What is and is not a Western is the subject of endless debate but if you accept a broader definition of the genre then you cannot but think of the TV series Firefly as a Western. It was billed as such. The characters have low-slung holsters, some wear Stetsons, horses abound and there are saloon brawls and a siege of a whorehouse in which they use Winchesters. The fact that they move about on a spacecraft rather than a stagecoach and are on the planet Zog or somewhere rather than Arizona is incidental.
First seen on Fox Television in the fall of 2002, Joss Whedon’s show (Joss pictured left, photo by Gage Skidmore) was sadly canceled in December that year, after 14 episodes. But it was very good. Universal released a feature version, Serenity, in the fall of 2005, with the same cast. That’s also good, though I think you need to have seen the series first to get the full value out of it.
There’s a huge following now, and much merchandising, so that you can buy Firefly, the game, key rings with bons mots from the show inscribed on them, even the monstrously ugly knitted hat worn by one of the characters.
There were essentially nine characters, the crew/passengers of the Firefly-class ship Serenity, though at one point the ship itself is referred to as the tenth. They built a great set for the craft and we get to know it. It’s a run-down machine with many miles on her, and occasionally bits fall off, but the characters regard her with some affection.
The captain is tough Malcolm ‘Mal’ Reynolds (Nathan Fillon), with a slight whiff of Han Solo about him, who fought in the recent war (as it might be the American Civil War) of the Alliance (baddies) against the Independents (goodies). His sidekick and the only survivor of Mal’s platoon in that war is Zoë Washburne (Gina Torres, before she became the posh lawyer in Suits). Zoë is married to the ship’s helmsman, Hoban ‘Wash’ Washburne (Alan Tudyk) a cookie character who wears Hawaiian shirts. The ship’s engineer is the sweet Kaylee (Jewel Staite) who sees only the good in everyone and is so sunny she gives optimists a reputation for gloom. And the crew is completed with Jayne Cobb, the woolly hat wearer (Adam Baldwin) who is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, nor indeed entirely to be relied upon, though he usually does the right thing in the end, and he loves 26th-century firearms.
There are four passengers. One is the beautiful Inara, a member of the Guild of Companions – Mal thinks of companions as whores but they are closer to geishas than that – played by Morena Baccarin, Vanessa in Deadpool. She and the captain love each other from afar as it were, without actually saying so. There is also a preacher. Preachers are called shepherds and this one, Shepherd Derrial Book (Ron Glass), is indeed often seen with a book, which we kind of take to be a Bible (he’s quite a Protestant Christian kind of preacher, though this is never explicitly stated). He seems to have a ‘history’ and you are never quite sure that he is as holy as all that. And lastly there are a brother and sister on the run from the Alliance: Simon Tam (Sean Maher) is a doctor, and the classic Eastern dude beloved of Westerns. In other words he appears not to truly understand or approve of the ways of the wild frontier of outer space but actually has grit and will come up trumps in the end. He is a talented physician, which comes in quite handy with all the combat that figures in different episodes, and he tends his sister, River (Summer Glau) who has, shall we say, mental health issues. You see, a genius, she was taken by the Alliance and fiendish experiments were done on her brain, rendering her pretty well a paranoid schizophrenic, but one with superpowers (which also come in handy now and then).
There’s a nice vibe about the planets they visit, which resemble the Old West in their scruffiness and dirt and saloon bars. There are many Oriental touches (the Orient of Earth, I mean) and in fact the characters often slip into Chinese. It seems that the Earth progressed into quite a binary place before the war made it uninhabitable, with everyone absorbed into either America or China and many moving easily between the two cultures.
A particular Western trope is of course the train robbery and E1, The Train Job, which acts as a kind of pilot, has exactly this, as the crew of Serenity, who are not always entirely on the right side of the law, boldly carry out a heist. Another very Western type is the bounty-hunter, and E10, Objects in Space, one of the best as well as the most Western episodes, concerns a fearsome chasseur de primes, a character named Jubal Early (played by Richard Brooks) who is after the runaway girl River, for whom the Alliance has WANTED posters out. Now, we Westernistas know well that Jubal Early (1816 – 94) was a Virginia lawyer and politician who fought in the Second Seminole War and the Mexican-American War, then became a Confederate general during the War Between the States, making daring raids right to the outskirts of Washington DC. An “unrepentant rebel”, he fled afterwards to Mexico, then Cuba and Canada and spoke much on the “Lost Cause”. We Western fans also know that Jubal was the title character (played by Glenn Ford) in the 1957 Delmer Daves oater Jubal, a sort of Othello on the Plains. So this bounty-hunter had good pedigree.
Another very Western episode was Heart of Gold, E12. We all know the members of which profession were said to have hearts of gold, and indeed our heroes go to the aid of a sisterhood which is threatened by an over-mighty crooked town boss (Fredric Lehne) and his henchmen, more Western types that we know and love. It all climaxes in a mega-gunfight, as is right and proper.
We have Comancheros too, horrible cannibal-rapist-torturer/murderers called Reivers, of whom everyone, even the Serenity crew, are afraid.
Western fans who are not purists (i.e. who don’t insist on their movies being set west of the Mississippi between 1865 and 1895) will enjoy Firefly and Serenity. They may even find themselves wearing wool beanies, while playing Firefly, the Game.