Saturday, 1 April 2017

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

I'd better start by saying that I wouldn't be writing about this Doctor Who adventure if it didn't come in the Earth Story duo set with The Awakening, which I had to buy as it is the only way to get The Awakening, which I fancied. There's nothing wrong as such with The Gunfighters, but I wouldn't have bought it because I don't tend to get on with period dramas. You may say that that is ridiculous when I'm writing about a TV show based on the ability to go to all sorts of times, and of course it is ridiculous, but I am just declaring a pre-existing bias.
This adventure is of course set in a very specific time, in the Wild West around the time of the Gunfight at the OK Corral, which would of course date it to the end of October 1881. I am rather ambivalent about this setting - although I note that it was at this time that Verity Lambert and others of the original team left Doctor Who and it consciously took a rather different direction. For the purpose of my scribblings here, my comment would have to be that gone is the original didactic and worthy tone of Doctor Who. Apart from the way this one would make the kids go to school and look up the history in the books the next day, The Gunfighters feels a lot more as if it is purely for pleasure.
On the positive side this is a gift of a setting for a Doctor Who, because of course there is a natural confusion between The Doctor and Doc Holliday (strangely I can find no mention of this on the wikipedia page about the gunfight. It also provides a 'real' setting for an adventure, showing how Doctor Who can actually break into real time, and of course this adventure is a far cry from some of the more fantastic ones featuring aliens and all sorts of odd thing. This Who is based on notionally historical events.
And that is where it rather goes horribly wrong for me. I wouldn't necessarily go to the stake for this opinion, but the whole point of Doctor Who is that he is not human, that he deals in worlds we can have no cognisance of at all, and deals in matters of life and death for universes. The great shortcoming of this Who for me is that his reason for being there at the OK Corral is as pedestrian as a toothache. Apart from the fact of Doctor Who and companions being from different times, they could be purely extra characters in a Western story, and nothing happens that is not in conformity with normal Earthly physics. Doctor Who even ends up carrying an Earth gun. Do Time Lords actually have to have teeth taken out? Somehow I doubt it, and the scene where he is asking the dentist for anaesthetic is just plain wrong: surely he would know that at the literal frontiers of human life medicine is often reduced to the bare necessities.
Despite my dislike for period dramas I am not overly irritated by the Western milieu of this show. I would just say that I think Britons in the twenty-first century are more used to hearing genuine American accents than we were in 1966, and as a result I think the accents can seem somewhat over-done, but that is not great fault. Similarly the Western characters can seem rather over-acted, but I suspect this is building on the almost caricature features of the Western genre. The special features on this disc refer to the fact (which you can read about elsewhere) that William Hartnell was nearing the end of his life at this point. His powers were failing, he was irritable and having more and more difficulty remembering his part. That said, he stands out head and shoulders from the other actors, and when he appears it is very evident that here is a great actor. Until his appearances the show is a standard Western, essentially, but Hartnell makes you sit up and pay attention.
Production values are very much what you would expect of 1966-vintage Doctor Who. The picture quality is very good for the era: it lacks some clarity but nothing you would not expect, and the sound track is absolutely fine. The story moves at a comfortable pace and the number of episodes is just right. I think that if it were not for my distaste for the lack of weirdness, this Doctor Who adventure would be among my absolute favourites. If you buy the DVD ( and if this is your bag I see that this adventure is available separately from The Awakening, although not the other way round) it has special features galore including a feature about the changes in the show at this time, on which I have been heavily dependent for some of the facts I have referenced here.
Despite my reservations about the terrestrial setting and atypical Doctor Who plot, if you want to see an early Doctor Who adventure while the show was at a turning point, or even if you like a Western, then this is the show for you. It also marks the point from which Doctor Who took a more exclusively science-fiction approach.

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