Many Doctor Who fans have somewhat less than fond memories of “The Gunfighters,” a First Doctor serial that aired from April 30 – May 21, 1966. I hadn’t seen it until this DVD was released, but I’d heard about it long before from people who really disliked it.
I am therefore happy to report that it’s actually pretty decent! Not great, by any means. It’s not even “Great for a First Doctor story” or “Great for a historical”. But it is acceptable and it is enjoyable.
The plot concerns the Doctor, Steven and Dodo arriving in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881 just a day or two before the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral. When they arrive the Doctor is complaining of a toothache. Naturally with access to dentists everywhere in space and time he decides to go with Doc Holliday in the Old West. The fact that appears as a viable option may be commentary on the state of British dentistry in the 1960s…
Almost as soon as the TARDIS trio set foot outside the stable where they’ve landed, they’re accosted by Sheriff Wyatt Earp, who warns them about the place and offers them his protection. They then split up, with the Doctor looking for Doc Holliday while Steven and Dodo pretend to be vaudeville stars (yes, you read that right).
While this is going on, Ike Clanton and his gang are preparing for trouble, planning to corner and kill Doc Holliday as part of their sinister plan to do… I don’t know what, really, but it’s all quite exciting! Holliday gets wind of this and, after treating the Doctor, dresses him to look like Holliday himself. Before long the troubles build up, the Doctor gets arrested (for his own safety), Steven nearly gets shot, Dodo gets taken hostage and through it all there’s singing. Endless singing.
I was somewhat surprised at how enjoyable this story is. It’s nicely paced, well-acted (especially once you get past the attempted American accents in part one), and establishes the Doctor’s very strong dislike of guns in no uncertain terms. The sets were also really good and the whole thing was nicely atmospheric, and a little more adult than the show usually was.
On the other hand, there’s the historical accuracy, which is minimal. Even worse, though, there’s… that song… “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”. It’s not horrible, but it is constant. Every three minutes or so you hear a line or two from it, and that’s not an exaggeration. It’s an ok song, but not so good that I want to hear it endlessly.
As usual with the old series DVDs, there’s more extras here than you can shake a Colt .45 at (sorry, sorry…)! You get the expected commentary with actors Peter Purves (Steven), Shane Rimmer (Seth Harper), David Graham (Charlie), and Richard Beale (Bat Masterson), and production assistant Tristian de Vere Cole, all moderated by Toby Hadoke, best known for “Moths Ate my Doctor Who Scarf.” The commentary is vastly entertaining and quite amusing at parts, as should be expected.
Additionally you get the First Doctor version of “Tomorrow’s Times,” a new series on the discs that shows contemporary media coverage of the program, with this version hosted by Mary Tamm (Romana I). You also get a photo gallery, PDF materials and an excellent documentary called “The End of the Line.” It talks about the problems the series had during its third year, and includes interviews with Purves as well some of the other actors, including Maureen O’Brien (Vicki). And for people like me, who’ve always wondered, you get some insight into why Jackie Lane left the series (short version: she didn’t look young enough on camera and was written out while her first serial was still airing).
The Gunfight at the OK Corral has made its way into Western mythology like almost nothing else, and that’s a surprise considering just how short it was. The whole thing lasted only 30 seconds, but from that we’ve gotten this story, the third-season Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun,” and numerous movies and books. It’s really quite amazing the industry it spawned.
Ultimately I recommend this disc, but really only for the fans. If you’ve got someone you’re trying to get interested in the series, there’s probably better choices. But for what this is, it’s pretty decent and far better than the detractors would have you believe.
Ah, historical war recreations. Here in the States we get them in the form of people who dress up in grey and wander about playing soldier while shouting, “The South shall rise again!” In the United Kingdom, at least as far as this video is concerned, you get them in the form of people who take over small villages, ride around on horseback and intend to burn a woman at the stake.
Frankly, the British version sounds more interesting.
The year is 1984, and the Fifth Doctor (Peter Davison), Tegan (Janet Fielding), and Turlough (Mark Strickson, who later became a producer and went on to discover Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin. Seriously!), turn up in the town of Little Hodcombe, arriving smack in the middle of a historical reenactment of a battle that happened during the English Civil War. They are there because Tegan wants to find her grandfather who, it turns out, has gone missing.
The Doctor starts to figure out quickly that things aren’t exactly as they seem when he runs into Will Chandler, a boy from 1643 (Keith Jayne). Soon the Doctor discovers that one era is leaking into the other and that the war gamers are being controlled by an evil alien force that’s about to make the game more real than anyone expected.
This was an odd story. First off, it’s two parts, which wasn’t done very often in Doctor Who back in the day and when it was done, you got stories that were pretty good, like “The Sontaran Experiment” and stories that… well, weren’t, like “Black Orchid”. This story is good, but it’s confusing. I never quite understood what the Malus, the previously-mentioned evil alien force, was doing or what its motivations were. It was just sort of there, hanging out behind a crack in the wall.
Speaking of cracks in the wall, one thing I will say about this story is that it very much “felt” like a new series adventure. Switch it around so you have the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory, trim about five minutes and you have something that would fit well with modern Who. Heck, even the notion of going to visit a family member seems almost lifted from the modern stories.
On the other hand, despite the odd story, the acting is especially good, particularly from Jayne and other guest actors like Polly James and Dennis Lill, all of whom are entertaining enough they might serve to distract you from the flaws in the story. Also, as you’d expect from a BBC historical production, the costumes are all top-notch.
2 Entertain have crammed their usual list of special features onto this disc, and those add value far more than the story. You get commentary by the director, Michael Owen Morris, script editor Eric Saward and comedian Toby Hadoke, who I really hope they utilize more in these commentaries. It’s a decent commentary, though the absence of Davison is felt keenly. I was reassured to note that even the director wasn’t entirely sure what the Malus was doing hanging out behind the wall.
Other extras include “Return to Little Hodcombe,” a “making of” feature with the director, Fielding and Jayne, “Making the Malus,” about the SFX behind the story, “Now and Then,” showing what the locations look like today, some extended and deleted scenes, a photo gallery, an isolated music score, PDF files and something called “The Golden Egg Awards,” which was really quite amusing.
Like this month’s other DVD release, “The Gunfighters,” this one is not really for the casual fans or the people who are entirely new to the series. But if you’re even slightly more than a casual fan, you might want to pick it up. In the States it’s sold apart from “The Gunfighters” and at only about $11. A decent price for a decent DVD!