The Western Lives On in Science Fiction Television

Traditional Westerns may still be out of fashion, but you can find a semblance of the genre in 'Star Wars' and 'Star Trek' TV series.
Mandalorian Season Western Science Fiction TV

In the last few decades, the Western has become an unfashionable genre. But even if you haven’t seen a lot of popular formal Western films and television series of late, you’ve likely still been watching and enjoying Westerns for some time, just in a different set of clothes than you might expect: under the guise of science fiction television.

Westerns are about exploration, justice, and survival. Inside the Western genre, there are a number of subgenres where the Western takes on comedy, horror, and more surreal aspects in order to tell their tall tales in new ways. But your basic Western will have themes of nobility and perspective, and of violence and how that violence is used, and where justice is upheld, and what justice really is. Combine those themes with the complicated relationship with Native Americans, the fallout of the American Civil War, and how crime made a lot of people pay in the Old West, and you have the skeleton of the Western.

Recently, new seasons of two popular science fiction television shows trotted into town: Star Trek: Discovery, which is found on CBS All Access; and the Star Wars drama The Mandalorian, which is streaming on Disney+. As continuations and spinoffs of large and lengthy TV and film franchises, both of them have huge devoted fanbases and have been lassoing positive reviews. Both shows also take a number of elements from the conventions of Western film and television.

The Season 3 premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, titled “That Hope is You,” posits Commander Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) as a literal stranger in a strange land, placing her light years in time and distance from anyone she knows, on an unfamiliar world. This is the new frontier, and before long she’s entering the local saloon and getting involved in brawls and disputes over precious dilithium. The second episode of the season, “Far From Home,” leans even more into this, as the intrepid crew of the USS Discovery finally catches up with her — at least where time is concerned — and gets into their own Old West-style scrapes.

At this point, the Discovery crash lands on an icy planet. Some of the crew go out to investigate, with Saru (Doug Jones) and Tilly (Mary Wiseman) venturing toward a local mining settlement and wind up at a particular establishment. There are no bones about it, this is a space-saloon, complete with a bar and the swingy doors. As we quickly learn, the miners are deathly afraid of a grungy dude called Zareh (Jake Weber) who is running the settlement.

Clint Eastwood’s 1985 Western Pale Rider stars the film icon as a stranger named “Preacher” who wanders into a mining town where prospectors are being intimidated by a corrupt mining boss. Preacher stands up to the boss and eventually helps defeat his thugs and save the prospectors. The crew of the Discovery does the same. This theme of the town kingpin is also explored in the 2003 Kevin Costner film Open Range, as well as a 1978 episode of the science fiction TV series Battlestar Galactica entitled “The Lost Warrior.” In the latter, Captain Apollo (Richard Hatch) lands on a distant planet where a small community is ruled by a boss who happens to have a reprogrammed Cylon as his main heavy.

The third episode of Star Trek: Discovery Season 3, “People of Earth,” has the Discovery encountering a group of vicious raiders out to steal dilithium from anyone they come across. For anyone who’s seen even a few Westerns, this is a standard trope with Native Americans raiding settlements (or vice versa), so for the sake of reference, you can go to The Searchers, John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece, in which embittered racist Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) goes after Comanches who have raided his brother’s home and stolen his wife and daughter.

Like Star Trek, Star Wars has never been particularly shy about its Western influence, and that remains true with The Mandalorian. The premise immediately conjures up an older Western television show called Have Gun – Will Travel (1957-1963), in which a mysterious character called Paladin journeys the United States as a mercenary with a heart, taking on the concept of the “noble gunslinger.” The Mandalorian also mirrors this show’s time period: Have Gun – Will Travel is set in the late 1800s, after the end of the American Civil War, whereas The Mandalorian is set five years after the end of the Galactic Civil War, during which the Rebels defeated the Empire as seen in the 1983 Star Wars film Return of the Jedi.

There’s a measure of Shane (Alan Ladd) in Mando, from the 1953 George Stevens film of the same name. The character, a mysterious but highly proficient gunslinger, wanders into an isolated town and becomes the savior for the residents, who are being harassed by a cattle baron. The Season 2 premiere of The Mandalorian sees its title character journey to Tatooine after being told another Mandalorian is living there. Arriving at the town of Mos Pelgo, he actually finds Cobb Vanth, a former slave turned sheriff who had traded for a set of Mandalorian armor found by Jawas.

That armor happened to belong to a certain character named Boba Fett, who himself was designed for the original Star Wars film (only to make his debut in the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special instead) as a straight homage to Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name” character from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Right down to the poncho he originally sported in pre-production art.

On Tatooine, Mando and Vanth rally the townspeople of Mos Pelgo and manage to make them come together with their enemies, the Tusken Raiders, to defeat a common threat: a monstrous Krayt Dragon that has been ravaging the area. Such a truce is something explored in a number of Westerns. One famous example is the 1965 Sam Peckinpah film Major Dundee, which stars Charlton Heston as a Union cavalry officer who rounds up a group of Union and Confederate troops as well as a number of African-American soldiers and Native American scouts and has them work as a team to find an Apache raiding party.

The theme of enemies putting aside their differences to reach for a bigger goal is a noble one, especially powerful when combined with the echoes of 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. Mando and Vanth leading both townsfolk and Tusken “sand people” is reminiscent of that iconic John Sturges picture where residents of a Mexican village under fire from a bandit are taught to fight back by more experienced gunslingers — of course, that film was a remake of the 1954 samurai classic Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa, who was another major influence on Star Wars creator George Lucas.

It’s likely that we’ll still be watching new iterations of Star Wars and Star Trek over the next fifty years, and we’ll continue to point out their Western influences. It’s also possible that Westerns could themselves be in vogue again someday. Perhaps these sci-fi franchises that boldly go to a galaxy far, far away will even be responsible for helping to usher in the next wave of the Western genre and influence the next generation of its fans.

Charlie Brigden: Charlie Brigden is the author of many fine soundtrack liner notes and Blu-ray booklet essays and some call him a film music expert. He also recorded a commentary for Howard the Duck. You can find him on Twitter here: @brigdenwriter. (He/Him)