It's one last multi-part tale,
With episodic names,
It's recovery after the fail
of undistinguished games.
Though the Doctor's time is ending,
and Troughton's coming soon,
Hartnell's dignity is mending
In The Last Chance Saloon.
The familiar theme music suckers us in; we're watching Doctor Who, traveling in Space and Time--but wait a second--the theme gives way (listen above) to a ballad, sung by Lynda Baron (she'll be back. More than once.) And we're led into a Western. But not any kind of Western; it's tongue-in-cheek approach inspired by the 1965 film Cat Ballou, which also uses a recurring musical ballad as a narrative framing device:
Notably, the "Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon" is much less bouncy than "The Ballad of Cat Ballou"; the story is dramedy, not full-fledged comedy. For a long time, this story had the unfortunate designation as the worst Doctor Who story ever. It's reputation has been reviving, as witness Sandifer and Neil and Sue Perryman.
Count me in with the revisionists.
After the flawed but interesting The Ark and the weak,deeply problematic Celestial Toymaker (Hartnell is literally silent and invisible through much of the story), the show surprises us with what I will defend as a stone classic. Here we see the Doctor and his companions spelunking through a comic Western, Cat Ballou style for the first two episodes, as the stakes slowly begin to rise. By the third episode, "Johnny Ringo," the comic sequences taking off Western memes are turning deadly serious.
Hartnell, stuck in the 19th Century west with a toothache, resigns himself to getting it pulled (I suspect knowing that the TARDIS could take him to even more primitive times and places, so he just gives up and goes with it), and staggers through the first episode unclear about Doc Holliday and his machinations. Anthony Jacobs is a conniving, witty Doc Holliday, but one who has some scruples; John Alderson provides solid support as Wyatt Earp (the Doctor keeps addressing him as "Werp" to the lawman's confusion). Earp is played straight, a stolid lawman, who wants to protect his friend Holiday but also the Doctor, who he is letting the Clantons think is Holliday (sort of a less ruthless version of Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett; he's ready to lie and break the law to keep the peace).
Steven and Dodo shine in this storyline--Steven starts off overly exuberant, donning ridiculously theatrical costumes, only to find himself forced to live out the real life consequences of a Western story. Meanwhile, Jackie Lane, whose pity for the Toymaker's earlier victims was the best thing about The Celestial Toymaker here gets to be funny, brave, and is paired well with Jacobs and with the excellent Sheena Marshe. Marshe is great, playing Kate as a Western stereotype at times, then showing us a real, wry woman within. Peter Purves manages the shifts in tone seamlessly. He's marvelous in the part, with double takes that are funny but in character, and his comic timing is excellent.
As things get grim, the whole cast up their game. The showdown, the inexorable march to bloodshed, began long before the darkening tone. From the very first bars of her ballad, Lynda Baron has been warning us how this will all end: Blood on the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon. And yet it's shocking when it comes, a tribute to an excellent script, the regulars at their best, the excellent guest cast, and Rex Tucker's direction.
This is the last time you'll hear me refer to a "story arc" or "the story known as"; after The Gunfighters, there are no more individually-titled episodes in the classic series. I won't miss the long titles for these posts necessitated by respecting that convention. But I think I will miss the echoes of old-fashioned serialization--the original viewers had no idea when one story would end and another would begin.