This week it’s a case of Who goes where? I haven’t watched BBC’s ‘Doctor Who’ TV series since the departure of the Doctor’s ninth incarnation Christopher Ecclestone in 2005, but this week’s episode was of interest. It was a western-set story that according to the promo feature in TV magazine ‘Radio Times’ was filmed at Fort Bravo in Almeria, where many spaghetti westerns have been made.
The episode, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ by Toby Whitehouse, was passable B-movie sci-fi. The Doctor (Matt Smith) and his two compañeros Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) are en route to the ‘Day of the Death’ festival in Mexico, when they are waylaid in the desert town of Mercy. The settlement is under siege from a cyborg, The Gunslinger (Andrew Brooke), which is aiming to kill its creator, Kahler-Jex (Adrian Scarborough). I fell asleep in the middle, so can’t elaborate on the plot, but the finale had the Doctor facing The Gunslinger in the main street for a showdown at high noon. Arthur Darvill was given little to do as Rory, while Gillan for the most part looked like she wished she was somewhere else, which fitted the role and her character’s predicament perfectly. Byrd Wilkins was good as the town Preacher and Scarborough was too, as the cyborg’s ‘father’. The cyborg itself was a memorable creation – a B-movie mash-up of the Man With No Name, Django and the Terminator, in a poncho, bandoliers and with a laser cannon for an arm, as though Django’s machine gun has morphed into him. One of its eyes was Terminator-style robotics and given that its creator is called Jex perhaps that makes his creation One-Eyed Jex.
Western sci-fi is notoriously difficult to pull off. When it’s done successfully – as in the third ‘Back to the Future’ film, or ‘Westworld’ – it can work really well. For the reverse, see the hilarity that ensued when singing cowboy Gene Autry encountered the ancient subterranean civilisation of Murania in ‘The Phantom Empire’ (aka ‘Radio Ranch’). Doctor Who has been west before, in the 1966 four-part ‘The Gunfighters’ story. This was back when William Hartnell was the Doctor and his companions were Jackie Lane and Peter Purves. On TV, ‘The Prisoner’ had Number Six ending up as a sheriff in the episode ‘Living in Harmony’ and ‘Star Trek’ had the Enterprise’s crew at the Gunfight at O.K Corral in ‘Spectre of the Gun’. There have also been western-themed episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ (including the famous ‘The Seventh is Made up of Phantoms’), ‘The Time Tunnel’ and many others. The most recent sci-fi/western ‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (2011) starred two great action heroes: Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford and James Bond incumbent Daniel Craig. In the entertaining US TV movie ‘Time Stalkers’ (1987), professor of history and wild west expert Dr Scott McKenzie (William Devane) buys a job-lot of wild west ephemera at auction and finds a tintype photograph from 1886 of three dead outlaws on display in their coffins. The time-traveling mystery begins when he spots Klaus Kinski in the background of the photograph holding a .357 Magnum of 1980 vintage.
Despite its great western settings in Almeria, ‘A Town Called Mercy’ didn’t really capture the period and felt nothing less than a bunch of actors in costume on a western set in Spain. Disbelief was not suspended. The episode was shot at both Fort Bravo and Mini Hollywood. Fort Bravo is better known as Texas Hollywood and was built by Alberto Grimaldi for the Lee Van Cleef spaghetti western ‘Death Rides a Horse’ in 1967. According to the ‘Radio Times’ account of the ‘Doctor Who’ filming: ‘As Adrian Scarborough takes a break from filming his guest role to put on some sun cream, the arch he’s standing under is the one where Henry Fonda hangs Charles Bronson’s brother in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’.’ This seems highly unlikely, as Sergio Leone filmed this scene in the USA, near Monument Valley, and the arch collapsed years ago. Texas Hollywood has appeared in many shot-in-Spain westerns, including Blindman and several Charles Bronson movies.
Mini Hollywood is the better-known set and was used for more prestigious productions. Originally known as Yucca City, it was built in 1965 for Leone’s ‘For a Few Dollars More’. It was used as Santa Fe and Santa Ana in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and also appeared in such films as ‘Navajo Joe’, ‘For the Taste of Killing’ and ‘Hannie Caulder’. It’s now known as ‘Oasys (Mini Hollywood)’ and thanks to the Spanish tourist industry, it looks like it will live forever. In 1968 Leone built another set in Almeria to make his fourth western, ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’, beside the railroad at La Calahorra. It was also used as the main set in ‘The Price of Power’ and ‘My Name is Nobody’, but in contrast to its predecessors, it has since fallen into ruinous disrepair and near dereliction.
Both Texas Hollywood and Mini Hollywood are tourist attractions that are still open today to day trippers. The Fort Bravo/Texas Hollywood website is www.fortbravo.es. Many of the Almerian western locations are featured on this excellent Japanese spaghetti western locations website: http://y-yasuda.net/
Read more about the westerns made at Mini Hollywood, Texas Hollywood and La Calahorra in my books ‘Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: the Filmgoer’s Guide to Spaghetti Westerns’ and ‘Stagecoach to Tombstone: the Filmgoers’ Guide to the Great Westerns’, both published by I.B. Tauris.