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The Gunfighters

We Doctor Who fans, we're a funny old lot. Take our opinions of the merits of stories, for example. Everyone seems to go out of the way to disagree with each other. It would seem that, in about the 1980s, some chap, most likely Peter Haining, decreed a chunk of stories as "classics". Since then, everybody's been disagreeing with this selection, and supplying other "classics". This really came to light in the nineties as video releases began to really pick up, and people started actually seeing things like The Web Planet, and pointing out it wasn't a classic. Indeed, poor Mr. Haining's assertion that The Web Planet was one of the pinnacles of the programme is something that some people still mock today - after, what, fifteen years of the thing being routinely slated, some people still think that they're actually being radical in pointing out that it's not this avant garde masterpiece, but actually a bunch of poor chaps in fibreglass stumbling around for two-and-a-half hours. We all like to be contrary and unique, and sometimes it seems like we're kicking against something non-existent, but we have to sound radical, so that's what we'll do.

For an example inverse to The Web Planet, we have The Gunfighters. Both Haining and DWM contributed highly to giving this story the "Worst Ever" mantle in the 1980s, when very few fans had seen it [it did get the series' worst audience appreciation figures if I recall correctly, but then those things don't prove a bloody thing, unless you really think Aliens of London is much better than, say, Genesis of the Daleks]. But since then, since it entered satellite rotation and the eventual BBC video release, and copies became significantly easier to get hold of, everyone's kicked against this mantle with gusto.

I don't think I've read a negative review of The Gunfighters since the early-1990s. It's been excluded from "worst ever" discussion for a while, replaced by the likes of Timelash, The Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani. I've also read very few reviews from the past 15 years that haven't referenced this "worst ever" injustice, and none that don't declare this story a "lost classic" [which, I believe, is the classification given to any "classic" that wasn't on that fabled list back in the day; it adds mystery, and gives the reviewer a rank of explorer, daring to uncover those classics that we all feared to view.]

Nobody seems to have said that, all said and done, The Gunfighters is actually pretty average. It's got that Sixties languid quality to it - there's padding aplenty, and everything just seems to take ages [this doesn't affect all Sixties stories, and is present in a fair few later ones, but that's really for another time]. It's something immeasurable, really - if you go down all the checkboxes, and most of them are checked. Great performances from the regulars: check, especially Billy and Peter; Good guest cast: check, especially Anthony Jacobs as Doc Holliday, and despite some general confusion as to whether to go for American accents or not; Good production values: excellent, especially when you consider Western wouldn't be one of the historical periods Aunty Beeb would have a vast warehouse of costumes, sets and scenery, and it looks splendid; Dialogue: a few sharp one-liners and nothing that makes you want to crawl into a hole and die; Plot: pretty good, a nice change from the more pious historical stories. "The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" works nicely, a great change from the usual recycled stock music in the Hartnell serials, and it's not too intrusive.

And yet... there's something intrinsically mediocre about The Gunfighters. Something about it just screams "filler story". Once you've watched enough to define it's not The Worst Story Ever [no ludicrous ham-performances, no egg-box monsters, no strings holding things up, etc.] it doesn't hugely hold the interest. There's also a rather out of character Doctor onboard. Watch this straight after the preceding "historical", The Massacre. There the Doctor leaves Anne Chaplet, Nicholas Muss and the rest to their fates at the hands of the Catholics, arguing that history cannot be changed [something that is central to most of the "historicals" - notably The Aztecs]. All well and good, except we get here and the Doctor's actively trying to change history by mediating between Earp and the Clantons... I've heard two different explanations for this. Firstly, that the gunfight at the OK Corral isn't an important enough event for any changes to effect the web of time. Surely that's a big steaming pile of nonsense? Firstly, it's the principle of the thing. Sure, if Johnny Ringo had lived, he wouldn't have invented the microchip or anything. But there's still someone wandering around who should be dead. Secondly, Johnny Ringo, or even someone more minor like Ike Clanton, is certainly a massively more important figure to history than Anne Chaplet. Overall, then, changing history depends on how the Doctor's feeling, right? Of course, most of this is sadly rendered null and void by the historical inaccuracies in the script... Still, they really don't bother me that much, as a) I'm not particularly well-versed in the real history of the Old West (I only knew of the inaccuracies from the excellent video sleeve-notes) and b) as Graham Williams once said "It's all about telling stories, nothing else matters".

Overall, The Gunfighters isn't an especially fascinating story. It deserves credit for trying something a bit different for a historical setting, and for creating a wide group of characters that hold the interest. There's at least one laugh-out-loud moment for the first episode cliff-hanger, and in most measurable terms it's pretty good. However, it's not actually hugely interesting or involving; it seems to be drawing most of its suspense from whether the Doctor can stop the gunfight happening, which doesn't really work, and from who'll win the scrap - and Doc Holliday's just far too self-confident to put much doubt into the outcome. If you're a Hartnell fan, you'll like this as much as you'll like any of the more minor stories. If you're not, despite what others might have told you, this one won't talk you round. Probably the thing that sums The Gunfighters up is that writing this review, getting to go on a tangent and then discussing the implications about changing history was considerably more fun than watching the story itself.

Review by Tom Prankerd

You visited the Whoniverse at 3:37 pm GMT on Sunday 12th February 2006