Welcome to the Weird, Weird, West: Brilliant Sci-Fi Westerns Ahead of Their Time
By Brad Pike
Some genres just go together like peanut butter and jelly—romance and comedies, crime and drama, horror and fantasy—but the science fiction western is a special brew, one you wouldn’t think gels right off the bat.
When done right, the juxtaposition of distant futures with the savage past – of high-tech gadgetry and dusty six-shooters – can be a source of riveting dissonance. After all, who doesn’t want to see robots riding horses or cowboys holstering laser guns?
In Western X, KoldCast’s supernatural western Internet TV series, a man known only as “X” wakes up amongst a pile of dead bodies in a desert wasteland with no memory of his past. He must hunt down the clues to his identity while being hunted down himself by an unknown enemy who’d rather keep him quiet. A determined X makes his way to a surreal town in the Old West where evil, mythical forces are now in control.
You are watching Episode 1 of Western X: “X Marks the Beginning”
This series is the first of its kind to blend fantasy and western genres, and its dedicated Internet fan base (plus its startling array of awards) indicates that Western X is way ahead of its time. Combining biblical apocalypse, malevolent armies, and John Wayne, Western X has created a story greater than the sum of its parts.
And for those of you already wondering – yes, there are zombie cowboys involved. If that doesn’t automatically capture your attention, the high production values, an excellent score, and the haunting, dreamlike imagery usually reserved for the movies will.
Of course, other brilliant TV shows and movies on the fringe of pop-culture had to pave the way, and they did it by blending western with sci-fi. So pop a whiskey pill, saddle up your hover horse, and have a look:
The list of genres mashed together to create Firefly is a long one: drama, comedy, western, sci-fi, character study, action—but it all adds up to one of the best shows ever prematurely cancelled by heartless network executives. Firefly follows Captain Mal Reynolds and his ragtag crew as they try to make a living under the merciless boot heel of the Alliance, an objective made more difficult by his decision to harbor wanted fugitives, River and Simon Tam.
Characters transition seamlessly from riding a horse to flying a spaceship, shoot laser guns that look like old colt pistols, and rob trains (hovertrains, that is). Even alien planets resemble the old west as the incomplete terraforming process has left them dry and desolate. The poverty stricken inhabitants are forced to make do with little futuristic technology, hence cattle and horses. Even the passion and boundless ingenuity of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy and director of The Avengers, couldn’t sell this brilliant oddball of a show.
The Dark Tower Series
Stephen King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower books, are the linchpins for practically every other Stephen King book with scattered references to Salem’s Lot, IT, Hearts in Atlantis, Insomnia, and more. While the main character is a gunslinger named Roland Deschain who wanders a world not unlike the Old West, he also stumbles upon robot bears, parallel universes, magic, and a highly intelligent but terribly insane robot train, all on his way to reach the Dark Tower, the nexus of all realities.
Does this sound less like a real thing and more like the ravings of a meth-dealing hobo in the throes of a mad fever dream? Yes. Is it also one of the best sci-fi westerns ever? Also yes. And it looks like if the stars perfectly align we may also be getting a film and television adaptation from Ron Howard with Russell Crowe as Roland.
Cowboys and Aliens
Like Western X, Cowboys and Aliens also starts out with an amnesiac gunslinger waking up in the desert, with only a strange device on his wrist as a clue to his mysterious past. Soon enough, after visiting a nearby town, aliens abduct all the innocent townsfolk, including Harrison Ford’s son Paul Dano, although we weren’t too interested in seeing his bratty character saved from vivisection.
Faced with an extraterrestrial kidnapping crisis, Daniel Craig the outlaw and Harrison Ford the colonel must team up to hunt down and eradicate the aliens in order to save the day. Director Jon Favreau clearly loves to bounce around genres, producing vastly different movies each go around: Swingers, Elf, Zauthura, Iron Man, etc. This time he’s bouncing around genres within one movie.
Back to the Future: Part III
Before The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Twilight, Back to the Future was one of the first movies to have both its sequels shot back to back. Of those two films, we join the minority and argue this is the superior product, partly because a sports almanac never seemed like a particularly engaging McGuffin, and also, mixing time travelling trains and giant sniper rifles with the old west is just more fun than a nightmarish dystopian future.
With this one, Marty’s off to save Doc Brown, who’s trapped in 1885 and poised to be killed by, oh dear lord, yet another bloodthirsty member of Biff’s evil ancestry. Best moments include: a steam engine puffing color changing smoke as it accelerates to warp speed, Doc Brown passing out after one drink, and Marty getting peed on by his great grandfather, among many, many more.
Doctor Who: “A Town Called Mercy”
The time and space traveling Doctor, along with companions Amy Pond and Rory Williams, are on their way to a Day of the Dead festival in Mexico, but whoops, end up in an American frontier town called Mercy. There, a cyborg monster man named “The Gunslinger” has quarantined the town and demanded the citizens turn over an alien doctor to be executed for reasons, as it turns out, not entirely unjustified.
This is one of the only episodes of Doctor Who in which the Doctor holds a gun as, like Batman, he’s generally repulsed by violence and its instruments, choosing a sonic screwdriver in even the direst of circumstances. His anti-capital punishment stance is put to the test in a setting where justice is so often administered via killing and presented with a man whose crime seems so unforgiveable.
Brad Pike is a writer and standup in Chicago. He also writes for Thought Catalog. Twitter: brad_pike; Blog: ieatfoundthings.blogspot.com