The Cultural Gutter

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The merits of space cowboys and vengeance demons

alex macfadyen
Posted October 20, 2011

Realism has a lot to answer for. For instance, the number of raised eyebrows I’ve received when recommending tv shows like Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even when I talk about them in terms of artistic merit, interesting narrative structure and social relevance, more often than not I get a pause followed by “so it’s a show with alien robots/space cowboys/vampires?” Apparently some kinds of disbelief are harder to suspend than others.

Shows like The West Wing, Deadwood, and 24 are generally taken seriously, win major awards, and are not hard to convince people to watch. They’re set in something that reads as the real world, and because they’re well done they’re also emotionally realistic. It’s easy to overlook that they have fictional and melodramatic elements and rely on the acceptance of basic conceits. For example, a roster of principled politicians, Shakespearean gunfighters, or Jack Bauer’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Shows like Galactica, Firefly and Buffy have dedicated followings and critical acclaim, but are frequently written off by potential viewers and overlooked for major awards outside the sci-fi community. They introduce a big imaginative twist to the world as we know it and ask the audience to accept the conceit, but they create an otherwise realistic world around it. The central imaginary premise acts as a controlling metaphor, creating another layer of meaning and providing a backdrop for exploring themes and playing out conflicts without engaging the audience’s preexisting associations.

Now, I enjoy blood-sucking alien robot cowboys as much as (or, let’s face it, much more than) the next guy, and some shows and movies I enjoy really only operate on the one level. I’ll be the first to admit that not everything I like is good, and I definitely don’t like everything that I believe to be well done. But when I say that a show is excellent and I think someone would like it, it seems like a shame if they can’t take it seriously because it’s made up. Silly rabbit, fairy tales are for kids!

If you’ve read the original Grimms’ fairy tales, you know they’re not childish at all. They’re disturbing, and the Grimm Brothers eventually published a separate selection intended for children to avoid traumatizing kids with the rest of the tales. That’s probably in part because the collection was called Children’s and Household Tales, but I suspect that people then couldn’t get past the idea that anything with imaginary creatures in it wasn’t serious adult material any more than they can today. They have put away childish things, left Puff the Magic Dragon alone in his cave, and alternate universe fantasy seems irrelevant to their lives.

I think that’s a mistake, because all fictions are fictional. Realistic settings do not guarantee emotional realism. It’s very arguably an illusion that shows about politicians, criminals, spies, or historical figures are necessarily less of a fantasy or more effective as social commentary than shows about living in space or fighting monsters. Our own reality is much easier to conflate with a reality where President Bartlet is in office than it is with a reality where the president is a school teacher who was 43rd in line and air force one is a spaceship, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have equally valuable things to say about American politics.

Battlestar Galactica is like a post-apocalyptic West Wing. It initially centers on the struggles Commander Adama’s military officers and President Roslin’s administration face trying survive and maintain order in the aftermath of the annihilation of most of the human race by humanoid robots called Cylons. As the series progresses, it takes on many of the central themes and conflicts of U.S. history, including imperialism, colonialism, martial law and the ethical dilemmas of the democratic system.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and 24 may seem like an odd comparison, but Buffy Summers and Jack Bauer are like two peas in a very strange pod: secret agent super-achievers destined to kick ass and save the world from impending doom over and over. Another day, another apocalypse. 24‘s narrative is literal and Buffy’s is metaphorical, so if you replace terrorists with demons, torture with human sacrifice, and the National Security Council with the Watcher’s Council, the parallel doesn’t seem so crazy.

Deadwood is a historically based western, so viewers have a pretty good idea going in if they’ll like it, but Firefly’s genre is best described as a space western, sort of Deadwood meets Star Wars, and that causes confusion. The combination of genres has often been blamed for putting viewers off, and is pointed to as one of the reasons the show only ran for one season.  Also FOX ran the episodes out of order.

The premise of Firefly is a future in which humans have been forced to leave Earth and have developed the technology to create habitable terraformed planets in another solar system. The two remaining superpowers, China and the U.S., have merged to form a central government called the Alliance after winning a civil war against the Independents who resisted federalization. The story follows two resisters who now run a small smuggling operation on the outskirts of the solar system, doing business with the impoverished settlers of the newly terraformed planets and trying to live beyond the reach of the government. The show explores colonialism, imperialism, civil war, immigration and the frontier settler experience.

In Firefly creator Joss Whedon’s vision of the future, technology has advanced but people are still the same, and I think that is really the key to good fantasy and sci-fi. Something about reality as we know it has changed, but people still have the same kinds of problems and respond in the same ways they have throughout history. So if space cowboys and vengeance demons sound like obstacles to enjoying a show rather than excellent reasons to watch it, lower your eyebrows, suspend your disbelief, and you may find something unexpected and wonderful.



alex MacFadyen notes that Buffy also operates as a metaphor for the experience of adolescence, and wonders if that makes Jack Bauer figuratively 16 years old? Because that would explain a lot.


4 Responses to “The merits of space cowboys and vengeance demons”

  1. NefariousDro
    October 20th, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

    I stayed clear of “Firefly” mainly because its fans kind of spooked me. But after I watched it I was hooked very quickly. “Buffy” suffered for me because I liked the movie and the show was nothing like that. For me the issue wasn’t suspending disbelief as much as suspending my own baggage and giving the show a chance. It all adds up to the same thing, I suppose.

  2. Carol Borden
    October 24th, 2011 @ 7:30 pm

    the pictures you chose for this are fantastic. nice.

  3. Keith
    October 28th, 2011 @ 2:03 pm

    This article reminds me of a conversation I had with someone about how lazy “the x number of worst films of all time” lists are because they almost always contain nothing but fantasy, horror, and sci-fi. I maintain that such a list should contain mostly romances and comedies, because bad examples of those are infinitely worse than bad sci-fi. But nope, “cheesy” effects and silly monsters are the targets every time.

    What a lack of imagination. Everyone who lists Plan 9 as the worst movie of all time, or even House of the Dead, should be forced to watch Bride Wars and Sex and the City 2.

  4. » Maurice Epicene Cyborg
    November 13th, 2011 @ 1:14 am

    […] On the merits of space cowboys and vengeance demons. @1:19 am Comment (0) […]

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