How can genre affect a television series? Is it just another aspect of the background situation, providing the environment and conflict for the characters, or can it do something more? As a series, the Joss Whedon show Firefly is very strongly identified with two distinct genres: science fiction and the Western. And far from using the tropes and scenery from these styles as just so much more “used furniture,” much of the series’ strength comes from the way it uses those elements to advance and deepen the storytelling.
At first blush the two genres may seem like an incongruous combination: after all, Western stories are associated with a particular historical setting (the American west, 1865-1890) and often depend on pre-industrial technology; science fiction is usually set in an ambiguous future era and uses advanced technology as a central element, if not a sine qua non of the story. (Robert A. Heinlein, who probably ought to know, defined science fiction as stories that would cease to exist if elements involving science or technology were omitted.”)
Thematically, though, the two genres aren’t quite as disparate. In Westerns, the vast expanse of wild untamed nature on one end, and the encroachment of industrial technology that would upend the status quo on the other, confront the protagonist from both sides. Ultimately, the cowboy seeks a preservation of his lifestyle, and must reconcile an ambivalent relationship with each of these forces. Science fiction addresses almost the same questions from precisely the opposite stance: the Western role of nature as a familiar and nostalgic but nonetheless menacing figure is replaced by the science fiction relationship of ambivalence to technology, and the vast unknown encroacher is now the frontier of outer space. Where Western stories feature the seemingly alien city dwellers peddling industrialization as a way to control the cowboy west, science fiction features actual aliens. Where cowboy heroes retreat to the isolation and peacefulness of the great outdoors, science fiction protagonists are likely to find peace in a technological means, be it the Matrix or the Metaverse. But both genres prize the rogue individual who values his lifestyle above the inevitable march of the new. In his universe, Han Solo is really as much a cowboy as a member of the Rebel alliance.
As a result of this inverse relationship between the two genres, their combination is interesting and not uncommon. (There are [surprise!] whole Wikipedia pages about these things, but the community there is inconsistently snooty about a distinction between “Space Westerns”—which apply Western themes to sci-fi settings—and “science fiction Westerns”—which incorporate elements of sci-fi into Western setting. I’ll be largely glossing over that distinction, but Firefly is predominately the former.) Perhaps the earliest and still most prominent example of science fiction and the Western intermingling on television is Star Trek.
Gene Rodenberry pitched that series (to a media elite somewhat obsessed with Westerns, at the time) as a “Wagon Train to the stars.” It was always understood to be science fiction in the style of a Western, and even referred in the introduction for every episode to the area of their exploration—space—as “the final frontier.” (Interestingly, it seems that the intro to the show is actually the origin of that ubiquitous descriptor.)
What Star Trek gained from its willful association with the Western genre was a cultural vocabulary that it could rely upon to advance its story. The characters have to be given additional depth and be fleshed out, but Rodenberry and his writers could count on the public to recognize Captain Kirk as an authority figure without much respect for authority, the sheriff of the Old West town who has a habit of doing things his own way. In turn, the 1960s audience could expect morality stories that explored not only the brutality and inequality of man in a state of nature, but also his occasional saves-the-day heroism.
Firefly too can depend upon many of the same devices to advance its story and to give the viewer a sort of crash course on the characters. Mal, the captain of the Serenity, is an authority figure without much respect for authority, the sheriff of the Old West town who has a habit of doing things his own way. Like many Western heroes, he has experienced brutal violence and has become disillusioned with the possibility of a distant power having much consideration for his needs on the outer edge of the “Verse.” Again like many cowboys before him, he is morally complicated, engaging in ethically suspect behavior: as early as the second scene of the pilot, we see him salvaging goods from an abandoned government ship, and throughout the course of the series we see him make a living through lying, stealing, and smuggling. However, like so many of the morally ambiguous protagonists we’ve encountered in this course, he has strong principles that he will not violate. In typical cowboy fashion, he will defend his crew mates tirelessly and won’t back down from a fight (hence the duel he found himself in in the episode “Shindig”) and has serious considerations about duping or violating the trust of non-authority figures, like the mudders of Jaynestown on the episode “Jaynestown.”
Ultimately Firefly is not about the gun battles or spaceships that one sees on screen, it’s a story exposing the fallacy that technological advances must lead to social equality, and a warning to not lose sight of that fact. But by anchoring the story to genres and tropes that we’re familiar with (while avoiding empty clichés that we’re sick of) Firefly tells this story in a way that is more universally accessible and engaging, and most importantly, effective.