Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Gunfighters written by Donald Cotton and directed by Rex Tucker

This story in a nutshell: A rootin' tootin' adventure in the Wild West and a painful extraction for the Doctor...

Gruff Granddad: I cannot believe how lucky we are still have this story as it showcases Hartnell as his absolute finest, affording him the chance to play comedy and drama with equal skill. It's on record that he relished the material and his performance glows as a result. I would go as far as to say this is his last truly masterful performance as the Doctor before his health knocked him for six (with a slight return to form in The Smugglers - amazing how he can always rouse himself for a historical). His alias in Tombstone is Doctor Caligari (although why that should be beyond the fact that it's a bit of a laugh is never explained) and he concocts an elaborate cover story that they are travelling players between engagements. All of the scenes between Hartnell and Jacobs see two actors at the height of their business, relishing the chance to play something a bit silly and full of quirky character moments. The Doctor blanches as Doc Holliday's extremely subtle form of advertising and you have never seen him quite as perturbed as when he is strapped in the dentist chair beyond offered a wrap around the cranium as his form of anesthetic (and who can blame him - dentists are sadists!). The Doctor looks masterful dolled up in a cowboy hat and gun belt. The fact that the Doctor's wits have deserted him completely and he walks straight into a trap of Holliday's making doesn't matter one jot because his reaction when he realises the truth is just so funny ('oh dear'). Only Hartnell could look this naïve lining up a gang of gunslingers up against a bar with a pistol (‘How do we proceed?’). In the American Middle West the Doctor is described as the lowest, meanest sidewinder. The Doctor's dialogue is sparkling throughout this adventure (‘Don’t you call me Pop!’‘Disgusting habit!’ and ‘People keep giving me guns and I do wish they wouldn’t!’) and Hartnell is  relishing every syllable. You have to wonder how much more appealing Hartnell's incarnation would be if he was allowed to play more comedy of this sort. Look at the close up at the end of episode two, the Doctor looks impossibly cheeky as he is put in a fix that will require all his wits to extradite himself from. Whether it was a mistake or intention, the moment when the Doctor accidentally leans on the corpse is one of the finest comedy moments in Doctor Who. It never fails to get a laugh out of me. When he becomes Deputy Doc, his characterisation subdues a little because now it is his responsibility to prevent lives from being wasted. It’s great to see him portrayed as a man of peace still, trying to convince both sides that their gunfight is unnecessary. For a story that is apparently the lowest of the low it sees the first Doctor at his absolute finest; heroic, silly, moral, funny and powerful. He's just a delight.

Able Astronaut: If Peter Purves didn't enjoy making this story than the man is a true professional because nowhere in the production does it show (not even the singing). The Doctor and Steven proved to worthy foils, not always seeing eye to eye but throughout their time together gaining a greater respect and understanding of each other. This is during their twilight period, after the turbulent drama of losing so many friends and the point where they have absolute faith in one another. He throws himself into this madness with his usual gusto and his turn as Steven Regret, tenor, is as riotous as you can imagine. As Dodo bashes away at the piano, the first cliffhanger becomes one of the shows many triumphs with Steven being forced to sing the Doctor to his death. Steven looks and feels out of place in a western bar and I love his comedy stumbles and bumbling behaviour. He doesn't even try and use strength as a weapon against the Clantons because he is smart enough to see that he is ridiculously outnumbered so instead he tries to use psychology to get them to help him. Outsmarted by the cowboys, he is frogmarched along Main Street and confronted with the noose. Steven's funniest moment comes in episode two where he turns to look at the gun and it convinces him to keep on singing. Purves reveals rare comic timing in this story that many of the other, serious tales of the season don't afford the chance to indulge in.

Dead as a…: Any story that can make Dodo bearable is doing something right in my book. I am hardly the characters biggest fan (is anybody a fan of Dodo?) but she does approach this story with the right amount of enthusiasm and fervor (‘You’re darn tootin’ I am!’). Imagine if it has been Tegan? Dodo is excited at the prospect of starring in her own Western and pops back into the TARDIS to dress up as Calamity Jane. She rocks on playing the piano as Ms Dodo Dupont, wizard of the ivory keys and is held at gunpoint on a hotel bed. It's an atypical story and so this atypically fun use of the character seems to fit. The scenes between Dodo and Holliday are the best that Dodo ever gets, especially when she ineptly tries to hold him at gunpoint. Jackie Lane is as useless as ever but Dodo is supposed to be a bit useless in this role so it kind of works. Dodo is directly responsible for Johnny Ringo’s death so I suppose that is something to tell your friends when you return home.

Sparkling Dialogue: How long have you got? Donald Cotton was obviously an extremely witty man and this shines from both of his scripts (The Myth Makers and The Gunfighters) and if you get a chance read the Target novelisations he wrote as well, which are about as hilarious as Doctor Who prose comes.
‘How do we look?’ ‘Oh good grief, absolutely absurd!’
‘You can’t walk into the middle of a western town and say you’re from outer space! Good gracious me, we’d all be arrested on a vagrancy charge!’
‘A good thing I didn’t have to have my tonsils out.’
‘Lets hope the piano knows it.’
‘I’m afraid I don’t touch alcohol but a little glass of milk and I’ll be only too delighted!’ – just the thought of saying that to a ragtag bunch of cowboys makes me heave with laughter!
‘I want to see my solicitor!’
‘I just ran into an old friend of min and he kind of lost his appetite.’
And many, many more...

The Good Stuff: I love season three. It is Doctor Who in total desperation, trying out all manner of genres and styles (tragedy, comedy, SF epic, surrealism, space adventure, morality tales), switches companions like changing socks (Vicki, Steven, Katarina, Sara, Dodo, Polly and Ben), tests story lengths (everything from a one part adventure to a twelve part one) and in doing so creates a delicious mix of variety and a rare frequency of style, quality and diversity. It is one year where you genuinely do not know what is going to be thrown at your from one story to the next (it's closest rival in this respect is probably the 80s but the dramatic variation is usually in quality during that period, rather than style and tone). The Gunfighters, a studio bound western comedy, should never have been attempted but it is typical of this seasons verve (and nerve). The thing just shouldn't work. The conventions of Westerns are space, alcoholism, murder and racism - none of which Doctor Who has been renowned for providing. But with a director who understood the limitations of television like Rex Tucker and a write that could make a shopping list sound funny like Donald Cotton and actors who understand everything that is required of them (even when to take it waaaaay over the top) somehow this story mysteriously fails to suck. It isn't a story you would hand to a new fan and say this is what Doctor Who can do because it is so atypical of what the show is usually about but it has enough skill thrown at it to amuse, entertain and (if you're paying attention) inform. It certainly doesn't deserve the trashing that Howe, Stammers and Walker have given it over the years, nor did I need to hear that Steven Moffat advised Toby Whithouse away from it because 'it isn't very good' when he was looking for inspiration to write the shows second Western, A Town Called Mercy (another story I greatly enjoy but for very different reasons). The truth is this should be horrendous but if you approach it with an open mind it is a massive amount of fun, and not for the wrong the reasons. The sets are incredible throughout; I love the spacious, split level bar set where much of the action takes place (even if the bar itself proves to rock when a body slumps over it), Main Street affords a generous space for the shoot out to take place in and Doc Holliday's dentist saloon (complete with enormous molar hanging outside) is lit with real care, especially during the atmospheric night time sequences. If you were going to attempt and indoors Western and make it look as if it has been shot on location, the sets needed to be as strong as this. The lighting comes right down during the night scenes that give this story a feeling of time passing. Rex Tucker’s direction deserves a great deal of kudos; his fluidic camerawork gives a sense of constant movement, he often shoots from above to lavish attention on the fantastic sets and his use of light and shadow to create mood (especially in the latter half of the story where things get serious). I have a confession to make about the Ballad that probably won’t make me very popular…I rather like it! There were so many different types of story in this season that one with musical narration doesn't feel terribly out of place. It is an unusual and fun way to tell the story, the lyrics are genuinely amusing and if (like me) you like repetitive musical motifs then this will be right up your alley. If you have an allergic reaction to the song then I can understand a slight aversion to this tale. Simon loves it too and he (oh the shame) downloaded it to his phone as his ring tone once. That man has no shame. What on Earth is Dastari doing in Tombstone? To give Laurence Payne some credit, despite some accent slips he turns up at exactly the right moment to give the story some much needed gravity if the final showdown was going to have an impact. Anthony Jacobs creates a charismatic and callous Doc Holliday and butts heads wonderfully with Hartnell. The black humour that leaks into the story as the bodies pile up is right up my street and Charlie's death, pouring liqour over his bar which Jonny Ringo avails himself whilst blowing the smoke away from his gun, is darkly funny. It is not all fun and games in this tale - watch out for a gorgeous moment in the last episode where the Doctor and Dodo discuss the upcoming shoot out with weary foreboding. During the shoot out the story shifts onto film in Ealing the story looks phenomenal, the editing is tight, the action is relentless and the whole sequence tops of a nourishing tale with a memorable slaughter. Bullets fly through the air, the street is littered with corpses and the conventions of the genre are well and truly fulfilled. Visually it could have sprung from a movie.

The Bad Stuff: The Clantons' accents wobble spectacularly and what the hell is Seth Harper's stutter all about? The cowboys are least successful thing here because there was no way they were ever going to be successfully funny and scary. And the performances are so broad at times it feels as though the actors were enjoying themselves a little too much.

The Shallow Bit: Cowboys! Gotta love a man decked up in horses hide! Kate’s bosoms threaten to escape her dress on more than one occasion. Steven and Dodo’s hoopy, stripy 60’s gear has to be seen to be believed. Purves is a nice, rugged looking, bloke but how can he do anything but mince in his girly cowboy slacks? Holliday and Kate canoodling…can you think of a naughtier scene in Doctor Who until the new series came along? Kate heaves and sings on the bar to the appreciation of the Clantons.

Result: Unfairly picked on for so many years, I could wax lyrical about The Gunfighters until the end of my days. Nestled away in the richness of season three comes this exquisite comedy gem, written with panache and performed with relish by all concerned. I’ll keep repeating this until it embeds in your mind but the idea of staging a western in a studio is so wrong in every way that the fact that they made it look, sound and feel this good is a triumph to all concerned. A Town Called Mercy might have the budget to head to the mountains on horseback but The Gunfighters has the time to get down and dirty with the real conventions of the genre. It's a Doctor Who story that is fuelled by booze, violence and beautiful women, one that casts the Doctor in the role of the hero and the villain and one that ends with a violent massacre of characters we were laughing our heads off at earlier in the tale. Bullets fly, corpses pile up, crickets hum and glasses are filled. It feels authentic in a way that the new series could never achieve (partly because of time and partly because it wont take the same kind of risks to humanise the culture in a very adult way). I'm making The Gunfighters sound really despressing, aren't I? The truth is it is one of the most exquisite comedies the show attempted, full of badinage, banter and burlesque. There's singing and dancing, kinky shenanigans, comic mishaps and endless witty banter. Hartnell is at the top of his game, relishing the chance to play up the role but maintaining the dignity of the part all the while and Purves and Lane fit the scenery like a glove, making it easily the most successful outing for this trio. With Anthony Jacobs on top form, a dynamically shot gunfight at the climax and detailed sets that capture the essence of the genre, this is a story that is constantly giving. So fill up your glasses and join in the fun...this is one deliriously enjoyable tale to revel in over and over. I am so happy this one was spared the junking: 9/10

1 comment:

Anthony Pirtle said...

I'd never go so far as you in praising this one, but it's not a story I dislike. I guess it's just that song that annoys me so much. It starts grating by the end of the first episode, and it never lets up. However, you're spot on about Hartnell. He's never been better than in this.