Two of the largest science fiction franchises on the planet (Star Wars, Star Trek) were both heavily influenced by the western. But the ties between these two genres go much deeper.
The western genre in film is defined by a setting in a desolate environment, self-sufficient protagonist or anti-hero characters, and plots revolving around the loose control of civilization in sparsely populated areas. The same type of description can be applied to many science fiction films as well. This is not a coincidence because many of the most influential science fiction films ever made were heavily influenced by the western film genre. This is a look at how science fiction became infatuated with the past, rather than looking ahead at the future.
Science fiction as a film genre did not establish itself until the 1930’s with films like Frankenstein and The Invisible Man. But while being among the first sci-fi box office successes, these films could also be considered horror films more than science fiction. However, one alternate area of science fiction that did find some success was the serial.
Serials were films divided up into short segments which often focused on some sort of an adventure. Audiences would go to a theater each week to watch the next installment. This type of film was the most popular and profitable type of film production in the 1910’s. However, with the destruction of many film studios in Europe during WWI, American film producers had more control over the industry and it shifted towards the feature film format we recognize today.
However, feature films were comparatively expensive to make, and therefore expensive to buy a ticket for. During the 1930’s we saw a return of the serial thanks to the impact of the Great Depression. As a form of entertaining escapism, studios turned to science fiction, and one of the first science fiction serials of the 1930’s was The Phantom Empire. This serial is an odd-ball mashup of the western and science fiction.
The Phantom Empire focused on a main character (portrayed by Gene Autry) who was a singing cowboy. On his ranch he finds a passage to an ancient subterranean city full of advanced technology and hatred of the world above. The serial is split between traditional/contemporary western ideas above ground, and science fiction horrors below ground. While other serials didn’t exactly follow in the footsteps of The Phantom Empire, it still remains as an interesting early mash-up of these two seemingly opposing genres.
But where the 30’s serials had the biggest impact on science fiction would be in the formatting. With the episodic treatment, there was a greater emphasis on action and adventure to keep audiences coming back for more. There was less focus on speculative storytelling in exchange for something more direct. Science fiction serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers would become “space operas”, with high dramatic stakes and dynamic confrontations to keep audiences coming back for more. While the underlying motivation in the plot would be science fiction focused, the actual narrative mechanism was more traditional.
In fact, the narrative approach mimicked that of most other serials that had come before. In particular, the adventure aspect which leaned heavily on traditions from the western genre. While characters in Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers weren’t riding around on horseback, they were always heading to exciting new and dangerous locations within the vast expanse of space. Instead of pistols they wielded ray guns, and fought off lawless gangs in desolate locales. And most importantly, the protagonist is an outsider, from a different time and place struggling to implement a sense of order against a powerful foe.
So, although Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers weren’t explicitly connected to the western genre, they did provide a beneath-the-surface link between science fiction and western. You have to remember this was a time before what we would consider to be action movies, and westerns and adventures filled that void. By making science fiction more action-oriented, it would pave the way for the science fiction B-movies of the 1950’s, which were a sort of mash-up between the darker sci-fi horror films of the 1930’s and the more action-oriented approach of the serials.
Up until the 1950’s science fiction was heavily influenced by written fiction because most of the well-known science fiction films were based on books. So, in that regard, the approach to science fiction was very much dictated by older stories, and did not yet reflect the influence of popular cinema. Indeed, until the 1950’s it was very difficult to find original science fiction that was not either based on a book/comic or very similar to something that was. The 1950’s were dominated by sci-fi horror because that was popular.
But everything changed by the 1960’s. With the Comics Code Authority going into effect in 1954, comics had to censor some of their most violent aspects. This impacted sci-fi horror comics, which were a huge source of inspiration for the film industry at that time. Because the western was becoming even more popular than before, filmmakers began incorporating western attributes in place of horror attributes in their science fiction films.
1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars was an important moment for the genre. It showcased a survivalist tale with less reliance on fantasy elements. The film’s wide open spaces and highlight of a dangerous environment brought it closer to a western. Later in the decade you have Planet of the Apes, which featured a primitive society of apes to which humanity was enslaved. Having the apes ride on horseback, as well as the film’s bleak desert imagery and harrowing soundtrack provided a connection to the western. (The later film, Westworld would be a more direct mash-up between science fiction and the western)
But the real turning point of the sub genre would not be on the big screen, but on the little screen. 1967’s Star Trek would become a huge influence in the science fiction realm over the next few decades. Creator Gene Roddenberry pitched it as “Wagon Train to the stars”. Wagon Train was a popular western television show from the 50’s which followed the adventures of travellers heading west, and seeing new locales and meeting new people on each episode. With Star Trek, the concept was the same, but set in space.
Star Trek attempted to “go where no man has gone before”, which meant that it took a more exploratory perspective to science fiction. In a way it bridged the gap between the older “cautionary tale” type of science fiction and the action/horror approach that took over in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. The episodes were written as morality tales, where the science fiction aspect allowed the writers to address contemporary hot-button issues that they could not have otherwise done on a prime time television show. But the appeal of unknown worlds and unimaginable aliens is dripping with danger and tension like the classic serials were. Star Trek built upon science fiction which had come before, but only by adapting the framework of a western.
Star Trek would go on to become the foundation of a decades-long film franchise through the 80’s and beyond, but not without receiving motivation from another seminal work of cinematic science fiction which was heavily influenced by the western. Yes, Star Wars is responsible for the rebirth of Star Trek, and really ignited the intense cinematic interest in science fiction which continues to this day. Like Star Trek, aspects of Star Wars were based upon works of science fiction and non-science fiction that had come before. But unlike Star Trek, Star Wars wasn’t formatted in the guise of a western (it took the formula of the classic monomyth). Star Wars’ connection to the western lies in its science fiction and non-science fiction influences.
From the classic science fiction serials I mentioned above, to spaghetti westerns, and samurai films, creator George Lucas borrowed heavily from the television shows and films he grew up watching. All of these influences took inspiration from the classic western (you can read more about them here…). Because all of these inspirations have such a strong connection to the western, it is only natural that Star Wars feels a kin to the western itself.
Desolate desert planets, an affinity to riding on the backs of alien creatures, laser blasters, grisly bounty hunters, smugglers, and clothing in tans and browns; much of Star Wars mimics the look and feel of the classic western. One of Star Wars’ greatest contributions to the science fiction genre was the “dirty space” aesthetic. Science fiction was known for always looking clean and futuristic, but Star Wars looks old and run down like the outpost town in your favorite western. Later iterations of the franchise like The Mandalorian or The Bad Batch would play homage to the “western in space” concept much more literally.
After Star Wars, science fiction would see many more notable crossovers with the western. Movies like Outland, Waterworld, The Road, Mad Max, The Chronicles of Riddick, Serenity, The Book of Eli, John Carter, Prospect, Cowboys and Aliens, and The Dark Tower would only increase the ties between these two genres. On television, an explosion of new Star Trek and Star Wars shows would join Firefly, The Walking Dead, The Expanse, Cowboy Bebop, and a Westworld remake. If anything, television and film producers are finding more common ties between the genre than ever before. As interest in the classic western has waned, interest in the sci-fi western has only grown stronger.