Earth Story: The Gunfighters & The Awakening

4 Nov

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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When you first heard that the 1966 story The Gunfighters would join 1984’s The Awakening in a DVD box set celebrating their not-entirely-unique status as ‘stories set on Earth’, perhaps you – like me – assumed that Mr Big at 2Entertain had finally flipped his lid; that the wheel was still spinning but the hamster was dead. But one must presume there is method to this madness, and that the relative familiarity of Peter Davison’s Doctor will help guarantee sales for the less easily marketable William Hartnell. The Gunfighters, after all, has never been skilled at pulling in an audience. So maybe it’s all to the greater good. It’s nice to think of one incarnation lending a helping hand to his younger self. But really… Earth Story? Is that they best they could come up with? Did nobody notice that these two stories – and no others – feature horses cantering into their opening scenes? There’s your USP, 2entertain! Horse Tales. The Horse Box. The Reins of Terror. A full page advert in Country Life could have attracted a lucrative new audience.

Riding in on these horses, in both cases, are our gun-toting bad guys. In The Gunfighters, the Clanton Brothers – a notorious family of cattle rustlers – hitch up in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, trigger fingers itching to settle a score. In The Awakening, it’s a little over a century later, and our riders are Sir George Hutchinson and his lackeys, dressed to reenact a key battle of the English Civil War. Both groups take time to tell us a little something about themselves. The Clantons, like everyone in The Gunfighters, talk in the distinctive vernacular of the Old West, so we’re never far away from an animal metaphor (“I’m ready to jump like a mountain hare!” “They’re closer than two fleas on a porcupine!” or the stickily peculiar: “It’ll be as easy as skinning a summer frog!”). Sir George, meanwhile, like everyone in The Awakening, talks in the distinctive vernacular of Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward. “Why, Miss Hampden, you of all people, our schoolteacher, must appreciate the value of reenacting actual events,” he says. One hopes that Miss Hampden doesn’t regularly need reminding of her name and her job, or we might have cause to question her suitability as a guardian of young children. Sir George is miffed because she’s refusing to take part his restaging of the Battle of Little Hodcombe. She’s worried that things are getting out of hand. “So there’s been a little damage,” scoffs Sir George. “That’s the way people used to behave in those days.” Which, considering which days he’s talking about, is rather an understatement.

In both time-zones the TARDIS delivers the Doctor and his two travelling companions – one of each – into the action. And they’re here on a mission. In Tombstone, the Doctor needs a dentist. In Little Hodcombe, Tegan wants to visit her grandfather. With both landings, the TARDIS is displaying a well-tuned sense of humour. The dentist in Tombstone is the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday, whom the Clantons are hunting on account of how that no-good rattlesnake murdered their brother, so our own ‘Doc’ is set up for a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, in England, Tegan’s grandfather just happens to have stumbled across a baleful alien presence – something this family makes a habit of – so it’s lucky she has the Doctor in harness. Tegan, just this once, takes her handbag with her, and one wonders if she’s come to Little Hodcombe to deliver the body of her Aunt Vanessa for burial. The bag’s about the right size.

With these two stories harnessed together for release, it’s fun to look for their similarities, but that can only take us so far. For while they may begin in much the same way, they’re swift to pull apart and race off in different directions. The Awakening is as earnest and straightforward a Doctor Who adventure as you’ll find. There’s mystery, investigation, resolution – bish, bash, bosh. It’s the show moving at a comfortable trot. The Gunfighters, however, is trying to do something very different…

The Gunfighters is a comedy, at least for its first half hour or so. How much of a comedy, and what kind, depends upon who’s on screen at any given moment. As Steven, Peter Purves plays it broad, and never misses a chance for an exaggerated double take. When he and Jackie Lane’s Dodo are forced to sing and play piano for the Clantons, the scene edges into slapstick, and brings back memories of the little plays that winning couples had to perform in the final round of The Generation Game. Finding a better level is William Hartnell, who doesn’t get a word wrong in this, one of his finest performances. His best scene is early, when he meets Doc Holliday and his friend Kate, and the dentist sets about pulling the Doctor’s tooth. There’s a lovely precision and fluidity to everyone’s delivery and movement, and you can tell that Hartnell’s having a marvellous time. But if one’s mind is inclined to wander, later developments in Doctor Who now leave one pondering what happened to the Doctor’s extracted molar. We’ve since learned that, in the right circumstances, a whole new Doctor can be grown from any leftover bits of his body. So it’s lucky that a Time Lord Meta-Crisis wasn’t triggered anywhere near that tooth, as the effect could be terrifying. DoctorDodo would have the boundless intelligence of a Gallifreyan and the wildly oscillating accent of Chorlton-cum-Hackney.

The humour continues to bubble through the second episode of The Gunfighters, most notably in the Doctor’s insistence on calling local marshal Wyatt Earp “Mr Werp”, and the great moment when, after some amateurish spinning of a gun, the Doctor childishly brags to Earp, “I say, can you do that?” – the response is a hilariously deadpan “No”. But after the first murder – of the Clantons’ associate Seth Harper – all this funny begins to fall flat, and the writer knows it. The broader comedic strokes are abandoned, and through its middle hour, the serial plays it more or less straight; or as straight as it can with a burlesque song as counterpoint.

Meanwhile, over in Little Hodcombe, the TARDIS has dropped the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough at a country church that’s seen better days. They’re soon scooped by a troop of latterday Roundheads and delivered to Sir George Hutchinson.

Sir George is the best thing about The Awakening, principally because he’s played by Denis Lill, with wonderful, measured delivery. “Something is coming to our village,” says Sir George. “Something very wonderful… and strange.” It’s Lill’s underplaying of the line that makes it memorable; with less skill, it could sound like they’ve booked Quentin Crisp to open the summer fete.  Sir George is mad for his war game, and insists that every detail be perfect. He certainly practises what he preaches, and has come as King Charles I himself. Coloured feathers shoot from a truly heroic hat, and loose curls of luxuriant hair cascade over his shoulders. All of which may raise a question in the mind of the more easily distracted… is that a wig, or is it Sir George’s real hair? Certainly, we know it’s a wig on Denis Lill, as we’ve seen his shiny dome in Image of the Fendahl, but that’s not necessarily the case for Sir George, as his coiffure stays firmly in place when he later tumbles from his horse. If it is his hair, it means he’s been growing it out for these war games for – what? – two years? He’s the local magistrate, so has been turning up for work done up like a luckless former King of England? Aren’t there rules about that sort of thing? One imagines many of those convicted by Sir George are now seeking appeal; arguing the validity of any sentence handed down by a man styled as a popular brand of spaniel.

The mystery of Little Hodcombe builds over the course of an enjoyable Part One. The Doctor meets Will Chandler, an oo-ar yokel lad who has slipped through time from 1643, and the real Civil War. Will brings stories of the Malus; a local devil. “He makes fightin’ worse. Makes men fight more.” The Malus is forcing bloody history to repeat itself via Sir George’s war game. The Doctor predicts wholesale slaughter – and at just that moment, as the story prickles with danger and possibility, The Awakening is at is very best. And then… Malus come.

A giant, grey, grinning face trundles forward, huffing smoke, its eyes flicking from side to side. The Doctor, dwarfed by it, comes as close as any man has ever been to knowing what it’s like to be run over by Thomas the Tank Engine. “Rrrrroooar,” says the Malus. “Rrrrooooooaar!” it confirms. There’s no answer to that, and because it’s clear the Malus isn’t going anywhere fast, the Doctor and friends slip quietly away.

The Malus, the Doctor tells us, is a probe from the planet Hakol. (And if that’s what their probes look like, imagine their washing machines.) It’s feeding upon the “negative emotions” generated by the war game, and generates a series of solid “psychic projections”; including one of itself, which shows that its face comes attached to a body. The Malus is a huge creature; a great goblin with arms and legs and tail, with most of it buried under the church. And so, we must infer that when the Malus came to Earth it got stuck – bum first and up to the neck – in the soil of Dorset. And then, presumably after much poking with sticks, the locals built a church over it; and not a particularly attractive one at that. No wonder the Malus is in such a pig of a mood. It now wants to use the emotions of the war game to help set it free. It’s a curious expectation, as it’s something the original battle – with all its bloodshed and heartfelt fury – demonstrably failed to achieve.

It’s here that The Awakening fails to come into focus. The idea of a whole village role-playing an old battle, but then slowly being subsumed by their characters, is a good one. But the story doesn’t follow that thread. Sure, Sir George is nuts for the whole thing, but those of his neighbours we get to know well – Jane Hampden and her friend Ben Wolsey – seem entirely immune. There’s no real sense of the village being whipped into any kind of homocidal rage by the Malus. Instead, it appears that Sir George is supported only by a few eager-to-please local thugs, who are enjoying the chance to throw their weight about with the blessing of the local magistrate. Is Sergeant Willow, for example, being controlled by the Malus when he seems poised to assault both Jane and Tegan? That point isn’t made clear, so it appears that Willow is, by nature, a total bastard– perhaps the local estate agent – who’s merely relishing his time off the leash, and the chance to force women to dress as he pleases. Given his cruel behaviour, it’s odd that Willow isn’t killed by the ghostly cavaliers in this story’s final minutes, rather than the non-speaking extra who goes to the sword instead.

If it’s bloodshed the Malus is after, it would feed better upon the events of The Gunfighters. By the end of Part Two, the townspeople of Tombstone are whipped into a murderous frenzy by the Clantons, and are set to take Steven and “string him up from the nearest tree”. The noose is even fitted about his neck. In Little Hodcombe, it’s all the forces of evil can do to get Tegan in the right frock for her execution. In Tombstone, the deaths keep on coming. Doc Holliday kills a man – off screen – merely for his breakfast. Charlie the comedy barman is gunned down. Warren Earp is shot by the Clantons.

Warren’s death is key to any analysis of The Gunfighters. It’s this event that finally draws the Earps into the Clantons’ feud with Holliday, and leads to the gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s the story’s big turning point. Warren dies in his brother’s arms… but we feel nothing. And that’s The Gunfighters all over. It comes with so many distractions. There’s the terrible American accents and that shill, irritating song, and yet it’s brilliantly designed and imaginatively shot. It’s full of comedy business and rootin’ tootin’ banter. But we don’t feel anything for the characters. We can hardly tell the Clantons apart, and the assorted mustachio’d ‘good guys’ are as dreary as can be. We feel some warmth toward Doc Holliday – chiefly because Dodo gets her best-ever scene when she disarms him, in both senses – but we reach that final, legendary gunfight without truly caring about a single participant. Bang bang bang – it goes – bang bang bang. The bodies fall, and we feel nothing. But look at the lovely film stock, we think, and how skilfully the director has composed that final shot, as the victors stand astride the corpses of the fallen. Isn’t that clever? Now, who were they again?

If there’s one thing these Earth stories have in common, it’s that they ultimately fail to stir us. Both serials are rather marvellous in their way – that’s for sure. They are produced with care and conviction, but we quit them feeling unmoved. “The Malus is pure evil,” says the Doctor, which is the laziest possible motivation for a Doctor Who villain. He defeats it by flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console. It’s difficult to know whether we should feel sympathy for Sir George when he tumbles over a low wall to his dusty death. Did his madness wake the Malus, or is he as much a victim as anyone? In Tombstone, the Doctor is nowhere near the gunfight – the only threat to our heroes comes when Dodo briefly cannons into the film sequence as fast as the 10:37 to Ealing can carry her – and he doesn’t take so much as a moment to lament the bloodshed.

Instead, both tales skid to an abrupt handbrake stop. In the case of The Awakening, it’s with as limp and flapping a scene as has ever wrapped a Doctor Who story. That’s that then – everyone says, in Tombstone, in Little Hodcombe – shaking hands, exchanging quips. We sense that our time travellers won’t spare their latest adventure another thought. Not every Doctor Who story has to be profound, or offer some moral message, but they ought to make us feel something as the final credits roll. If they don’t, then you might as well say that the most significant thing about them is the planet on which they happen to be set.

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DVD extras

The commentary tracks for both serials are kept lively and focused by moderator Toby Hadoke, who really is very good at it. The participants for The Gunfighters are now well into their anecdotage – Bat Masterson actor Richard Beale was 90 at the time of recording – and have lots of stories to tell. The continuing health, or otherwise, of absent co-stars is regularly enquired after with a guarded: “Is he still, er..?” and it falls to Hadoke to deliver the happy or sad news. (Or, in the case of one actor now living in New Zealand, both.) Rather wonderfully, Hadoke seems to know the whereabouts of every actor to have ever appeared in Doctor Who. I imagine his secret HQ is dominated by a huge map of the world, with little lights tracking all the surviving cast. One blinks out. Another Quark has joined the choir invisible.

The principal documentary with The Awakening is Return to Little Hodcombe, which takes members of the production team back on location to share their memories. It’s a sweet and sincere piece, seasoned by interviews with local residents such as Maureen Crumpler. Her response to watching this tale of aliens on TV – “It were all so real! So realistic!” – hints that life in the Dorset village of Shapwick might be stranger than we know. It’s nice to get out and about and escape the usual house style for these documentaries, even if it does lead to some rather self-conscious stomping about from Eric Saward. And you wish they’d let poor Michael Owen Morris sit down, rather than keep him standing beside what looks suspiciously like a pile of manure.

The Gunfighters comes with the documentary The End of The Line?, looking at how Doctor Who changed during its third year on TV. It’s an authored piece – with a script from Johnny Morris for producer Ed Stradling – and it’s excellent work, well-argued and balanced. And the interviewees are all first class. A highlight is Maureen O’Brien’s memory of working on Galaxy 4. She tells how the dwarves who played the Chumblies were “always fighting over the women”. It puts one in mind of Judy Garland’s tales of The Wizard of Oz; of how the Munchkins were at it like knives. As there’s never been an interesting word said about Galaxy 4, it’s rather glorious to suddenly imagine the Drahvins run ragged by randy Chumblies.

A Now and Then look at the locations used for The Awakening is the familiar gentle tour of the home counties, peering idly at grass verges and outbuildings and…“OH MY GOD! IT’S A GLASS SHOT!” Well I never. Generally you can spot a visual effect in Doctor Who from three rooms away – the echo of distant laughter is often the clue – but this viewer was staggered to learn that a distant shot of Little Hodcombe church in Part One, as the Doctor chases the handbag thief, was actually a tiny study in acrylics on a well-placed window. It’s always lovely to learn something new.

The only interesting scene among a collection of bits edited from The Awakening is an uncomfortable moment intended to remind viewers that Kamelion is still lurking in the TARDIS somewhere. (Maybe ‘lurking’ oversells it. ‘Leaning’ was about Kamelion’s limit. Although, as he was from an era when the Doctor’s friends liked nothing more than to tut, huff and judge each other, the fact that all Kamelion could do was roll his eyes perhaps makes him the ultimate 80s companion.) Tegan finds Kamelion in a corridor, and while the robot claims he’s doing nothing sinister, he’s clearly either downloading pornography or attempting to defraud the TARDIS cash machine.

Tomorrow’s Times is a romp through newspaper commentary on the Hartnell years. There’s lots of interesting material here… probably. The trouble is, one’s attention is monopolised by the host, actress Mary Tamm, who seems to be enjoying herself rather too much. She begins by greeting each comment with a sardonic half-smile, but her expressions grow steadily more arch and exaggerated. One eyebrow is auditioning for a long-sought-after solo career, and is poised to make good its escape. And just when you’ve got used to that, Tamm introduces a magnificent pout to her repertoire. It’s like being blown kisses by a flirty duck. And as the programme goes on, there’s a sense of her sliding slowly out of shot to the right. It’s totally captivating.

Making the Malus reunites designer Tony Harding and props builder Richard Gregory with their face of evil, which greets them with its usual goblin grin and glance askance. “I wonder where he’s been?” ponders Harding. Any hope that this is a cue for a montage of snatched paparazzi pictures of the Malus falling out of Stringfellow’s at 4am, or water-skiing on the Côte d’Azur, is soon dashed. We learn that the beast has been looked after by one Paul Burrows – a more devoted acolyte than even Sir George – who nailed him to his living room wall. The Malus once frightened the gas man. “But I introduced them,” says Burrows, “and he made friends with it.” How sweet. It’s lovely to know that out of such great evil, some good has come.

2 Responses to “Earth Story: The Gunfighters & The Awakening”

  1. Miche Doherty November 4, 2011 at 12:53 pm #

    Lovely stuff. i’m much taken with the idea of Tegan carrying Aunt Vanessa around in her handbag.

  2. Julia R September 5, 2014 at 2:19 pm #

    I think I about died laughing at the Thomas the Tank Engine bit. Your reviews never fail to make me laugh out loud.

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