I did not know until after watching The Gunfighters that this story is supposedly one of the worst of all time. Apparently, it had a rather small viewing audience and some reviewer from back in the day called it a terrible story. The evaluation stuck. Had I known this before watching, I probably would have watched it differently. As it went, though, I don’t think the story was too bad. It’s not particularly good, but it’s entertaining and does not deserve the awful reputation it has been given.
The travelers arrive in 1881 Tombstone, Arizona, home of the most famous gunfight of all time. The Doctor has a toothache and walks into the shop of dentist Doc Holliday. Holliday actually was a dentist, although I don’t know if he ever had an office in Tombstone. Many Doc/Doctor gags ensue and are occasionally funny. More funny is the Doctor himself. Hartnell, throughout the story, plays a very subtle comedian, repeatedly referring to Wyatt Earp as Mr. Werp and introducing himself as Dr. Caligari (“Doctor who?” “Ah, yes, quite right.”). Steven and Dodo manage to find some ridiculous early-Hollywood-style Western costumes in the TARDIS closet and take on the role of traveling musicians.
It turns out that Holliday is being hunted by the Clanton brothers for killing another brother. He is good friends with Earp and Bat Masterson, the law in town. Of course, Wyatt Earp was not sheriff of Tombstone and Bat Masterson was not around when the gunfight at the OK Corral took place. I found it interesting that they chose to place Bat Masterson into the story at all, I wonder if maybe he was a famous cowboy in 1960s England, perhaps the television show Bat Masterson from the early sixties was popular there….
The Clantons take Steven and Dodo hostage after they confuse the Doctor for Doc. Holliday is a slimy bastard, giving the Doctor his gun. Why the Doctor didn’t realize he was being set up, I’m not sure, but he refers to Holliday as his friend throughout the story. Steven is eventually taken hostage by the Clantons and their hired gun, Johnny Ringo (who also played no role in the actual gunfight). In the meantime, Dodo leaves town with Holliday and his girlfriend Kate. She also seems to be quite taken with Holliday, acting as his friend much like the Doctor. I think this relationship was set up because Holliday, despite being slimy, was a pleasant man and was a good comic foil.
In the end, Steven makes it back, Holliday returns with Dodo (whoforces him at gunpoint and seems quite proud of herself. She gives a little jig and waves her hand when they arrive back in Tombstone. It was actually somewhat endearing.
In a jail break, the Clantons shoot Werp’s younger brother Warren. Werp and his newly-arrived other brother Virgil (who actually was the marshal in Tombstone) want revenge, challenging the Clantons to a showdown at the OK Corral at dawn. It ends with the Clantons dead, and the travelers are able to slip away and escape in the TARDIS.
I’ve already the mentioned the humor as a high point of this story. Adding to the humor was the atrocious fake American accents. It was difficult to decide if this was a real attempt at making a Western or complete parody of the genre. I’m leaning toward parody because if that’s the case, it was played brilliantly. Werp and Masterson played it straight while Holliday did not. And the Clantons were pretty typical Western villains. Despite the horrible accents, the Clantons and Werp/Masterson actually put on performances that I would classify as pretty typical of 50s/60s American TV westerns like Gunsmoke or The Rifleman. Slightly more absurd and over-the-top than the later Westerns, as would be expected. So, the mix of comedy and accurate copy made for a well-constructed parody.
Now, for the low point. In fact, it was so low that I almost wanted to stop watching. I’m glad I had headphones so someone else on the train didn’t smash my computer. I’m sure anyone familiar with story already knows what’s coming: The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon. It was funny when Steven sang it with Dodo playing a ragtime piano. All that was missing from the scene was for the Clantons to shoot the floor and tell Steven to dance. But, the slow, dying noises of the lady that sang it about 40 times per episode were enough to drive me insane. It was enough to drop the story from enjoyable to merely entertaining. It could definitely be a reason for the story’s historically low ratings. But it’s not bad enough to make The Gunfighters the worst story ever (The Chase and Edge of Destruction are both worse, and I’m not even through the Hartnell years). Just the song was incredibly painful.
Lastly, the focus on the Doctor’s distaste for violence continued a theme that has been going on for a few stories. In this one, he is practically afraid of handling a gun and is distinctly against the gunfight, even though he had been deputized by Werp. Yet, the humans cannot help bu be violent. They can’t stop themselves from killing one another, as even this lighthearted story ends with dead bodies. Violence has definitely been a theme throughout Season 3 and I’m starting to wonder how the Doctor’s attitude toward violence continues as we move through different Doctors starting not too long from now.