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Doctor Who: The Gunfighters

"Where might one rustle up some
grub, my good chap?"
It's practically a musical!

Season Three, Series Z

Starring William Hartnell as the Doctor
With Peter Purves (Steven) and Jackie Lane (Dodo)
Written by Donald Cotton
Directed by Rex Tucker
Produced by Innes Lloyd
Script Editor: Gerry Davis

Episode Titles and Broadcast Dates
  • A Holiday for the Doctor (30 Apr 1966)
  • Don't Shoot the Pianist (7 May 1966)
  • Johnny Ringo (14 May 1966)
  • The O.K. Corral (21 May 1966)
"The Gunfighters" is the last story of the classic era to have individual episode titles.

How To Watch
  • All episodes exist, available on-demand (with subscription) on Britbox
  • Not in rotation (as of March 2023) on Pluto.tv's Classic Dr Who channel
  • DVD release 2011


The TARDIS lands in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. The Doctor has a sore tooth after eating one of Cyril's sweets at the end of the previous adventure, and is seeking a dentist. The Clanton brothers, a trio of hard-drinkin' no-good horse thieves, are camped out at the Last Chance Saloon with their friend Seth Harper a-waiting fer Doc Holliday, seekin' revenge fer the shootin' death of their brother. When the Clantons encounter the Doctor, the inevitable confusion occurs. Doc Holliday, currently a part-time dentist and full-time drunk, is more than happy to see the Doctor take the fall for him (after extracting the problem tooth). Lawmen Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp keep the peace for a while, but the escalating tension (and the arrival of the murderin' lowlife Johnny Ringo) leads to the historical Battle at the OK Corral, in which Earp and Holliday gun down the Clantons, their Pa, and Ringo.

Observations and Notes and Stuff

OK, fine, the accents are crap and some of the acting is terrible. OK, fine, the Ballad is waaaaay overused (literally 30 times over four episodes, not counting when Steven and Dodo perform it). Yes, there are a lot of painted backdrops that are hardly ever shot from a flattering angle. Yes, Dodo and Steven are suddenly gifted pianists who can sightread. It usually winds up near the bottom of fan polls and shows up regularly in lists of the Ten Worst Ever. I'm not gonna defend its faults.

"Who cares what the Doctor thinks? We look FAB!"

But as an experiment in form, in a season that's already featured Space Crumpet, the Trojan Horse, a three month Dalek Epic, French history, the far-flung future of humanity, and a surreal fantasy realm, it fits right in. Contrast with Season Five, in which nearly every story is a variation of the same damn Base Under Siege plot. I'm not saying it's great, but every time I take the time to give it my attention, I'm continually surprised at how much I enjoy it. It's one of the last comedy historicals of the classic series, and what were you expecting anyway, Deadwood? Rio Bravo? Even the Doctor laments Steven and Dodo's fashion choices, having dressed themselves in the silliest Western outfits they could find.

It's worth noting that in general, television shows at that time were not made for posterity, and this is true here. "The Gunfighters" was made to occupy 25 minutes of viewers' time for four episodes in the spring of 1966, perhaps get a repeat, then get shipped overseas to be screened in a few Commonwealth countries and then never be viewed again. If they made these stories with the knowledge that we'd be pouring over every detail, freeze-framing every image, ridiculing bad performances by actors who were just grateful for four weeks' work, or a production choice that maybe didn't come out as well as they'd hoped, etc... come on, IT WAS DESIGNED TO BE SEEN ONE TIME and then forgotten. Cut 'em some slack. I was in some seriously crap plays in the 1990's. Nobody's obsessively blogging about it a generation later.

I seem to side with most pundits' views of the Hartnell era in that he was at his best in historical adventures because he didn't have to focus so much on sci-fi mumbo-jumbo, and could put his energy into his performance. Working your way through his era, one can clearly tell when he has his A-game and when he doesn't, and here he is "on." There's a sparkle in his eye we rarely see (well, to be fair, we might see it more if so many of his later episodes weren't missing), he is in full possession of his faculties, his timing is sharp, and Hartnell looks like he's enjoying himself. Having secured a contract extension, dispatched his nemesis John Wiles and spent two weeks of "Celestial Toymaker" on vacation, can you blame him?

Underneath the very dodgy accents is quite a witty script that even throws in a rare (at the time) meta-joke, as he introduces himself and his companions.
DOCTOR: And lastly sir, your humble servant Doctor Caligari.
MASTERSON: Doctor who?
DOCTOR: Yes, quite right.
Doc Holliday is an intriguingly amoral character; I love how he's perfectly content to let the Clanton brothers think our Doc is him, even if it means the Doctor's life. Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp attempt as long as possible to forestall the inevitable shootout; they have an interest in keeping the peace, avoiding bloodshed as possible, and that's admirable.

Come on, it's not THAT bad...

I love the ballad, to a point. It obliges us to embrace the fact that we are watching a television show. It serves as a Greek Chorus of sorts, commenting on the characters and the actions, a framing device bridging scenes, etc... is it overused? Most certainly. This whole story is an experiment in form, and bless their hearts, they commit fully. They go all in. If you don't think Hartnell calling Wyatt Earp "Mr. Werp" is hysterical, don't worry, he'll keep trying until you do.

"The Gunfighters" makes one work to appreciate its assets. But there's gold in the saddlebags if you put in that effort. (You're forgiven if you don't.)

Haven't I Seen You...
  • Lynda Baron (the offscreen ballad singer) would reappear as Captain Wrack in "Enlightenment" and Val in "Closing Time."
  • David Graham (Charlie the barkeep) would reappear as Kerensky in "City of Death"
  • Richard Beale (Bat Masterson) was the voice of the Refusian in "The Ark," and would also provide the voice of the Macra in "The Macra Terror" and the Minister of Ecology in "The Green Death"
  • Anthony Jacobs (Doc Holliday) never appeared on Doctor Who again, but his son Matthew would grow up to write the TV Movie.
  • Likewise, this is the only Doctor Who credit for Shane Rimmer (Seth Harper) who was a regular figure on the BBC, was in Star Wars, Superman 1, 2, and 3, Dr Strangelove, and Thunderbirds. He also narrated the audiobook version.

Sausage Factor:

If you count Lynda Baron, the unseen voice of the balladeer: 85.7% (2 females out of 14 credited guest actors). If you don't: 92.3%

Rating: Two and a Half out of Four Timelord Molars.
John Geoffrion is a semi-retired semi-professional thespian, a professional data guy, and a Dad. He usually falls asleep to the Classic Doctor Who channel on Pluto.tv


  1. I can't imagine any circumstance that would make me go to Doc Holliday for dental treatment, no matter what was wrong. :) Lol.

    1. This is my feeling as well. The Doctor needing a tooth pulled in the 1st place was kind of odd, but I would not go to old west America for dentistry!

    2. To be fair to the Doctor, this was in the early days when they were very clear that he had no ability to control where the TARDIS went next. He was pretty much stuck finding a dentist wherever he landed next.

      At least he landed on a planet where people had teeth :)

    3. Ha! Good point of course, but it still strikes me as a; "Get back in the TARDIS and we'll try again!" situation. XD

  2. Love your review on this one. It's always amazed me how many people pan this story because they've completely missed that it's a comedy.

  3. I largely agree with you, John, although the song did get annoying pretty quickly. Despite the odd choice to visit the old west for a tooth extraction, I largely had fun with this story. I've never been a big western fan despite watching a lot of 'Fury' as a kid, but this comedic take is enjoyable and while the story isn't great, it is fun, which is more important.


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