Chapter 101. Doctor Who – The Gunfighters (1986)

Synopsis: In the old town of Tombstone, the Doc’s name’s in doubt / He wanted a dentist but his luck ran out / Now the Clantons are coming – they’ll all be here soon / There’ll be blood on the piano at the Last Chance Saloon…

Chapter Titles

  • Prologue
  • 1. Landfall in Tombstone
  • 2. The Last Chance
  • 3. The Brief Career of Dead-shot Steve
  • 4. A Funeral is Arranged
  • 5. Notice to Quit
  • 6. Identity Parade
  • 7. Open Mouth Surgery
  • 8. An Offer Refused
  • 9. A Pardonable Error
  • 10. A Little Night Music
  • 11. And Some Durn Tootin’
  • 12. Arrest Is As Good As A Change
  • 13. The Red Hand of Tradition
  • 14. The Law and Doc Holliday
  • 15. A Very Nasty Little Incident
  • 16. Wyatt Plays It By The Book
  • 17. Pa Clanton Keeps a Welcome
  • 18. Ringo in the Morning
  • 19. Post Mortem
  • 20. Thought For Feud
  • 21. Dodo Draws a Bead
  • 22. The Entry of the Gladiators
  • 23. Come Sun-Up…
  • Epilogue

Background: Donald Cotton loosely adapts his own scripts from 1966.

Notes: You know I love a prologue! We open with a journalist called Ned Buntline, who made his name writing biographies of notable Wild West legends. Having previously spoken to Wyatt Earp, who refused to be drawn on certain inconsistencies in the myths surrounding the OK Corral, Buntine now comes to a sanatorium at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, to meet an elderly Doc Holliday, who is in his last days with tuberculosis. Holliday speaks freely about the TARDIS, ‘a kind of four-wheel buggy designed for ridin’ every sort of direction through eternity, without much decent respect for the laws of physics’.

Aboard the TARDIS, Steven reminds the Doctor of the time when they encountered ‘great, nebulous jelly-fish things… with poisonous what-nots’. Dodo claims she took a first-aid course, but didn’t do very well. When the TARDIS lands in Tombstone, it’s raining heavily. Behind the bar of the Last Chance Saloon is a, er, well as Buntine tells it, it’s…

…a shot-up oil-painting of a fat blonde in her birthday rig. Sitting on a cloud, she was being molested by a bunch of tear-away cherubs, who looked as if they’d been up several nights round a stud-game, and passing the nectar pretty free, at that.

… and then he gives us two verses of that song (only one of which was heard on TV). 

Dodo is wearing ‘a little number made up of scarlet furbelows and flounces trimmed with black lace’ with an oversized hat (or as Buntine claims, like ‘the proprietress of a broken-down cat-house in one of the less select quarters of New Orleans’). Steven has, according to the Doctor, ‘disguise[d] himself as Billy the Kid’. He took his advanced astronaut course at Cape Canaveral, where he learned to play ‘America the Brave’ on the piano. Dodo sees a poster for real-life star of the stage Eddie Foy – who makes a brief cameo towards the end of the story (and whose son, Eddie Foy, was a Hollywood movie star who Dodo might conceivably have seen). Kate’s surname is ‘Elder’, not ‘Fisher’ as on TV (and in the 1957 movie); the real-life Kate was formally ‘Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings’, but she was also known by the deeply unflattering ‘Big Nose Kate’. 

Doc Holliday’s new dentist’s chair had previously seen service at ‘the Death House in San Quentin’. Pa Clanton is standing for mayoral election and hopes taking up said office will result in free drinks for life at the Last Chance Saloon. Johnny Ringo is a keen student of the Classics and is, at the time of the gunfight, partway through the ten-volume edition of Caesar’s Gallic Wars. The Doctor’s discomfort with a gun results in him accidentally shooting two bystanders, though eventually he is said to have begun to ‘enjoy himself’. The Doctor and his friends leave in the TARDIS, its dematerialisation witnessed by Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and a few others. In the epilogue, Holliday concludes telling his story to Buntine, necks a bottle of whisky … and dies.

Doc Holliday did indeed die in 1887, staying at Glenwood Hotel, Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He was 36 years old (Anthony Jacobs, who played him on TV, was 48 at the time of broadcast).

Cover: Andrew Skilleter paints the Doctor with a stetson while Wyatt Earp walks down the street of Tombstone with smoking guns. 

Final Analysis: There are people who’ll still tell you that The Gunfighters is a ‘bad story’ or that it was the lowest-rated story ever (it really wasn’t). There’s even a sly dig at the production in the text of this book, where a passage begins ‘Meanwhile, at the Last Chance Saloon, the stage was already set – as if by an incompetent director.’ Fan elders have shaped opinion to the point where many people who haven’t even seen it know what they think of it. And they’re wrong. Utterly. They’re very quick to remind us that Doctor Who can tell ‘any kind of story’, but seem to bristle when the genre isn’t one they personally like or – worst of all – if the story veers into the realm of comedy!

While the historical adventures did tend to be outperformed on original transmission by the often less ambitious efforts featuring silver sets on alien worlds, as we’ve seen with these novelisations, the writers tried much harder to engage the brain with their characters, perhaps mindful that they’d be representing figures who’s actually lived, or possibly just because they preferred history to SF. In the best Reithian tradition, Donald Cotton clearly realised that the best way to ‘educate and inform’ was to entertain. In this adaptation, he once again relies upon a narrator who casts doubt upon the factual accuracy of other versions of the legend; in other words, he’s excusing and exploiting any historical mistakes in both the TV serial and all other conflicting adaptations. We’re presented with a further myth rather than a text-book account of the real events, yet Cotton’s characters feel like they might have actually lived and breathed. More importantly though, Cotton’s retelling of the tale is very, very funny. My favourite joke in the whole thing is where he describes the drunk Ike Clanton as speaking ‘blotto voce’. There’s also a lovely description of the Doctor operating the TARDIS controls: 

… clutching at an apparently haphazard selection of levers with the air of a demented xylophonist, who finds he’s brought along the wine list instead of the score.

There are some instances of swearing – two uses of ‘bastard’, eight ‘goddam(ned)’ and sixteen uses of ‘damn’. As the notes above illustrate, there’s also a degree of bawdiness to this not seen before (mainly involving Kate’s profession). 

Finally, it’s become a popular game in modern stories (including The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and the Wasp) to crowbar in as many metatextual references as possible, but we can trace this back directly to Donald Cotton. While some of these might have reasonable claims to be accurate contemporary phrases, the modern reader can play ‘Spot the Film Title’ throughout the text. To start you off, here are just a few: For a Few Dollars More (1965); The Wild Bunch (1969); Calamity Jane and Sam Bass (1949); Terror of the Plains (1934); Death Valley (1946); The Golden West, (1932); … and The Right Stuff (1983). 

7 thoughts on “Chapter 101. Doctor Who – The Gunfighters (1986)

  1. I first saw this on a UKGold omnibus in the 90s. I loved it straightaway. It’s so different from any other Yarn, possibly because of the ballad, but also because EVERYONE in it is having a right good time.
    I’ve only recently read the book, and agree, with your review. Again, it’s a very different kind of novelisation but in keeping with the fun of the production and the two compliment each other beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Ike Clanton is standing for mayoral election”

    Pa Clanton, not Ike.

    Just finished re-reading this the other day. This may be one of the most forced and groan-worthy shoehorned-in puns I have ever read, as the hard-drinking Doc Holliday attempts to hightail it out of town… and I love it: “…pretty soon they were raising the dust, safely installed in a Surrey – but with no immediate prospect of a binge on top.”

    I’ve never seen the televised version; did it sideline Dodo as much as the book does? Also, I’m halfway through “The Romans” (your “Myth Makers” post having inspired a Donald Cotton reading… well, binge…) and the sidelining of the women in that book, particularly Barbara, takes on uncomfortable proportions. But perhaps more on that when you get there…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah yes, Pa – fixed now. Dodo is kind of sidelined, par for the course in those days, but also the story is told from a point of view and she’s a minor character from his position.

      Like

      1. True, but, as you’ll see when we get to “The Romans”… well, I dunno if that’s one of the books that’s going to be new to you, so I don’t want to ruin it! More later. If I remember by that point. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah! Well, the book’s prose style is as delightful as his others, and I love the structure of it being a series of letters, freeing Cotton from having to tell the story from one perspective. But it’s an unfortunate choice that Barbara only gets one chapter from her perspective – and only to write a brief letter to Nero dryly and politely asking him to please stop trying to rape her – and Vicki gets no point-of-view chapter at all. This is especially bothersome in a book that’s structured so Cotton can pop into anybody’s perspective.

        Barbara’s role in the televised “The Romans” is already not great, but the lack of any real look-in at her point of view leaves her solely as comedic object of lust. We get none of her kindness, looking out for one of the other captured slaves, or her brave determination to escape from Nero’s palace. Perhaps Cotton felt none of that would play well in the over-the-top discursive comedy style he was going for, but Barbara’s portrayal suffers because of it; if you’re not already familiar with the character, you won’t get much of a sense of her from this book.

        Vicki, despite not getting her own chapter, manages to come off better than Barbara, as Cotton makes clear even through the fog of the Doctor’s self-satisfied arrogance that she’s the more sensible of the two! Still, choosing to largely ignore two of the regular cast instead of taking the opportunity to show events from their point of view seems like a missed opportunity.

        All that said, the book is great fun, and the chapters from the Doctor’s journal are perhaps the best-ever portrayal of the First Doctor’s comedic side.

        Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s