On Monday, Syfy launches its $100 million show Defiance, which is full of Wild West tropes, and this summer we're getting the fantasy-oriented Lone Ranger. Lately, tons of people have tried to combine the rollicking Western with the wider expanses of science fiction and fantasy. And they've failed financially. For one simple reason.
On the face of it, science fiction and Westerns ought to be a perfect match. Science fiction is all about exploration, which meshes perfectly with the pioneering spirit of cowboys. Space is as lawless as the Old West. Instead of casting Native Americans in the roles of antagonists, you can have aliens or space zombies. (And yes, that can get weird.)
To be clear: we're not arguing that science fiction Westerns can't be good. Firefly is proof that they can. We're arguing that it's hard to get a mass audience for them, these days. Probably the last fantastical Western that reached a non-cult audience was Steven King's Dark Tower book series, which became popular in the 1980s, and recently failed to become a movie/TV series.
In fact, both Star Trek and Star Wars borrowed from Westerns in different ways — but neither of those series ever wears its Western influences on its sleeve, with the exception of one Trek episode and a few desert scenes in Wars. Both of those series take Westerns and throw them into a blender, along with a ton of other ideas. Star Wars, for example, mashes up Westerns with World War II flying ace movies, Samurai films, high fantasy and old movie adventure serials. Neither Star Trek nor Star Wars is designed to look like, or evoke the feeling of, a Western.
It's a very different thing to take the Wild West iconography and tropes, and graft a fantastical narrative onto them. Even when it works creatively, as in the case of Firefly, it's just a tough concept to sell to an audience. And for every Firefly, there are tons of science fiction and fantasy outings like Jonah Hex and Cowboys and Aliens.
So why are science fiction Westerns so hard to pitch to a mass audience? In a nutshell, because the Western is kind of a moribund genre, and any attempt to revive its corpse using weird science (or magic) winds up feeling like a pastiche. The Western is dead for the same reason television space opera is struggling, but also because of Americans' complicated relationship with our past.
When you think about it, there are only two main ways of doing a science fiction Western:
1) You set it during the Wild West, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and somehow introduce science-fictional elements to it. See: Cowboys and Aliens, or the recent Doctor Who episode "A Town Called Mercy." Or, for fantastical stuff, see Jonah Hex and the upcoming Lone Ranger. This tends to feel like a Western where everybody's wearing shiny headgear for some reason.
2) You set it in the future, or on another world, and yet for some reason everything just happens to be Western. Because there's been an apocalypse that has reduced everything to nineteenth century living standards, or because we're out on the frontier, where things just naturally feel like Tombstone. See Firefly, Defiance, and countless others. This tends to feel like a science fiction story where everybody's wearing cowboy hats for some reason.
To a large extent, classic golden-age science fiction was heavily influenced by Westerns, including things like Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories and the classic Flash Gordon serials. These things became popular during a time when Westerns still ruled mass culture, and they often appeared in venues similar to the periodicals and movie serials that helped popularize the Western. (And of course, Disney just tried to launch a John Carter movie, in vain.) Space Westerns were so common, in the Golden Age, that Galaxy Magazine's founding editor, H.L. Gold, had to advertise that his magazine would never publish such stories.
Since then, our relationship with the Western has changed. As John Scalzi says in this great blog post, the Western movie has been relegated to a couple of "arty" and "self-referential" movies a year, ever since 1992's Unforgiven. A big part of this is our changing view of that historical period, as Scalzi explains:
Hey, remember how the Native Americans were always the bad guys in those Westerns? Yeah, that's kind of awkward now. Not to mention all the other racial stereotyping in the Western genre or the really sort of horrible things about the actual U.S. West back in the day.
As Scalzi goes on to say, you can get rid of a lot of that baggage by replacing the Native Americans with aliens, or zombies, or robots — as Cowboys and Aliens literally does, in its title. But the more you play up the cowboy trappings, the more you're evoking that historical period. And if you replace your Native Americans with zombies, then you're implying by association that the actual Native Americans were somewhat zombie-like, or that they fulfilled a similar role in our real-life story.
And because irony is inevitably going to slouch in when you take the trappings of a semi-abandoned genre, the likelihood of looking like a piss-take is high. When the makers of Cowboys and Aliens were doing press for their movie, they seemed to spend a lot of time explaining that it wasn't a comedy, despite the silly title. And even though Firefly is one of my favorite shows now, when "The Train Job" first aired, I wasn't sure if I was watching a Western spoof, or something more serious.
Of course, it's worth asking, what is a Western? Apart from taking place after about 1850 and before about 1900, and being set in the West, what makes a story a Western? Like science fiction, Westerns are a bastardized genre. As film critic Philip French said, the Western is a "great grab-bag, a hungry cuckoo of a genre, a voracious bastard of a form." Spaghetti Westerns aren't at all the same as John Ford movies, for example.
Some hallmarks of the Western include the lone (generally male) hero, the questions about justice on the frontier, the possibility of reinventing yourself far from the Eastern establishment, and so on. But beyond the trappings of period costumes, horses, guns, saloons and so on, the actual format of Westerns has changed dramatically since James Fenimore Cooper. In fact, the Western only remained popular as long as it did because the genre was constantly reinventing itself, argues Lee Clark Mitchell in the book Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film. Like science fiction, Westerns are always about the time they're written/filmed in.
In fact, the more you try to define the Western the more nebulous it becomes, especially once you lift it out of 1880s Arizona — in just the same way that nobody can agree on the definition of science fiction. Both science fiction and Westerns are frequently just a set of trappings on which to hang a basic story of a hero (or set of heroes) who go to a new place and have an adventure, and find themselves, and fight a guy with a dreadful mustache.