|Posted by BigBlackHatMan on August 11, 2012 at 11:40 AM|
SYCW: Firefly as a Western
Everyone knows me to be a huge fan of Westerns, and for many of the reasons I enjoy the genre, I dove head long into Firefly a few years ago. I admit to missing it when it made its first run on Fox in 2002. It was when the follow up Serenity came out that I got interested in the concept, and I saw the movie in 2006 on a rental. I did not really like it. However, I was not familiar with the characters or the setting, so it did not make sense to me. A friend later convinced me to watch the whole series and view the movie again. After doing this, I became a lifelong fan.
Joss Whedon’s Firefly did something very interesting in combining the genres of Science Fiction and Westerns, which is not totally unheard of. It sort of makes sense that these two genres would cross given they came to prominence at the same time in the early 20th century. With all that said, I would like to examine this show as a Western and what common themes it uses. Let us dive in.
The setting of Firefly is space which lacks the dramatic scenery of a John Ford Western or those like it, but does have the vast feeling of course. The isolated planets reflected the small towns spread out over the late 19th century American West. Firefly even represents the lengthy times it takes to cross those spaces. It is easy to relate Firefly to wagon train epics like John Wayne’s premiere starring role, The Big Trail or the dramatic Western series, Wagon Train.
The show also does a very smart thing in giving the whole thing flair like that of the post-Civil War American that shaped much of the American West. Of course, they made the war more about independence and not about slavery which makes the “Confederates” of Firefly’s universe much more palatable. The thing the Civil War gave the American West was men with gun skills and need to work. The long rebellion against the alliance sets up a very similar situation with some people having a natural rivalry over the long conflict. It is a brilliant set up by Whedon to give his world a Western feel.
Finally, the clothing and weaponry of Firefly is a very Western one. The characters mostly wear button up shirts and long dusters. They also carry pistols with similar attributes to six shooters and Winchester rifles. The pistols are a single action, but that seems to be the most major change. I know I am kind of ignoring the Chinese influences here, but hey, I am talking about it from a Western genre stand point. It is also important, but not my focus here.
The best way to handle the characters, in my opinion, would be to describe them and compare them to the popular types they are based on. Of course, we start with the captain of the crew, Malcolm Reynolds played by Nathan Fillion. Mal is a tough veteran of the Rebellion Army who has strong leadership skills, a pessimistic and practical view of the world, and a big mouth. As a lead character, he does not reflect more popular Western figures like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. He is not as boisterous as Wayne and talks too much to be Eastwood. In many ways, Mal is his own character, but there are relations. Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy comes to mind. The two characters lead their groups through relationships, could do the job when they had to, and enjoyed a good joke. Another good comparison would be Ben Johnson’s Travis Blue from Wagon Master, but I am betting fewer people know the reference. The point is that Mal is likable and tough which makes for a good lead.
Zoe Washburne played by Gina Torres is Mal’s second in command and loyal friend to the end. The character that sticks with the hero through thick and thin is a common type in the Western genre. John Wayne had Ward Bond in many of his films, and the comparison is no more direct than in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy where Bond’s characters were Wayne’s war comrades. In another example, Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan in Unforgiven comes to mind. These characters are faithful through a long built relationship. The somewhat interesting thing done in Firefly is the character was made a woman. The only time I can think of this being the case is the cult classic Johnny Guitar, but that is a slightly different case and I (maybe Les or Dark Jak) am the only one who has seen it.
For comic relief, the show offers us Hoban “Wash” Washburne played by Alan Tudyk. Wash comes straight out of the tradition of the humorous sidekick that Westerns have used forever going back to the earliest days. Gabby Hayes was one of the first people to make a whole career out of this. Of course, one of my favorite examples of this character would be Lone Waite played by Chief Dan George in The Outlaw Josey Wales. Wash’s humor derives largely from being a smart aleck and having something clever to say much of the time. This show used levity to relieve much of the tension that was built, and Wash did a great job in this regard. It is a classic story telling aid in the Western genre.
Inara Serra played by Morena Baccarin stands out as the love interest for our main protagonist. She and Mal have a flirtatious relationship that develops slowly through the show though never really pans out. (They have to keep it tense rather than settled.) It is almost hard to say where to start with this comparison as most Westerns have a love interest angle. I think the best comparison for Inara would be Miss Kitty from the classic series Gunsmoke. The obvious parallel is the two women’s profession and the tenuous relationship they maintain with the protagonist. Marshall Dillon and Mal do as much to ruin their chances with the ladies as they do to aid them.
Dr. Simon Tam and River Tam played by Sean Maher and Summer Glau respectively are the fish out of water in this story. In Westerns, it was common to have an Easterner or otherwise outsider come into the treacherous West and rely on the hero to survive. There are a lot examples here, but a fun underrated would is The Frisco Kid with Gene Wilder as a rabbi headed to San Francisco and Harrison Ford as the wily Western veteran. I am kind of ignoring the science fiction elements of this duo, but I am focusing on the Western genre here. They really fit in from this angle. Simon and his sister are often more in the way then helpful and struggle to fit in.
Shepherd Book played by Ron Glass is the spiritual advisor. There are a lot of forms here, but I must say this is one of my favorite forms. He also has a mysterious past which is a common element in almost any genre. Jayne Cobb played by Adam Baldwin stands out as the shows muscle. There really is not much to say here as the brutish, not so bright side character is a common theme among Westerns. Victor Mclaglen is one of my favorite actors in this role. Kaylee Frye played by Jewel Staite could also be considered someone fairly generic in terms of being the innocuous female character. I really do not have much to say about any of these in relationship to the Western genre, but I will point out that these were both well flushed out and interesting characters in their own universe.
With the characters and setting all broken down along the lines of the traditional Western, I have one last point to make. There the dialogue to consider. For the most part, it is natural and solid, but I will say that the interjection of Western talk like use of the word “ain’t” and “twixt” works okay at times, but feels unnatural at others. None more so than Nathan Fillion as he stumbles a bit at times with language as it feel forced in. This is a minor complaint, but it was a lot of effort to give the show a Western feel when it already had it.
In conclusion, Firefly was a great series and a great Western series that was cancelled too soon. Of course, most Western series have failed to last more than a single season in the last thirty years, so maybe it really is not surprising that this one did not either. Well, I hope everyone else has thoughts on this subject and feel free to share. Happy trails and watch out for those rough patches.