Aired 30 April – 21 May 1966
‘The Gunfighters’ has long been a somewhat contentious Doctor Who story, having scored very low viewing ratings and audience appreciataion ratings upon its initial broadcast. While some laud it as being the first Western made for British television, ‘The Gunfighters’ is very much a British response to the Western genre; it is of course unreasonable to think that a small sound stage would adequately capture the open splendour of Western locales, but the budget is stretched for full effect and the overall result is another interesting and entertaining experiment for the early years of Doctor Who.
Perhaps the strongest aspect of ‘The Gunfighters’ is its comedy, the always strong and energetic Peter Purves being the unwitting focal point as Steven is forced to put on a ridiculous American drawl, dress in stereotypical but 1960s-inspired Western garb, and sing a painfully repetitive and saloon ditty. William Hartnell supposedly lobbied long and hard for a Western-themed story, and he throws all of his weight into his performance, proving remarkably adept at slapstick timing while also delivering sparkling dialogue and proving to be a very British counterpoint to the very American Doc Hohliday. Even poor Dodo Chaplet, the companion the series just doesn’t know what to do with and continues to portray as rather naïve and feeble, fits in well with the surrounding events, getting a few notable moments along the way as she even proves useful in bringing about the resolution.
Where ‘The Gunfighters’ unquestionably falls apart, however, is with its plot. The Doctor going to Doc Holliday for his toothache is a tenuous enough storyline, but the entire serial essentially amounts to being a holiday for the Doctor, perhaps not coincidentally the title of the first episode. This third series has to be credited for trying anything and everything as its stories ranged from a one-parter to a twelve-parter and featured tragedy, comedy, surrealism, and epics, but the Western tropes of alcohol, violence, and vast space simply do not mesh with the more family-friendly world of Doctor Who. So while the guest cast is essentially reduced to a series of stock clichés and the cowboys in particular fail to mesh silly and scary successfully, putting the Doctor into the role of peacekeeper adds a needed degree of gravitas to the absurd proceedings, showcasing his powerful sense of morality even when surrounded by those proclaimed to be the lowest of the low.
This is certainly not a story to hand to a newcomer to the franchise since it is so atypical and showcases some inconsistent supporting characters. However, keeping in mind that a studio-bound Western is in itself an absurd concept that realistically should never have been attempted, the set design and direction somehow manage to achieve a rather fluid and realistic Western experience. Though The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon which pops up all too frequently may certainly be off-putting to some, the incredible filming of the final shootout, the combination of slapstick and dark humour, and the delightful casting of Anthony Jacobs as the callous Doc Holliday and Laurence Payne as the dangerous Johnny Ringo help to make for an overall enjoyable experience for those going in with an open mind.