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). 

Chapter 97. Doctor Who – The Myth Makers (1985)

Synopsis: The beauty of a woman is the spark that fires up a bloody and lengthy war between Greece and Troy. Though many of the figures in the battle have entered into legend, a version of the story as recounted by the great poet Homer reveals the involvement of three travellers who emerged from a blue box and changed the course of the war. 

Chapter Titles

  • 1. Homer Remembers
  • 2. Zeus Ex Machina
  • 3. Hector Forgets
  • 4. Enter Odysseus
  • 5. Exit the Doctor
  • 6. A Rather High Tea
  • 7. Agamemnon Arbitrates
  • 8. An Execution is Arranged
  • 9. Temple Fugit
  • 10. The Doctor Draws a Graph
  • 11. Paris Draws the Line
  • 12. Small Prophet, Quick Return
  • 13. War Games Compulsory
  • 14. Single Combat
  • 15. Speech! Speech!
  • 16. The Trojans at Home
  • 17. Cassandra Claims a Kill
  • 18. The Ultimate Weapon
  • 19. A Council of War
  • 20. Paris Stands on Ceremony
  • 21. Dungeon Party
  • 22. Hull Low, Young Lovers
  • 23. A Victory Celebration
  • 24. Doctor in the Horse
  • 25. A Little Touch of Hubris
  • 26. Abandon Ship!
  • 27. Armageddon and After
  • Epilogue

This now nabs the record from Marco Polo for the most number of chapters in a novelisaton, with 27 chapters and an epilogue.

Background: Donald Cotton adapts his own scripts for the 1965 serial.

Notes: Yep, the story is narrated in the first person by the great author Homer, who apparently was just out of shot in every scene.

The Doctor had promised his young companions a trip to London in the 1960s. Homer claims that he has met the Doctor on many occasions (and that he is now younger than he was the first time they met), knows that the TARDIS is a time machine – and that the Doctor is specifically a ‘Time Lord’! Vicki has a very loose grasp of Earth history, much to Steven’s despair, but knows enough to recognise the importance of the Trojan Horse. Steven is concerned about his absence from the ‘Space-Research Project’, where he had been an amateur athlete during his training and it’s suggested he might have played football (he compares the prospect of fighting Odysseus with ‘the second eleven on a Saturday knock-about’, so that’s definitely football and not the completely different ‘American Football’). We discover how ‘Cyclops’ lost his eye and gained his name [but see Final Analysis below]. There’s no explanation for how Steven is wounded by the start of the next story. Instead, we learn that Vicki – as Cressida – remained with Troilus and the pair took care of their blind friend Homer. The epilogue reveals that the elderly poet has been telling his story to the Doctor, who, it turns out, has popped back to look in on Homer on many occasions throughout his eventful life.

Cover: The TARDIS materialises in front of the wooden horse, painted by Andrew Skilleter.

Final Analysis: Donald Cotton tore up the rule book for his TV stories and he revolutionises the Doctor Who novel here. Cotton’s habit of using witty episode titles continues with the novel’s chapter titles ‘Zeus Ex Machina’ ‘Temple Fugit’ and of course ‘Doctor in the Horse’, which was his original title of episode 4. He really strains with chapter 22’s ‘Hull Low, Young Lovers’; I wonder how many eager readers would know the song ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ from the 1951 musical (or 1956 film) The King and I, so might this be a reference pitched at a prospective parent reading this for a young fan a chapter a night at bedtime?

Casting Homer as the narrator gives us insight into the politics of the time, while also contriving increasingly outlandish reasons for him to be party to private conversations, ‘concealed in a clump of cactus I wasn’t too fond of’, accompanying the TARDIS into Troy and, after being jabbed in the eye and being dubbed ‘Cyclops’, he passed out and wakes up ‘covered in fish-scales and crabs’ legs’. Homer is aware that the Doctor is a time traveller too, making much merriment with details he shouldn’t know anything about:

… how do you describe a time-machine to a man who has never even heard of Euclid, never mind Einstein? Of course, up till then, I’d never heard of them myself, but I must say I found the whole concept fascinating. 

Cotton – through Homer – has a delightfully waspish style. We’re told that Cassandra is a fearsome woman who looks like ‘her brother Hector in drag’, while Achilles ‘had that look of Narcissistic petulance one so often sees on the faces of health fanatics, or on male models who pose for morally suspect sculptors’, adding ‘I believe the Greeks have a word for it nowadays’. It’s when he comes to explain the causes of the siege of Troy that we might feel certain attitudes from the mid-1980s are guiding his hand. His description of Paris appears to be a commentary on more modern Royal events that resonate just as much in 2021 as 1985:

… the second sons of Royal Houses – especially if they are handsome as the devil – have a lot of temptation to cope with. And then, the unlikelihood of their ever achieving the throne does seem to induce irresponsibility which – combined, of course, with an inflated income – how shall I put it? – well, it aggravates any amorous propensities they may have…. Well, we all know about princes and their libidinous ways: their little frolics below stairs – their engaging stagedoor haunting jaunting? 

Trigger warning here: Among many anachronistic terms Homer uses, the phrase ‘a coon’s age’, which dates from the early 19th-century and referred to racoons, but for many readers this may have racial connotations.

As one of the missing TV historicals, it’s not a story I know that well, having only heard the soundtrack and watched a telesnap reconstruction. Cotton pulls out all the stops to bring the period alive and make it like a gossip between old friends, a tale told with tongue firmly in cheek and a knowing wink at the reader (this is especially evident in the audiobook with a delicious reading by Stephen Thorne). Even in providing us with what must be the first celebrity historical featuring an author (something modern fans might be more likely to expect), he’s smart enough to leave himself plenty of escape routes. Homer himself tells us the effect of adopting many guises to avoid being trapped into supporting one side or the other. Like the Doctor, his name lives on in legend:

I’ve always found it a very good rule to be a bit cautious about handing out the label unless unavoidable – which is why, I’m told, to this day, nobody is entirely convinced that Homer ever existed […]