“You know you’re fast becoming a prey to every cliche-ridden convention in the American West!” – The Doctor
I immediately disliked this one as a child because it seemed silly: the Doctor in the Wild West for a toothache? Companions hootin’ and hollerin’? A running theme song? But later I came to see that looking past those initially off-putting elements, it’s actually a very well-paced, at-times comic and at-times tense story that deserves credit for remarkably good writing and direction. As usual for this historical stories, the TARDIS crew arrive in the midst of a power struggle between other people (in this case a four way feud between the Clantons, Earps, Johnny Ringo, and Doc Holliday) and get swept up in events.
Like Donald Cotton’s previous script, the initial episodes are full of funny off-the-cuff remarks, humorous reactions, as well as some great physical comic timing like the scene between the Doctor and the Doc Holiday with his gun or Steven’s double-take at Clanton’s revolver. Most of the best lines are simply funny for their irony and deadpan delivery. (Like Kate to Dodo as Holliday leaves her for a nightcap: “Ain’t it wonderful honey? What a man’ll do for what he truly believes in?”). But while the overall idea of the first half—that the historical Doc Holliday manipulates a misunderstanding about the Doctor’s identity to put the outlaws pursuing him off his trail—is used for laughs, but there is enough of an undercurrent of the reality of old West violence to keep it grounded.
Things take a much darker turn in the third and fourth episode with the arrival of Johnny Ringo. The killing takes on a harsher, no longer comical edge and sets up the inevitable showdown at the OK Corral. Whereas the role of the Doctor and his companions was larger before, they kind of fade into the background as the story moves along to the historic shootout. Despite some dodgy American accents, the guest cast stand up reasonably well and are given some good lines and personalities, especially the self-assured characters of Doc Holiday and Kate.
The Doctor’s personality is a bit off-putting at the start of the story as he comes across as a fussbudget and rather obtuse about the reality of events around him. Yet there are some nice moments of the Doctor still being the one in charge like when he astutely realizes his companions are too innocent for the cut-throat wild West and introduces them as a traveling troupe to give a plausible excuse and divert suspicion from their naivete. He also picks up that being absolutely forthright, adamantly stating his intentions without pretense, turns out to be the best tactic for him and his companions to be trusted by each side. Interestingly, it’s only Dodo who plays a pivotal role in the final shootout—one wonders if her influence changed the course of history from what it ‘would have been’.
Some hate the constant singing of “The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon” at start and end of each act. (Surely Steven’s complaint “I’ve sung this song four times…couldn’t we try a different song?” is an inside joke?). However, the song is actually an interesting device of voice of narration that is both unique and fitting to this episode. (In fact, I’ve read it referred to as a kind of ‘Greek chorus’, emphasizing events and their implications, and this made me appreciate it even more.) Overall, I’ve come to like this story more and more each time I’ve watched it.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
In a story that has so many people shot down left and right, Charlie the barkeep’s death is incredibly disturbing. It’s intentionally so (to emphasize how dangerously callous Johnny Ringo really is) but you still hate seeing it and feel so bad for simple and innocent Charlie who was just trying his best not to offend anyone.
- “Theme song” for an episode
- Companions singing/playing piano
I wish they could have worked out a less silly story line than the Doctor having a bad tooth right at the beginning since it starts of the story on a bad foot. It also would have helped if they had toned down Steven and Dodo’s outfits (which are obviously meant to make kids associate them with Roy Rodgers and the like). A different song for Dodo and Steven to sing would have made the ‘theme song’ a little less obtrusive as well.