The Western and Science Fiction
While the Western genre is not often represented in films today, in the early days of the movies it was one of the most popular story forms.  Today, advances in computer technology allow films and television to tell science fiction stories with immersive, realistic effects, but the basic themes of the western and science fiction have a lot in common.

Monika E. Lewis

Letters 170

Film in American Society

21 April 2007


“Wagon Train to the Stars:” The Influence of the Western on Science Fiction Series

                As science fiction became more influential and successful in film, and television offered additional opportunities for series in which audiences could become accustomed to seeing the same characters on a regular basis, the genre began to take on more qualities of the Western. There is often a central protagonist who in his adventures shows the audience the possibilities of exploration of space, similar to the attributes of the Western hero who explores the territory unsettled by Europeans. However, by the 1960’s, the Western genre began to lose its romanticism as the Vietnam War exposed the realities of the gunfights that are portrayed in many Western films.

At the same time, the space program with the first landing of humans on the Moon in 1969 seized the imagination of audiences and with it the possibilities of exploring other worlds. Building on the legacy of science fiction literature and Western heroic archetypes, televised and filmed science fictions series such as Doctor Who in England and Star Trek in America gained a strong cult fan base that continues to this day. As Westerns began disappearing from films in favor of the popularity of science fiction, which entered the blockbuster era with Star Wars in 1977, some programs began using Western scenarios to capitalize on nostalgia for the romantic allure of films such as The Searchers and Stagecoach, directed by John Ford in the 1940’s and 1950’s. More recently, series such as Firefly imagine a Western world in space, using conventions from both Western and science fiction stories. Throughout the history of film and television science fiction, these fantastical stories and characters can be connected to Western films. This helps in understanding the motivations for science fiction characters to explore the universe and their fascination for travel over stability. It also shows the role the Western still has in the imagination of filmmakers and audiences to this day.

                The Western film is a romanticized version of real-life events set into motion by Thomas Hart Benton, a Congressman and senator who from the 1820’s to 1860’s “encouraged the push away from Europe towards a destiny in the West, not just to California, but across the Pacific Ocean to Asia” (Johnson-Smith 41). The Native Americans “fought desperately against the rapid white settlement and increased industrialisation of their lands” (41). This is the conflict presented in many Western films. The earliest Westerns, like The Great Train Robbery, “related events that had occurred only a few years previously, and as such was something of a turn-of-the-century gangster film” (Schatz 46).

As the films progressed, the real-life events became more mythologized into the archetype of the heroic Westerner, who defends civilization but remains separate from society because of his “moral code,” which eventually “emerges as an end in itself” (Schatz 51). For the Western film, it is the myth of the frontier, not history, which is being portrayed. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance illustrates how the truth can sometimes be detrimental to the greater good. It is more beneficial for the community to support Ransom Stoddard as their leader than Tom Doniphon, even though it was Doniphon who shot Liberty Valance, not Stoddard. Even the newspaper editor, whose job it is to report the facts, says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend” (qtd in Johnson-Smith 42). In the late 1960’s and 1970’s filmmakers began to question that legend’s relevance. Films such as The Wild Bunch, McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Bonnie and Clyde present an ironic view of the Westerner and explore the consequences of the violent gun fighting that was glorified in previous films (Schatz). In science fiction of the same time like Star Trek and Doctor Who, the spirit of adventure of earlier Westerns is recalled, but with a pacifist viewpoint.


The science fiction hero’s character is similar to that of the Westerner in film. Stanley J. Solomon describes the Westerner as “an irrepressible adventurer in touch with some purer reality than remains today,” who “as a wandering or traveling figure not usually tied down by occupation, he often, out of necessity, forms temporary affiliations” (Solomon 19). One science fiction hero who shares attributes with the Westerner is the Doctor in the British television series Doctor Who. Other science fiction series characters, such as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, are also similar to the Western hero. Han Solo takes Luke onto his ship, the Millennium Falcon, after Luke’s aunt and uncle have been killed by Imperial forces. This echoes the scene in The Searchers in which Martin Pawley and Ethan Edwards return home to discover that their family has been killed in a raid by Indians (Solomon 45). Both Martin and Luke, having lost their adoptive parents, are emboldened to go on a quest to avenge them and discover their true destiny.

The Doctor is a mysterious Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who is an exile from his own world, having taken a time-ship, the TARDIS, for exploring the fourth dimension. The Doctor often takes people from the places and times he visits with him to share his adventures, but each of his companions and friends eventually leaves to continue their lives in a chronological and stable existence. The Doctor is morally opposed to violence, instead using ingenuity to fight his enemies. He believes that the use of violence makes him no better than the Daleks or Cybermen he tries to keep from disrupting the culture he visits. Both of these enemies have allowed themselves to be taken over by machinery, comparable to Darth Vader, introduced later in Star Wars. In some Westerns, the train is symbolic of the end of an era, the “blessings of civilization” that is repressive to the frontier spirit (Schatz 79-80).

Like the western hero, the Doctor has a quest to fulfill in each new place he visits, in order to restore stability in the society. Sometimes he must sacrifice himself for his companions or to save the world, but he can regenerate into a new body and appearance. This convention enables the series to have more longevity than one dependent on an ensemble of actors. There have been ten actors so far in the role of the Doctor on the BBC, as well as other unofficial Doctors, such as Peter Cushing in the 1960’s feature films Dr. Who & the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng, 1965) and Daleks- Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (Gordon Flemyng, 1966) (Clapham 15, 35). These were both adaptations of television episodes, designed to capitalize on Dalek-mania in England at the time. The Doctor’s changing appearance is similar to the Western hero’s, who may be played by a different actor in each film but still retains the same value system. The genre formula ensures that the hero behave a certain way in order for it to be classified as a western.

The Doctor’s TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) throughout the series is prone to “frequently malfunctioning, a randomising element that serves to generate entire plots” (Newman 18). Many times, the Doctor is unsure of where he and his companions will end up, but enjoys the mobility and variety the time-ship gives him. In the 2006 episode “The Impossible Planet,” the Doctor tells his companion Rose, “If you think there’s going to be trouble, we could always get back inside and go somewhere else” (qtd. in Russell 221). Rose chooses to explore their new location, a “dangerous and precarious” human outpost “on a planet orbiting a black hole” (James Strong, qtd. in Russell 220). During an earthquake caused by the planet’s instability, the TARDIS falls into an abyss and the Doctor must face being stuck in one location in space and time. In 1969’s “The War Games,” the Doctor is put on trial by the Time Lords, who “find him guilty of intervention and exile him to Earth after having changed his appearance” and returning his companions to their eras of origin (Lofficier 68). His TARDIS is also disabled, and the Doctor is frustrated by being grounded on Earth. Similarly, the Western hero is “not commonplace, and is not about to settle for an average existence when the romantic call to adventure prompts him to move on” (Solomon 25).


Like the role the Western played for much of the 20th century in America, Doctor Who is a British institution, having appeared on the BBC from 1963 to 1989, with a TV movie in 1996 and a very successful revival from 2005 to the present. Doctor Who continues to be an important cultural icon for many generations. It is more popular than ever in the UK today, with five series currently on BBC stations chronicling both the fictional universe and the making of the show: Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Totally Doctor Who, and Doctor Who Confidential. These shows have target audiences of all ages, from younger children to the more adult themes of Torchwood, about an organization founded to combat alien invasion of Earth.

While science fiction and fantasy has often been ignored by awards organizations such as the Emmys or Oscars in major categories, productions such as Peter Jackson’s The Return of the King in 2003 and the 2005 Doctor Who revival by Russell T Davies have begun to reverse this trend. The Return of the King won many of the top film industry awards, such as 11 Academy Awards including best picture, while the first series of the new Doctor Who won BAFTA awards for best drama in 2006, as well as best writing and most popular program (Wolk, Gibson). While science fiction in the past might have been a cult phenomenon, today it is both the most popular and is often the most critically acclaimed of genres. Many of the most successful science fiction series have been overseen by an auteur director or producer, such as Gene Roddenberry for the original Star Trek, Davies for Doctor Who, or George Lucas for Star Wars. In previous years, Doctor Who had many changes in its overall vision, but the revival is seen as having a unified tone (Russell). It can combine comedy, drama, science fiction and fantasy, sometimes in the same episode. The series of westerns directed by John Ford, during the most popular years of the genre, are seen as having a consistent view towards the stories that are told. Ford’s films represent “the director’s attitude toward his milieu and its codes of conduct” (Andrew Sarris, qtd. in Schatz 65-66).


Whereas the Doctor operates independently in his exploration and humanitarian efforts, the Starfleet of Star Trek is an organized entity devoted to exploring the galaxy and making contact with new life-forms. While Starfleet is founded on the ideal of peaceful exploration, they may resort to violence if they are attacked by others that are opposed to the United Federation of Planets, such as the Klingons and Romulans in the original Star Trek, or the Borg in the later series. In creator Gene Roddenberry’s original 1964 concept for the series, he described it as “Wagon Train to the Stars” (Whitfield 23). The opening narration of each Star Trek episode describes the place of exploration as “Space… the final frontier,” evoking images of western exploration by pioneers in the American west. The setting of the mid-23rd century for the original Star Trek is “far enough into the future for galaxy travel to be fully established” (Whitfield 23). In the Western, films like Stagecoach show that people regularly travel between outpost towns, although it is not without its dangers. In the Star Trek episode “Balance of Terror,” several Federation outposts are attacked by the enemy Romulans near the Neutral Zone which separates the two territories. Similarly, outposts of settlers are attacked by Indians in many Western films, such as The Searchers or Stagecoach.


Some science fiction films or television episodes pay direct homage to the western through diverse stories. This might be done by transposing themes of the genre to the future, such as in Joss Whedon’s Firefly and Serenity, by time travel to the past in Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “Time’s Arrow,” Doctor Who’s “The Gunfighters,” or Back to the Future Part III, or by a holodeck scenario, in The Next Generation’s “A Fistful of Datas.” In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager characters often play out their fantasies and interests using the holodeck, an immersive computer simulation that is so advanced that it is almost indistinguishable from reality. In “A Fistful of Datas,” the Klingon Commander Worf and his son Alexander Rozhenko, who were both raised by humans on Earth, visit the “Ancient West” (a name emphasizing the future setting of the Star Trek scenario, and the increased distance from the actual events of the Wild West) in a scenario written by Alexander (Nemecek 225). This gives the characters an opportunity to explore the history of Earth and how it has come to be perceived through popular entertainment, such as the Western novels that Counselor Deanna Troi’s human father read to her when she was young (Nemecek 226). In this Western, their opponent is the holodeck itself, as it malfunctions and begins putting the crew members in danger.


In many of these instances, the characters are confronted with a climactic shootout, such as the O.K. Corral, which is given a science fiction twist. In the original Star Trek episode “Spectre of the Gun,” the Enterprise crewmembers are trapped in a recreation of the O.K. Corral gunfight taken from Captain James T. Kirk’s interpretation of history, playing the losing Clanton gang. They must determine what is real and what is illusion (Asherman 104). His Vulcan first officer Spock mind-melds with the others to convince them that the bullets aren’t real. Their surroundings also show how the Ancient West is romanticized, “based upon Kirk’s fragmented and idealized memories of the Wild West” (Asherman 105). The sets are purposely minimalist, with some buildings as false fronts and the “shadows of windblown trees on the red sky backdrop” visible (Asherman 105).

The 1966 Doctor Who episode “The Gunfighters” presents a parody of Western conventions. Like “Spectre of the Gun” two years later, “The Gunfighters” takes as its basis the “notorious ‘gunfight at the OK Corral’” (Clapham 68), though unlike Kirk, the Doctor is unaware of its historic importance. This episode comments on Western movie conventions when the Doctor’s companions Steven Taylor and Dodo Chaplet act out their parts based on popular knowledge of the films; the Doctor observes, “My dear Dodo, you’re fast becoming prey to every cliché-ridden convention in the American West!” (qtd. in Clapham 69).

Spock’s mental power in “Spectre of the Gun” echoes the ability of protagonists in Western films that have the courage to face down their enemies and survive. Solomon observes that “the hero could overcome the odds by imposing his own image of greatness and inevitable victory even upon his adversaries, who thereby become psychologically distraught and prepared to lose” (24). Ethan Edwards and Martin Pawley in The Searchers are able to rescue Ethan’s niece Debbie from Chief Scar’s camp without being killed. In the deconstructionist Western Unforgiven, William Munny uses his force of will to convince the townspeople to let him ride away and not shoot him in retaliation, even though he has killed the sheriff in the bar.

In “The Cage,” the Star Trek pilot, Captain Christopher Pike (who is played by Jeffrey Hunter, Martin Pawley’s portrayer), is captured by aliens who project mental illusions to him in order to convince him to mate with the human woman Vina so they will have a race of human slaves. One of the illusions is of the two of them horseback riding in the Mojave Desert, where Captain Pike grew up. For the first three captain-protagonists in Star Trek, Pike, Kirk, and Captain Jean-Luc Picard, horseback riding is a favorite hobby and a symbol of their connection with their past, as well as their kinship with independent cowboys of the past. Other Star Trek protagonists continue this nostalgic theme. Captain Benjamin Sisko is interested in the sport of baseball, which is no longer played professionally on Earth in the 24th century, while Captain Kathryn Janeway plays a governess in a 19th century holodeck novel adaptation. The captains’ interests in traditional Earth pursuits shows that they are grounded in reality and not likely to be overcome by the fantastical adventures they find in space exploration. Even when they encounter an unknown species or a situation that no human has before encountered, the captains are able to draw upon their experience and training to make the right decision that will benefit Starfleet and their counterparts on the other planet.

In the film Star Trek Generations, Captains Kirk and Picard find themselves in an illusion of Kirk’s former home inside the Nexus, an energy ribbon which enables someone who enters it to live out their ideal world. The villain, Soran, has become obsessed with reentering the Nexus, so much that he wants to destroy a star to divert it to his planet. Kirk realizes when he jumps a dangerous ravine on his horse effortlessly that he doesn’t find such wish fulfillment challenging, and he would rather make a difference in the outside world by stopping Soran’s plan and saving the lives of the people who would be killed if he destroyed their sun (George 12).

In television and films concerning time travel to the Wild West, the characters are sometimes preoccupied with the nostalgia element of their visit, but manage to complete their mission in spite of having to conceal their origin in the future. The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Time’s Arrow” (1992) portrays the San Francisco of the late 19th century, where William Munny starts a new life in Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992). San Francisco is seen as a more civilized arena for Wild West pioneers, yet not as established as Eastern cities (Burke). In “Time’s Arrow,” the Enterprise-D crew follows alien outlaws to 19th century San Francisco, through a time portal. This is shown as a place where peoples’ differences and new opinions are more accepted than in other parts of the country. The android Data, who time-travels first, can walk into town and enter a card game with just his communicator badge and leave with enough money to buy new clothes and a hotel room, using his superior mathematical skills and practice with poker on the Enterprise-D. Data and his crewmembers demonstrate their resourcefulness, like the settlers who came to California during the Gold Rush. He also discovers the long-lived alien Guinan, who is the hostess in the Ten-Forward Lounge aboard the Enterprise-D, hosting a salon for the exchange of ideas with Samuel Clemens as one of the guests. Later Western films such as Unforgiven show that African-Americans were more accepted as equals than in the Eastern states, where slavery had only recently been abolished (Burke). William Munny’s friend Ned Logan’s race is not an issue, and Guinan’s African-American appearance doesn’t interfere with her integration into San Francisco society. Later, when Clemens is transported forward in time and tours the Enterprise-D, he expresses appreciation for the advances in society in the 24th century.

While the beginnings of science fiction in movies and television used the themes of the Western to help the audience relate to the stories, more recent science fiction series are credited with bringing the Western back into the public consciousness. Leonard Maltin says of Back to the Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990), in which Marty McFly travels back in time to 1885 to save Doc Brown’s life, “The dormant movie Western gets a major dose of adrenaline from this high tech, high-powered comic adventure” (Maltin 75). Joss Whedon’s series Firefly was “pitched as Stagecoach in space” (Dargis). Similar to the Stagecoach story, the characters have different professions and outlooks on life, but must get along while traveling in a dangerous, unfamiliar environment. Firefly takes place “500 years in the future” (Dargis), where space exploration is at the same stage as Western expansion of the United States in the 1800’s.

In “a galaxy devoid of aliens” (Johnson-Smith 135), humans in Firefly have colonized worlds across the stars. The series emphasizes the consequences of rich over poor. The people in this environment are independent spirits, living outside the law. Like Ethan Edwards in The Searchers, the captain of the ship Serenity, Captain Malcolm Reynolds, is “a veteran of a war for independence” who “fought on the losing side and has yet to cross over to greener, more lucrative pastures.” Similarly, Ethan fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War and never accepted the South’s surrender. He struck out on his own, learning about the Native American society. This knowledge helps him survive in the West.

Throughout the short run of the Firefly series and the film Serenity, Whedon exhibits “a fusion of science-fiction tropes with those of the Western (Dargis). The characters carry guns to defend themselves rather than the phasers of Star Trek, and “they travel to dusty towns that look as if they might have been built for a Roy Rogers oater” (Dargis). Just as Whedon revived the vampire and zombie movie tradition of the 1930’s with a modern sensibility in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with Firefly and Serenity he brings back some of the adventurous spirit of the classic Western films.

In both stories that take place in the Western United States or in outer space, the value system of exploring the frontier and defending the civilization that has settled there is in place. The character archetypes of the West can be seen from the earliest science fiction television series and later film series, to the present day. While earlier series presented these archetypes to compare with the western that most of its viewers would be familiar with, audiences of 1990’s or 2000’s science fiction might not have been as accustomed to the conventions of the western film. The creators of Star Trek: The Next Generation or Firefly re-made the western for contemporary audiences, bringing in more real-life issues such as colonialism or racism, like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven did in a more traditional Western context. Setting a western in space removes it from some of the problems that Unforgiven found in the formula, with the reality of violence and its consequences. The genre of outer space exploration offers audiences an imagining of the wonders yet to be discovered in the universe, and the heroic people who will show people on Earth the way to find them.

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