“The Gunfighters” is one of the last two complete stories featuring William Hartnell’s Doctor. It is the eighth story of the third season (the 25th story overall). The idea of the Doctor visiting the old west came from William Hartnell himself, and it was the first story to be set in the US (although the TARDIS did make a brief stop on the Empire State Building in “The Chase”). It was also the last of the purely historical stories, which feature no aliens whatsoever. In this story, the Doctor’s companions are still Steven and Dodo.
The TARDIS materializes in the old West, much to the delight of Steven and Dodo. The Doctor is suffereing from a toothache, so the trio set out to find the local dentist, but before they do, Steven and Dodo put on some of the worst western wear possible. Steven in particular looks like he stepped out of a 1980’s Dolly Parton album cover. The trio have, of course, materialized in Tombstone, Az, so the local dentist is the famous Doc Holliday. I couldn’t help but wonder why the Doctor would choose to visit a dentist in the “wild” West, instead of simply getting back into the TARDIS and traveling to a more advanced time for dentistry. I guess the answer to that is simply because the plot required him to stay.
Anyway, the Doctor and his companions are soon embroiled in the conflict Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday have with the Clantons. The Clanton’s hear him being called Doctor and assume that he is Doc Holliday. The confusion of the two “doctors” is perhaps the best part of the story. This leads to the trio being separated as various factions pull them apart: Dodo ends up with Doc Holiday and his fiancee Kate, the Doctor with the Earps and Bat Masterson, and Steven with the Clantons and Johnny Ringo.
The whole time the viewer knows that the characters are being propelled to the famous showdown at the OK Corral, which occurs in the final episode of the story. The problem is that you really can’t get that involved in the story because the characters are all pretty flat and one dimensional. I actually had difficulty keeping track of who was who in the beginning. My own knowledge of the events at the OK Corral was the only thing that helped me determine who everybody was and what their motivations were. Doc, Kate, Wyatt, and Johnny Ringo (who actually had nothing to do with the OK Corral, so I’m not sure why he’s there) are the only characters who are given any personality, but even that’s pretty minimal. And, while I’m on the subject of Johnny Ringo, he has the worst accent in the story. Quite often he sounds like he’s a rare British gunslinger, just arrived in the Wild West from England.
The story is hampered by the awful, never-ending ballad that continues throughout the four episodes of the story. It was okay at first, but by the end I never wanted to hear that damn melody again. The first few stanzas are about the Last Chance Saloon (and, inexplicably, when Steven and Dodo are masquerading as part of a performance group, the Clantons make them sing it over and over for them), but it soon devolves into unnecessarily summarizing the events that the viewer has just seen.
Dodo thankfully, is not that important to the plot in this story, but she still manages to get into trouble, nearly causing Doc Holliday to be killed in the big showdown, and getting herself taken as a hostage. Plus, is it just my hearing or did the Doctor continually call Wyatt Earp “Mr. Werp?” I can’t imagine that that was deliberate, so I’m guessing it was another “Hartnellism,” like his constant changing of Ian’s last name.
I also noticed the Doctor’s negative attitude towards guns was already in place, even in Hartnell’s era. Of course, this being the old West, there are guns aplenty, and lots of shooting, but the Doctor is reluctant to carry a gun. He does ultimately, however, have one throughout, and he draws his gun in his first confrontation with the Clantons in the saloon. However, I’m not sure that he ever draws his gun again in the story. The first Doctor’s dislike of guns wasn’t a strong as it would become in the new series, but I found it interesting to see the seeds for it were planted as far back as the Hartnell era.
Overall, this story had a premise that had potential, but was poorly executed. To say this story is not one of my favorites, would be an understatement. Although I am usually a fan of the historical episodes, I felt that this one missed the mark (and don’t even get me started on all the historical inaccuracies). This story was definitely one of my least favorites of the Hartnell era. Now if only I could stop “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” from playing on a loop in my head…