Mash Up Genre: The Science Fiction Western

Of all the genre mash ups I know about, the science fiction western is probably the toughest sell. Despite the obvious parallels of colonization, manifest destiny, culture clashes and old fashioned shoot outs. Science fiction is beyond modern that it is futuristic. It’s slick. It’s shiny. It’s fast paced. There are often aliens, cyborgs, artificial intelligence and of course, space. In science fiction, there are shades of grey and absolutes are questioned. The western is old fashioned and somewhat quaint. The Western is dirty. It’s grimy. It’s slow. There are cattle, rustlers, noble savages and conflicts between types of land owners. There are white hats and black hats, right and wrong, good and evil.

So, when these two are mashed together it gets interesting. There aren’t a lot of examples to go off of. George Lucas flirted with western themes in Star Wars with Han Solo, gun slinger and smuggler and Lando Calrissian, professional gambler and mining entrepreneur. Cowboys vs. Aliens smashed aliens into the middle of the old west, calling them demons. Whereas Firefly and Serenity went the opposite direction. Using colonization and the themes from the post-Civil War south and adding savages in the form of Reavers as every space traveler’s nightmare. Firefly garnered a small cult following, but didn’t resonate with the masses. There are a few anime series that played with the concept, Outlaw Star and Cowboy Bebop come to mind. Star Trek had at least one time traveling episode where Spock ended up in the old West.

The scifi western plays with audiences expectations in ways that they aren’t prepared for and haven’t fully embraced. When someone says science fiction, the audience expects something more along the lines of Star Trek with its glossy sets. Or even the vein of Lost in Space, while cheesy, retained that chromed Flash Gordon classic scifi look. Star Wars broke the mold with many of the sets given a deliberate ‘lived in’ feel, but used the antagonists of the Empire to maintain that clean, cold, futuristic look to the movie. A western takes away from that glossy feel and leaves the audience confused.

The last thing anyone wants is a confused audience.

I personally enjoyed Firefly. The Verse was small enough to keep the stories contained, but large enough that there was the ability to explore a large number of them. The main weakness it had was the crew never stayed in place very long to truly explore the different places the plot could go. That and it was cancelled far too quickly before they really had a chance. Much like Star Trek, Firefly relied mainly on submarine type stories, where the cast is restricted to a small set for much of the time to keep down production costs.

And when you get right down to it, despite the fact that Star Trek had multiple series each with hundreds of episodes, there really is a limit to the types of stories that can be played with. Star Trek at least at the novelty of using alien races and god like beings to vary up their plots and challenge their characters. Firefly didn’t have that luxury. Production costs of a new show must be low by necessity before more money is invested into something that will garner ratings. Firefly didn’t get that time.

Because the science fiction genre and the western genre tackle some of the same questions there should be some way to successfully work the two genres together. They both talk about the morality of colonization, the ethics of imposing upon another culture, the alien and unknown (the noble savage). There should be some way to work in ‘what is the definition of humanity (artificial intelligence),’ mining rights, property wars, cattle driving, rustling and smuggling, gambling and shoot outs together into an interesting mix.

Star Wars never took the time to focus on these themes. Firefly has come the closest to being successful at it. So, while the concept is cool and gives writers a huge amount of story ideas to work with. I don’t think anyone has come up with the exact combination of elements to push this into the next big thing.

I’m going to float the theory that the reason the scifi western hasn’t taken off yet is because so far it’s been employed in the wrong medium. When working with a new mix of genres, television and Hollywood with their strict watch on the bottom line and only so much money given for sets and costumes it isn’t possible to give this mashup the attention it deserves to explore the possibilities. Another medium might soften an audience to be more prepared for what is going to happen in a scifi western and also give the creator of a scifi western a broader ability to explore stories that happen outside the halls of a space ship.

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