Doctor Who – The Gunfighters Review (or “The Worst Story of All Time? I Hardly Think So!”)

There’s no accounting for taste.

If you read the last review, you’ll have read about how before people got a chance to actually see or hear some of these old stories again in the 80s and 90s, certain stories – like The Celestial Toymaker – had undeserved status as ‘classic’.

This next story is the polar opposite, because before people got a chance to see it, The Gunfighters was considered to be the worst Dr Who story ever made. That’s right – the worst.

David Graham – Looking as if he’s trying out for Planet of the Apes more than a Western.

How can that be? Well mainly we have our old friend – and President of the Dr Who Appreciation Society – Jeremy Bentham to blame. The same guy who decided that the Celestial Toymaker was a classic wrote in the 1980s Who Bible, Dr Who: A Celebration, that the Gunfighters was the worse than any other story.

And the thing is, people believed him and accepted his viewpoint as gospel, not daring to challenge the views of someone who ‘knew better’.

Of course, once the story was repeated on UK Gold and released on video and then this summer on DVD, people were able to make their own minds up, and fan opinion swung in the opposite direction…for the most part.

A quick trip to the Customer Reviews of the story on Amazon shows that some people still believe the hype. According to Alan D. Patten III, ‘most fans consider The Gunfighters to be the worst Dr Who Adventure Ever‘, and yet while he says he enjoyed it and was ‘in stitches‘ watching Episode 4, he felt it would be ‘unobjective’ to give it a higher rating than 2 stars.

Meanwhile, Jero Briggs considers it to be the worst story ever – even worse than Time & The Rani.

In Scotland we have a saying – “Opinions are like Arseholes; Everyone Has One” and I can quite accept that some people might not like the story, but under any objective and critical assessment, this is not the worst story ever. Nor do ‘most’ fans consider it to be either.

It’s the classic case of people not wanting to go against received wisdom, even when that wisdom is crap.

Doctor Who – The Gunfighters Review: So What’s This One About?

The TARDIS lands in the Wild West – Tombstone, Arizona to be precise – during the infamous dispute between The Clantons and The Earps & Doc Holiday.

The Doctor gets mistaken for Doc Holiday and eventually gets made Deputy Sheriff while Steven & Dodo are forced at gunpoint to sing and play the piano in the Last Chance Saloon. Later on Steven nearly gets hung by a lynch mob and Dodo

Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp are stunned by Billy Clanton’s Cockney Accent

goes on the run with Holiday and his girlfriend Kate.

In the second half, the villainous Johnny Ringo shows up, looking to kill Doc Holiday, and the Clantons manage to kill the youngest Earp Brother. And so the showdown is set – the two rival factions agree to meet for a Gunfight at the O.K. Corral…at sun’up.

Oh, and throughout the story, Lynda Baron narrates the story in the form of song.


Negative Thoughts

Ok, let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first in a bid to understand why people don’t like this story.

Some of the accents provided by the supporting cast (and indeed Peter Purves) are very poor. Culprit in Chief is David Cole, who plays Billy Clanton. Try as he might, Cole just can’t do an American accent. In fact, his very first line “Oy ain’t scared of ‘oliday” is delivered in pure cockney, and throughout the story he slips back and forth between his American and Cockney tongue.

Then there’s David Graham – a well respected voice artist no less – as Charlie the Barman. Let’s just be kind and say he ‘overplays’ his part. With his sideburns and deliberately jutted-forward jaw, he looks and sounds like he’s auditioning for Planet of the Yankee Apes.

Meanwhile, Laurence Payne doesn’t even attempt an American accent. He just plays Johnny Ringo as an Englishman.

And of course there’s Shane Rimmer as Seth Harper. Much like David Graham, Rimmer is a voice artist (in fact, both played major parts in Thunderbirds) and while his American accent is acceptable, it’s the stutter that comes across a bit naff. Derek Jacobi in I, Claudius, he ain’t.

Moving beyond the accents, my only other issue with the story is the final shootout between the Earps and the Clantons. They appear to be no more than a few feet apart and are shooting directly at each other, and yet aren’t hitting their targets. Also, there’s no need for Dodo to get involved. But those are just minor complaints.

There’s my favourite Dr Who Top Trump of All Time – Pa Clanton. Spare a thought for him though…he’s just realised all his sons are away to be murdered. Poor old sausage.

Now, that’s it; those are the only issues I have with this supposed ‘worst story ever’.

But I’ve got plenty of things to praise about it.

Positive Thoughts – The Acting

When humour in drama misses the mark, it ruins a show. Time & The Rani is an example of that; it suffered from a combination of bad writing and truly horrific ‘comedy’ acting.

But when it works – as it did in The Romans – it works well. There isn’t a better example of comedy working in Doctor Who than in the Gunfighters. The writing (whether it’s the Doctor’s reaction to meeting the Clanton Brothers, his insistence that he isn’t Doc Holiday, the way he doesn’t want anything to do with events, his suggestion that they might be arrested on a vagrancy charge, the way he keeps referring to Wyatt Earp as ‘Mr Werp’ or many many other examples) is spot on and the acting – especially Hartnell’s – is absolutely superb.

I would go as far as to say that this story is William Hartnell’s finest hour as the Doctor. Apparently he always wanted to do a Western, and he appears to be delighted to have his wish granted. I’ve said it a few times in my reviews, and I’ll say it again here; when an actor is enjoying himself, it shines through onto the screen and makes the whole viewing experience more enjoyable. He also seems to be a little more willing to do things you wouldn’t expect him to do – the way he gets violently pushed aside by Bat Masterson is not what you’d expect from an unwell actor who, shall we say, didn’t suffer fools gladly.

As I say, this is Hartnell at his finest, and it’s his last ‘great’ performance, not just as the Doctor, but as an actor.

It’s not just him that makes the show so enjoyable though…

Peter Purves is once again solid as Steven Taylor, and for perhaps the only time, Jackie Lane is excellent as Dodo. With Lane in particular, it’s that she’s given something independent to do.

Most of the supporting cast is good to great as well, and a lot of credit has to go to the casting director for bringing in the likes of John Alderton (Wyatt Earp),  Reed de Rouen (Pa Clanton), Richard Beale (Bat Masterson) and especially Anthony Jacobs (Doc Holiday).

Jacobs has such a wonderful face for the type of character Doc Holiday is. It just epitomises a sort of sleazy cunning. Holiday – while a gentleman – is clearly a nasty piece of work, but Jacobs makes him likeable.

The Writing

How anyone can consider this story to be bad when it has a very respectable and solid plot, I’ll never know.

In particular, Episode 2 is just fantastic. I pointed it out above, but the entire scene in the bar where the Doctor meets the Clantons, accidentally has them at gunpoint, and then gets pushed around by Masterson and Earp is genius.

I wish more dentists advertised like this.

More than just one episode, the entire story flows from beginning to end. Everything that happens is reasonable and in keeping with the story, and is not just there to fill up time (like episodes 2 and 3 of the Celestial Toymaker). Nor is it in any way dull (like the next story, the Savages) and it doesn’t coast on the back of a having a ‘monster’ in it (like pretty much everything in the 1980s.)

And not just that – it’s got one of the best cliffhangers in the show’s history. Episode 1 finishes with the Doctor walking along to the Last Chance Saloon, completely unaware that the Clantons and Harper are waiting to kill him, and if that wasn’t enough, there’s a lovely little musical score to go along with it. While it doesn’t sound like much, the credit must be given to the director for making it as good as it is.

The idea of having narration done in the form of song also works well (other than the unnecessary repetition of the ‘Charlie the Barman’ song). It’s clever, it’s original and it works with the general mood of the story. Some people complain about this, but I think it adds to the whole thing marvellously.

Random Observations

  • I’d love it if more dentists advertised like Doc Holiday. A giant tooth hanging up outside instead of a shop sign? Genius.
  • The best Top Trump in the Doctor Who set is unquestionably Pa Clanton. Give me him over a Zygon any day.
  • But what a poor guy; all his sons end up being massacred. That’s the sort of human tragedy Doctor Who skips over.
  • In the Doctor Who Magazine readers poll, The DWM Mighty 200 (which will play a major part in these reviews later on), The Gunfighters finishes in 175th place. So while that’s slightly better than being the worst story ever, it’s still an absolute nonsense placing for a story as good as this.

Doctor Who – The Gunfighters Review: So Is This The Worst Story Of All Time?

Absolutely, unequivocally and without question, the answer is no.

Personally I go the other way. I think it’s one of the very best, and I say that in absolute seriousness.

It’s a well written, (mostly) well acted and genuinely funny story that keeps the viewer enthralled from beginning to end. No, it’s not science fiction, nor is it a historical in the sense that while it is based upon something that happened, it’s pretty much a completely fictionalised version of events.

There are no aliens or monsters, and the major villains are Johnny Ringo and Pa Clanton.

Maybe this doesn’t appeal to a certain section of Dr Who fandom – the sort who probably think Logopolis is a wonderful example of storytelling – but it appeals to me.

More than almost any other story I’ve reviewed so far, I give this my highest recommendation to watch.


[This review is included in my book – Stuart Reviews Doctor Who: The Classic Era. If you enjoyed reading this, pop along to Amazon and pick up a copy. ]


5 Responses to Doctor Who – The Gunfighters Review (or “The Worst Story of All Time? I Hardly Think So!”)

  1. says:

    The Gunfighters is the 3rd best Dr who ever in my opinion. Its Fantastic. I really have nothing to say because all of that is good about the story is stated above by Stuart. I really like that the style is based on theatre too! Fantastic Story End of.

  2. […] / The Daleks’ Master Plan The Massacre Of St Bartholomew’s Eve The Ark The Celestial Toymaker The Gunfighters The Savages The War Machines The Smugglers The Tenth […]

  3. Sam says:

    I totally agree! I watched this story before I knew anything about the general opinion of it and when I found out I was so surprised that it was so hated!

    • Rob says:

      Pretty much the only reasons people give when they say they hate the story are the following three:
      1. The singing
      2. The accents
      3. It’s “boring” (Which it certainly isn’t)
      I was also surprised to find out it’s so hated, although the singing can get on people’s nerves. Personally, I love it.

  4. Chip says:

    Just watching this now. That repetitive song is driving me mad.

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