Sara Anderson
CCTP 725: Cultural Hybridity
Fall 2012

The Context of the Space Western


We are continuously creating new stories. These stories build on earlier works and evolve constantly. There are of course patterns and consistencies in our narratives, and we separate these into genres based on similar attributes. While even the earliest, most general dramatic genres were not created in a vacuum and had complex aspects to them, there are many more genres of film and television today because we are far more specific in assigning classifications. We acknowledge when genres overlap to such an extent that they create something new. When discussing genres of film or television, it is easy to define something like the space western as a hybrid genre. However, it is important to remember that even the oldest and most well defined genres are already hybrids. Genres have always borrowed elements from each other and will continue to do so. The elements of the genre create certain expectations based on its dialogic context.

Analyzing the space western genre provides a cultural perspective on how we tell our stories that has not been fully explored. This analysis is framed from the perspective of narrative theory and explores the development of the genre. The two major contributing genres to the space western are, of course, science fiction and the western. How these genres interact influences the way an audience receives the story. It’s also important to look at how narrative complexity blurs the line between genres because how we tell our stories is a large part of who we are culturally and individually. These stories are not created in a vacuum, and looking at them in their larger context is another way to analyze genre. Joss Whedon’s show Firefly is an excellent case study for these issues, and will be an example throughout this analysis. This will not only reflect how this genre has developed, but how its hybrid elements provide a unique way to express a narrative. Horrace Newcomb writes in “Narrative and Genre,” featured in The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies“ that, “Among the most important features of narrative, then, and one of the factors that makes it useful and significant for human experience is its malleability. Narratives may, and often do, conform to patterns. But they may also suggest new patterns, new ways of considering the world, new perspectives on old topics” (Newcomb 419). This idea will apply to many of the others presented in this essay.

Origins and Directions of Genre

The origins of the science fiction and western genres inform the direction the genres are developing, both together and individually. Science fiction is such a broad term, and there are many variations within the genre. Horace Newcomb describes the science fiction genre in “Narrative and Genre,” saying it “allows for exploration of a range of topics and is perhaps less defined as a general category than in subgenres relating to technology, exploration, utopia, and dystopia” (Newcomb 424-5). Typically, a film or series will receive the science fiction label because it has some strange technology or takes place in the future. In “A Semantic/ Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” Rick Altman discusses the evolution of science fiction. He states, “At first defined only by a relatively stable science-fiction semantics, the genre first began borrowing the syntactic relationships previously established by the horror film, only to move in recent years increasingly toward the syntax of the western” (Altman 13). This observation supports his more overarching claims about genre. He claims that “one Hollywood genre may be borrowed with little change from another medium, a second genre may develop slowly, change constantly, and surge recognizably before settling into a familiar pattern, while a third may go through an extended series of paradigms” (Altman 8). This can easily be seen in the science fiction genre. From the beginning of science fiction in film the genre was very broad. There were books adapted to movies like Frankenstein and 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and then films like Metropolis that had similar elements, but the genre has evolved much and will continue to do so.
external image metropolis.jpg

The western is a genre that has been a great deal more well defined than science fiction. Newcomb points out that a few typical characteristics are that they tend to be “played out in confrontations over territory, social control, and authority” (Newcomb 424). While the western seems like a fairly succinct genre, it also has elements that are very widespread. Steve Neale supports this point by discusses the classic western The Great Train Robbery in his article “Questions of Genre.” He agrees with and summarizes Charles Musser’s argument this way, “the paradigms used both by the industry and its audiences were different and that it was the confluence of paradigms provided by melodrama, the chase film, the railway genre, and the crime film, rather than the Western, that ensured the film's contemporary success” (Neale 163-4). Altman also discusses the western in his aforementioned article. He discusses the “Pennsylvania western,” and asks, “Are these films westerns because they share the syntax of hundreds of films we call westerns?” (Altman 11). The answer is uncertain, but a strong yes could easily be argued for. Like Pennsylvania western, many films and shows are said to have “western elements” as opposed to actually being defined as westerns if only because it is difficult to call something a western without its almost tautological scenic components.
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This is where the space western genre emerges. It has such significant aspects of a western that it is included in the name, but it takes place in a different setting. Firefly is an ideal example of this genre because it folds in so many aspects of the western seamlessly. They achieve this hybridization by making outlying planets and moons rural frontiers with less science fiction technology. These places resemble the old west, filled with colonists building their lives on these new worlds without the benefit of much capital. Newcomb contrasts these two settings in “Narrative and Genre,” saying “space may carry significance for the meanings of the narrative in and of itself, as do the ‘wide open spaces’ of a western or the tightly confined areas within a spaceship” (Newcomb 417). These seemingly opposing settings come together in Firefly, reinforcing that the main characters take jobs in any number of places.
From the pilot, "Serenity" - This shows one of their more "old west" looking missions.
From the pilot, "Serenity" - This shows one of their more "old west" looking missions.

From "The Train Job"
From "The Train Job"

How Narrative Complexity Blends Genre

Many shows are blurring the lines between genres because they progress an overarching plot that centers on character development. While I keep coming back to the example of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica does this as well. Both series weave in subplots that broaden the scope of issues a show can address. One common subplot centers on romantic relationships. Even if the main character of a series does is not explicitly dealing with a romantic situation there is generally tension present. Mal and Inara from Firefly present one example of that tension. Another potential to broaden the reach of the story is comedy. Comedy can run through a series in a very subtle way, typically through witty dialogue or situational comedy. Jason Mittel mentions in his article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” that one reason for the emerging narrative complexity may be that some episodic series are written by screenwriters, and one of his examples is Firefly. Mittel mentions throughout the article shows like Buffy, Lost, Alias, The Sporanos, The X-Files, and Star Trek: The Next Generation. These shows are more subtly hybrid than Firefly, but they also take elements from multiple genres because of their narrative complexity. Mittel claims that “By exploring the formal structure of this mode of storytelling we can appreciate connections with broader concerns of media industries and technologies, creative techniques, and practices of everyday life” (Mittel 39).This claim supports the idea that it is important to study new genres and their modes of storytelling.

One of many humorous moments in Firefly
One of many humorous moments in Firefly

A large part of this storytelling that adds to the narrative complexity in Firefly is tied to its main characters. In Television: Critical Methods and Applications, Jeremy Butler notes that “The multiplicity of protagonists permits a variety of simultaneous story lines within the narrative world” (Butler 37). This is most definitely the case with most current shows, and my previous examples of Firefly and Battlestar Galactica are no exception.Butler also discusses character construction in his book. He claims that “we can better understand how characters are constructed if we identify the types of signs that signify character and investigate the code of character construction” (Butler 50). He notes that this “code” is “both historical and cultural” (Butler 50). There are many examples of this kind of code in modern programming. For instance, “If a program is advertised as a new police drama, then we can expect certain genre character types: the foolish rookie, bitter veteran, helpless victims, and so on” (Butler 51). Character codes and setting are not the only aspects of a television series that lend to narrative complexity and genre melding, however. Costuming also lends to it, and Butler’s claim is that “Within television there are two very active overlapping codes determining our understanding of costume: the code of dress predominant in a specific culture at a specific time, and the code of dress specific to television and television genres” (Butler 55). The following image shows this as it applies to the case study of this essay, Firefly.

The most western of the costumes are Mal's (front left) and Zoe's (second row left).
The most western of the costumes are Mal's (front left) and Zoe's (second row left).

Ironic recycling in television also adds to genre hybridity. Borrowing between shows and films further blurs the lines of genre. This happens because of the very nature of the medium. The people who are creating new television do so in the context of their own time and culture, and everything that has been done provides material to be built on. In the chapter “Television and Postmodernism” of Media Studies: A Reader, Jim Collins references Umberto Eco’s argument that the “ironic articulation of the ‘already said’ is the distinguishing feature of postmodern communication” (Collins 378). His claim is that people enjoy “a mutual awareness of the ‘already said, ‘ a mutual delight in ironically manipulating it for one’s own purposes” (Collins 378). This seems to be a tool used by a lot of television that further complicates genre. There are many aspects of the narrative that impact genre. Newcomb argues that “the narrative can play upon expectation, defeating or confirming it, a point that becomes especially pertinent in the discussion of genre” (Newcomb 416). When a show like Firefly references a large body of work from a variety of genres, it makes categorization less meaningful and more difficult. One of the most classic works Firefly references is Star Wars. Han Solo’s character in particular has a strong affinity to the Firefly plot. These references are not only built on by other creators of media, they can also resonate with fans. The audience is inseparable from the idea of genre, because in many ways they direct its development. When there is a devoted fan base for a type of show or film, they can often influence future works.

This introduction to Han Solo in Star Wars is one example of a character type that has been referenced over and over in many different genres. His character development and romantic subplot with Princess Leia over the series are important as well.


Discussing genres can be difficult because they constantly evolve, but they persist because of the practicality of categorizing. There are many reasons to study genre, particularly the quickly evolving genres that look to the future like science fiction. While science fiction imagines new technologies and worlds, it still has its own patterns and consistencies. Newcomb comments on this consistency, stating that “In all these and in other familiar genres, patterns of narrative construction work toward conventional conclusions” (Newcomb 425). In contrast to that, genres also occasionally use their predictable elements to springboard off onto discourse on other issues. Newcomb comments on this aspect of genre, saying “It is precisely this play, the oscillation between originality and familiarity, and the pleasures and knowledges attendant to both that make genre such a significant topic” (Newcomb 424). Many of Newcomb’s arguments have been woven into this essay, and one final point that relates to the overarching themes of narrative and genre is in a conclusion that Newcomb draws from Leo Braudy’s opinion in The World in a Frame: What We See in Films. He summarizes that“genre films and television productions are powerful forms of expression. This argument depends on the assumption that popularity with large numbers of viewers rests, at least in part, in the fact that genres return to topics, issues, problems, and events that are historically, socially, and culturally significant” (Newcomb 424).

Works Cited

Altman, Rick. "A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre." Cinema Journal 23.3 (1984): 6-18. JSTOR. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Stam, Robert, and Toby Miller. "Questions of Genre." Film and Theory: An Anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000. 157-78. Columbia UP. Web.

Mittell, Jason. "Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television." The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006): 29-40. Project Muse. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Collins, Jim. Television and Postmodernism. Media Studies: A Reader. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 375-84. Google Books. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

Butler, Jeremy G. Television: Critical Methods and Applications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. Google Books. Web. 11 Dec. 2012.

Newcomb, Horace. "Narrative and Genre." The SAGE Handbook of Media Studies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004. 413-28. Google Books. Web. 13 Dec. 2012.

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