Even though I love the arcane trappings of magic and the raw symbolic power that pervades the fantasy genre, I am a science fiction man at heart. The reason is very simple really. While Fantasy draws its power from heritage and whimsy, Science Fiction is all about addressing change and exploring possibility. Essentially, one is nostalgic and the other is forward thinking.
So consider yourself forewarned: When Nerdmagedon commences, and battle lines are drawn to determine whether sci-fi or fantasy shall reign supreme, I will stand tall beside the Klingons, Jedi and Cylons against the elves, dragons and fairies.
Believe it or not this post was not inspired by Comicon, which I still have yet to attend. Rather, it stems from the sci-fi genre-bender binge I've been on the whole summer. I'm currently reading a tech-noire with heavy military undertones, playing a space survival horror game, and on the weekends, I get together with friends to re-watch the finest Space Western the world has to yet to see: Joss Whedon's Firefly.
Depending on who you are, that may sound like small praise or blasphemous hyperbole. The space western is still a pretty young sub-genre of science fiction, but what's there is good stuff. The earliest and most prominent example I am aware of is Star Wars, and while the work is too broad to be wholly classified as western, there is no doubt in my mind that it's lawless, frontier atmosphere is what allowed it to stand apart from Star Trek's universe, whose federation of planets seems insufferably tame and preachy by comparison. Another fine piece of fiction to work with the space cowboy concept is the anime Cowboy Bebop, which I shall discuss in detail next post.
The thing that sets Firefly above the above-mentioned series, is that it is a western first and foremost, with just a little bit of science fiction thrown in for flavor. Almost every character in the cast is based on a classic western archetype. You've got the wise old preacher, the hooker with heart of gold, the crass and crude mercenary brawler, the fancy doctor, and the confederates (Browncoats) who have turned to outlawin' following their defeat in the Civil War (The Unification). The only recurring characters who break the theme are crazy psychic girl, perky mechanic girl, and sarcastic ship pilot. Even the reavers(!), the series reoccurring bogeymen, conform to the old western stereotypes of Indians, in that they are also people, though frightening violent people who have a tendency for scalping and cannot be communicated with.
Now, I love a good western as much as the next sumbitch, but I couldn't rightly tell you that it's one of my favorite genres. By and large, there tends to be a little too much talk of land for my tastes and the folksy atmosphere, where men are supposed to be strong creatures of few words well versed in farming, firearms, and mechanics is hardly hospitable to my nerdy nature and suburban upbringing. The patriotic undertones and lack of cultural diversity also tend to bother me. Seeing how I am an average sample of Whedon's fan base, it is easy to see how he had trouble marketing this series and why Fox decided to pull the plug. Like most other people, I only discovered the show after it had been canceled, and realized that the sci-fi elements addressed all my country western anxieties.
Setting the series in a spaceship, as opposed to a town or a farm gives the series a sense of home (which is essential for the Western) without rendering it sedentary. To inject some cultural diversity into the mix, Whedon sprinkles Chinese throughout the script and refers to his personal take on the evil galactic empire as The Sino-Asian Alliance, acknowledging China and America as the two superpowers most likely to seize control over human society. The cast also has more color than typical American television, let alone a typical western, featuring two black actors, and a Brazilian as well. The real thing which translates the folksiness of Firefly into something nerds can appreciate however is the dialogue. Whedon manages to unite the witticisms of nerd culture with folksome earthiness by relying on plainspoken wit and blunt understatement instead of references to folklore and pop culture.
Interestingly, Serenity, the film intended to serve as the possible salvation/wrap up for Firefly, switches gear's from the television series' western tone to a full on Sci-fi adventure. The western influence and folksy language lingers, but the plot moves away from bank heists, cattle raids and shootouts to encoded messages, insidious viruses, and the mysterious ambitions of the nefarious alliance. Laser weapons start popping up in a world that had only been armed with traditional guns. That was actually the thing that tipped me off to the genre switch.Normally, I would link Picard at this point, but I can see the reasoning behind the toneshift. The movie was a last ditch effort to try and draw in a broader audience for the show, so it needed to be easy to market, and since people are skeptical of stories they can't fit a familiar label to, Whedon decided to give it a more traditional Sci-fi flavor.
All in all it seems like a forgivable evil since the movie is still engaging and enjoyable. If you haven't seen any of Firefly yet, I recommend you rent or buy Serenity, and if you like that, pick up the the show on DVD. I really don't know how much it will set you back, but it's the sort of show that you can watch again and again, picking up new things each time, and the episodes are fairly self-contained, making them great to share with friends.
To those Firefly fans who have not picked up the comic books, I would heartily encourage you to do that as well, regardless of how you felt about the movie. Both series (Better Days and Those Left Behind) take place before the movie and hold true to that original western tone while sewing up a few loose ends. There is nothing particularly ground-breaking in either story, but the dialogue is entertaining and the artstyle is detailed and faithful to the show. Finally, for those of you who are hungering to hear about a certain enigmatic preacher's past, word has it that a lil series called A Shepard's Tale is in the works. It is slightly worriesome that said word came mid 2007 with a projected release date of late 2008, but the announcement came from Ron Glass (with Whedon's permission), so there is still hope yet.