Watching Westworld (1973)

Reporting from the “Far Stars and Tin Stars: Science Fiction and the Frontier” Conference in Carefree, Arizona: at the end of two days of activities, we finished the day off with a “Dive In Movie” poolside. A big projection screen was set up at the end of the pool, and to the accompaniment of the occasional shadowy figure passing across the screen (as children loved to run between the screen and the projector on their way from one side of the pool to the other), we watched the1973  film Westworld, written and directed by Michael Crichton.

Westworld is a western sci-fi thriller. The premise is that via android technology, a somewhat nefarious corporation offers customers the thrill of full immersion into a world of their choice—like Avatar without the avatars. Rather than virtual reality, humans physically enter a medieval castle adventure or an Old West town. The saloon girls, bank robbers, and gunslingers they encounter are all robots (or androids), indistinguishable from humans (except for the palms of their hands), but programmed to respond to the fantasy scenarios of the guests. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin star as two buddies who decide to spend a few days in Westworld enjoying saloon brawls and shootouts. Yul Brynner plays an android gunslinger, dressed in black and looking quite deadly.

If you know Michael Crichton’s work, Westworld is a kind of precursor to Jurassic Park, with androids rather than dinosaurs, and like Jurassic Park, Westworld is an amusement park where things go terribly wrong, and the guests become the prey of the creatures designed to amuse them. Brynner’s gunslinger goes after Benjamin and Brolin with deadly intent.  It’s interesting to see this film again, as I hadn’t realized how much it has influenced later SF films, especially The Terminator series. In one scene, Brynner’s Gunslinger follows Benjamin down an access tunnel. Filmed slightly from above, the shots of the Gunslinger walking steadily through the tunnel are repeated almost exactly in the second Terminator movie. Westworld is also a precursor to the Joss Whedon series Dollhouse, with scenes of technicians repairing/operating on the androids repeated in Dollhouse episodes. The difference is that where Westworld programs androids, Dollhouse programs actual people.

One of the things that has struck me during this conference is how close together the science fiction and western genres are. In part, that’s because science fiction, especially film and television, has consciously (and perhaps unconsciously) borrowed from the western, recasting its conventions in futuristic terms or resetting its encounters of self and other, cowboy and indian, in terms of spaceman and alien. However, it also strikes me that the genres are congruent because the western is already science fiction, already providing a narrative means of investigating the dangers and possibilities of new technologies (trains, guns, etc.). In the genre western, the landscape is often as fantastic and alien and harsh as, say, a Martian landscape. Also, a central figure in science fiction, the cyborg, part human and part machine, is already present in the western in the form of the gunslinger, whose connection to his weapon is often described as an extension of his body, as if man and gun are both part of the same being—a cyborg, in other words. Westworld‘s android Gunslinger makes that connection apparent, but Westworld only makes explicit what is already implicit in hundreds of descriptions of western gunslingers—that the machine and the man are already as one.

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Dollhouse (Conclusion)

We came to the end of Joss Whedon’s series Dollhouse last week, which was an end for the season certainly and an end for the series possibly (no decision has been made yet on its renewal). I’ve thought of Dollhouse as being of interest for the Western Literature Association blog in part because of Whedon’s previous series, the space western Firefly, and in part because of the occasional use of western motifs and themes in Dollhouse.

Although western elements were still part of the mix, the dominant influence in the final episode of Dollhouse was Frankenstein (which has been an influence for the series as a whole). Any series with a mad scientist (mad being reimagined here as hopelessly geeky scientist Topher) owes a debt to Mary Shelley’s novel, but the primary influence comes via James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein (and probably numerous other cinematic versions of the tale). The electrical flickering that takes place when a doll is being imprinted with a personality is just one of many visual allusions to the Whale films. One of the dolls, code name Victor, has his face slashed by series villain Alpha, and the sight of Victor, his slashed face sewn back together by Dr. Saunders, clearly alludes to numerous visualizations of Frankenstein’s creature having visible stitching. And, of course, Victor is the name of Shelley’s protagonist, Dr. Frankenstein himself.

As Dr. Frankenstein’s creature is stitched together from parts of multiple bodies, so are the dolls sometimes imprinted with a mixture of skills drawn from different source personalities, their final personality a psychological analogue of the Creature’s mixed body parts.

Series villain Alpha, who makes his first physical appearance in the final two episodes (although he’s been referred to throughout), is a former doll gone rogue.  He is the creation of mad (annoyingly geeky) scientist Topher, and, as so often happens in such cautionary horror tales, the creator loses control of his creation, and an experiment gone wrong ends up causing all sorts of problems. An accident occurs (it always does!), and Alpha is imprinted with dozens of complete individual personalities, so that his whole personality is not comprised of separate matched parts but rather of many separate whole psyches. This does not contribute to his stability.

By the end of the episode,  FBI agent Ballard succeeds in rescuing one of the captives (not Echo), but, unlike Ethan Edwards at the end of The Searchers, he does not walk out the door but rather stays inside the dollhouse.  Ballard believes that Alpha represents a greater danger than does the dollhouse itself, so he essentially agrees to work with the enemy in order to help track down the greater evil that is Alpha. On the plus side, if Dollhouse is renewed for next year, Ballard is positioned to play the western role of hired gun, so there’s at least a possibility that Whedon will return more explicitly to the western as a source of material for the series.

For earlier posts about Dollhouse, Firefly, and other matters related to the Whedonverse (especially the western galaxy of the Whedonverse), see the Firefly and Dollhouse category.

Final Episodes of Dollhouse

The television series, Dollhouse, which I’ve written about here before, is coming to a conclusion this weekend, and its future is uncertain. In what is probably not a good sign for the future of the series, the network has decided not to air a 13th episode, which has been filmed, because of post-production costs, and thus episode 12, which airs tonight, will be the final episode of the season (and perhaps the series).

After creator Joss Whedon’s last television series, the space western Firefly, I was hoping that Whedon would continue the project of reinventing the western with Dollhouse. With some exceptions, Dollhouse has not been particularly explicit in making western references or allusions. However, beginning with the episode “Man in the Street,” the creators have explicitly framed the series as a captivity narrative, presenting FBI agent Paul Ballard as a “searcher,” an Ethan Edwards-type character who is obsessed with finding the dollhouse and freeing the “captive” (Caroline, as she was known in real life, or Echo, her name as a doll).

The episode following “Man in the Street,”  “Echoes” (episode 7), complicated the narrative by taking us back to Echo’s life before the dollhouse, when she was Caroline, and when she herself was a searcher, intent on infiltrating a scientific laboratory and uncovering the truth about animal experimentation there. Her past history as an animal liberation activist is replayed in the present as Echo takes on Ballard’s task and works to set all the dolls in the dollhouse free.

Captivity continues as a theme in the most recent episode, “Briar Rose,” which, as the title suggests, adopts the fairy tale as the episode’s dominant metaphor for the situation in the dollhouse. (One might argue that one of the flaws of the series is its emphasis on generating metaphor after metaphor for the dollhouse: are they like members of religious cult? are they like experimental animals? are they, like Briar Rose, cursed and awaiting a princely awakening?)

“Briar Rose” did have a special treat for Firefly fans, a special guest appearance by Alan Tudyk (forever Serenity pilot Wash to Firefly fans), in what will apparently be a recurring role (well, at least for another episode). Tudyk plays Stephen Kepler, one of the designers of the dollhouse, tracked down by FBI agent Ballard, who hopes that Kepler will know a way to break into the dollhouse. I won’t say much more than that Kepler is more than he seems, but Tudyk’s turn as Kepler, a pot-growing paranoid stay-at-home environmental systems specialist, is delightful, very funny, and I’ve seen few bits of physical comedy funnier than Tudyk’s high stepping walk down a flight of stairs (lest someone reach a hand through the open spaces behind the steps and grab his ankle).

Kepler indeed helps Ballard find his way inside the dollhouse, and Echo is indeed redeemed from captivity (but not in the way we expect). In addition to fifteen minutes of a very fine and funny performance of an addled paranoid but technologically skilled druggie from Tudyk, this episode also includes a moment when agent Ballard tasers scientific genius and annoying goof Topher, and, I can only say that I’ve been waiting a long time to see Topher get tasered, and it was absolutely worth the wait. My hope is that the experience will inspire the actor who plays him to abandon his excessively twitchy acting style.

In terms of the western, Ballard as a character still seems to be modeled in part after Ethan Edwards, the obsessed searcher,  but the dominant use of the fairy tale metaphor in this episode prevents any real exploration of western themes and motifs. Still, I’m curious to see what happens in tonight’s episode.

Dollhouse as Western

Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse suddenly got interesting, by which I mean, of course, Dollhouse just shifted into western territory, both literally and generically. Although the setting of Dollhouse has heretofore been unclear to me, the episode “Man in the Street,” which aired last week, specifically places the series in Los Angeles, and much of the episode is concerned with establishing the relationship between the events in the story and its setting in this western city.

The episode begins with a clip of a news report, with the camera following a reporter as he walks away from the corner of 6th Street (moving perhaps down Hill Street?) and eventually beneath a street sign identifying the location as the Jewelry District, and indicating directions to reach Spring Street, Grand Central Market, and Pershing Square. “Dollhouse,” the reporter comments, “For some people in Los Angeles, those words have another meaning, a darker meaning. . . . The Dollhouse is one of LA’s most enduring urban legends.” Other clips show interviews of regular citizens commenting on the idea of the dollhouse, with different people offering different metaphors for what’s taking place at the dollhouse (a brothel, slavery, good work if you can get it, etc). In the video clip of an African American woman who asserts that the humans kept as dolls in the dollhouse are enslaved (“Volunteers! You must be out of your mind!”), the Palace Theatre is clearly visible in the background.

By placing characters in front of such well-known landmarks, by visibly (if not ostentatiously) including street signs in the shots, this episode represents a shift in the portrayal of the Dollhouse as a place that  heretofore  seemed hidden in plain sight, if not underground, then potentially anywhere, but specifically nowhere.  This attention to the details of a western place also coincides with (and may signal) a generic shift into the western, especially as this episode focuses on Paul Ballard, the FBI agent obsessed with finding and exposing the Dollhouse. From Ballard’s perspective, Dollhouse is a captivity narrative, and he is the searcher, the Ethan Edwards character seeking to free not Debbie Edwards but Caroline (Echo’s name before she became a doll). And Ballard is every bit as obsessed as Ethan Edwards (“Getting shot didn’t even make you pause, did it?” comments one of his co-workers).

Ballard has been involved in the series from the beginning, but this is the first episode in which he takes center stage. And the western elements of this episode may not indicate a general shift in the milieu of the series so much as they indicate that we are seeing the world from Ballard’s point of view, that we are within his fantasy, as it were, in which he is the cowboy hero who will redeem the captive and return her to civilization.

At this point in his investigation, Ballard has identified Echo as the missing Caroline. As a way of getting an inroad to the hard-to-find Dollhouse, he has started staking out potential clients (relatively few have the wealth to hire the services of the Dollhouse). He settles on an internet mogul named Joel Minor, who, it turns out, is indeed a Dollhouse client, and who has requested Echo be imprinted with the personality of his deceased wife. When Echo shows up at Minor’s house, Ballard almost has her in his grasp, but she is whisked away by her handler.

The motivation for Ballard’s quest is called into question during a conversation with Minor, after Echo has left the house. Minor suggests to him, “You have a fantasy. I think your fantasy is about my Rebecca” (the name of his wife, the role Echo was playing). This conversation suggests that the elements of the western that we see in this episode may in part be window dressing for Ballard’s fantasy, which we participate in, as he is our point of view character for the episode. It will be interesting to see if the series continues to take notice of the LA setting in episodes that aren’t centered around Ballard.

The emphasis on the LA setting also suggests another intertext to consider when thinking about Dollhouse, and that is the film Blade Runner, parts of which were shot (if I’m remembering correctly) in and around the Jewelry District (dressed up to indicate a future LA). There are similarities between dolls and replicants. How do you tell a doll from a real human being? How do we know thatthe  person beside us isn’t a replicant? We meet more than one person in Dollhouse who turns out to be a doll in disguise, carrying out the Dollhouse’s nefarious commands while seeming to be a best friend, lover, etc.

I also thought there were a few moments that visually suggested the street scenes from Blade Runner, which makes me wonder if Ballard and Blade Runner‘s Decker might have some things in common. At Joel Minor’s house, Ballard takes out 3 or 4 trained security guards. Do his extraordinary fighting skills suggest that he may be more than just your average human? Could Ballard himself be a doll? If so, whose agenda does he advance?

Well, I guess we’ll find out as episodes continue to air. For the first time, though, I’m really looking forward to this Friday’s episode of Dollhouse.

More on Dollhouse

As a fan of Joss Whedon’s science fiction western Firefly, I’ve also been watching his most recent television creation, Dollhouse. Five episodes of the series have now aired, and some of the complex back-story is starting to come clearer. However, I’m still finding that I have mixed responses to the show, alternately disappointed and intrigued. And since I was particularly interested in the explicitly western elements of Firefly, I keep hoping that Whedon’s knowledge of the western genre will come out in Dollhouse as well. Thus far, that hasn’t happened, although I can see the possibility of a western “sensibility” emerging from the show. At the very least, “True Believer,” the most recent episode, was set in Arizona.

If you haven’t seen Dollhouse, the dolls are living humans who have had their personalities erased. They are kept in the “dollhouse” in a state of blank mindless activity (they spend a lot of time showering), physically functioning but personality-less. When the dolls are sent out on missions, they are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are then erased at the end of the mission).

The doll whose adventures we follow is Echo. In the first episode, she was imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In the episode that aired this past Friday, she was imprinted with the personality of a religious cult follower in order to infiltrate the cult. These missions are at the center of each episode, and because they are framed by the various goings on behind the scenes at the dollhouse (there are scientists and handlers and leaders and showering, lots of showering), the missions operate as a kind of episode within a episode, a play within a play, which sometimes leads to interesting “echoes” between the machinations within the bureaucracy of the dollhouse and the events of the mission.

However, the dullest part of the show thus far are the missions. Each mission is a short genre drama, with a different action genre providing the plot conventions each week. In addition to the Hostage Negotiation Plot, we’ve also had The Most Dangerous Game Plot (hunter client wants to hunt the most dangerous game of all—man, or, more precisely, woman, in the form of Echo), the Heist, and, most recently, the Undercover at a Religious Cult (in the past few years, I’ve seen both Veronica Mars and Monk use this plot device, both to much more interesting effect). Because the missions are mini-episodes within the larger episode, there’s not much time or space for exploration or innovation, and the missions as a result have been competent but bare-bones versions of genre set pieces that we’ve seen time and time again. Generally, this is what Joss Whedon does very well, take conventions of a genre and reinvent them, but the missions themselves are pretty straightforward repetitions rather than reinventions.

The interesting stuff seems to be going on in the frame. We’ve learned that there’s a character known as Alpha, a doll who has gone renegade, and who may be in the process of sabotaging the work of the dollhouse bureaucrats. And there are indications that Echo may be following in Alpha’s path. The most interesting part of the most recent episode was when Echo broke character, and rather than playing the devotee as she was programed to do, she punched the cult leader in the nose.

In the future of Dollhouse, we may eventually move away entirely from the missions (which is what I’m hoping for). However, before that happens, I hope Echo at least gets sent out on some sort of western adventure.

Dollhouse

It’s with mixed emotions that I welcome  the premiere of the new Joss Whedon series Dollhouse. On the one hand, it’s good to see Whedon back in the saddle, but the placement of Dollhouse in Firefly‘s old time slot on Friday nights (at least that was the slot before the network started shuffling it around) is also a kind of sad reminder of Firefly‘s absence.

And I’m still clearly experiencing some heartache over the loss of Firefly. I watched the first episode of Dollhouse, but while I was watching Dollhouse, I was thinking about Firefly. Sorry, Dollhouse, it’s not you, it’s me.

Or maybe it’s a little bit you. To be fair, the series has a complicated premise that needs time to develop, and much of the first episode involved the difficult balancing act of telling a stand alone story and setting up that premise, which made for a dense episode that had more than its fair share of huh? what’s going on? moments.

Basically, the dolls in the dollhouse are humans who have had their personalities erased (how are they chosen and why?). They are then imprinted with new personalities and skill sets depending on what they need for their assigned missions (which are erased, or perhaps naturally lapse, at the end of the mission). As with any clandestine operation, there is an array of insiders and outsiders, those in the know and those trying to find out the truth, and there seemed to be representatives of at least three or four different groups of insiders, allies, enemies, truth-seekers, etc., far too many for me to keep track of.

In Friday’s episode (be forewarned, spoilers follow), Echo is imprinted with the personality of a crisis negotiator. In what seems like it will be the primary formula for the series, the new personality has a back story that we learn as the episode progresses. According to head scientist Topher Brink (who, in his first appearance on screen, looks oddly like Joss Whedon, unbuttoned shirt over t-shirt, hair in slight disarray), the imprinted personalities are chosen not just for the skills but for their flaws, for it’s the flaws that drive these individuals to high achievement (and, as I recall, this is also Dr. House’s philosophy for choosing the members of his medical team). It’s the flaws that also provide the drama and spark the back story revelations.

Echo’s hostage negotiator turns out to have been taken hostage herself as a child. And (surprise, surprise, sigh, not really) the child she is working to release has been taken hostage by the very man that kidnapped and abused her.  This is the sort of genre cliche that Joss Whedon usually employs only to dismantle, but it plays straight in this episode of Dollhouse.

Compared to Firefly, there are two things that are missing in Dollhouse, at least thus far. One is humor, and the second is the explicit reference to the western roots shared by most action-oriented genre television shows.  The operative genres in Dollhouse are science fiction and spy/conspiracy. As for the science fiction roots, this is a variation on the Frankenstein story, complete with the sort of flashing flickering lights in the operating room where personalities are being implanted (or erased, not really sure) that would have made James Whale (director of Bride of Frankenstein) proud. I suspect that the visible facial scars on Dr. Claire Saunders will be revealed to be the result of some kind of Frankensteinian medical experiment.

There are elements of the western here as well. Echo is, in essence, a gun for hire, except, rather than have gun, will travel, it’s more along the lines of have specifically tailored set of skills to address the crisis, will travel.  I can only hope that Dollhouse‘s affiliations with the western genre will be explored in future episodes.

So, while I wasn’t all that excited about Dollhouse’s first episode, it’s way too early to judge, and I’ll remain cautiously optimistic about future episodes, which, at the very least, is far more healthy than sitting by the phone hoping Firefly will call.

This post was originally published on the Firefly and Western Literature Blog.

Joss Whedon’s Firefly as Western

At the 2008 Western Literature Association Conference in Boulder, I participated on a discussion-oriented panel (with Neil Campbell) on the western/sci-fi television show Firefly (created by Joss Whedon). Our goal, in keeping with the orientation of the conference, was to discuss the western elements of the series. Part of the fun of Firefly is the way it explicitly explores the western roots that many sci-fi films and television series share: through the use of western character types (think Stagecoach in space), the use of multiple western visual and aural motifs (space as wide open plains, individual planets with western topographies, guns, clothing, colloquial speech), and the use of various western plot devices, train robberies, cattle rustling, etc. The post below, originally published on the Firefly and Western Literature blog, addresses few (but only a few) of the interesting issues from the panel.

Although those of us who are fans of westerns thought that Firefly‘s awareness of its western roots was one of the series’ strentghs, that was not the case with the network on which it originally aired. In fact, they were often worried about the series’ western elements and sometimes insisted that certain elements be added or changed to conceal those nods to the western.One of the first episodes to air,  “Train Job” is one of the most explicitly Western episodes in the series, as the train robbery is a staple of the Western, and the series Western in particular. The episode reminds me a lot of Alias: Smith and Jones, a tv Western from the mid-seventies that I’ve been watching on DVD. Members of the Butch Cassidy gang, “Smith” and “Jones” decide to go straight (under the aliases Smith and Jones) and earn amnesty by not committing any crimes for a year. Their former speciality is the train robbery, and several plots have them working to thwart other attempted train robberies. Anyway, the opening credits compare them to “modern day Robin Hoods,” and describe them as “good bad men” (and the character type of the “good bad man” has a long history in the western). That seems to be the character type of Firefly‘s central hero (or anti-hero), Captain Malcolm Reynolds. In this episode, he returns the goods stolen during the train robbery when he realizes what he’s stolen (much needed medicine).  Smith and Jones are notable for never having killed anybody, despite all their robbing and stealing, and the plots often involve labyrinthine ways to avoid killing the bad guy. Mal has no problem killing people who need to be killed.

If “Train Job” is explicit in using western themes and other western elements, “Bushwacked,” the next episode that follows, seems much more concerned with other genres than the western.

Although, the western elements still seem to be there, almost as a subtext, as if those potentially offensive (to the network) western tropes had to be concealed for awhile. So, instead of an episode with explicitly western elements, we get one that involves a more general meditation on civilization and savagery (a theme that the western has explored many many times).

Rather than “savage Indians” on the western frontier, we have the savage Reavers. As our representatives of civilization, we have the arrival of an Alliance ship, and of course, our Firefly crew falls somewhere in between. Even within the crew, the characters fall at different places on the line between savagery and civilization, with Jane perhaps the least civilized, and Inara (a highly respected companion) as the most civilized.

The core plot of the episode is identifiably western, though. A group of settlers traveling beyond civilization to set up a border colony is attacked, not, in this case, by Indians but by Reavers. Although the more typical western might place us among the colonists, it’s also not unusual for the main characters in a western to come upon the remnants of such an attack. Actually, that happens early on in season one of Deadwood.

This episode is our first extended introduction to the group known as the Reavers. When Jane comments, “Reavers ain’t men,” he begins a conversation among the crew about the relationship between civilization and savagery, and whether or not it’s possible to go so far into savagery as not to be able to come back. Rev. Book responds, “They are [men]. Too long removed from civilization perhaps.” Mal answers, “Jane’s right. Reavers ain’t men. They forgot how to be. They’re just nothing. They got out to the edge of the galaxy, to that place of nothing and that’s what they became.” The debate here is not uncommon to the western and to frontier stories in general. The commentary on the Reavers also reflects the situation of the Firefly crew. How far to the edge of civilization can they go before reaching that “place of nothing”? Rev. Book, a representative of civilized values, wants to return to the derelict to pray for the slaughtered humans: “How we treat our dead is part of what makes us different from those that did the slaughtering.” Mal agrees, but also has his own agenda for doing so.

Jane responds, “I can’t believe this, we’re staying put for a funeral!” I think there may be an allusion to The Wild Bunch here. I seem to recall a debate over what to do with the body of one of the bunch killed in a robbery attempt–with a posse giving chase, the bunch, with some discussion, leaves their comrade behind (I recall an Ernest Borgnine speech in which he invests the idea of staying to bury their comrade with the same sort of disdain that Jane puts into his comment).

The episode takes a bit of a turn after Firefly detaches from the derelict ship. An Alliance ship arrives and forcibly boards Firefly. Mal comments, “Looks like civilization finally caught up with us,” and perhaps that’s why much of the remainder of the episode seems less western. With a series of interviews/interrogations of the Firefly crew members, the episode begins to seem a little like a Star Trek episode (seeming all the more so when Kaylee, sounding a bit like ST‘s Mr. Scott, gets upset by disparaging comments about her ship: “Junker?”).

However, the generic intertext for most of the rest of the episode is the horror movie, with the sole survivor of the Reaver attack, a young man rescued by the Firefly crew, transforming into a Reaver himself, so affected by the savagery of the attack that he witnessed that he becomes one of the savages–a bit like a vampire or werewolf, but with the transformation explained psychologically rather than mystically. Although there’s often an anxiety, particularly in captivity narratives, that someone who spends too long with savages will “go native,” the transformation here seems more in keeping with horror and fantasy tropes than western ones. He escapes from the sick bay, conceals weapons, and attacks Alliance doctors, and then he is loose and in hiding.

The shift to horror is set up early in the episode when the derelict is first discovered. “What is it?” someone asks, to which River whispers a response, “It’s a ghost.” Primarily, though, it’s a psycho story rather than a ghost story. There are even several moments when we see via subjective camera from the point of view of the stalking/hiding psycho, a hallmark of slasher films like Halloween and Friday the 13th.

As Mal comments, “Things go the way they are, there’s going to be blood,” and there is. Other recent film westerns, from The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada to the Oscar winning There Will Be Blood (it’s association with the horror film signaled by its title as much as Mal’s similar comment signals Firefly’s turn to horror), have also been notable for a turn to the horror genre. Even The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford represents Jesse as a kind of ghostly otherworldly figure as he stalks and kills former members of his gang.

As Mal leads Commander Harken on a search for the survivor, we are thoroughly inside the horror genre in terms of the way the sequence is shot, plenty of dark spaces and moving cameras, point of view shots, building suspense by limiting what we can see. When the survivor jumps out, killing one man and spraying Harken with blood, his appearance is more 1970s punk than Hollywood Indian (he seems to have inserted safety pins at various places in his face). Mal dispatches him, saving Harken’s life, and wins thereby the release of his crew and ship.

Mal’s final dialogue returns to the theme of civilization and savagery. When Jane complains about Harken’s confiscating their cargo, Mal answers, “He had to. Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilized.” But, like the western’s Tenderfoot character type, Harken has been changed by his frontier experience. Letting the crew go free is not “civilized” behavior either, and the final image is of the Alliance ship destroying the derelict–which Harken earlier refused to do. From Mal, he has learned something about survival in the wilderness, which sometimes means bending civilization’s rules and orders. But, as Mal realizes, punishing the crew by confiscating their salvage from the derelict is also a way for Harken to assure himself that in his encounter with the nothingness of the frontier, he hasn’t forgotten “how to be a man,” at least, as the Alliance defines appropriately civilized behavior.

This post was originally published in a slightly different version at the Firefly and Western Literature blog.