Friday, July 25, 2014

The Gunfighters - "The time will be soon / When there's blood on the sawdust / In the Last Chance Saloon."

BBC - Doctor Who Classic Episode Guide - The Gunfighters - Details

Season 3, Story 8 (Overall Series Story #25) | Previous - Next | Index

It's not the worst story in Doctor Who's history (it's predecessor may have that distinction), as it used to be fashionable to claim. Neither is it all that funny, as its apologists would have you believe. It is, however, distinctive. For starters, there's that ballad. And then there's Steven's command performance of the same. If nothing else, after watching "The Gunfighters," you'll have that tune stuck in your head.

To enjoy this one, I think it helps to put in the context of the notion that Doctor Who can insert itself in any genre, just as the TARDIS can insert itself in any period of history. Then, to think about how it's a different thing for Doctor Who to do a Western, another for Doctor Who to subvert the Western genre, and still another for Doctor Who to bounce itself off a Western as a way to define itself as something quite different from a Western. The last of those is the closest to what I think is going on here,

The sci-fi Westerns I have as cultural touchstones were nearly all made after this. Think Star Trek's OK Corral episode, Wild Wild West, Westworld, The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Firefly, "A Town Called Mercy". Wild Wild West is the pioneer here, there's probably a Twilight Zone or some other movies I'm not aware of or forgetting, but what I'm getting at is it would been pretty astonishing if DW had managed to go Steampunk here. There's no great leap of imagination, or even attempt to ape WWW. "The Gunfighters" is straight Drop-the-TARDIS-Crew-into-the-Western-Genre (which is a different thing that doing a Western) and playing the Doctor's inadequacies as an action hero for comic effect.

Image via Flight Through Eternity

Previously, DW had managed to make the historical interestingly anachronistic and alien when we met the Meddling Monk in "The Time Meddler," and put Daleks into Ancient Egypt in "The Chase," but it's not bringing science fiction into the genre here. The villains aren't cyborgs, there's no threat to time or history from an outside agent. The bad guys are the Clantons and Johnny Ringo, the good guys are the Earps and Bat Masterson. Holliday is a bit of a wild card. The Doctor and the companions are just trying to get out alive.

The swings from Steven dressed as Tom Mix singing at gunpoint, Dodo fainting, and the Doctor being mistaken for Doc Holliday to Ringo shooting Charlie the barman in cold blood, Warren Earp dying in his brother Wyatt's arms, driving him to an outlaw's cold, vengeful rage are a bit extreme.

The acting is hit and miss. Mostly miss. The accents are baffling to the American ear, occasionally hitting on a word or phrase that would be credible in a 50s Western, but mostly sounding random. (I imagine it's how Americans trying to pull English accents -- but jumbling their Cockney, RP, Northern, and Midlands accents, sometimes inside the same word -- must sound to native speakers.) Hoping for a sensible plot, plausible situations, or anything approaching historical accuracy, will only lead to disappointment.

On the other hand, if you're game for a little panto peppered with tea time ultra-violence, then sidle up to the bar for a stiff jolt.

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