Serial Z:
The Gunfighters


When the TARDIS materialises in Tombstone, Arizona in the year 1881, the Doctor's first priority is to find help for his toothache. But the local dentist is Doc Holliday, who's being pursued by the Clanton gang for killing their brother. The Clantons' hired gun, Seth Harper, mistakes the Doctor for Holliday, forcing Marshal Wyatt Earp and his kin to intervene. Over the protests of his fiancee, Kate the barmaid, Holliday seizes the opportunity to shake the Clantons; he takes Dodo hostage and prepares to leave town. With a showdown imminent at the OK Corral, who will survive to sing The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon?


Doctor Who producer John Wiles and story editor Donald Tosh were both very pleased with the tongue-in-cheek historical adventure The Myth Makers, recorded in the late summer and early autumn of 1965. Its author, Donald Cotton, was quickly asked to submit another idea for Doctor Who and, on November 30th, Cotton was commissioned to write “The Gun-Fighters”. The serial would again be a humorous take on an historical period, this time the American Wild West -- a setting William Hartnell would later claim to have suggested. For much of the last decade, British television had been rife with imported Western programmes, but their popularity was now waning.

Cotton decided to focus on the events of October 26th, 1881 which took place in the town of Tombstone, Arizona: the Gunfight at the OK Corral, one of the most heavily mythologised events in Wild West history. The Gunfight was the culmination of months of escalating hostilities between the Earp brothers -- of whom Virgil, not Wyatt, was actually the Marshal of Tombstone -- and a group of outlaws called the Cowboys, who had engaged in livestock rustling and stagecoach robbery. The Cowboys included Bill and Ike Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and others. Also embroiled in the feud was John Henry “Doc” Holliday, a friend of Wyatt Earp's who had practised as a dentist, albeit not in Tombstone.

The Gunfight actually took place a block away from the OK Corral

On October 26th, both Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury were pistol-whipped by the Earps after contravening a town ordnance prohibiting the carrying of firearms. By this stage, Holliday and both Wyatt and Morgan Earp had been deputised. Additional members of the Cowboy gang arrived in town, and the Earps and Holliday confronted them on Fremont Street (at a location that was actually a block away from the OK Corral). Accounts disagree as to who initiated the shooting but, thirty seconds later, both McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton were dead; the remaining Cowboys fled the scene.

For historical research, Cotton contacted a friend, cabaret performer Tony Snell, who was working in the United States at the time and was able to visit Tombstone. In composing his scripts, however, Cotton hewed closer to the legendary version of the Gunfight as told in films like John Ford's 1946 classic My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda, or 1957's Gunfight At The OK Corral starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Here, Wyatt Earp was typically presented as a stolid enforcer of the law and Doc Holliday as a charming anti-hero.

As such, Cotton's narrative played fast and loose with many elements of real Wild West history. Not only was Wyatt Earp merely a deputy during the Gunfight -- an appointment that was subsequently criticised during a judicial review of the confrontation -- but Bat Masterson had left town in April, and had worked in Tombstone as a card dealer, not as sheriff. (In fact, a rival of Wyatt Earp's named Johnny Behan was the sheriff of Cochise County, which included Tombstone.) Johnny Ringo was not involved in the Gunfight, although he was affiliated with the Cowboys, and may have been involved in the murder of Morgan Earp five months later. Newman Clanton, who was nicknamed “Old Man” Clanton rather than “Pa”, had actually died in August. Kate Fisher was an invented character, although she was loosely based on Holliday's wife, “Big Nose” Kate Horony, also known as Kate Elder. Other figures, including Reuben Clanton and Seth Harper, were entirely fictional.

The serial's title became “The Gunslingers” around the start of January 1966. At about the same time, both Wiles and Tosh resigned from Doctor Who, to be replaced by producer Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis. The new production team believed that historical adventures were unpopular with Doctor Who's audience, and they did not feel that the comedic bent of “The Gunslingers” suited their more serious vision for the programme. For a time, Lloyd and Davis considered cancelling “The Gunslingers” altogether and replacing it with the next scheduled serial, The Savages.

In 1963, director Rex Tucker had been Doctor Who's caretaker producer

The director assigned to “The Gunslingers” was Rex Tucker. In 1963, Tucker had been a driving force during Doctor Who's formative stages, acting as a caretaker producer prior to the arrival of Verity Lambert. Like Lloyd and Davis, Tucker was concerned with the quality of Cotton's scripts. Lloyd recommended playing up the story's farcical nature, suggesting that Tucker might find inspiration in the Academy Award-winning 1965 comedy-western Cat Ballou, starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. Possibly inspired by that movie's balladeer double act of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye, Tucker elected to make heavier use of The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon, employing it as a narrative device rather than simply a mood piece, as Cotton had envisioned.

By the end of January, the serial's title had been finalised as The Gunfighters. Tucker hoped to lend authenticity to the proceedings by casting American or Canadian actors as much as possible, but this proved difficult. Amongst the British actors courted by Tucker was Patrick Troughton, to play Johnny Ringo. Troughton was unavailable, and the role went to Laurence Payne; a few months later, however, Troughton would join Doctor Who in a much more significant way, replacing William Hartnell as the Doctor. Meanwhile, Tucker learned that Jackie Lane was a mediocre vocalist, which posed a problem for the scene in episode one where the Clantons forced Steven and Dodo to perform The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon. Peter Purves reluctantly agreed to swap roles, so that he sang while Lane pretended to play the piano.

Production on The Gunfighters began with filming at the BBC Television Film Studios in Ealing, London from March 28th to 31st. Most of this time was spent on the Gunfight itself, with scenes requiring horseriding also a focus. The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon was recorded in two sessions on April 5th and 12th. Tucker hoped to have the lyrics sung by his daughter Jane -- who would also be an extra on the serial -- but her voice lacked the necessary gravitas. Also deemed unsuitable was Sheena Marshe, who played Kate. The performance was ultimately given by Lynda Baron.

The opening episode, A Holiday For The Doctor, was taped on April 15th. Because of booking conflicts at Doctor Who's usual production home of Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, recording took place at BBC Television Centre Studio 4 in White City, London. Cast and crew returned to Riverside Studio 1 for the remaining installments, completed on the three subsequent Fridays. A brief location excursion was also necessary on May 1st to capture footage for the TARDIS scanner in the serial's final scene, which led into The Savages. This work was conducted at Callow Hill Sandpit in Virginia Water, Surrey.

By this time, Lloyd and Davis had decided to revamp Doctor Who by introducing two new companions, who were intended to be more hip and fashionable than the relatively staid Steven and Dodo. On April 26th, it was announced that Purves and Lane would both be leaving Doctor Who over the course of the next couple of serials. On the 28th, Lane was issued her final contract, covering just six episodes: The Savages and the first two parts of The War Machines.

The first episode of The Gunfighters aired on April 30th, immediately before the season finale of Dixon Of Dock Green. As such, the remaining installments of The Gunfighters would instead lead into a new run of the American sitcom The Munsters. Unfortunately, each of these three broadcasts equalled or exceeded Doctor Who's lowest Appreciation Index scores to date. Indeed, no Doctor Who episode would ever fall below the 30% score achieved by part four, The O.K. Corral, on May 21st. These disastrous figures helped strengthen Lloyd's conviction that historical serials should be eliminated from Doctor Who altogether. This was not the only controversy surrounding The O.K. Corral: a dispute had arisen between Tucker and Lloyd over the editing of the episode, leading the director to request that his credit be excised.

  • Doctor Who Magazine #221, 18th January 1995, “Archive: The Gunfighters” by Andrew Pixley, Marvel Comics UK Ltd.
  • Doctor Who Magazine Special Edition #7, 12th May 2004, “I'm Into Something Good” by Andrew Pixley, Panini Publishing Ltd.
  • Doctor Who: The Complete History #7, 2018, “Story 25: The Gunfighters”, edited by Mark Wright, Hachette Partworks Ltd.
  • Doctor Who: The Handbook: The First Doctor by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1994), Virgin Publishing.
  • Doctor Who: The Sixties by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1992), Virgin Publishing.

Original Transmission
1: A Holiday For The Doctor
Date 30th Apr 1966
Time 5.51pm
Duration 23'48"
Viewers (more) 6.5m (50th)
· BBC1 6.5m
Appreciation 45%
2: Don't Shoot The Pianist
Date 7th May 1966
Time 5.50pm
Duration 23'47"
Viewers (more) 6.6m (45th)
· BBC1 6.6m
Appreciation 39%
3: Johnny Ringo
Date 14th May 1966
Time 5.56pm
Duration 23'52"
Viewers (more) 6.2m (51st)
· BBC1 6.2m
Appreciation 36%
4: The O.K. Corral
Date 21st May 1966
Time 5.52pm
Duration 23'53"
Viewers (more) 5.7m (60th)
· BBC1 5.7m
Appreciation 30%

Dr Who
William Hartnell (bio)
Peter Purves (bio)
Jackie Lane (bio)
Ike Clanton
William Hurndell
Phineas Clanton
Maurice Good
Billy Clanton
David Cole
Sheena Marshe
Seth Harper
Shane Rimmer
David Graham
Wyatt Earp
John Alderson
Doc Holliday
Anthony Jacobs
Bat Masterson
Richard Beale
Pa Clanton
Reed De Rouen
Johnny Ringo
Laurence Payne
Warren Earp
Martyn Huntley
Virgil Earp
Victor Carin

Written by
Donald Cotton (bio)
Directed by
Rex Tucker (bio) (uncredited on episode 4)

Title music by
Ron Grainer
with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Ballad music by
Tristram Cary
Sung by
Lynda Baron
Film Cameraman
Ken Westbury
Film Editor
Les Newman
Daphne Dare
Sonia Markham
George Summers
Colin Dixon
Story Editor
Gerry Davis (bio)
Barry Newbery
Innes Lloyd (bio)

Working Titles
Whole Story
The Gun-Fighters
The Gunslingers

Updated 9th June 2020