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Sci-Fi's Obsession with the American West

Robots, cowboys, steam-powered cyborgs, and gunslingers ride through the desert in the best sci-fi westerns this side of the Mississippi.

By Sarah QuinnPublished 7 years ago 6 min read

I was once in Big Bend National Park and thought I’d stepped onto another planet. If you’ve had the misfortune never to have visited, it’s a mostly parched desert wonderland with the strangest flowers, succulents, and eerie hills that you can imagine. Toss in the sexy wild lawlessness of the historical American West and you can see why science fiction would create some of its most memorable works against such an awe-inspiring backdrop. From cartoons like Cowboy Bebop and Trigun to animated shows like Galaxy Rangers and Bravestarr, science fiction clearly has a great big ol’ crush on the American West. There’s DC Comics’ Jonah Hex, a whole slew of terrible B-movies, and then there are the great ones: films like Westworld and Back to the Future Part III, books like The Gunslinger, and shows like Firefly (*sniff*). If you haven’t seen them yet, check out these incredible tributes to science fiction and the West all in one beautiful biomechanical horse meets pony-express package.


Firefly is so western it doesn’t even know what to do with itself (end tragically early, I guess). It’s got all of the classic characters from any good tale of the Old West. First, there’s the big, dumb muscle, here personified in Jayne. Second, you’ve got the “whore with a heart of gold” in Inara, romantically partnered with Mal Reynolds, who makes (third) a great tortured former solider who’s in charge of the gang. Of course you won’t be missing any of the best parts of a science fiction classic: there’s plenty of running-out-of-oxygen panic, spaceships, psychic insanity, and characters like the techie that talks to machinery, the sweet Kaylee, and a fussy ship’s doctor in Simon. Do you want your characters to stage an epic Western gunfight to save a brothel? You got it. Do you want them to perform complicated maneuvers to outrun terrifying space pirates? You get that too. When I think of science fiction westerns, Firefly is the first thing that comes to mind.

The Wild Wild West 

The Wild Wild West was a perfect example of the science fiction western. No, NOT that ghastly thing with Will Smith. This is a TV show, not a movie, and you might have missed it if you weren’t watching TV back in the 1960s. There are quite a few similarities in the basic setup: two agents of President Grant, James West and Artemus Gordon, travel through the West fighting the bad guys. It’s a lighthearted adventure set in the 1800s with gadgets galore, a fancy steam train on which the agents travel, cliffhangers, gorgeous women, fabulous stunt work like you’ll never see again, and incredible chemistry between the actors. It’s a pretty good split between science fiction and western with incredibly strange plots, each one beginning with “The night of…” for example “The Night of the Inferno” and “The Night the Wizard Shook the Earth.” The latter was the first episode in which fan favorite Dr. Miguelito Quixote Loveless appeared. He’s NOT a racist amputee Kenneth Branagh, thank heaven - instead, he’s a totally amazing exiled royal Mexican madman with secret formulas, untested explosives and cyborgs powered by steam, played by gleefully malevolent Michael Dunn (you may remember him from Star Trek’s “Plato’s Stepchildren”). Villains are perhaps one of the best parts of The Wild Wild West; guest actors playing the bad guys included Harvey Korman, Agnes Moorhead, Orsen Welles, Harold Gould, and Burgess Meredith. If you haven’t seen it (and you probably haven’t) this is one to binge right now.


The original film was incredible (and horrifying) - malfunctioning robots terrify unsuspecting guests at an adults-only amusement park created for the fulfillment of one’s darkest violent and sexual fantasies. Now HBO has brought out a new series for you to get excited about, which some hope will do for sci-fi what Game of Thrones did for fantasy: made it sexier and more accessible for the common man. What’s the big deal? Anthony Hopkins, to start with, playing the enthralling, godlike Dr. Robert Ford, the man behind the curtain (he says awesome things like “Everything in this world is magic, except to the magician”). For $40,000 a day, wealthy pleasure-seekers can do anything they want to the helpless androids of Westworld, whose memories are erased each night and reprogrammed with identities and narratives that fit what the creators think their customers want. The western side is exciting, with gunfighting and chases through the desert; the science fiction side is gripping, a psychological drama that raises more questions than it answers.

The Dark Tower

“The man in black fled across the desert and the Gunslinger followed.” Thus begins Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. Many say you have to get past the first book to really appreciate what the author considers to be his magnum opus. Whatever you think of it, it’s an excellent example of a science fiction western; throughout the series, readers encounter a robot villain named Andy, a psychopathic monorail (yes, you heard that right), and even flying robots armed with lightsaber-like weapons. The books have spanned more than 25 years and features our hero Roland Deschain of Gilead, a haunting fellow who is chasing down the man in black (not the Dread Pirate Roberts), a frightening being capable of raising the dead. The writing style can be strange, but we are talking about Stephen King. Give it a shot if you love fantasy, horror, science fiction, and westerns all in one.

Stingray Sam

Stingray Sam is a ridiculously fun film. It’s black and white, it’s beyond low-budget, and it was created as a series of six ten-minute episodes meant to be viewed on your phone. What?! Here’s the deets: the kindly ex-thief Stingray Sam and his long-lost compadre, The Quasar Kid, are two space convicts who agree to save a young girl held captive by a rich, genetically engineered villain in exchange for having their criminal records erased. The actors and music both come courtesy of Cory McAbee and his band American Astronaut. It’s 1950s silly but it’s never stupid; running gags throughout the episodes and songs with hilariously repetitive lyrics are fan favorites. It’s proof that you don’t need money to make something wonderful (and it’s available for instant download here).

Cowboys and Aliens 

Full disclosure: I personally believe Daniel Craig is one of the most attractive men alive. Putting him on a horse doesn’t hurt one bit. Cowboys and Aliens is set in 1873; its Western features include Apaches, stagecoach robbery, a preacher, a bartender named Doc, pretty girls, Harrison Ford (another one of the most attractive men alive; yes, still!) as a crusty rancher, Indian cures, and a tired old dog. On the “aliens” side, you get slimy, dumb, crustacean-like monsters with big bug eyes and hands tinier than Trump’s that emerge from some gruesome inner chamber in the center of their torsos. Despite those diminutive appendages and lack of intelligence, they somehow manage to pilot awesome spaceships, build shiny towers, and study/torture their human victims. Olivia Wilde walks into a fire and comes out naked (someone kindly wraps her in a Native American blanket); the aliens suck up gold and jewels straight into their spacecraft through some mysterious force. I wish there were more to say here, but you just have to see it for yourself. It’s plotless and absurd but it’s also pretty dang fun to watch.

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About the Creator

Sarah Quinn

I'm a writer in love with India, Stars Wars, fantasy, travel, and Thai curries. My childhood heroes were Luke Skywalker and Joan of Arc. I muse on superheroes, sci-fi, feminism, and more.

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