Doctor Who Write-Ups

Doctor Who – The Gunfighters (1966)

Looking around their next surroundings for a dentist to help with the Doctor’s toothache, Steven and Dido find out that they’re in the town of Tombstone in the Arizona Territory. Dido and Steven are equally excited, which only irritates the Doctor, still complaining about his tooth. Right away, Steven and Dido get a little too involved with their settings and Steven’s outlandish gunslinger clothing gets everyone arrested by Wyatt Earp, who is trying to keep any potential violence at a minimum since the Clanton brothers are in town and looking for revenge against Doc Holliday.

The Doctor tells Earp and Sheriff Behan that he and the companions are a traveling theater trope, but adds (truthfully) that they are just stopping by to see a dentist. The Doctor reluctantly lets Doc Holliday (who actually was a trained dentist) treat his toothache while Steven and Dido check into the local salon, where the Clantons overhear them talking about “the Doctor” and assume they’re working with Doc Holliday. When one of the Clantons, who have no idea what Doc Holliday “invites” the Doctor for a drink, Doc Holliday overhears and tricks the Doctor into dressing up like him and taking his gun. As the Clantons force Dodo and Steven to perform, the oblivious Doctor walks in, but quickly realizes what’s going on when he recognizes the name “Clanton.” The Doctor tries to talk his way out of it but Holliday’s lover Big Nose Kate is there to protect the ruse – but also to help the Doctor hold the Clantons at gunpoint. Breaking up the fight, Earp arrests the Doctor again to protect him, but later the Clantons whip up a riot in the town against Earp, with Steven as a scapegoat in case they can’t get Holliday. In the meantime Holliday plans to escape from town with Dodo as a hostage.

Earp rescues Steven from the mob just as he’s about to be lynched. The Doctor and Steven are prepared to leave when they found out that Holliday had taken Dodo. Away from the town, Holliday promises to take Dodo back to Tombstone, but is impressed enough when Dodo tries to force him to leave at gunpoint that he decides to take her back right away. However, Steven has already left to track down Holliday with Johnny Ringo. Over the passionate objections of the Doctor, Earp deputizes him, as events escalate toward the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. After the gunfight’s over, the Doctor and Dodo say farewell to Doc Holliday, arriving at somewhen the Doctor claims is “on the brink of an age of peace and prosperity.”

Choice Quotes

“And lastly, sir, your humble servant…Doctor Caligari.”
“Doctor who?”
“Yes, quite right.”


Rumor has it (or maybe it’s an actual fact, I don’t get paid for these so don’t expect me to do more than Google-level research) that “The Gunfighters” is the reason why the showrunners stopped doing historicals altogether. I don’t quite believe it; after all, it can’t be a coincidence that the historicals started to fizzle out around the same time the showrunner regime changed for the first time. But it is true that this serial does have a really bad reputation among not only fans, but apparently the audiences who first watch this serial reacted by, to quote Thor, bellowing, “I say thee NAY!”

I wish I could be a contrarian with this like I was with “The Web Planet”, but I have to admit watching this was a bit of a slog. For one thing, there’s this bizarre, awful, and bizzare-ly awful faux-Western ballad that overtakes the action of the serial every three minutes (you only wish I was exaggerating), sometimes repeating the very same lyrics that were sung just three minutes ago. For another, well, the Doctor and his companions are completely useless here. It was fun seeing Steven and Dodo react like thrilled tourists for once, especially since the show’s start the Doctor’s companions have seemed relatively nonplussed about the prospects of time travel, but the thrill of seeing the Old West must have also caused their minds to shut down. Worse, the Doctor seems completely passive and inept, almost as if this isn’t a series about someone who gets out of sticky situations with his wits alone. By the time we do get to the O.K. Corral shoot-out, our main crew really are little more than observers who occasionally step in only to move the plot along.

I should admit there are bright spots. Anthony Jacobs plays a good Doc Holliday, conveying him as a character that’s mischievous and reckless but dangerous all the same. And the first half of the serial, where Holliday sets up the Doctor to take the fall (even if it does involve the Doctor acting more clueless than we’re used to), is kind of fun, before the writers decide that they want to do something halfway approaching a serious take on the legend of the Wild West instead of a Western pastiche. At the very, absolute least, if you can get past the horrors of the infinite ballad it’s rarely boring, which is more than can be said for the last historical the new regime attempted.


2 thoughts on “Doctor Who – The Gunfighters (1966)

  1. RogerBW says:

    Interestingly, I found this one to be nothing like as bad as its reputation. Quite apart from the foreground story, there’s an interesting current of subversion; the Doctor is turning more into the Doctor and reacting against the setting, drinking milk, continually disparaging violence, and always more interested in talking his way out of a problem than any other solution. There’s also a pleasing contrast between the “bad outlaw” Clanton brothers and the really bad Johnny Ringo. But things are back to the legend by the gunfight itself, where one bullet is always enough to kill and nobody ever needs to reload. (But what happened to all that “can’t change history” we got in The Aztecs, eh? Why does the Doctor even try to stop the gunfight?) The Doctor’s off stage a lot of the time, and Dodo and Steven have less to do than usual, mostly being captured – though Dodo gets one excellent scene with Holliday that makes up for most of it. But all in all it’s a surprisingly fun little story; I’d certainly take it over The Smugglers or The Highlanders.

    • You make good points, although really I still see the Doctor as being way too passive and inept in this story. I think we can at least agree that the latter serials really aren’t all that good, especially compared to “The Aztecs” or “The Crusades.”

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