You get a car, and you get a car, and everybody gets a car! I’m making my BSFA Award-shortlisted story “Jolene“, first published in Interzone 283, available for free online. Click the title to download it and read what really happens to a cowboy when his wife, dog and truck have all left him….
Last instalment, I talked about how to evoke the past well, and not so well, with a quick detour round Metropolis. This instalment, I’m back with our usual case studies, and looking at how each of them has used the Wild West as a reference point: successfully, and not so successfully.
We’ll start with the unsuccessful. Here, once again, is an image from the classic Battlestar Galactica “The Lost Warrior.” Now, this one really ought to work. The Wild West is an appropriate referent for the story, which riffs heavily on Shane and other Westerns of the “stranger rides into town, fixes things, rides off again to the great disappointment of the comely local widow” variety. To be fair, there are some creative design elements in the serial– making the buildings look like repurposed spacecraft, for a start– but the Western aspects include a lot of, well, silver cowboy hats and vests. And, while, as I noted last time we talked about this episode, it does bring home one of the symbolic associations of white clothing for a villain (plantation bosses), it also makes it really sort of too obvious:
Meanwhile, Star Wars is arguably the textbook example of Doing Wild West Space Opera Right. The Tatooine sequences especially are a coming-of-age Western at heart: young boy, dreaming of leaving the ranch and fighting in a civil war, teams up with a grizzled old gunslinger after his family are brutally murdered, and they go to a saloon in a disreputable little desert town in order to recruit a maverick mercenary pursued by all the local bounty hunters, and his brown partner who doesn’t speak English.
This is the sort of thing that generally goes unnoticed by the audience, however, and for fairly good reason. In order to make sure it doesn’t wind up being as on-the-nose as “The Lost Warrior,” the design team have drawn their past-times elements from the Middle East:
And 20th century abstract sculpture:
The most obvious nod to the Western genre is Han Solo’s costume. Even there, you’ve got an interesting mix of black and white, pointing to the idea that Solo’s morals and allegiances are a little variable (we don’t see the colour of his hat, after all):
So people don’t tend to notice that the whole thing is a coming-of-age Western. They also don’t usually notice, by the way, that our protagonist’s family have a plantation and own slaves, and he wants to fight for the “rebels”, which does add an element of ambiguity to the literally black-and-white distinction between the heroes and the villains.
But, and here’s the point where structuralism comes in: the symbolic connotations of all of these places overlap with the Wild West. The Middle East, in the 1970s, was seen as a lawless gold-rush area, province of hyper-masculine gangsters; Kurosawa, one of Lucas’ key influences, is best known for Samurai warrior movies which have later been remade as Westerns; abstract sculpture developed under the same chaotic global conditions that spawned the Wild West (war and extreme financial instability). So, unlike Padme Amidala’s forays into Japanese and Weimar imagery in the prequels, it doesn’t just Look Neat, it Tells Us Something.
And finally, you have Blake’s 7. On the one hand the Western is sort of baked into the programme’s DNA, since one of the reasons for the title was series creator Terry Nation pitching it initially as “The Magnificent Seven in space”. Somewhat wisely, though, the team largely steer clear of using Western costumes and sets, presumably for reasons of not wanting to make that connection too obvious (also, presumably, because it’s hard to do well on the cheap– that’s a compliment, by the way, Blake’s 7 is a good example of how one can do even space opera well with no budget, provided you have a strong writing team and a creative production team).
The one episode where they do go a little further than usual is “Gambit”, where the Seven and the Federation have both tracked fugitives Travis and Docholli to a bar in a lawless frontier town. The name Docholli is also an explicit reference to Doc Holliday, meaning that it’s hard to ignore the connection. Consequently, both Docholli (right) and Travis (left) rock delightful big hats (Travis’ is, naturally, black):
However, Blake’s 7 does a Star Wars, and takes the curse off it, by heavily referencing the Weimar Republic in other aspects of the story’s costuming and design (for instance the Croupier, emceeing the Big Wheel casino with an aesthetic that’s half Joel Gray and half Marlene Dietrich):
This also, by the way, includes the brief use of South Bank as a futuristic location– famously a product of Bauhaus-influenced modern architecture (there’s not a single good shot of South Bank from the production, you’ll just have to take my word for it). In any case, this even makes the delightful big hats less obviously cowboy-related. Since Weimar fashion could also include big-brimmed hats (many lovely examples here, but take particular note of the gent on the far right):
And Travis, in his hat and cape, looks like nothing so much as the Phantom of the Opera, subject of a not-unfamous film of the 1920s:
So, again, one takes the curse off the Wild West aesthetic, by linking its imagery with the imagery of another period of lawless gangsterism, reckless gambling, hedonism, violent sexuality, interwar social trauma and extreme financial instability.
And then there’s The Mandalorian. Which I was going to talk about briefly here, but then realised I had enough to say about it to warrant another blog post, so that’ll be next time.
My short story “The Stepford App” is in the final issue of Mad Scientist Journal. Fans of Driving Ambition might want to know that, although it’s a stand-alone piece about the perils of looking for love in an age of AI, it’s also a prequel which explains Liz’s allusion to her former job as a chatbot. Buy a print or e-book at the link.
As we’ve seen extensively, one of the crucial issues in space opera is how to differentiate characters, and ideally give the audience some understanding of who they are and what their role is, in a quick and easy way that can help casual viewers tuning in to the series, while not alienating or boring regulars.
However, another crucial issue is that space operas require characters to visit different planets on a near-weekly basis. Which presents a twofold problem: first, how to make a landscape look convincingly alien on a budget– and, second, how to disguise the fact that the same location usually has to stand in for several planets?
(as an aside, I’d like to stamp very thoroughly on the idea that this is the result of space operas being done on the cheap. This is a problem that affects all space operas, from the genuinely low-budget Blake’s 7 through to original series Battlestar Galactica, at the time the single most expensive TV programme ever made. Because it doesn’t matter if you have the resources of a small multinational corporation, that budget still has limits– and, even if your budget was completley unlimited, physical and logistical considerations also mean your choice of locations is not infinite).
One easy, cheap and effective way of doing this is through lens filters. A simple filming or post-production effect can make a normal Earth landscape look alien, as in Battlestar Galactica‘s War of the Gods:
This particular effect clearly led to problems, as in the same story vis-FX shots including laser beams and the revelation of Count Iblis’ demonic forms were incompatible with it and had to be shot in conventional colours. Nonetheless, for the audience, the planet has been established as alien.
Blake’s 7, on more of a budget, used a red lens filter instead in Time Squad to make the planet look more alien and less Southeast England, without the troublesome vis-FX problem (sometimes simpler is best):
Which is rendered even more effective by the social and emotional connotations of the colour red, giving the adventure a sense of urgency and danger. Similarly, in Cygnus Alpha, the titular planet’s superstitious theocracy is highlighted early on by having the exteriors set in darkness:
Colour and filtering can also be used to drive the audiences’ emotions regarding the setting more subtly. For instance in the New Caprica story arc of reimagined Battlestar Galactica, the lighting and post-production teams indicate the sense of frustration, monotony and despair associated with the colony and its later occupation by giving it a grey, rainy tone throughout:
But, in the episode Unfinished Business, as characters remember happier days on New Caprica, the planet is seen in unexpectedly brilliant sunshine, reflecting how it can look with the rose-tinted glasses on:
Finally, the Eye of Jupiter story arc shows us how lens filters and visual effects can be used to achieve multiple ends at once. The use of lens filters, first, disguises the fact that the team are filming in Kamloops (handy for Vancouver and nicely rugged) yet again, and sets up a harsh, bleak, washed-out emotional tone reflecting the characters’ increasingly frayed relationships as well as their feelings about the planet:
And, when the revelation in the temple is about to unfold, visual effects can change the sky and the landscape to something more suitably terrifying and apocalyptic:
Next time: A shift back to costuming, and how to get historical referencing right… and hilariously wrong.