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Firefly & Western Literature - Gunfight at a Makeshift Corral

Wednesday 27 August 2008, by Webmaster

If westerns themes and conventions were submerged or treated metaphorically (as more general meditations on the relationship between civilization and savagery) in some of the earlier episodes of Firefly, the episode “Safe” returns western conventions to the forefront, as the plot involves cattle rustling, posses, outlaws, a shootout, and a just in the nick-of-time rescue by gun-toting heroes (or “big damn heroes,” as Zoe puts it).

“Safe” completes the “cattle drive” that we saw beginning at the end of the episode “Shindig,” where the camera pulls back during the final scene to reveal a cargo hold full of cattle. The Serenity crew lands on a planet, where they set up a temporary corral made of some sort of metal. The look is both evocative of the “old West” of film and television and gleamingly suggestive of the sci-fi future. What should be a simple exchange of money for illegal goods, of course, goes badly. The buyers are outlaws who are being tracked by a group of lawmen, who arrive just as the buy is made. When the outlaws try to escape, a gun battle breaks out, and aided by some long-distance shooting from Zoe, Mal and Jayne hit the dirt.

The gun battle, which is staged by having the combatants use the available cover of the metal corral fence, alludes to numerous western shootouts, particularly to the many versions of the Gunfight at O. K. Corral (the earliest version that I’m familiar with is John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, 1946, with Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp and Victor Mature as a Shakespeare-quoting Doc Holliday). Rather than the surprising reveal that Doc Holliday has been shot, the surprise here is that innocent bystander Shepherd Book has received a severe chest wound.

Firefly’s Doc, Simon Tam, in an unrelated incident, has been taken captive, almost simultaneously with the gunfight. With his sister River, Simon is taken to what at first glance looks like a ghost town, but is revealed to be a frontier outpost on the edge of civilization where the settlers are in desperate need of a doctor. Here, Simon is the agent of civilization, and he nearly becomes the victim of the settlers’ savage superstition when they decide to burn River at the stake as a witch. The abduction of a doctor seems a fairly familiar plot device in science fiction television (I can’t think of a series that hasn’t used either that exact formula or some variant–an abduction of someone whose expertise is technical rather than medical, for example). It’s such a common device that I wonder if the source is the television western, but I can’t immediately think of an example of a western in which members of a frontier community feel they must kidnap a doctor to get access to the civilized medical skills that have yet to reach their outpost. Did Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, ever get kidnapped? Or Gunsmoke’s Doc Adams?

Not the most elegant of Firefly’s story constructions, the episode cuts back and forth (somewhat jarringly, for me) between the two plots, the cattle buy gone wrong and subsequent injury to Book, River and Simon in the Village. At one point, scenes of River dancing are intercut with the gun battle, and I’m not quite sure what to make of the juxtaposition. Likewise, as the crew takes off into space in search of help for Book (when they can’t find Simon), the part of the episode concerning that story follows a more conventional science fiction story arc and mise-en-scene, and, on the planet with River and Simon, the episode seems to veer into M. Night Shyamalan territory. We cut back and forth between the plots, each one with its own distinctive look and tone, and the juxtaposition of the two doesn’t work very well for me.

However, things come back together with one of my favorite Firefly climaxes, one that neatly melds western and science fiction motifs. As Serenity descends from the sky above Simon and River (who has been tied to a stake prior to burning), lowering Jayne with his rifle from the open cargo door, the “big damn heroes,” Mal and Zoe, long coats swirling in the wind, guns at the ready, stride in through the dust storm kicked up Serenity’s exhaust to save the day.