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Classic Who: The Gunfighters

So this one is from the same hand as The Myth Makers (Donald Cotton) - and to me, that means: Do. Not. Underestimate. On one level, Cotton does here what I thought he was going to do in The Myth Makers (and which was really pioneered by Dennis Spooner in The Romans, anyway) - that is, he gives us a story which draws broadly on the Wild West films and TV series that the audience will have been familiar with, serving up a sort of pastiche while showing scant regard for the real history of the era. But I don't think what's going on here is quite as simple as a case of just ignoring the real history of this era (this time known, of course, with a security that was never possible for The Myth Makers) and having a laugh. To me, this story also demonstrates much the same kind of knowing commentary on what he is doing that Cotton presented in The Myth Makers.

It's always worth playing close attention to the use of costume in Doctor Who, and here I think that's one way of signalling what is going on (with the able support of Barry Newbery, who is our designer again, and whose sets are an absolute tour de force). When Steven and Dodo realise where they are in episode 1, they give whoops of delight and rush off to put on costumes which make them look for all the world like a couple of line-dancers. This is flagged up very distinctly by the Doctor, who complains, "Why you have to dress yourselves up like Tom-Micks Tom Mix I can't imagine! You're asking for trouble." Meanwhile, as we start meeting the 'real' contemporary locals, who are wearing much more subdued costumes, we realise how right he is. Dodo and Steven stick out like a couple of sore thumbs, and for once (in another clever little comment on the Doctor's habit of frequently not bothering to adopt local dress when he lands in the past) it is the Doctor's standard Victorian / Edwardian costume that allows him to blend in.

All of this draws attention from the opening scenes of the story to the gulf between popular expectation and harsh reality in relation to the Wild West - even if what Cotton presents isn't actually historically-accurate reality either. Steven and Dodo start out expecting little more than a fancy-dress party. But by the end of the story, after they have been captured, shot at and threatened, and have witnessed several very brutal killings, Steven in particular is extremely keen to leave (though Dodo apparently still retains enough of her illusions to want to stay and sing along with the music a little longer). Cotton may be catering to popular expectations to quite a degree himself, then, but he's also keen to signal that there are some popular expectations which over-glamorise the past, and that he intends to undermine them.

And take the ballad which runs throughout the story, too. This is in the style of a 'real' Western saloon song, but it was purpose-written for the story, and the lyrics relate the same story which we see unfolding on the screen (much, in fact, like the silent-film captions which we see in the Hollywood sequence of The Daleks' Master Plan). To me, this is a very clever little piece of commentary from Cotton about what sort of narrative he is presenting. It casts the whole story in the light of a romanticised narrative, suggesting that we shouldn't expect it to be a realistic depiction of historical fact, any more than we would expect the content of the ballad which we are hearing to be so either.

So Cotton is definitely playing for laughs and drawing on stereotypes, but he's doing it in an extremely self-referential way. On top of what I've already described, there are also several comedic meta-references to the conventions of the Doctor Who format. For example, the Doctor explains to Wyatt Earp that they "are a humble troupe of travelling players" - which also echoes Saladin's interpretation of what Barbara had to say about her previous travels in The Crusade. And when Steven complains at being lumbered with the unwanted identity of a singer, the Doctor replies, "Well I had to find some sort of suitable cover; after all, you can't walk into the middle of a Western town and say that you've come from outer space!"

A lot of the humour arises from a case of mistaken identity between the Doctor and dentist-cum-gunslinger Doc Holliday. Mistaken identity is a theme that has been played around with quite a bit in season 3, although this time the two characters are at least played by different actors. Here, episode 2 develops the idea along similar lines to the central story of films like Being There or Forrest Gump, with the Doctor unwittingly managing to overpower the dastardly Clanton brothers, when all he was really trying to do is protest that he isn't Doc Holliday, and is merely borrowing his gun.

What with a broken tooth in the first episode, and a great deal of being put-upon by people, William Hartnell gets loads of opportunities to play up the grumpy and irascible side of his Doctor, as well as the scholarly old gent caught up in events well beyond his control. It's a rather different Doctor from the one Cotton presented in The Myth Makers, where he was much more commanding and dynamic. But again, I think it is done to serve a very intelligent narrative point. Throughout the story, the Doctor protests loudly that he will have nothing to do with either guns or alcohol (both, of course, traits which have been heavily emphasised in the New Who era). He also frequently shows distaste at the habits of the locals - spitting, using violence, etc. - and when Doc Holliday is holding Dodo prisoner in episode 3, he insists that he will get her back using reason, much to Johnny Ringo's amusement:
RINGO: Plannin' on gunnin' him down, eh?
DOCTOR: Ooh certainly not sir, certainly not! I mean, hah, we're just going to er, well, er-er... Reason with him. Hm-hm!
RINGO: Now that I'd really like to see!
The same motif is repeated in episode 4, this time in an attempted negotiation with the Clantons - who have been shown as nothing but violent thugs throughout the story:
DOCTOR: I've come along to ask you to call off your boys from embarking on this ridiculous duel.
PA CLANTON: Yeah? Seems like they was the ones got challenged.
DOCTOR: And if you'll do this I'm sure that Masterson will see that they get a fair trial.
PA CLANTON: Oh that's real handsome. Only it don't fit in with my plans.
Neither of his attempts, in fact, are successful - Holliday brings Dodo back of his own volition anyway, and the Clantons opt for a shoot-out with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday over the oh-so-tempting offer of a 'fair trial'(!). And I think Cotton's point here is to show up a distinct contrast between the Whovian ethics of non-violence and 'brains over brawn' which have already developed in earlier stories, and the gritty reality of people operating in a lawless society. Cotton seems to be using the Wild West setting quite deliberately to show up the limitations of the Doctor's approach, in a gentle sort of prod at how far the Doctor's ethics can really get him.

Finally, remembering that our last historical story was The Massacre, we also get what I think constitutes a direct response to and even inversion of that story, and particularly the way it ended. There, Steven had walked out on the Doctor in disgust at his apparent lack of concern for human life and his insistence on non-intervention. Now, we have the Doctor actively trying to prevent the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (see his attempt to reason with Pa Clanton, above). And it is he this time who reacts with moral outrage when he hears that Doc Holliday has been made into an outlaw: "Aah what a terrible, terrible injustice. You know I'm tempted to..." We never find out what he might do about it, as Dodo interrupts - but again the strong implication is that he now thinks it appropriate to intervene to right the situation. So the Doctor's role as heroic defender of the good is now really bleeding through into the historical stories - and no wonder, then, that he'll have to give them up before very much longer...

Cotton is raising a lot of questions, then, and doing it with a nod and a wink to boot. You'll probably have gathered from the above that I thoroughly enjoyed it - but not all of the original audience agreed. And I can see their point, too. Knowing subversion is all very well seen from a safe perspective over forty years later, when I know that the show has merrily absorbed and sustained that and a thousand other approaches, and I saw a brand new episode of it last night. But it must have seemed unsettling at the time, for a programme that was deadly serious one week to be sending itself up the next. What was this, after all, and was it somehow laughing at its audience as well? It probably was the right decision on Innes Lloyd's part to back away from the Cotton approach for a while - but it's a pity the show doesn't yet seem to have been mature enough for the straight and the subversive to rub along side by side.


Heh - it's been a busy weekend, during which I've done virtually nothing but watch and write about Doctor Who. But that's pretty much my ideal weekend anyway. As a result I have at least got myself into a situation where there are only two of the early, 'pure' historicals left for me to watch - so it is perfectly possible for me to do that (though probably not also to review them here) before leaving for the CA on Wednesday morning. OK, so there are also four other stories in between them which I really ought to watch for total familiarity with this era. But I think I can hold my own now.

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Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
jholloway
Apr. 4th, 2010 09:29 pm (UTC)
"like Tom Mix" rather than "like Tom-Micks". Tom Mix was an early western star.
strange_complex
Apr. 4th, 2010 10:03 pm (UTC)
Ah, well I copy and paste many of my quotations from here, so do sometimes get their errors in the process. I had no point of reference for spotting or correcting that one, since I've never heard of Tom Mix. Interesting, though, as it's another knowing reference to the sources Cotton is drawing on in that case.
nwhyte
Apr. 4th, 2010 09:58 pm (UTC)
Not "Tom-Micks" but Tom Mix!

Have been very much enjoying your pieces, Penny. You have discharged your fannish obligations before the conference!
strange_complex
Apr. 4th, 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
Yes, so I understand about Tom Mix - had never heard of him before today, but as I've said in the comment above I think that constitutes yet another clever little meta-reference now that I know what it means.

And many thanks - glad you've been enjoying the ride. :-)
damien_mocata
Apr. 5th, 2010 01:51 am (UTC)
Bah. I want a weekend watching Dr Who with you. :)
strange_complex
Apr. 5th, 2010 08:16 am (UTC)
Hee, yes - would be fun. Actually, do you know if there is a Mecon this year? Could be a good excuse to come over to Belfast...
damien_mocata
Apr. 6th, 2010 12:51 am (UTC)
Actually, has anyone told you about the utter balls that's gone on with the old Sci-Fi Soc? I'll have to ring you sometime and explain it, it'd be somewhat easier than typing it.
strange_complex
Apr. 6th, 2010 06:52 am (UTC)
No, I don't know anything about it. My mobile number is stil the same, and land line is in the 'Contact details' post linked in the side-bar. So do give me a call and bring me up to date!
swisstone
Apr. 5th, 2010 11:15 am (UTC)
I think I can hold my own now.

You can more than do that. Your commentary of late has been absolutely first-class.
strange_complex
Apr. 5th, 2010 11:29 am (UTC)
Aw, thank-you! *bows*

I'm glad they're coming across well - I'm certainly enjoying engaging with it all so intensively. It's actually also very helpful to have people who know this era so thoroughly, like yourself, nwhyte and parrot_knight, picking up small errors (like 'Tom-Micks'), while also generally being so complimentary about what I'm writing. It's gratifying to know that I'm on firm ground.
steer
Apr. 5th, 2010 11:25 am (UTC)
The Tom Mix thing gives me an interesting (to me at least) thought about contemporary references in Dr Who -- as in the Dr mentioning an actor or situation contemporary to the production of the program rather than the action occurring.

It's curious how clunky that line about "Tom Mix" seems now (to me at least). Occasionally I've seen sci-fi handle this sort of thing with a forward reference to an obviously made up celebrity but it seems that for the recent series the Doctor very rarely makes reference to 21st century personalities, probably because the writers realise quite how strange it will look in not too many years. There's a line in "The Once and Future King" where T H White refers to IIRC Lancelot as "a Bradman of the batting averages -- which when I first read it struck me as incredibly curious because Bradman is history just as much as Arthurian legend (well, more so).

I suppose a real time traveller's cultural references would be absolutely all over the place because they're not anchored in one spot so and quote or mannerism copied from a particular time is going to miss most of the people they speak to.
strange_complex
Apr. 5th, 2010 11:36 am (UTC)
I don't know - New Who has referenced Britney Spears, J.K. Rowling, Patrick Moore and a host of others. I think it's all about giving the audience a thrill, and reminding them of the fantastic premise that this is all going on somewhere within their own world. It does date, but I think most writers are happy to accept that in return for pressing the buttons of the viewers at the time they're writing.

As for this particular reference, the Doctor also gives himself the name 'Doctor Caligari' when he is pressed to identify himself, suggesting that he's quite a fan of 1920s cinema. He also seemed to know about Charlie Chaplin and Bing Crosby in the Hollywood film sequence in The Daleks' Master Plan, so I suspect there is a cinema aboard the TARDIS somewhere...
steer
Apr. 5th, 2010 11:48 am (UTC)
I don't know - New Who has referenced Britney Spears, J.K. Rowling, Patrick Moore and a host of others.

You have such an amazing memory for these things. I don't know how you do it.

It does date, but I think most writers are happy to accept that in return for pressing the buttons of the viewers at the time they're writing.

Also though it's within the context of the series an odd thing to do I guess because as a time traveller you'd have to think of the particular time period of your listeners as you have no natural "now" which you're in.
strange_complex
Apr. 5th, 2010 12:00 pm (UTC)
Just call it an unhealthy obsession!

The Doctor does seem to have a particular liking for 20th-century Earth culture, so I guess maybe that can plausibly serve as his 'now' as much as any other time and place. Then again, although he might just about be able to expect Dodo to have heard of Tom Mix (though she's a bit young), it's unlikely Steven would have done, given that he comes from the far future.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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