Sunday, 3 May 2009

Wagon Train to the stars

With the imminent arrival of a new generation playing the iconic roles of Captain James Tiberius Kirk, Spock, McCoy et al, it's a good moment to consider Star Trek's contribution to the western genre.

In many ways it's a negative one. Gene Roddenberry sold the series to the studios with the tagline that it would be a Wagon Train to the stars. This was a good pitch. In fact it was so good that when eventually the series became popular tv producers became more interested in making western serials set in space than they did in making western serials set in the American West.

Of course not all the blame for the reduction in the number of westerns made can be laid at Star Trek's feet (I blame Star Wars for that). So let us consider the times when the series acknowledged its roots and made authentic western episodes.

The first fully-fledged western episode came in the original series' third season effort Spectre of the Gun. Like most of Gene Coon's late episodes it's pretty dire, but I think time has been kinder to it than most of the other third season episodes. The story is simple and neat.

Aliens take the crew hostage. Then they take Kirk's memory of the gunfight at the OK corral and recreate the situation. Kirk and his crew are cast in the roles of the men who'll get shot up, while the aliens take the form of those who'll live. Kirk tries to change the accepted history, but when he fails only Spock can save the day with one of his multitude of convenient face-touching brain skills that convinces everyone the situation is an illusion.
Although they missed the chance for a good in-joke as DeForest Kelley was a western veteran, including playing Morgan Earp in John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral, what is most striking about the episode is the stylised sets. With almost no money for the episode they could only afford to build part sets for the frontier town setting. Rather than trying to disguise that, the show makes good use of the lack of funds to create a surreal atmosphere, and by accentuating the fact that it's all an illusion, it actually makes the ending one that works.

And of course any major mistakes in historical accuracy can be explained away by the fact everything is an illusion taken from Kirk's idealised memory of the American West. It's that type of ingenuity where everyone ignores the papier-mâché rocks and just gets on with telling a story that makes Star Trek work.

When Star Trek was reborn in the 80s, the Next Generation crew waited until the sixth season to go western in A Fistful of Datas. Again this is a pretty dire effort. It's filmed in a joking manner that's supposed to be fun, and yet it misfires with most of its attempts to provide entertainment.
The story is that android Data uses his big brain in an experiment to see if he can control the whole ship. But the experiment goes wrong and for no reason I could see he takes over a holodeck instead (a place where the crew play virtual reality games whenever the series needs a lighter moment). For about the 17th time in the series Data duplicates himself and Brent Spiner gets to play numerous characters, all sounding the same.

Huge western fan Counsellor Troi, an interest she never mentioned before or after, is on the holodeck playing a Rio Bravo style story. With Worf she gets caught up in a program that for about the 17th time becomes real and in which the multitude of Datas will kill them unless they can get to the end of the story. Why the 24th century health and safety people allow the crew to use holodecks is beyond me. You only have to stub your toe these days for a product to be withdrawn and yet more people get hurt on holodecks than get assimilated by the Borg.

Anyhow, there's some mild fun to be had seeing a glum Worf in a cowboy hat, and there's a nice nod to Shane with Worf's kid looking under the saloon doors. Aside from that, the only interest to be had is in watching for continuity errors. The techniques used to get multiple Brent Spiners on screen that in other episodes are usually done well are crude and unconvincing, and at one stage they even prop up an obvious tailor's dummy to represent him. Worse, a guest appearance by Worf's stunt double in a fight scene is more jarring than some scenes in the original version of Star Trek. Then, Kirk and a bad guy would get into a fight. There would be a cut to a long shot and then suddenly these two blokes you've never seen before would start knocking each other about.

This episode also demonstrates why Star Trek should never film outdoors. It looks plain wrong and the tedious shoot-up sequence at the end only livens up when you spot that the shadows change between every shot. I think most of the blame for the mess should lie with the producers for allowing Patrick Stewart to direct, as he clearly ought to stick to overacting. A commonly told story is of his trouble trying to get all the characters into shot for a scene and in the end opting to have Riker kneel down. This looks odd even if you didn't know the trouble they were having.
With this episode proving that when science fiction shows that originated as westerns have run out of ideas they revert to being westerns, it was no surprise that the Deep Space 9 incarnation didn't do a western episode. For me this series didn't run out of steam, although late on it did look as if they might go for a western motif. The crew's favourite, but never shown, holodeck program changed often but eventually settled on the Alamo where everyone enjoyed replaying a hopeless battle and getting killed. I always presumed this was hinting that the war with the Dominion would turn out badly, and yet it didn't.

If western episodes is a sign of steam running out then Voyager should have started with a western. Curiously it didn't and never did do one, although like Troi before, Captain Janeway did mention as an aside halfway through season 6 that she loved reading westerns. This though was just another hobby of the week and never got another mention.

For the final Star Trek version so far, Enterprise had another go at doing a western with North Star. Again it's a fairly poor effort, but it was the best of a bad bunch. For the first time everyone took it seriously and tried to craft something original. In some ways it failed less because of itself than the context in which it was shown. For season 3, with the series teetering on the verge of cancellation, the show decided to experiment with doing what had made Deep Space 9 work. Namely, having an arc story line with consequences beyond the usual episodic weekly format.

So for the whole of season 3 the crew fought to save civilization as we know it from a bunch of unstoppable baddies who had never got a mention in any other series. But just when things are starting to get interesting, the developing story takes a break so we can have a western.

It uses the standard Star Trek budget-saving idea of an alien planet in which the inhabitants are living exactly like a period of earth history. Here aliens abducted some 19th century American cowpokes to use as slaves, but the cowpokes shot up the aliens and they are now living a contented cowpoke life using the aliens as slaves.

Figuring that two wrongs don't make a right, Captain Archer resolves to defend the aliens, even if that means confronting some alien-hating cowpokes. Archer wins through after some shooting and fisticuffs, although pleasingly for one of the few times in Star Trek the episode suggests that an hour spent with enlightened humans may not provide any easy solutions to the centuries of oppression. The episode ends with the schoolteacher who Archer defended teaching the youngsters that aliens and cowpokes should have equal rights.

The episode is played straight and is heartfelt in its laboured message about prejudice. In some ways it's like many of the westerns that are made today: worthy, watchable, sensible but perhaps a little dull. It does though have one good saloon scene with Archer getting stuck into the mean and moody strangers ain't welcome around these parts so you ain't drinking in my saloon thing.

Where might Star Trek go in the future as regards the western? Hopefully nowhere, but I do hope the new kids on the block encourage more series to be made so that the Wagon Train can keep on rolling until the Vulcans make first contact with us in 2063.


David Cranmer said...

This was a great post. I've beeen a fan for years and always enjoyed when they dipped into a western setting. I enjoyed your take on the individual episodes. Though as stated, the whole show was conceived as a Wagon Train to the stars.

If you haven't seen it yet the show FIREFLY is another great example of taking the old west to the heavens.

Scott Parker said...

I've just started watching Firefly as a result of the new ABC show "Castle" starring Nathan Fillion. And I'm blogging about it, per episode, on my new blog,

As to Star Trek, as a person who only recently discovered the joys of a western, I always enjoyed Trek's forays into the genre. I didn't pick up the TNG errors you mentioned. I always thought of A Fistful of Datas as a Spiner showcase. Loved TOS OK Corral episode. Never watched Enterprise so I can't comment.

And I'm taking a half day off this Friday to see the new Trek film. And I've been reading old Trek books for the Forgotten Books project. Initially, I didn't particularly like the first trailer of the new movie. Then, I learned that it was a reboot and go behind it.

I.J. Parnham said...

I really do need to give Firefly a second chance one day. I never clicked with Buffy, so lumped that in with that show.

And forgive me my nitpicking, but I do enjoy spotting oddities. AFOD was probably fairly decent but by that stage of the show I'd seen the 'in danger on the holodeck' story just once too often.


I'm eager to see the new Trek myself - I just hope it's not too much of a departure as they've done with Bond.

Anonymous said...

My brother is a big Star Trek fan and I have watched most of these episodes. I think Voyager was very much like a frontier western, being a long way from home, struggling to survive against the natives, (though, not of course, trying to wipe the natives out and take over their land!!)

When I was at Uni, a few people did dissertations on Star Trek and the "New Frontier." Really interesting.



I this week bought the new remastered box sets of the original series - all three seasons and I'm watching them a couple of episodes a day. I'm up to Mudd's Women at the moment and I must say it was a very entertaining show. There is something of the galatic lawman about Kirk. I think I may be a born again Trekkie.