America loves cowboys. Maybe not enough for certain television executives to damned well do the decent thing and commission a second series of Firefly but enough that there are references to the genre everywhere you look. Especially on television. OK, you don’t see the likes of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne or even Emilio Estevez riding around on horseback and firing six shooters left, right and centre as much as you used to. We don’t even get to see Nathan Fillion in anything other than a smart suit, unless it is halloween, and this is something which makes women the world over lament. However, America still seems to have an inherent tendency to revert to the ideals and concepts of the old West in a crisis.
Case in point, look at the two recent American TV shows that have come over to the UK – Revolution and Defiance. Both are post apocalyptic science fiction and both are so heavily flavoured with cowboy you can almost smell that campfire bean eating scene from Blazing Saddles.
Let’s take Revolution first. Ignoring the blatant Hunger Games reference of a cute young girl with a bow, the whole look and feel of the Militia reeks of the American Civil War. The uniforms (especially the caps), the attitude, the liking for large canvas tents that are usually only seen in re-enactment events in this day and age… Ok, American Civil war is not really ‘Wild West’ but there are also Saloons, fist fights, gun fights and all sorts of Wild West cliches inherent in the world building. And horses. It is, I suppose, natural that in a society where cars and planes no longer work (and ships are apparently all but rusted or rotted to scrap), people will revert to the next most reliable means of transport – the Horse – but that does add significantly to the whole western feel.
Defiance also has a wild west thing going on. The blatant imagry of the Castithan in this show is clearly Victorian in style, for example, but that is only one of the many references. Small towns with a troublesome population and the need for a strong sherrif is a common wild west cliche and in many westerns the hero comes from outside the town to take on that difficult job. In Defiance, a tough outsider comes to a town with a troublesome population, mostly comprised of squabbling aliens, and ends up with the job of lawman.
I do not imagine for a moment that I am pointing out anything here that you have not already noticed for yourself. Neither show really goes to great lengths to hide what they are doing. However, these observations led me to wonder what it is about the American psyche that means it reverts to the Old West as soon as any disaster happens that collapses society. What is it about the tropes inherent in the genre that makes writers of other genres fall back on them so often? Is it some nostalgic harking back to the good old days? Something to do with the lone gunman defeating evil? Maybe it is the idea of spunky, independent women eking out an existence in the bleak wilderness with nothing but a Gingham dress and a shotgun to defend them from all the rapacious lone gunmen who seem to be wandering everywhere? Personally, my theory revolves around the old West being seen as an idealistic time for many born in the US. It was a time and place when the population was smaller outside of the big East Coast cities, people gathered in small communities and there was endless space for expansion. America was truly a land of opportunity because land and gold and whatever else you wanted was simply there for the taking. This translates well into a post apocalyptic setting as most of those features are also present then – low populations, resources such as land less tied up by governments and laws and a need for people to work together to survive.
Whatever it is, it seems irresistable for writers to fall back on these ideas. The question I feel needs to be asked, however, is whether or not this can be considered lazy writing or inspired reimagining of common themes? This is not a new thing, either. You could argue Firefly as being another interpretation of the Post Apocalypse Wild West (Earth that was being somewhat uninhabitable when they left) and David Gemmel’s Jon Shannow novels are also along this sort of theme. So what is it about this period of American history that so appeals? Feel free to comment below…
And before anyone says anything… No, we Brits are not immune to similar things in our writing. Ignoring for the moment the obsession Doctor Who seems to have with Cowboys at the moment, British Apocalypses tend to come in Crusty flavour – raggedy, dreadlocked punks in lumberjack shirts throwing petrol bombs. However, that may be a topic for another occasion…