“10 Most Influential Space Westerns!? These can’t possibly be Space Westerns. And you surely don’t want me to believe that Space Westerns have any influence on real Science Fiction…” Yes, they are. Yes, I do. — ed, N.E. Lilly
There’s an old-school belief that the merging of the Western genre and Space frontiers is a violation of the unspoken laws of fiction; that Space Westerns are inherently poor works of fiction by hack writers with no imagination; that Space Westerns are “a pernicious suite of ‘Used Furniture.’” Whether true or not, that school of thought doesn’t seem to take into account the great number of influential works of Science Fiction that have their roots, covertly or overtly, in the Western genre. I present to you the 10 most influential Space Westerns.
10. StarCraft (1998)
Based on WarCraft, which itself was based on Westwood Studios’ Dune II: Battle for Arrakis, Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft became the most popular real-time strategy game ever, widely revolutionizing the real-time strategy genre, and being praised as one of the best and most important video games of all time.
Set in the 26th century, StarCraft revolves around three species—the Terrans, humans exiled from Earth; the Zerg, a race of insectoids; and the Protoss, a humanoid species with advanced technology and psionic abilities—as humanity finds itself in a civil war. 26th century? Insectoids? Psionics?—so where’s the “Space Western” in it? Jim Raynor, a morally conscious law enforcement officer from Mar Sara, living on the lawless frontier finds himself caught in the middle. He must play both sides of the warring human factions to survive. It’s indicative of Jim Raynor’s Western origins that his first words in the game are: “Howdy Boys! I’m Jim Raynor, Marshall of these parts.”
Even 10 years after its initial release you can still find StarCraft being sold in stores; for a video game, that’s remarkable staying power. StarCraft wasn’t just another WarCraft clone, but set about redefining the RTS genre. It went on to produce several series of novels, game expansions, and a sequel: StarCraft 2 which is due to be released by the end of 2009.
StarCraft Mission Briefings
9. Alien (1979)
If other Space Westerns are escapist epics, then Alien is the grim reality of living on the frontier. It was a tale about space-miners (exploited by corporate interests), just trying to survive. The story is a simple one: a small band stranded on the lonely frontier tries to defend themselves against a single horror-inducing marauder. Directed by Ridley Scott and receiving an Academy Award for Visual Effects and Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Alien went on to inspire a slew of Scifi/Horror works in movies and video games, from Predator and Species to StarCraft and Halo. The franchise itself has spawned 6 movies and several videogames.
Although much has been made of its Gothic Horror roots, certain aspects also bear resemblances to Indian abduction narratives. The fear of Indians was rooted in tales of young settlers who were abducted, tortured, raped, and killed by Indians of the plains tribes. Some of these settlers were eventually assimilated into the tribe, increasing the tribe’s numbers. Posses were formed to save these abductees from, as described in the actual accounts, this “fate worse than death.”
The second movie in the franchise, Aliens directed by James Cameron, follows a much more obvious classic Western pattern. A group of homesteaders disappear and the cavalry is called in. They enlist the help of the only person known to have previous contact on that planet (the only man known to have been in that territory, so to speak): Ellen Ripley who shows the same prejudice against the aliens that John Wayne-styled cowboys often show against Indians. The movie ends in a classic showdown between Ripley and the Alien Queen.
Alien (Deleted Scene)
8. Flash Gordon (1934)
Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon burst onto the scene into comics, and then into both radio and movie serials. The long-running comic strip adventures featured Flash Gordon, a world-renown polo player, and his companions Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov on the planet Mongo (published by King Features Syndicate). In Western genre terms, Ming plays the part of the rich industrialist who owns the town; Flash, the lone hero who rides into town from out of nowhere to save the townsfolk; Dale Arden, the damsel in distress.
Flash Gordon was so popular and had achieved such success in the cinema that Buster Crabbe, who acted first in Flash Gordon and later in Buck Roger movie serials, assumed that Buck Rogers was a Flash Gordon imitator. It would rank higher on the list if not for the poor performance of recent (and some not so recent) attempts at reviving the franchise. A new Flash Gordon movie is currently in active development by Columbia and scheduled for 2010.
Flash Gordon Movie Serial
1979 Filmation Series
7. Battlestar Galactica (1978)
Originally conceived of in the ’60s by Glen A. Larson, Battlestar Galactica was produced in 1978 following the success of Star Wars. If Star Trek was pitched to studio exectuives as “Wagon Train to the stars,” then Battlestar Galactica actually fulfilled that promise. Battlestar Galactica is the story of a lone flagship battlestar, the Galactica, which remains to aid the surviving colonists on their epic journey for a new home to a far-off legendary planet: Earth.
Battlestar Galactica filled the void left by the absence of Star Wars (between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back). In doing so it found a place in the hearts of children who would later go on to work in the entertainment field.
Several attempts at reviving Battlestar Galactica led to the 2003 re-imagined miniseries broadcast on the SCI-FI Channel, which itself went on to critical acclaim. The miniseries led to a full-fledged award-winning series, Webisodes, TV movies, and a spin-off, as well as comics and games. The re-imagined series being one of the SCI-FI Channel’s highest rated series.
1978 Series Intro
2003 Mini-series Opening Scene
See also the SpaceWesterns.com interviews with Battlestar Galactica writers Jane Espenson, Seamus Kevin Fahey, and David Weddle
6. Babylon 5 (1994)
Babylon 5 was conceived of by J. Michael Straczynski as a “novel for television” and heralded advancements in both special effects and narrative structure in Science Fiction Television.
In the year 2258 Commander Sinclair takes command of a giant five-mile-long cylindrical space station, orbiting a planet in neutral space. At a crossroads of interstellar commerce and diplomacy, Commander Sinclair (and later Captain Sheridan) must try to establish peace and prosperity between various interstellar empires, all the while fighting forces from within the Earth Alliance.
Aside from the groundbreaking use of 3d animation, it featured a single five-year story arc. It won two Hugo Awards for Best Dramatic Presentation and two Emmy Awards (make-up and visual effects). The show spawned six television films and a short-lived a spin-off series, Crusade, and many of tie-in novels, comic books, and short stories which were also developed to play a significant canonical part in the overall story.
Babylon 5 Series Intro
See also the SpaceWesterns.com interview with Special Effects Artist “Mojo”
5. Firefly (2002)
Joss Whedon made a bold move when he made an explicit connection between Space Opera and Westerns in Firefly. Works like Star Wars, Star Trek—and even going as far back as Buck Rogers—“take up the gun” and continue in much the same tradition as the Western. Joss Whedon’s contribution was not so much that he created a post-Western Space Opera but that he exposed the inherent traditional Western symbols in Space Opera that we often ignore because we’re distracted by the aliens and rockets and rayguns. It’s not so much that the Western is dead, but that it survives in different “dress” (the same aliens and rockets and rayguns).
Set 500 years in the future, Firefly centres around Mal Reynolds, captain of the ship-for-hire Serenity and its eclectic crew of galactic misfits. When he takes on two passengers, a young doctor and his mysterious, telepathic sister, he gets much more than he bargained for.
I credit Firefly with the modern resurgence of the Space Western. Since Firefly’s premiere it has spawned Serenity, a feature length movie, and two comic mini-series (with more on the way), a role-playing game, the promise of an MMO-RPG, as well as the requisite merchandise associated with a franchise. Given time we’re sure that Firefly will creep up higher in this list.
Firefly Series Intro
4. The Martian Chronicles (1950)
The Martian Chronicles was the first modern work of Science Fiction to receive widespread acceptance by academics and the literary establishment (notably Christopher Isherwood and J.B. Priestley). As the novel brought Ray Bradbury popularity with the mainstream American public, he lost credibility with Science Fiction fans and writers: he was criticized for being anti-science and for not writing about science in a believable way. I like to think that was not because he was writing a fantasy, but in truth he was writing a Western (fantastic and anti-technology, but in its own special way).
There are other interpretations of the collection, but the one that I’m most personally fond of is: The Martian Chronicles as a dreamy retelling of the American experience, from first contact to expansion to assimilation. In this new light then stories like “The Settlers” is a comment on the homesteading of the American West and “The Locusts” becomes a reenactment of the Homestead Act. In a certain sense The Martian Chronicles wasn’t Science Fiction, it was an American allegory. If you read the stories you can see Bradbury didn’t write the chronicles of the Martians… he wrote How Mars Was Won.
In 1980 it spawned a mini-series with a screenplay written by Richard Matheson and starring Rock Hudson, but it is better remembered for the indelible mark that the novel left on Science Fiction writers.
3. Buck Rogers (1928)
The Buck Rogers in the 25th Century A.D. comic strip debuted on January 7th, 1929 and was a huge commercial success. But its real claim to fame was that it helped popularize Science Fiction, bringing the concept of space exploration into the mainstream. The gran’daddy of Space Westerns, Buck Rogers was the Star Wars of its day.
In 1928 Philip Nowlan wrote Armageddon 2419 A.D., the tale of Anthony Rogers, which piqued the interest of president of the National Newspaper Service syndicate John F. Dille. It’s suggested that Dille insisted on the name change from Anthony to “Buck” to align the character with the popular cowboy star Buck Jones (the early Buster Crabbe 12-part serial was even recut and retitled in 1953 as Planet Outlaws).
Without Buck Rogers it’s unlikely that we’d have any of the Science Fiction shows, movies, comics, or stories that we enjoy today. Buck Rogers has spawned comics, radio serials, movie serials, and a Television series. More recently James Cawley of Star Trek: Phase II (formerly Star Trek: New Voyages) is producing a new Buck Rogers web serial, scheduled to be released online in 2010.
Buck Rogers/Planet Outlaws
2. Star Trek (1966)
Who would think that a failed Space Western could have such ardent fans? Star Trek, the original series, holds the seldom bestowed honor of being cancelled twice.
Originally gaining experience in Television by writing screenplays for Western series, Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek to executives as “Wagon Train to the stars.” Premiering in an era of Westerns, the introduction proclaims “space, the final frontier.” The Western-genre influence is most apparent in the morality play structure of many of the episodes.
The Star Trek Universe went on to produce 6 series, 11 movies, and countless works of written fiction and non-fiction. Subsequent Star Trek series Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space 9 were equally influential. The next generation (tee-hee) of Star Trek is beginning with J.J. Abrahms’ Star Trek Movie.
Star Trek Intro
Original Alternate Intro
1. Star Wars (1977)
In 1977 Star Wars became the 800-lb. Space Western Gorilla of entertainment (Yes, an 800-pound gorilla… Wearing a space helmet… And a cowboy hat). Having grown up in an era of Space Opera and Horse Opera serials, George Lucas created a science fiction juggernaut. Star Wars will always remain at the central point from which modern popular culture has sprouted. While its influences are many, it contains many tropes from the Western genre: the villain clad in black; the young noble farm-boy; the gunslinger of questionable virtue with a silent sidekick; the nameless bounty-hunter.
Without Star Wars there would have been no Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Battlestar Galactica, nor any of the myriad of other Science Fiction shows that we take for granted today. We would have none of the special effects technologies used in modern television and cinema. Star Wars has eclipsed the serials that inspired it. Countless games, novels, and comic book series have been produced in the Star Wars Galaxy, as well as several television spin-offs, not to mention toys and other merchandise. An animated series is currently running on the Cartoon Network, and work is underway on a live-action series.
Han & Greedo
For a discussion of other works that should be on this list visit More Influential Space Westerns?
Other works by N.E. Lilly
- Is Firefly “Out of Gas”? (Dec 12, 2022)
- The Emancipation of Bat Durston, or, “I’m from Iowa, I only work in Outer-space” (Dec 5, 2022)
- Interview with Phil Foglio (Nov 8, 2009)
- Space Western Most Wanted (Jan 25, 2009)
- Interview with John G. Cawelti (Dec 7, 2008)
- more by N.E. Lilly
- Is Firefly “Out of Gas”? by N.E. Lilly (Dec 12, 2022)
- Space Western Most Wanted by N.E. Lilly (Jan 25, 2009)
- Interview with Beth Nelson, 2008 Browncoat Ball Chair by N.E. Lilly (Sep 21, 2008)
- Battlestar Galactica Role-Playing Game Review by Kenneth J. Newquist (Jul 27, 2008)
- Interview with “Mojo” by N.E. Lilly (Jul 13, 2008)
- Interview with Seamus Kevin Fahey by N.E. Lilly (May 18, 2008)
- The Battlestar Galactica Code: The Last Cylon by N.E. Lilly (Apr 22, 2008)
- Interview with David Weddle by N.E. Lilly (Apr 20, 2008)
- Finding Serenity Review by Kenneth J. Newquist (Feb 10, 2008)
- Behind the Scenes of Star Trek: Of Gods and Men by N.E. Lilly (Jan 20, 2008)
- Space Western Holiday Specials by N.E. Lilly (Dec 16, 2007)
- Interview with Jane Espenson by N.E. Lilly (Dec 9, 2007)
- Interview with The Bedlam Bards by N.E. Lilly (Oct 7, 2007)
- Interview with Matt Black, 2007 Browncoat Ball Chair by N.E. Lilly (Sep 2, 2007)
- Interview with Keith R.A. DeCandido by N.E. Lilly (Apr 22, 2007)