Monday, 15 June 2009

The Gunfighters

The Gunfighters 1:

For all the talk of BF's releases last year being 'experimental' or 'radical', it really struck me that there's practically nothing in last years range that hasn't been done in season three. You want a story in two distinct parts? P:L or the Ark. A story in two parts, all about time travel and its implications? Flip Flop or the Ark. A story featuring a character we think is the Doctor, but who turns out not to be? I wouldn't dream of spoilering the very fine release BF that did that, but the obvious parallel is the Massacre. An epic story, bigger than anything else to date, if overlong, special, with a story designed around the length and featuring more than one old character? Zagreus or DMP. And here we have a musical historical, with a singing comedy cliffhanger. Pirates or the Gunfighters? Gunfighters every time.

I like this story a lot. Always have. I know a lot of people can't get past the ballad, and fair enough. Certainly in this episode it's used perhaps one or two times too many - though I would suggest the problem is less with the amount of times, as such, but how close they are together. There's two within a minute at the start, and that does feel odd. But generally I rather like it. I got a lot of stick when I replied to one of 21ca's reviews suggesting that the song is inspired by Brecht's verfremdungs effekt, the alienation effect, but I think it certainly is, not neccessarily intentionally or derived from the same intention, but coming from the same place (I suspect all songs acting as narrative commentary are derived from Brecht, even if it's a generation or two down). Yes, a similar device was employed in Cat Ballou just previously, which possibly inspired it, but that was an all out comedy in a way the Gunfighters isn't. The Ballad isn't wacky - is rather sweet, and sad, and slightly beautiful. It's there as a counterpoint to the images, rather than in sympathy with them. So it tends to affect our take on the events - through the lyrics and the tone. A simple shot of the Clantons walking to the bar is given foreboding by the tune. Perhaps a clearer example is the cliffhanger - it's clear the Doctor is in mortal peril, but in direct counterpoint, the music is jolly and upbeat. For me, this works terrifically well, and this is a brilliant and under-rated cliffhanger. The juxtapostion of jolity with potential death is simultaneously amusing and menacing, so we have a fun cliffhanger that still manages to carry the traditional 'how are they going to get out of that' threat.

Another way this works is that the comedy is pretty much contained in the regulars - well, David Graham's barman get's some nice stuff too. Everyone else is taking it deadly seriously. The humour comes from the regular's interaction with the situation, and their response to it. (Contrast this to the Myth Makers, where the humour comes mainly from the characters all being dry and witty. The humour here is less about the language than the context). Hartnell and Purves have acquited themselves admirably as light comedians in the stories to date and don't disappoint here. Purves in particular gets some great physical comedy, perfectly prepared to make Steven look a bit of a fool in his play acting, and then in response to the faintly farcical misconceptions (I love the way that for once the Doctor's safe disguise for everyone backfires completely - a singer with six shooters?). There's an especially nice double take in the last scene when he glances into Shane Rimmers gun. And all this without undermining the straighter Steven of the previous stories - it still seems like the same character. Hartnell gets some nice wordplay and jokes in his dealings with Earp and Holliday, and Shane Rimmer again, plus plenty of engaging physically business, proving to be possibly the most versatile of the Doctors. Dodo gets less to do, but is still quite fun. She's insanely good at piano quite quickly, a little too keen to get loud too often, and - in something I observed in CT 4, but forgot to mention - am I the only one who thinks that in the outfit she wore for CT and the start of this one there's a little too much on display, so to speak? Without wanting to be crude, there's probably not quite so much breastage this obvious in the series til Peri turns up, and in the slightly buttoned up world of 1960s Who this is a little surprising. Not that I'm complaining, they're pleasant enough, but they do rather come out of nowhere and are perhaps a little too much in your face. Could have chosen a better phrase, perhaps.

Some of the guest stars put in slightly mannered, heightened performances, aiming more to give the impression of a western parody than a proper one - though they still all play it sort of straight. This is mainly the case with the more flamboyant goodies, especially Holliday, the baddies being played relatively down the line. There is one that doesn't work, William Hurndall as Ike Clanton (I think, it's a little hard to tell). For some reason he barely seems to be acting at all. But the others put in performances that give the impression of realism, without neccessarily being totally realistic.

There's one or two rather awkwardly shot moments in the story with Holliday's first appearance and Steven and Dodo coming back down the stairs looking like fractionally late cueing. But generally it's filled with a few nice angles and has a good eye for pace and build up. Especially in the cliffhanger.

I'm having a great time and I'm looking forward to part two very much.


(4/6/04 4:45 am)

Re: Day by Day
The Gunfighters 2:

Well, I'm going to be trying for two episodes of this today. Not for any desire to rush through it particularly, but because of what can be described as a slightly mad decision. I've decided to watch the Gunfighters with my mum.

Now my mum isn't a fan or anything, but she can put up with it if the story is enjoyable, and I thought that this might work for her. I rewatched part 1 with her last night and 2 this morning, and so far the response has been overwhelmingly positive. However, at a rate of one a day we'd reach part 4 when my dad gets home. And he loathes the thing with a passion that borders on Michael Grade proportions (though he did rather like Jubillee when I played it to him, which was pleasing). So we've decided to do two today and avoid annoying him on thursday. So expect an update on part three later.

Enough waffle. Episode two is a continuation of the form from yesterday. Rewatching part one made me realise how little humour there is when the regulars are off screen, emphasing the fact this is a comedy of context, where the humour is derived from their responses to the situation. Only Holliday gets to deliver witty lines as a matter of course, and on occassion Kate and Charley get a nice bit. And the same continues here. Cotton plays to the strengths of the regulars, mainly giving the comic stuff to the guys and avoiding Dodo. Steven gets all the slapstick, and Hartnell gets all the funny lines. It's very odd that this strange, playful Doctor doesn't really seem to contradict the one we've seen before. He still isn't quite with it, and this obviously fits with the way he's behaved before. And his anti-alcohol/violence insistence fits in too. But it's all still demonstrably the same character, showing just how good Hartnell is. His playing with his gun, his 'Werp'ing, his face pulling and confusion - the character is utterly loveable. And likewise, Steven's brash foolishness doen't really contradict a thing we've seen before, and in fact harks back to the character we were originally introduced to, rather than the slightly one-d heroic stereotype we've since been presented with, post Myth-Makers. He's almost a proto-Harry, an engaging blunderer. Dodo gets less funny business, but does manage to be quite likeable here. She hasn't really been given much personality yet apart from being enthusiastic and extremely naive, rather unable to take this whole thing as being anything other than a bit of a lark (she's enjoyed playing the piano at gunpoint apparently). Still, it's hard to dislike someone so without guile, and seemingly enjoying themselves. Her scenes with Holiday are rather nicely done, and it's hard to connect this performance with the irritating girl who ran into the TARDIS in the Massacre. I'm beginning to find her quite engaging.

It's rather a shame to see Shane Rimmer killed at the end of the episode, as he's probably the best acted guest character - possibly excepting Holliday, who isn't exactly supposed to be a straight realistic character. The Clantons aren't making much of an impression as individuals, being merely the young one, the wooden one and the stuttering one (a clear example of a desperate actor giving himself some business so as not to fade away). But we're not supposed to be that interested in them or sympathetic to them.

The death is also quite abrupt and bleak, and combined with growing menace of the lynch mob, we are once more getting into the mixture of wit and darkness that characterises Cotton's scripts. It's all the more shocking and effective for the surroundings being so light. And the spectre of death looms in the song, which once more uses the same trick of counterpoint for dramatic effect, reminding us constantly of where we're going. Comedy has to have a dark centre to be really really funny - all the great sitcoms do - and the two feed off each other. The darker the context, the funnier. The funnier the script, the more effective the moments of darkness.

Still plenty of inventive camera shots, great angles, and I love the sight of the advancing mob through the jail doors.

And another great cliffhanger, filled with menace. The sweetness of the ballad mixing in to a very good 'how can they get out of that' moment, heightening the tension.

My mum's loving it, by the way. She's laughing herself silly at Hartnell and Purves - the former in particular, such a fine comic actor, master of comic timing (and they're both so clearly having a great time you're swept away with them). And she's engrossed by the straight bits and the story. And for all the negative feeling Who fans have for this story (of which more another time, I think), she's the kind of person that the show must get - the general public. And she's there in spades.


(4/7/04 2:25 am)

Re: Day by Day
The Gunfighters 3:

Still fabulous stuff here. The most obvious thing about this episode is in the title - Johnny Ringo, as dar as I can remember the only guest character to get an entire episode title to himself (Meglos and Marco Polo getting an entire serial, of course). Laurence Payne might not seem to have a clue what accent he's supposed to be doing, but it's a fab performance if you can ignore that, all cold menace and confident swagger. The shooting of Charley is brutal and callous, and incredibly shocking in the context of a light story. My mum, still watching with me, said 'Oooh, that's a bit nasty isn't it?' and I have to agree. As I keep saying, it's all about the context - people have been killed in similarly nasty ways before, but the murder of a likeable character for no good reason and in such a casual way when there were jokes moments before really shocks. It's a bit of a shame that Payne draws his gun before calling Charlies name so we know what's coming a split second before we should, really, but it's such a stunning moment it hardly matters. Then of course, the death itself is treated lightly in the rest of the episode, with the parody funeral march in the ballad, and the Doctor and Steven double taking the corpse (a gag that doesn't quite work, sad to say, as the body across the bar is blatantly obvious).

The death of the younger Earp at the cliffhanger is less effective, mainly cos we haven't got to know and like the character as much as we had Charlie, but it is still quite brutal. Someone being shot still has a nasty edge to it in a way that ray guns or the like don't. And of course, it is really another innocent, which does add to the brutality total, and the air of foreboding that worked so well in the Myth Makers, as the events of legend start to overtake everyone.

It seems pretty much the norm for me in this story to rave about Steven and the Doctor. Once again, they put in sublime performances. However, this episode Dodo gets some good material too, her holding Holliday hostage being a lovely moment for the girl, brave and funny in a way we haven't really seen her do to date. Suddenly she seems like a proper companion. When she gets the material, Jackie Lane can be quite likeable. It's just a shame the scripts don't seem to like her all that much.

It really is a shame that this story continues to have a poor reputation that it simply doesn't deserve. It's biggest fault remains that it is different. There's nothing wrong about it not working for you, that's fair enough, but any objective viewpoint will tell you that it's a well made piece, and that ultimately means that it comes down to whether you like humour in Who or not. I seriously cannot see how anything that can be enjoyed 40 years after it was made by quite a number of people deserves the vitriol that is hurled at this story. It's rather indicative of a closed mind, in my opinion (and as I say here, this is not to suggest that the broad-minded enjoy the script, and the closed minded don't, not at all. You either like the style or you don't. However, it's closed minded to think, if you don't like it, that nobody else could, and that because you don't like it, it's inherently bad. Much as I love this story, I can perfectly see why it might not be everyone's cup of tea. If you dislike the Gunfighters you have to see that it's not badly scripted enough or made to be totally worthless, i.e you dislike what it does, not how it does it). It's poor reputation remains one of the worst hangovers from the years of the Uber-fans where we were told what was good and what was bad, by people who really wanted every story to be like a Hinchcliffe story. But that's an argument for another time.


(4/7/04 3:34 pm)

Re: Day by Day
The Gunfighters 4:

Yadda yadda yadda Hartnell is hysterical yadda yadda yadda Purves is fab at the physical stuff yadda yadda yadda offsetting of humour and extreme violence yadda yadda yadda.

I find myself saying the same thing about this story each episode. About halfway through watching part four I thought of something new to say. But I'd forgotten by the end of the episode. Whoops. Maybe I should take notes.

It's odd, reading the archive of the story, to see that the principal guest star was Laurence Payne, when he doesn't appear til the third episode. But it really is rather justified in the scripting, with the villains forming into a coherent unit when Ringo eventually turns up (though it isn't entirely clear, unless I missed something, why Ringo is so against the idea of working with the Clantons in part three, but is a fully integrated gang member in this episode), and the script develops a stronger sense of the villains identity around him. It's an amazingly brave move to hold off on introducing such a major character til over half way through the story, but it's pulled off here incredibly well, mainly through Payne's performance. Yeah, sure his accent barely seems to exist or flits around more continents than you can count, but it's testament to the strength of the performance and his sheer presence that you find him a much more rivetting and charismatic performance than the straighter Clanton brother's who are blessed with better accents.

The regulars fare rather less well in this episode than the previous ones, with Steven relegated to being a captive for the majority of the time, and the Doctor caught in a deputisation subplot that doesn't really go anywhere, just giving the illusion that he's involved in events - purely in this episode though. As in all the best historicals, the events of the previous episodes are shaped around the regulars - just now that the historical climax has been reached they find little to do - the obvious exception being Dodo, surprisingly, who's the only regular to directly influence the action in this episode, bringing back Holliday and essentially initiating his confrontation with Ringo (though her frankly suicidal run into Ringo's way when her simple cry of 'Doc look out' was perfectly adequate requires stupidity of the highest order, but that is admittedly hardly out of character).

The Gunfight is the centrepiece, on film and on a vast set, looking fabulous. For a short while it does feel like a proper western, and not Doctor Who at all, reinforcing the sense that our heroes have stepped into somebody else's world, not just an extension of theirs. It's nasty and violent - Ike being shot repeatedly when to all intents and purposes unarmed is grim even for this show. OK, the sequence of the Earps walking through a shower of gunfire looks ridiculous (it's easy to forget that Ringo tells the Clantons to fire before they get in range to keep them busy), and it's a bit of a shame that with Virgil intoduced in this episode alone we don't really have an emotional investment in him. But this is to ignore the fact that this is a fine dramatic setpiece, and an effective finale to the simmering tensions that have been bubbling away. The ballad's been constantly reminding us where we're headed, underlying the humour with foreboding, and when we get there it isn't a dissapointment. The final confrontation between Ringo and Holliday is probably the best moment, mainly due to the fact that they're the best actors involved, and their emotional rivalry gives the scene tension and impact. But the whole thing rounds off the story in style with an effective climax - where a historically accurate one would have been something of a damp squib. It's a slight shame that Steven and the Doctor aren't around, as it is their show really, but ultimately they have to be bystanders.

Whilst I remember - as I watch these stories I occassionally glance at the reviews in the Time Team and the Discontinuity Guide and the TV Companion. The latter is so woefully one sided and narrow minded on this story it barely counts as worth reading. But the DG has an interesting 'goof', saying that the phrase 'Earning your gunfighter's wings' as sung in the ballad is anachnronistic. Now I never heard that line anywhere. There's one that says roughly the same phrase, but with an unclear final word - but for my money it has to be 'fee' because that fits the rhyme scheme. It's when Johnny first appears in part three. Didn't mention it til now in case it referred to another bit of the ballad.

It is worth adding that this story is incredibly well shot. Inventively shot and directed, it's one of the most visually impressive Hartnell stories I've seen. Not really my field so I won't go on, but it really did look good - nicely composed and with the actors all moved efficiently and well.

The humour has, understandably drifted a little in this episode, as the situation darkens. I can't quite agree with the assesment in the DWM first Doctor special that the humour vanishes around the end of part two - there's lots in three, and plenty of little bits of business from the regulars in this one (Mr Wearp is funny every time, a cheap gag but a good one). But as I've said, the humour is derived less from funny lines and business than the regulars difficulties interacting with this situation. With the situation darker, obviously their take will be less frivolous (and their frivolity has fed the previous episodes). None the less, the Doctor is still able to absently lean on Charley's corpse, and Steven to mug with a gun in his face. As they leave, the light wit returns in their scene with Holliday, and The Doctor's wonderful rebuke of Dodo at the end.

Considering the slow pace of the direction, slow fade ins and outs, this one is cut together quite abruptly, with a few jarring moments. The cut into the final TARDIS scene in particular seems very perfunctory. And that last scene just has a tacked on air in general, abrupt and dissapointingly out of tone with the rest of the story. Not to mention the slightly disappointing overall story titles turning up - but at least they left with quite an individual set.

Well I adored that, and so did my mum. Surely the definition of good Who, great family entertainment. Joyously entertaining, moving from wit to action with ease, unashamedly fun from beginning to end, I think this is a pretty damn fine piece of tv, and ultimately I don't care whether it works for anyone else or not! I've had a great time.

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