Serial Z:
The Gunfighters


The Doctor has a toothache, so when the TARDIS materialises in 1881 Tombstone, Arizona, his first priority is to find a dentist. But the dentist turns out to be the infamous Doc Holliday, on the run from the Clanton brothers and their hired gunman, Johnny Ringo. The Doctor, Steven and Dodo must ally themselves with Holliday and sheriff Wyatt Earp against the Clantons, or else they, too, will be singing The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon.


One of producer John Wiles' and story editor Donald Tosh's most pleasurable experiences on Doctor Who was the tongue-in-cheek historical The Myth Makers. Its author, Donald Cotton, was quickly asked the submit another idea for Doctor Who, and on November 30th, 1965, Cotton was commissioned to write “The Gun-Fighters”. The idea was that this would, again, be a humorous take on the historical story; this time, the target would be the American Wild West (a setting which William Hartnell would later claim to have suggested), and specifically the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral, which took place on October 26th, 1881.

For historical research, Cotton contacted his friend, cabaret performer Tony Snell, who was performing in the United States at the time. Snell was actually able to visit Tombstone, Arizona, but in composing his scripts -- by this time retitled “The Gunslingers” -- Cotton opted to hew closer to the version of the Gunfight which had passed into contemporary mythology, with Wyatt Earp as a stolid enforcer of the law and Doc Holliday as a rascally anti-hero.

Donald Cotton opted to hew closer to the version of the Gunfight which had passed into contemporary mythology

In truth, Earp was not the sheriff of Tombstone, and in fact had failed in his attempts to bribe his way into that position (his brother Virgil had become deputy marshal of Cochise County, which included Tombstone, in the same manner). Earp and Doc Holliday were both gamblers, and the Clantons were essentially a rival gang. After Wyatt's efforts to frame the Clantons for murder failed, he confronted them outside the OK Corral with Virgil, their brother Morgan, and Holliday, and gunned the Clantons down -- although Ike Clanton (and possibly one other member of his gang, which included Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury and, according to some sources, Billy Claiborne) escaped.

Cotton also played fast and loose with other elements of true Wild West history. Bat Masterson had already left Tombstone before the Gunfight, Johnny Ringo was not involved either, and Pa Clanton died in the weeks prior to the confrontation. Kate Fisher was based on Holliday's lover (and probable wife) Kate Elder. Other characters, including Reuben Clanton and Seth Harper, were entirely fictional.

To Cotton's chagrin, both Wiles and Tosh resigned from Doctor Who at the end of December, to be replaced by producer Innes Lloyd and story editor Gerry Davis. Lloyd and Davis disliked the historical genre, believing that the viewing audience was more interested in science-fiction stories, and also felt that the comedic bent of “The Gunslingers” did not fit with their more serious vision of Doctor Who. For a time, the production team considered cancelling “The Gunslingers” altogether and replacing it with Ian Stuart Black's The Savages, which would end up following Cotton's adventure into production.

The director assigned to the story -- designated Serial Z -- was Rex Tucker. Tucker had been a driving force during Doctor Who's formative stages, acting as a caretaker producer prior to the arrival of Verity Lambert. Tucker was also the director originally assigned to Doctor Who's first serial, 100,000 BC, and later it had been planned that Tucker would direct every second story of the programme's introductory season, before he left Doctor Who altogether. Serial Z would turn out to be Tucker's only credit on the series; he died on August 10th, 1996.

Like Lloyd and Davis, Tucker was concerned with the quality of Cotton's scripts, the title of which was now The Gunfighters. Lloyd recommended playing up the story's farcical nature, suggesting that Tucker might find inspiration in the Academy Award-winning 1965 Jane Fonda/Lee Marvin comedy-western Cat Ballou. To this end -- 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 in Cotton's original vision.

Jackie Lane and Peter Purves swapped roles so that he sang The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon

One change which had to be made to The Gunfighters with regard to the Ballad was in the scene where the Clantons force Steven and Dodo to perform the song. Jackie Lane proved to be a mediocre vocalist and so Peter Purves reluctantly agreed to swap roles so that he sang the Ballad while Lane pretended to play the piano.

Meanwhile, Tucker had begun casting the guest roles. His original intention was to hire American or Canadian actors as much as possible to lend some authenticity to the proceedings, but this proved difficult. Amongst the British actors courted by Tucker was Patrick Troughton for the role of Johnny Ringo. Troughton was unavailable -- and the role went to Laurence Payne -- but a few months later, Troughton would replace William Hartnell as the Doctor.

Work on The Gunfighters began with filming at the Ealing Television Film Studios from March 28th to 31st, 1966. Most of this time was spent on the gunfight at the OK Corral itself. The Ballad Of The Last Chance Saloon was then recorded in two sessions on April 5th and 12th. Tucker originally hoped that his daughter Jane could sing the lyrics, but her voice lacked the necessary presence. Sheena Marshe, playing Kate, also auditioned for the Ballad but her voice wasn't deemed suitable either. Lynda Baron was finally hired, although Jane Tucker would still appear as an extra during the studio taping.

Because of booking conflicts at Riverside Studios, Doctor Who shifted to Television Centre 4 for the recording of A Holiday For The Doctor on April 15th, returning to Riverside 1 for the remaining installments on the three subsequent Fridays, wrapping up on May 6th. A brief location excursion was also necessary on May 1st to film the final scene of the serial (the lead-in to the next story, The Savages). This was held at Callow Hill Sandpit, Virginia Water, Surrey.

By this time, Lloyd and Davis had decided to make their mark on Doctor Who by introducing two new companions, Ben and Polly, whom they felt would be seen as 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 as their contracts expired.

The Audience Appreciation score for episode four was the lowest that Doctor Who would ever achieve

Meanwhile, the production team's fears about the quality of The Gunfighters appeared to be borne out when the final three episodes equalled or exceeded the series' lowest Audience Appreciation scores to date. Indeed, The O.K. Corral, rating only 30%, would prove to be the all-time low-water mark for Doctor Who. 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 to Tucker requesting that his credit be excised.

The Gunfighters would be Donald Cotton's last contribution to Doctor Who, although another submission entitled “The Herdsmen Of Aquarius” (or “The Herdsmen Of Venus”) was rejected by Davis in June. After helping to create Adam Adamant Lives!, Cotton mainly confined his attention to writing and performing for the stage, although he would also become a prolific novelist and columnist. In the Eighties, Cotton novelised both his Doctor Who serials as well as The Romans. He died in January 2000.

  • Doctor Who: The Handbook: The First Doctor by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1994), Virgin Publishing, ISBN 0 426 20430 1.
  • Doctor Who: The Sixties by David J Howe, Mark Stammers and Stephen James Walker (1992), Virgin Publishing, ISBN 1 85227 420 4.
  • 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.

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
Peter Purves
Jackie Lane
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
Directed by
Rex Tucker (uncredited on episode 4)
Produced by
Innes Lloyd

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
Barry Newbery

Working Titles
Whole Story
The Gun-Fighters
The Gunslingers

Updated 1st January 2013