The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Ride 'Em Cowboy

The problem with the Doctor Who story The Gunfighters.

To begin with one very big caveat; almost everyone I know thinks this story is excellent. I am very much in a minority in not rating it highly.

My problem isn’t about the song which is intrusive, repetitive and over-used, or the array of varied and variable accents, or even the incredibly small sets which mean that everyone has to take very short, slow steps in order to avoid accidentally walking off the end.

My problem is that it’s a ‘pure historical’, and it’s probably the best example of why they decided to stop doing ‘pure historical’ Doctor Who stories shortly afterwards. Of course, the main reason was that adventures in the Trojan War, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre or the Gunfight at the OK Corral are never going to be as exciting as a story involving Daleks, Cybermen or Monoids (though it is about equally as exciting as a story involving futuristic Savages, and rather more exciting than the encounter with the Celestial Toymaker.)

The thing is, you see, like The Myth Makers and The Massacre, The Gunfighters is all about one brief, tragic occurrence in history, which takes place in the final episode. This means the story itself is an exposition-heavy preamble setting up the inevitable; The Myth Makers at least has some fun by subverting heroic archetypes and playing with the notion of the Doctor deliberately, but reluctantly, providing the idea of the Trojan horse despite believing it to be a myth. But The Massacre and The Gunfighters are both very similar, structurally; the Doctor and his companions are given sub-plots to make them appear busy, while various historical characters we’re never given any reason to care about meet in hostelries discussing recent events and How Things Are Getting Out of Hand.

That’s the problem. For a drama to work, your lead characters need to be central to the story; they need to be driving it by making meaningful choices, by affecting the course of events. In the pure historical, they are necessarily sidelined; they can have no direct or deliberate influence over the outcome of the story as a whole, only over their own fates and those of minor supporting characters. Which, to be fair, worked very well in The Aztecs, The Reign Of Terror and The Crusade.

But The Massacre and The Gunfighters are less elegant. The Massacre is a very oddly-told story; the Doctor disappears during part one only to reappear without explanation in part four, with William Hartnell playing the Abbot of Amboise in the middle two episodes. But nothing is done with this doppelganger; it’s a gimmick that comes out of nowhere, which goes nowhere, and which doesn’t affect the story. It’s just, like so much of that adventure, political/religious intrigue as padding.

The Gunfighters similarly contrives to get the Doctor involved in the story through another lookalike, with him being mistaken for Doc Holliday, but this complication is resolved in part two, and from that point on, the Doctor, Steven and Dodo are barely involved. Which is a problem, because those are the characters the audience cares about, not a bunch of cowboys. If the Doctor had to take Doc Holliday’s place in the shoot-out, because t real Doc Holliday had been prematurely killed elsewhere, in order to preserve the course of history; that would be a strong starting-point for a story. But that would also be subverting history, not popular with those wishing to justify the story on educational grounds.

It’s interesting, for me at least, that the next two ‘history’ stories attempted a different approach, inspired by the works of Robert Louis Stevenson there’s a fun if generic smuggling tale, and a fun if generic Kidnapped! tale. The Highlanders does include another historical massacre, but uses it as a starting point rather than a finishing line – which works better, because it means the futures of the characters are up for grabs, rather than tragically predestined. I mean, you can tell exciting stories about characters that are tragically predestined (such as The Aztecs), but in The Gunfighters, our three leads don’t show any interest in the fact that most of the characters they meet are fated to die; it’s all just jolly cowboy larks. But for us to take a situation seriously, our heroes need to take it seriously, and to be directly involved.

That’s my main problem with The Gunfighters. It’s an example of why a certain type of ‘historical’ story doesn’t work; one week our heroes are influencing the entire future course of the human race, the next they are powerless to intervene in a grubby wild-west shootout.

But I have other difficulties with it. The Gunfighters plot is reliant on the Doctor, Steven and Dodo behaving uncharacteristically stupidly (well, the Doctor and Steven anyway); the Doctor is portrayed as a doddery old man who is taken in by the most transparent of ruses, who blunders into traps and treats guns like amusing toys.

Of course, there’s plenty of comedy to be mined from this new-found idiocy; Peter Purves does a very good job at playing out of his depth, William Hartnell is surprisingly sharp in the opening episode, and even Dodo is charming in her attempt to hold Doc Holliday at gunpoint. But the problem with the comedy is this; in terms of its script, The Gunfighters wasn’t intended to be a comedy. It seems to be attempting a similar approach to The Myth Makers; portraying ‘heroic’ characters as down-at-heel, unscrupulous opportunists, but playing it completely straight. There might have been humorous intentions, but all the scenes with the cowboys discussing their various tiresome grudges are joke-free; except that at some point during rehearsals, the decision seems to have been made to play it as a comedy, so you have a character with a cod stutter etc. The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon is another attempt to liven up what is a pretty functional, drab script; a script devoid of tension, because most people watching will already know how the story ends, and because the story sidelines the leads so that at no point do we feel they are in danger, or may have some bearing on how the story ends. Unlike The Myth Makers, where the same writer very cleverly puts the Doctor, Steven and Vicki in the thick of the action.

Plus I don’t like Westerns.