What’s the likelihood that the next big “space western” film or TV series will succeed? The concept sounds great on paper: two genres colliding like a veritable peanut-butter-and-chocolate combo for nerds. And we’d like to be optimistic about the latest entry into this particular mashup, Disney+’s exclusive Star Wars series The Mandalorian, thanks to some of the sexiest trailers Lucasfilm has ever produced.
But entertainment has been trying to find the right balance between “western” and “space odyssey” for decades. Gene Roddenberry originally pitched Star Trek as a “wagon train to the stars.” The hottest guy in Star Wars was one cowboy hat away from going full John Wayne. Yet most attempts tip face-first into the SyFy-style camp of Cowboys vs Aliens.
The Mandalorian wasn’t made available for review ahead of Disney+’s launch on Tuesday, so it’s hard to know where it will land on the spectrum. Will it be an Empire Strikes Back-like success, or an Attack of the Clones-level bust? While we wait to find out, let us consider those who have succeeded in the space western pantheon, and those who have not.
Firefly: “A leaf on the wind” as a country song
The most critically successful space western, Firefly, of worked because it leaned heavily into romantic aspects. The setup borrowed heavily from the western genre’s post-Civil War origins, with Captain Malcolm Reynolds and first mate Zoe Washburne on the losing side of a great war. It took place on the edge of civilization, in frontier-like towns on distant planets. The soundtrack sounded straight out of a Ken Burns documentary. Mal wore the western-standard long leather duster and found himself in plenty of explicitly western tropes, like being thrown out the window of a space bar in “The Great Train Job.”
But the show never tipped into cheese because the series carefully wove in many other tropes. This large-scale genre mixing, which was unlike anything on TV, meant that no one genre overwhelmed the story or became cliché. (The show’s short run may have helped here, too.) The Chinese snatches of dialogue kept the western patois from becoming overwhelming. The alien Reavers and River’s mysterious abilities pushed the sci-fi aspects forward. The series’ handlers never forgot that this was a space opera first and that the joy in watching was as much in the discovery of what’s out there as it was about the survival of the crew.
Babylon 5: Stealthy western style
Sometimes the most successful space westerns are the ones where you never know you’re watching a western at all. Take Babylon 5. It was doing multi-season-long arcs before prestige TV was a spark in HBO’s eye. It was championing the Resistance before Star Wars even considered prequels, let alone The Force Awakens. But most importantly, it built a series following the same western-themed “order from chaos” story Deadwood would tell a decade later.
Babylon 5 works for the opposite reasons of Firefly. All of the western bones are in the story’s skeleton: the frontier, plus a crew of characters working to establish a peaceful point of galactic diplomacy and trade. There’s the show’s emphasis in the first season that the Earth Alliance should have been on the losing end of a great war, once again echoing the western genre’s Civil War origins. But none of those things are obvious. Instead, audiences get caught up in the depiction of dozens of different alien races thrown together, the Shadow War and the prophecies surrounding Sheridan, and, of course, all those time-traveling caretaker Zathras.
Defiance: Too bad it didn’t defy genre-melding expectations
Defiance, which launched on SyFy in 2013, tried to apply the Deadwood model to a near-future scenario, where the alien collective known as Votans have ravaged the Earth and cities must rebuild from scratch. But from the outset, Defiance made the mistake of making everything too literal. Instead of applying the “wild west frontier” to space, this series is set where the city of St Louis was, and its iconic Gateway Arch (you know, the “Gateway to the West,” nudge, nudge) still stands. It sounds like a clever conceit: a space western, right on the edge of the Old West, but with aliens. But the resulting series, and the tie-in video game, wound up lacking imagination (like the brothel being called the “NeedWant Bar”) and leading to hokey scenarios (like Nolan constantly torn between a “good woman” and a “bad girl”).
Centering the show in and around St. Louis also meant it could never leave the planet for any sustained length of time without blowing up the entire premise, foolishly landlocking the show on Earth. Then there are clichés, like the Hatfield/McCoy rivalry between Datak Tarr and Rafe McCawley, which were predictable from the moment they were introduced. Instead of breathing new life into a recognizable fable, Defiance’s family-on-family squabbles played out more like a bad reality-TV series of easily telegraphed plot beats.
Most importantly, other series like Firefly and Babylon 5 neatly sidestepped issues of the western genre’s unfavorable representation of American Indians. Defiance fails this test. Its evil-alien population, the Irathient people, embodies every ugly trope of the “native enemy”—and came during a TV era when the creators should’ve known better.
Star Trek V & Solo: Features that didn’t feature western inspirations well
As long-running series, Star Wars and Star Trek are successful examples of the space western. Sure, there are Trek episodes like The One Where Worf Wore A Cowboy Hat. And Star Wars has its share of desert planet scavengers. But each tipped too far into camp in two particular feature-length examples.
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier is famous for nearly killing the franchise. From the opening of Sybok’s evil “faith healer” to the infamous campfire “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” singalong, everything about this film is unintentionally funny. It might have worked in a 44-minute episode mixed in with other, far less openly western adventures. As a standalone, it was too much.
Solo was Lucasfilm’s last attempt at a space western story before this week’s release of The Mandalorian. There’s a lot wrong with Solo, from its lean on a “black characters die first” trope to the tone-deaf take that demanding equality should be treated as a punchline. But the insistence on taking Lucas’ vision of Han as a “space cowboy” and making it literal didn’t help. Solo already swashbuckled just fine without spelling it out (or giving his last name the dumbest reason for existing).
At least in terms of the genre’s history in recent pop culture, The Mandalorian’s space western stab is a potential risk for Disney+. Star Wars worked because it was a grand space opera that absorbed the western genre wholesale. Can it work stripped down to the essence of the space cowboy gunslinging his way through the galaxy? We only have one day to find out.
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