Saturday, 6 June 2009

Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

A Holiday For the Doctor

"I got no pianist on account of he was shot last week."

The first thing we hear is the song, and you either love it or hate it- personally I love it. It makes things clear from the start; there's to be no attempt at realism here. This is a pastiche of the Western movies, not a historical set in the American West. Plus, it's a great song. So there.

The name of Donald Cotton appearing onscreen at the start shows us that the dialogue is going to be uniformly great. Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that Cotton's lines are going to be as well delivered as they were in The Myth Makers, and the performances of the first actors we see, playing the Clanton brothers, are not encouraging. The accents are not just bad, they're not even trying. Plus things look a little cheap, especially as the story more or less invites us to compare it to Hollywood Westerns.

It's a great story if you can ignore the flaws, though, and if you can accept an outright pastiche comedy which deliberately makes no concessions to realism or historical accuracy. I love Steven and Dodo's new clothes, and the Doctor's introducing himself to Wyatt Earp as "Dr Caligari"- another postmodern moment.

Oh, and Anthony Jacobs is fantastic. Doc Holliday may be a rogue but he's a lot more likeable, charismatic and competently acted than the Clantons. His double act with Hartnell is superb. Hartnell's comic acting in the dentist's chair is also most excellent.

Don't Shoot the Pianist

"You know, in my whole life I never killed a friend."

"Aw! You're a real gentleman!"

Hmm, so Dodo's enjoying playing the piano under duress? Shades of The Celestial Toymaker here. And I must admit the song is just beginning to grate. But everything is made forgivable by the unflagging wit of the dialogue and the knowing use of all the tropes of the Western. All this plus Hartnell doing comedy- surely no Doctor since has approached Hartnell for comedy acting?

There's no real sense of danger in this story, but we're constantly kept entertained, and yes, it doesn't always work visually, the direction's a bit meh, and most of the guest cast are a bit dull, but at this point I'm still having enormous fun. Roll on the next ep.

Johnny Ringo

"Now pick him up gentle and carry him slow / He's gone kind of mental under Earp's heavy blow."

Did I see that right? A well-executed cliffhanger resolution which doesn't in any way cheat? Is this a first?

The story takes an upturn with this episode. Up to this episode I'd been slightly underwhelmed, feeling that although the lines sparkled the plot was dragging a bit, the acting was often ropey and the whole thing looked dull. But this episode has won me over; the plot kicks up a gear, the main guest characters (not the Clantons") are suddenly more charismatic, and the lines sparkle even more: "I just ran into an old friend and, uh, he kind of lost his appetite." But this increase in the humour quotient is balanced by a sense of foreboding; by this point we know, and are meant to know, that the showdown is coming and people are going to die. Our first inkling of the coming bloodshed is Johnny Ringo shooting Charlie in cold blood: this marks a turning point in the mood.

I suspect the barman getting shot is a common trope for Westerns, but annoyingly I haven't seen enough Westerns to be sure. I'm sure there are loads of allusions to genre convention I'm not getting.

The scene with Dodo pulling a gun on Doc Holliday is hilarious- today I like Dodo again. There's a great resolution, hilariously performed by Anthony Jacobs: "And I didn't want to have to shoot you neither!" The killing of Warren Earp raises the stakes though- things now look very ominous indeed...

The O.K. Corrall

"Well, glory be. Now you really have declared war."

It seems Ringo is planning on taking the Earps from behind, to the evident surprise of Billy: "Never had you figured for a backshooter, Ringo." Oo er. But Pa Clanton is panicked by the Doctor's message; the Earps know about Johnny Ringo! They have Doc Holliday with them! The heartbeat of the plot is starting to beat more quickly; even the song speeds up.

What's great about this episode is that, as with The Myth Makers but less so, there's an underlying tension and even a sense of tragedy at times, but unlike Donald Cotton's previous offering the one liners just keep coming: "Why these get-togethers have to be at sun-up I'll never know- it ain't civilised!" Once more I must praise the great Anthony Jacobs.

Odd that the Doctor and Holliday should get on so well given the somewhat amoral nature of the other good Doctor, but I'll let that slide as I'm enjoying myself. But the final scenes with the TARDISeers bidding farewell to Holliday and Kate are great, and the Doctor gets a wonderfully postmodern line: "My dear Dodo, you know you're becoming a prey to every cliché-ridden convention in the American west." It's a shame the Doctor leaves Holliday's wanted poster behind, mind.

That was the most fun story ever, getting better and better as it went on. as much as I'd like to, though, I can't in good conscience give it a 5/5; great as the script was, there were serious flaws- not just the accents but the entire performances of most of the Clantons dragged the whole thing down. Still, a very good 4/5.

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