Science Fiction and the Frontier (June 25)

The first day of the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference has concluded, with two more days of panels, presentations, and films to go. I will occasionally report to the blog on topics of interest to Western literature and culture.

In the context of the American West and the frontier, the most interesting presentation I attended was by guest scholar Margaret Weitekamp, who is a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, and who has the enviable position of being in charge of the cultural elements of space travel (which also means that she’s in charge of the space toy collection). Her presentation, “What Space Toys Say About the Frontier,” provided an overview of a recent exhibition of toys produced in conjunction with various science fiction franchises over the past 80 years or so, from comic book and movie serial characters Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1930s up to more recent movie and television series such as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Babylon Five, all of which included toy production and marketing as part of the franchise.

One purpose of the exhibit was to look at the connections between the western and the space adventure and to see how the borrowing of western motifs by the space adventure stories was then reflected in the toys. Along the way, Dr. Weitekamp looked at the evolution of the idea of the frontier (from the Turnerian meeting point of civilization and savagery to a more revisionist idea of the frontier as a place where different cultures meet, interact, and influence one another) affected the type of stories told in space narratives.

In terms of the toys, the key point of continuity between the western and the space story was the focus on the gun as the central object designed for play, whether it be a ray gun or a six-shooter. Stills from Flash Gordon films, for example, clearly show him in a gunslinger’s crouch with his weapon drawn.

I’m intrigued by the way Flash Gordon’s image is drawn onto the handle of the gun in this toy. Would that have been typical of western toy guns as well?

In a distant outpost in a lawless land, whether that be Dodge City or a Mars moon, the hero’s weapon is the way of bringing law and order to that land. In the early science fiction stories, there’s almost always an “enemy other” modeled on the Native American enemies of western films. For example, in a play set produced in conjunction with the television series Space Patrol, the outpost, supposedly a space station, was immediately recognizable as being based on the template of a toy western fort. The cast plastic figures that came with the set simply took the cowboys and indians of the western set and recast them as spacemen and aliens.

The conference is off to a good start, and Dr. Weitekamp’s presentation provided a lot of interesting material to think about in terms of the intersections of the horse opera and the space opera.

The narration seems familiarly western here, promising “high adventure in the wild vast region of space.”  Even the pronunciation of the phrase “wild vast” makes it sound a lot like “wild west.”

And, as far as toys go, you’ll find it hard to resist rushing out to purchase your very own “Cosmic Smoke Gun” after you see this commercial.

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