Gene Roddenberry famously pitched Star Trek to NBC executives as “Wagon Train to the stars”. He was referencing, of course, the TV series about a group of settlers forging their way westward across 19th-century America. Wagon Train was hugely popular in its time, running for eight seasons between 1957 and 1965, although nowadays it is largely remembered for its role in inspiring a markedly more successful SF franchise.

Roddenberry envisaged a group of men and women pushing towards a new Frontier – the final one, indeed, in space – in their sleek starship while exhibiting the same resilient, optimistic attitude of those pioneers of yore. His crew would be multicultural, if nonetheless emblematic of the American spirit, and their mission would be ostensibly peaceful but those who opposed it would be met, if necessary, with extreme force.

One could argue that Joss Whedon, when creating Firefly, simply took Roddenberry’s phrase at face value. He literally put cowboys in space. And the beauty of the show is that it leans into the concept as hard as it can. It takes no trouble to explain why a society capable of such feats as planetary terraforming and interstellar travel would choose to adopt the customs and values of the Old West. It simply asks us, the viewers, to accept this universe on its own terms. In fact, it’s the merging of futuristic technology with the language and traditions of a bygone era that gives Firefly much of its charm. What should be dissonant becomes, through its unlikeliness and the scriptwriters’ sheer chutzpah, weirdly harmonious, like virtuoso slide guitar set to a techno beat.

Bolting science fictional elements onto cowboy tropes had been done before. The late-’sixties TV show The Wild Wild West features a pair of Secret Service agents battling camply nefarious villains, most of whom have designs on taking over the United States. Their exploits involve UFOs, time travel, robots, teleportation, elixirs of immortality, radioactive material and other such staples of the SF genre. There’s plenty of steampunk gadgetry, too. The tone is similar to that of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., superspy derring-do in a Western environment.

The original series is fondly remembered. The lumpy, would-be-comical 1999 Will Smith movie based on it, not so much.

Westworld, the Michael Crichton movie from 1973, flips the SF Western paradigm upside down. Here, the denizens of the near future have fetishized and commodified the past by re-creating it using technology. Westworld is a theme park where you can relive history. You can surround yourself with all the clichés of the Wild West – the gunslingers, the barroom brawls, the bordellos – but in a safe, sanitised environment. Lifelike androids, replicating everything from humans down to rattlesnakes, ensure a fully immersive experience. That’s until a cascade of systemic failures turn the entertainment into something potentially lethal.

The film, like the current HBO series based on it, neatly makes the point that the further we get from the past, the more we tend to romanticise it and overlook its less savoury aspects. Countless Western movies have, over the decades, depicted an era of rugged individualism. The heroes of these “oaters” are men – almost always white men – as hardy as the desert landscape, quick on the draw, confronting problems head-on in a way that, by implication, the complexity of modern life no longer permits. Something has been lost, these movies seem to be telling us, some essential simplicity. Westworld, by contrast, is at pains to remind us that the olden days were not necessarily better days. It shatters the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, driving shards of glass into our eyeballs.

Peter Hyams’s Outland is a classic Western movie transplanted into space. In essence, it retells the story of High Noon, but in place of a dusty, arid New Mexico town we have a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon Io. There, a marshal played by Sean Connery awaits the arrival of a team of hitmen who have come to kill him after he discovers that the miners are being given a dangerous drug that enables them to work harder but has deadly side effects.

The film was released at a time (1981) when the so-called horse opera was cinematic poison and SF, in the wake of the first Star Wars movie, was box office gold. It may not have been a huge success but it has a memorably gritty, grimy, claustrophobic atmosphere and is unashamed in its ambition to reproduce the one-man-against-the-odds aesthetic of its source material. Westerns may be associated with a specific time period but their ideas and ideals are, according to Outland, timeless.

A more recent attempt to fuse the Western and SF genres was 2011’s Cowboys and Aliens. With Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig heading a high-calibre cast, and directed by the usually reliable Jon Favreau, it seemed on paper to be a surefire hit. A movie about aggressive extraterrestrials attacking and abducting the residents of a small Frontier town? What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, Cowboys and Aliens lacks the courage of its convictions. Far too serious for its own good, it should be pulpier, breezier, a whole lot more fun. It doesn’t help that its two leads are actors notorious for their dourness onscreen. A little humour, just a wink or two towards the camera, would not have gone amiss.

Humour is something Firefly has in abundance, and that’s why, for all the outrageous absurdity of its concept, it works. The characters are in on the joke; they are Western-movie stereotypes caricatured and subverted. The dialogue crackles with a sense of its own highfalutin’ ridiculousness. Stock tropes such as the train heist, the duel, and the bounty hunter are taken by the scruff of the neck, dragged outside and given a grubby retrofuturistic pasting.

The show is an object lesson in how to mash up two seemingly contradictory formats without creating an unholy mess. It might have been an acquired taste for many, but those who relished it have never forgotten it.

– James Lovegrove

 

Firefly - The Ghost Machine: An original Firefly novel by James Lovegrove is out June 15th 2020. Check out the book and the SF Book Reviews write up.