandom that is becoming more egalitarian. Which makes sense. We’re still dealing with an era where the less-classic stories are hard to find. This is still, much like 1983, a period where it’s easier to find what everyone else has said about The Gunfighters than it is to watch it for yourself.
Which brings us to the third era of fan consensus. The one that by and large began in 2002, when the VHS era came to an end with a hurried release of all surviving material, and had clearly begun by 2006 when Loose Cannon got the last of their reconstructions out. Basically, this was the era when it was finally the case that an average fan could fairly easily get their hands on any story they wanted. This has only grown more and more true – these days if you want to watch a Doctor Who story, you need know nothing other than the url of a BitTorrent site. They’re all up. And especially with the avalanche of new fans who came in post-2005 and don’t give a crap what Jeremy Bentham said in 1983, we have the era of Reconstructionist Criticism.
The magnum opus here is, as you might guess, the six-volume Miles and Wood set About Time, which is notable for attempting to provide a thorough overview of Doctor Who stories based primarily on watching the stories and looking at the influences at the time. It’s difficult in some ways to wrap one’s head around this, given that the show has ben around for so long, but in many ways About Time is the first serious and thorough attempt to look at stories primarily in the context they happened in as opposed to primarily through the lens of post-1983 fandom. The books are amazing, and anyone who likes this blog should buy them. (I really should get an Amazon Affiliates link going for that, shouldn’t I?)
That’s since being joined by Running Through Corridors, a more personal approach that is based more heavily on the experience of watching and responding, but is done by actual TV professionals who are thus good at and qualified to talk about nuances of acting, camera work, etc. And again, shockingly given the age of the show, Shearman and Hadoke provide the first significant times anyone has actually bothered doing close-readings of individual scenes from some episodes.
And that’s a tradition I’ll happily slot myself into as well. My goal, and I freely admit that it’s made massively easier by the fact that I’m the third one to go over the Hartnell and Troughton era (I will cry when I hit 1970 and suddenly have to go without Shearman and Hadoke. Volume II cannot come out fast enough), is to tell the story of how Doctor Who got to where it is today, and to tell this story primarily from the perspective of the episodes themselves, rather than from a production-based perspective. (Since the making of Doctor Who from 1963 to present is extremely well covered by existing sources)
Because one thing that’s very clear about the Reconstructionist era of Doctor Who criticism is that it is a contemporary phenomenon. For one thing, it depends heavily on the fact that the new series, particularly under Steven Moffat, has made media critics of us all. Look at something like this
(spoilers for the new series, but nothing that isn’t in the BBC trailer) where a 60 second trailer is taken apart frame by frame to see what’s revealed and you’ll quickly realize the degree to which the new series hinges on active, savvy viewership. I mean, the entire denouement of The Big Bang is based in part on a fake blooper from an earlier episode. The Reconstructionist approach is, in the end, based on watching old Doctor Who with the tools embraced by new Doctor Who.
Reconstructionists, by and large, seem to love The Gunfighters, and I’m certainly among them – this is one of Hartnell’s best stories. (In my evolving ranking of Doctor Who stories that I’m privately keeping while watching, it’s the sixth-best Doctor Who story to date.) Shearman and Hadoke unrepentantly enjoy the story, and Woods and Miles are more than happy to defend it. So let’s, for once and for all, figure out what this story actually is instead of what decades of ossified fan-lore say it is.
First off, let’s note that the writer of the story, Donald Cotton, is not a hack. If we remove this story from consideration, we’re left with The Myth Makers, which is, as I’ve already argued, sublimely good (in part because it gets in early on the “the Doctor loses” bandwagon so that its ending is novel and exciting, not expected), and with his novelization of The Romans, which is by miles funnier than the original script. To be perfectly frank, on the evidence of The Myth Makers alone, it’s pretty easy to argue that Cotton is the funniest writer to write for Doctor Who until Douglas Adams wanders by. So whatever is going on in this story, the odds are pretty good that it’s well-written. Certainly given a writer who has written two great bits of Doctor Who should probably be given the benefit of the doubt on his third.
The main thing that Cotton brings here, aside from a fantastic sense of humor, is that he understands something very important to writing good stories in a serial format. The concept of the story is not the story. The concept for this story – the Doctor in the wild west – is easy. Anybody can, very rapidly, come up with two dozen good concepts and settings for a Doctor Who story. A mediocre Doctor Who story – in any era – stands out because that’s all it is. It’s my essential problem with a story like The Reign of Terror. At the end of the day, the story isn’t about anything besides “the Doctor and company get stuck in Revolutionary France.” And even that is only accomplished because the Doctor is written out of character in the first episode. Compare to something like “The Massacre,” which is not about a bunch of Huguenots getting killed, but rather about Steven’s failure to display sufficient independence, and you quickly see why one story is great and the other isn’t.
Cotton gets this. This story is about something.
You can get that, really, from the first shot – a low shot, peering from beneath a wagon, as horses ride down the street and the Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon plays. The ballad is one of the most talked about aspects of the episode. Some people claim it’s disruptive and distracting. Others get it stuck in their head. For my part, I love it, because it is a line in the stand that declares that the world of the Western is different
from everything else. More than any establishing shot thus far on the series, more even than the bizarre landscape of Vortis or the jump-start of The Crusade
, this makes it clear that the TARDIS is visiting an existing landscape. Which is quickly re-enforced by the ballad giving way to the sound effect of the TARDIS, a massive tonal contrast. This tonal contrast is used for every cliffhanger as well, as another verse of the ballad gives way to Delia Derbyshire’s shrieking rendition of the theme with bewildering frisson.
This idea that the TARDIS has taken them somewhere they don’t quite fit is quickly reinforced by the scene after the TARDIS crew realizes where they are, in which Dodo and Steven giddily run back to the TARDIS, Steven declaring that he’s always wanted to be a cowboy, and Dodo wanting to be a cowgirl as well. They re-emerge in ridiculously overdone western clothes (including Dodo with an idiotic wig), drop a cowboy hat on the Doctor’s head, and start playing at being in a western. They are, of course, terrible at it – Steven trips over his spurs and drops his guns.
The dead giveaway, however, is how the Doctor introduces the crew to Wyatt Earp. The Doctor decides to pawn off the entire TARDIS crew as a theatrical troupe. This is where the story firmly takes its shape. It is, in the end, about the genre of the western, a world where the TARDIS crew doesn’t really belong, and about their attempt to play as if they do belong there. Which, to a meaningful extent, parallels the production – a BBC television studio being used for a genre it doesn’t really belong in, and a bunch of actors attempting to play as if they’re doing a real western. It is less about the western genre than it is about the theatricality of it. Bizarrely, it watches particularly well if you watch an episode of Deadwood first, since the theatrical and stylized dialogue of that and the British trying to do a western are actually strangely similar.
Most specifically, however, this story about the degree to which the Doctor just doesn’t belong in this story. The episode one cliffhanger is the key moment here, as the Doctor, after having his tooth removed by Doc Holiday, staggers down the street towards an ambush by the Clanton Brothers. On the one hand, it’s a classic western shot – the main character walking alone down the street towards a battle. On the other hand, the main character is oblivious, has a toothache, and is staring in bewilderment at his gun.
For the first two episodes, at least, this is played for fairly straight laughs. Hartnell, Purves, and even the usually spectacularly narrow-ranged Lane are having an absolute blast with these scenes, which helps. Lane gets what is probably the best scene of her time on the show, where she pulls a gun on Holiday and demands to be taken back to Tombstone. The scene is hilarious, particularly when she nearly passes out after he agrees, and then again when he lets her know he could have taken her, and has an odd charm, as Holiday agrees despite not being in any real danger. Clearly it won’t do that Dodo has finally worked as a character, and we’ll have to write her out immediately.
Purves, on the other hand, demonstrates an odd skill. Looking at this next to his performances in The Celestial Toymaker, The Massacre, and The Time Meddler, it’s striking how different they are. Part of this is down to an inconsistently and hazily-defined character in Steven (think of how little his origins and nature have come up compared to any of the companions before him), but part of it is down to Purves being a chameleon of an actor, capable of filling in whatever spot is needed in a scene or story. This is particularly useful given that he’s acting alongside the erratic William Hartnell. Though Hartnell, in this story, is more on the ball and on target than we’ve seen him in ages. It’s well-known that by this point he was being eased out of the lead role by the production team, and that the entire set was tense from his tendency towards outbursts and tantrums, so seeing him appear to have fun at this late a stage in his run is genuinely nice. (Also nice is watching a Billy Fluff – calling Wyatt Earp “Werp,” is played off of by Peter Purves to make a small joke, reminding us that not every fluff is actually an error.)
But there’s also the sense of something looming over these episodes. It’s perhaps clearest towards the end of episode 2, in which the Doctor is warned that “the boy don’t want words, they want action.” The Doctor, after all, is at home with words. This is reinforced throughout the script with bits of clever wordplay and the like. But lurking is the fact that the Doctor, Steven, and Dodo are not well-suited to this world. This world takes action.
And then in the third episode, things start to get darker. Johnny Ringo shows up, and as his first major act guns down Charlie, the barman, because Charlie knows who he is. It’s a horrifying scene – Ringo takes obvious delight in the murder, and the sequence revels in its contrasts. Charlie falls over dead with comedic flopping, and the ballad strikes up again to add a bit of levity, but the camera stays for a perversely long time on Charlie, stressing the fact that this is the first death of the story, and Ringo’s icy pleasure in the kill adds another dissonant note. The end effect resembles the brutal turn of The Myth Makers, but does something that story did not – sits for a while right on the cusp of comedy and darkness, and lets the viewer twist uncomfortably.
And then in episode four, Cotton redoes his Myth Makers trick, and it’s just as good as the first time he collapses a comedy into a tragedy. The inevitable gunfight is a long, gorgeously filmed sequence with shots paralleling the establishing shots from episode one leading into a lengthy stretch of savage violence. Never before in Doctor Who has the soundtrack been reduced to the drumbeat of gunfire as shot after shot is fired. And suddenly the Doctor’s continual reluctance to carry a gun in the story – a reluctance that is reiterated so much that this story, more than any other, has to be taken as the basis for Terrance Dicks’s famous “never carries a gun” mandate – takes on further depth.
Ironically, and contrary to most readings, in the end, this is a story about why Doctor Who isn’t a western. Here Doctor Who stakes out the essential difference between itself and Star Trek before Star Trek airs its first episode. At the end of the day, Star Trek is about a man of action on the frontier. And Doctor Who is about a man of words wandering freely through the world. This is a story about that difference. The Doctor is ill-suited for a world of action, and a world with a TARDIS has no frontiers. But more to the point, by collapsing into the brutal violence of the final gunfight, this is a story to persuade us that we’d rather be in Doctor Who than the wild west. That as much fun as Steven and Dodo may have playing cowboy and cowgirl, in the end, this world of brutality and guns simply is not as good a place as the world of the Doctor.
In a way then, perhaps it’s not until Doctor Who fandom reached its era of Reconstructionist Criticism that this story could have been appreciated. As clever as it is, it seems also impossibly ahead of its time, depending on a mode of viewing that is much more 2011 than it is 1966. And perhaps the best evidence of this comes not from the tomes of Reconstructionism, nor from the Great Reconsidering, nor even from the 1983 roots of modern fandom. The best evidence comes from the one era we rarely consider with regards to the Hartnell era – the Hartnell era itself.
As this episode aired, Sydney Newman, head of drama at the BBC and co-creator of the series, criticized it with a lengthy memo taking the story to task for being too silly and too much of a send-up. In it, he suggested that none but the most sophisticated viewers would appreciate the story. And the episode’s viewing figures – both in numbers and audience appreciation – bear his guess out. The story was not well-liked at the time (perhaps part of why it became Bentham’s sacrificial lamb in the Haining book).
The Gunfighters is unmistakably an oddball in 1966 – a largely comedic story in amongst the serious and apocalyptic, a historical as the genre was already in decline, and a Hartnell-heavy story amidst stories that have consciously been written to marginalize his character. And, of course, a story set in a foreign country in a subgenre that the BBC had never done before. But in the end, this is much more faithful to what Doctor Who is than The Celestial Toymaker or The Ark are. It is 2011, and we are all sophisticated viewers now. Maybe we should finally admit it. Stetsons are cool.
Want to watch The Gunfighters for yourself? Perhaps you should buy it from Amazon via this handy link, and in doing so make me a small but very welcome amount of money.