Doctor Who: The Gunfighters (UK - DVD R2)
The Wilson Bros get chafing from this saddlesore William Hartnell story...
Westerns were still popular in the mid-sixties - they had been a staple of American cinema for decades and the fifties and early sixties had seen the genre make its way into glowing boxes in the corner of living rooms around the world. Programmes like The Virginian and The High Chaparral breathed new life into what was something of an ailing genre and by season three of Doctor Who, the production was eager to cash-in on this particular genre.
Following on immediately from the TARDIS crew's previous adventure, the Doctor (William Hartnell) has hurt his tooth on a piece of confectionary and is in urgent need of a dentist. Materialising in the town of Tombstone in America's Old West, the resident dentist is Doc Holliday, who happens to be embroiled in a feud with the Clanton family, and the mysterious Johnny Ringo is heading toward the town. Pretty soon, The Doctor, Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) find themselves caught up in the events that would culminate in the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The Gunfighters is a frustrating story - as there is much humour that actually works, and William Hartnell seems to be genuinely enjoying the change of pace that this particular serial allowed, but there are so many negatives, including some of the ropiest American accents ever heard. To say that some of the accents heard in this story aren't particularly convincing would be an understatement, but they're nowhere near as bad as the one sported by Peter Purves as Morton Dill in the Dalek story, The Chase, which has to go down in televisual history as not only one of the worst accents ever heard on the small screen, but also one of the most toe-curling performances to go with it. There are one or two members of the cast who have accents that are so flat, that it almost sounds as though they haven't bothered and are playing characters who recently shipped in from Norfolk to seek their fortune.
As with a previous story, The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, much hangs upon a case of mistaken identity - in The Massacre, The Doctor bore a physical resemblance to a mysterious Abbott, here he simply happens to be be a doctor and is mistaken for Doc Holliday by the Clantons because he is known as "The Doctor".
There are numerous reasons as to why quite a large number of Doctor Who fans dislike this particular story and one of the main ones has got to be the dreadful song that plays frequently during the proceedings, The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon, as performed by Lynda Barron; this dirge was probably intended to underscore the action and have Barron as an unseen minstrel or Greek chorus, but it just serves to annoy an audience and astound them with just how many words rhythm with "saloon". The frequent appearance of this ballad is at its most irritating during episode three, where almost every dramatic incident has its own verse and everything seems to stop dead for the thing. At one point, even Peter Purves is forced to sing the song at gunpoint, and after the fourth time, he groans at being made to sing it again - he was possibly empathising with the audience...
As mentioned earlier, Hartnell is clearly having great fun in a story that doesn't involve some great evil and doesn't seem quite as grumpy as usual, providing several genuinely amusing comedic moments that became fewer and farther between as the end of his time on the show drew closer. At one point, a direct reference is made to the name "Doctor Who" - you can easily imagine a three-year-old Russell T Davies sitting in front of a small black and white television set in Swansea, bouncing up and down and clapping gleefully at such a thing. Hartnell's clothing in this story perfectly illustrates the initial concept behind The Doctor's clothing, in that it is dark, simple and sober, relfecting a bygone age where such clothing signified respect and authority, not to mention blending in easily with his surroundings - just sticking an appropriate hat on The Doctor in The Gunfighters sees him perfectly fitting into the environment. This concept carried on and started falter toward the end of the Tom Baker era - just don't get us started on the sartorial vomit that poor old Colin Baker was forced to wear.
Purves and Lane also appear to be having fun in this change-of-pace story, with the two of them hamming things up for the camera and giving them the chance to dress up in the sort of clothes that would have gotten them strung up in the Old West. Regardless of the historical accuracy of the clothing, Jackie Lane certainly looked cute in that cowgirl outfit...
Special mention must go to actor John Alderson, who plays Wyatt Earp - not only does he look the part, with his period moustache and world-weary expression, but he makes a pretty good fist of an American accent, along with a great dramatic performance that helps to anchor the story and avoid the thing slipping to the realm of parody.
Actor David Graham takes a break from providing Dalek voices to appear as Charlie, the ill-fated bartender in this story. Graham's forte really was voiceover work, but he's not too bad in this story, even if he overplays the stereotypical mannerisms associated with a nervous, shifty type and he has a couple of the vocal ticks that would forever be associated with the character of Brains in Thunderbirds.
Amidst the blatantly phoney accents, it was great to hear the distinctive (and genuine) American-esque tones of Shane Rimmer, one of the great unsung character actors of the late 20th century. Rimmer's face (and voice) will be familiar to many, having put appearances in many of the blockbusters of the seventies and eighties because he happened to be an Canadian actor residing in the UK and was often called upon to provide a what passed for a "real" US accent to films and television. Rimmer's almost-authentic tones only serve to draw attention to the fake ones, but he his appearance in The Gunfighters is still most welcome - it's just a pity that his appearance is fairly small, making you wish that he could have been cast in one of the meatier roles that were inhabited by actors who couldn't do accents.
As an interesting aside, future leading man Patrick Troughton was considered for the role of Johnny Ringo, but the production ultimately chose Laurence Payne; let's hear it for small mercies, as it would have been unlikely that Troughton would have been considered for the lead role when Hartnell bowed out, seeing as Troughton was the quintessential jobbing actor and probably wouldn't have wanted to have played two roles in the same programme. Oh, and Pat would have almost certainly been able to pull off a better American accent than the laughable one that Payne employs - it's so bad that it almost sounds as though he didnt' bother.
The production values in this story aren't particularly impressive; it has often been said that there are two things that can be put into a low budget production to make it seem grander in scale - helicopters and horses. Seeing as helicopters hadn't been invented back in the times of the Old West (though Da Vinci had been tinkering with the concept a little before then), the inclusion of a few old nags makes perfect sense and the opening of the first episodes sees cowboys on horseback and helps to get the story off to a rousing start. The story was shot in a small studio and some of the backdrops appear to be painted (the excellent restoration job makes this even more obvious) and there are a couple of instances of the dreaded wobbly sets (which was largely untrue on Doctor Who); there are one or two parallels that could be drawn between The Gunfighters and Edward D Wood's Plan Nine From Outer Space, in that both productions had big ambitions and wanted tell a grand story, but the finances simply weren't there, so both had to resort to shooting in small studios and use painted backdrops and some occasionally dodgy props and scenery - though in Wood's magnum opus, a tombstone happens to fall over in the cemetery set, but if a similar thing happened in The Gunfighters, then all of Tombstone would have fallen over...
The story climaxes with the infamous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which shows the opposing forces of the Earps and the Clantons shooting it out. The depiction of it here isn't too bad, with what initially appears to be a slow-motion shoot-out, but the viewer eventually realises that it was just down to not particularly impressive choreography and stunt-work. This downbeat finale to the story is one that was inevitable given the story and is strikingly at odds with the light-hearted tone of the rest of The Gunfighters.
On a historic note for the series, The Gunfighters was the last story to feature individual titles for each episode; the following story, The Savages, would see the four instalments being numerically titled, robbing Doctor Who of a little of the quirkiness that it possessed in the early years.
We have to admit that we weren't expecting much from the transfer, as we had only caught a screening of this story when it was broadcast on UK Gold a good number of years ago and it looks truly ghastly. We were aware that it had been released on video in a remastered edition, but nothing could prepare us for how it would look on DVD, and in a word it can be summed up as...
The videotaped studio material looks absolutely stunning, allowing the viewer the closest possible experience to watching The Gunfighters as it was originally being broadcast. You might think that we're exaggerating, but we're not; off the top of our heads, we can't think of another sixties-era Doctor Who DVD release that looks as amazing as this does. The blacks are lovely and inky, the amount of image detail on display is most impressive and everything just has a "solid" feel to it - the Doctor Who Restoration Team have really outdone themselves with this one.
Sadly, The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon is still on the soundtrack and it's as naff as ever, but you at least have the ability to savour every single word in the thing this time around, as the clarity afforded it is certainly more than it deserves. The rest of the monaural audio is just fine, too.
Audio Commentary: Actors Peter Purves, Shane Rimmer, David Graham and Richard Beale, production assistant Tristan de Vere Cole and moderator Toby Hadoke. We gently criticised one of Mr Hadoke's other Doctor Who efforts recently, but we were impressed with how he fared during the audio commentary for The Gunfighters, as he keeps the speakers on-topic and also interjects some interesting little nuggets of information that causes the other participants to have sparks of remembrance that open up new avenues of discussion.
Peter Purves is his usual wonderful self, remembering much of the recording of the show, along with his usual gentle criticising of certain aspects of Doctor Who. He rattles off several amusing, and at times profoundly interesting, anecdotes about working with William Hartnell, along with his thoughts on what worked and what didn't work on The Gunfighters. In audio commentary terms for Doctor Who stories, Peter Purves is probably one of the closest things to "a safe pair of hands" that there is.
Shane Rimmer stays for the first couple of episodes and his laconic demeanour plays well against David "Brains" Graham, which is no surprise, really, as the two of them worked on Thunderbirds and have probably been bumping into each other at various conventions over the years.
At one point, Hadoke gets around to discussing "the elephant in the room" that is the issue of The Gunfighters being regarded as the worst Doctor Who story of all time; Hadoke goes on to explain why this came about (because of one or two reference books that hated it) and asks everyone else about their feelings on the subject, which just happens to be that most of the participants on the commentary track things that it's either not that bad, or it's pretty good. The REAL elephant in the room isn't touched upon until the third episode, when The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon is finally discussed, with most of them not being the greatest fans of that particular ditty, with Purves expressing a particular dislike at having to sing the thing several times during the story. This is a breezy, relaxed and very enjoyable audio commentary that makes you appreciate the effort that went into the making of The Gunfighters.
The End of the Line: Doctor Who had been on the air for two years and was already on its way to becoming a national institution, with The Doctor, the TARDIS and the Daleks having already reached iconic status. All three of the original actors playing the companions had left the show and producer Verity Lambert had similarly departed, but there were more to come during season three, which would test the hardiness of the production and this 45 minute documentary examines this transitional period that came early into Doctor Who's history.
The different eras of Doctor Who can be more easily accepted when looking back on the nearly three-decade run of the show, but when some of the original cast and crew started to leave only a year or two into production, it must have been pretty disconcerting and possibly a threat to the long-term continuation of the show. Hartnell's health was already noticeably declining and plans were afoot to replace him, whether he wanted to leave or not and this documentary also touches upon the reaction from Hartnell over the decision to replace him with a younger leading man. One would imagine that he really was heartbroken, as he had made the role his own after spending most of his career in supporting parts - no matter how good they might have been, Doctor Who was HIS show and at the time, it must have been nearly inconceivable to think of someone else taking over. Hartnell's real-life irascibility is covered, and several examples of how short-tempered he truly was are given, with Maureen O'Brien mentioning that she had the unenviable task of snapping Hartnell out of one of his hissy fits by making him laugh.
Speaking of Ms O'Brien, the decidely unprofessional circumstances her unceremonious departure from Doctor Who is discussed here - she wasn't happy with the show and was thinking about leaving, but didn't expect to return from the production break to be given only one script instead of a full season's worth.
This is absolutely wonderful stuff - the sort of thing that Doctor Who fans-turned-professionals do so well, bringing their wealth of knowledge and being able to charm and persuade (maybe even bribe...) former cast and crew members to appear in front of the cameras, including actors Maureen O’Brien, Anneke Wills and Peter Purves, along with script editor Donald Tosh and New-Who writer Gareth Roberts.
This documentary also has the participation of Ian Levine; though the press release for Earth Stories describes him as a "long time Doctor Who viewer", to hardened Who fans, he is much more than that, being one of the show's biggest champions and prevented numerous early episodes from certain destruction. Mr Levine recounts his memories of watching The Daleks Masterplan as a child and the horrifying effect that the Christmas episode, The Feast of Steven, had on him and his school-mates. If you've ever watched Loose Cannon's recon of this episode, you'll get a flavour of just how much of a televisual train-wreck it was.
This documentary is one of the most informative and ridiculously enjoyable ones that has ever been produced for a Doctor Who DVD release; it's well-paced, fabulously interesting and at times, very amusing - what more could you ask for?
Tomorrow’s Times – The First Doctor: This is another in the semi-regular series that examines the newspaper coverage of Doctor Who is, as usual, presented by a Doctor Who actor from another era of the show, in this case the original Romana, Mary Tamm. This fourteen minute whistle-stop look at the Hartnell era is tremendous fun, with Ms Tamm seemingly doing her best (and pretty amusing) Anne Robinson impersonation as she introduces some pretty barbed comments from the press, including one decidedly dodgy quip about one of the Daleks from The Chase being "almost certainly queer". This cross between Points of View and What The Papers Say (can the Beeb please bring that show back? We used to love it) is possibly the best one yet, helping to show how the press looked upon - and mostly down upon - the Hartnell era. It's depressing to see that back in the sixties, the Daleks were perceived to be such a staple of the series that critics wrongly thought that either the show was using them too much or that it couldn't possibly function without them. Our only complaint would be that this was a little too short and could have easily been around ten minutes longer, but maybe the best thing to do is leave the audience wanting more...
Photo Gallery: production, design and publicity photos from the story, set to the entirety of The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon - aren't you lucky? Regardless of how you might feel about the accompanying music, there's a nice mix of publicity and production pictures, several of which seem to indicate that William Hartnell was indeed having a good time whilst The Gunfighters was being made.
Coming Soon Trailer: It's time to dive for cover as another story from Sylvester McCoy's debut season is released on DVD - Paradise Towers! Featuring more of John Nathan-Turner's gimmicky stunt-casting in the shape of Richard Briers, you can at least enjoy the entertaining trailer they were able to make from picking through the wreckage of this televisual train-crash.
Trivia Track: Once again, every scrap of existing information about the production of The Gunfighters has been collected, collated, sifted and analysed to bring it to you in a manner that won't have your head exploding, blip-vert fashion. This track is, as always, diligently researched (this time by Doctor Who historian David Brunt) and given the historical nature of the story, it helps to put The Gunfighters in context and also highlights the differences and inaccuracies between the this fictionalised version and the real events that led up to and surrounded the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. As well as these somewhat weightier aspects, there are many moments along the way where some of the more lighter moments are highlighted, including a couple of on-screen fluffs being pointed out, particularly one where Jackie Lane tries not to laugh when one of her co-stars trips over his lines. Mr Brunt also has a dry sense of humour, especially when pointing out some of the mistakes that occur, such as a microphone apparently coming into shot in order to pay it's respects to a character who had just been gunned down on-screen. Great stuff - as always!
PDF Material: As usual, the Radio Times listing for each episode are presented here, along with a feature article (along with a couple of pictures) that was used to publicise the story in the RT, which tries plays on the apparent participation of The Doctor in the events that led up to the gunfight of the O.K. Corral; it's a fun little read that seems to indicate that although westerns were starting to wane a little by the time The Gunfighters was broadcast, the prospect of Doctor Who having a western-flavoured adventure was a prospect deemed worthy of publicising more than usual.
On a personal note, it's a pity that [i]The Gunfighters marks the last story featuring the character of Dodo to be released on DVD. Jackie Lane is the only living member of the TARDIS crew to have declined to participate in the supplementary features. It would have been nice for her to have appeared in the End of the Line documentary to allow her to talk about her departure from the show or, more preferably, a featurette about the enigmatic Lane and her career before, during and after Doctor Who. Lane apparently came very close to agreeing to be on the audio commentary for The Ark, but pulled out at the last minute; though Lane claims to have hardly any recollection of her time on Doctor Who, it would have been a fairly safe bet that Peter Purves would have been able to jog her memory.
The Gunfighters isn't a particularly terrible story, it's just marred by some dodgy accents, questionable set construction and that godawful ballad that comes and goes like a nasty case of genital herpes. William Hartnell is having a whale of a time (which was probably the last time during his tenure that he seemed to be enjoying himself) and his infectious demeanour really gives the whole thing a fair amount of buoyancy.
Whilst it would have been nice to have had a "making-of" (and such a thing is conspicuous by its absence), the End of the Line documentary more than makes up for it, providing what could be considered the definitive look at William Hartnell's last couple of seasons and the changes that took place that would ultimately ensure the show's future.
Other than Jackie Lane's non-participation, the only real quibble we have is that Lynda Barron wasn't put before the cameras to apologise profusely for her part in the monstrosity that is The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. Speaking of which, we will end our review of The Gunfighters with a recently discovered unused verse from that particular song...
"When you watch this story, stand near a spittoon,
'Cos you'll need one for the ballad, of The Last Chance Saloon"
'Cos you'll need one for the ballad, of The Last Chance Saloon"
Review by Wilson Bros
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 20th June 2011
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, The End of the Line, Tomorrow's Times: The First Doctor, Photo Gallery, Trivia Track, PDF Materials, Coming Soon Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Rex Tucker
Cast: William Hartnell, Peter Purves, Jackie Lane
Length: 98 minutes
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