Monday, September 05, 2005

Into the West: Space, the final Frontier

This weekend, I finally decided to bite the bullet, and make my way through TNT’s miniseries Into The West, which aired earlier this summer. This twelve hour western themed mini-series depicts, in broad strokes, the development of the American West throughout the nineteenth century (approx. from 1814-1880’s). Among its many interwoven stories, it follows primarily two stories: the legacy of an extended family of settlers, The Wheelers, and a tribe of Laconte Native Americans. Now twelve hours is a really long time to invest into something, and I’ll confess upfront that I haven’t watched the final two hour installment yet, and I gainfully employed the TiVo fast forward button on more than one occasion. I TiVoed Into the West, primarily because Steven Spielberg was the executive producer on it, and I watch anything he touches. But besides Spielberg’s involvement, there is a part of me that has a definite soft spot for westerns. My grandfather was a huge fan of the genre, and I remember watching many of the older classics with him – High Noon, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Stage Coach, Red River, Four Faces West, Duel in the Sun, and my personal favorite, The Searchers.

Into The West suffered a bit from some of the problems that has plagued many of these recent TV miniseries. There are an overwhelming amount of characters and storylines, some of which end up fading away, without ever being resolved or finding resolution. With these massive stories, continuity becomes a problem when there is not enough time to flesh out each individual character and story. In particular, Into The West made an annoying casting choice to “age up” certain characters as the miniseries progressed. So most characters had at least two, if not three, different actors portraying them throughout the duration of the series. But despite these weaknesses, I found enough redeeming elements to stick with it through its many hours. The fact that the storylines grew out of the same families, made them more manageable to follow. While at times I found myself wishing for a genealogy tree of the Wheelers, it was easier to draw clear connections between a lot of these characters, simply because you knew who they were related to and what their origins were. The creators of the miniseries did achieve some poignant moments and striking symmetry between some of the characters. They succeeded in keeping the romantic elements of the old west, without actually romanticizing. It was shot to show the beauty of the west, and the main characters possessed that “pioneering” spirit, but the series also showed the brutality of it – all the racism, sexism, greed and violence that was rampant in the west. Despite all of the injustice and the cruelty, the thematic undercurrent maintained a burning spark of hope and possibility. I think this is what I liked most about it. I was reminded not only of how fond I am of a good Western, but of all the parallels between the Western and the Science Fiction genres.

One of the things that Into the West succeeded in establishing was the burgeoning multiculturalism of the “old west”. There were the English speaking settlers who had already been Americans for a couple of generations. There were the Native Americans, with different tribal groups scattered all over the continental U.S. There were the African Americans who had somehow escaped slavery and were seeking out new livelihoods. There were the Spaniards who controlled Mexico and California. There were the Chinese Americans who had emigrated to the west coast, and helped build the Union Pacific railroad. There were so many different languages and cultural customs thrown into the mix together, I’m sure any one of those groups would have loved to get their hands on a universal translator. Everyone had a great deal of fear and resentment harbored against these other “alien” people, on all sides of the map. The cultural gaps between these groups were so great at times they might as well have been from other planets.

If you’re out west and something happens to your horse, then you’re…well….screwed. Without a horse to pull your wagon or ride, you’re left stranded and vulnerable –unable to get anywhere, and left open to the dangers of the wilderness. A cowboy builds a special relationship with his horse, in many ways, it is his best friend and companion –his partner. In space, a man’s space ship is like his horse – Han Solo wouldn’t go anywhere without his Millennium Falcon if he could help it. He counted on his ship to bring him to safety, and get him through battle, like an old reliable horse.

Depending on which fictional sci-fi universe you’re residing in, the political situation may be anywhere from highly volatile, to fairly stable. But no matter where you are, you can always count on some planet in far outer rims of the universe to which the standard laws and rules do not apply. In essence –the old west. Even as American settlers began to spread widely throughout the western part of North America, there always seemed to be pockets of the west that were not under the jurisdiction of the United States government. Places where other nations were in control, or where, perhaps, no one was in control at all.

The glory of the old west resided in the vastness of space that surrounded you as you rode out onto the plains and into the sunset. The mountains, the rivers, the forests and the deserts, all seemed endlessly expansive and enveloping. Much like ….space, the final frontier. Of course, history tells us how the Old West ended up. We now have every inch of this country pretty much mapped out. We can punch in an address anywhere in the U.S. into Google Maps and look at a satellite photo of the location. With the exception of our national parks, and some lightly populated areas here and there, we do not have much wilderness left in our country. It seems as though, the entire globe lacks the sense of mystery and unknown that it once had. The number of unexplored and unmapped havens are small and shrinking all the time.

So it seems only natural that space would be our next step. And for the past four decades or so we have breached into that next arena of exploration. Like the figurative old west, in outer space, there are no boundries –only wide open space. In farthest reaches of our imagination we ponder, unbridled, what adventure we might find tucked away in the most remote corners of the universe.

I follow the space program somewhat closely. I watched the successful launch of Discovery in late July and keep tabs on the Mars Rover. It’s also no secret that I have a deep love of science fiction stories. I think that’s why I feel an affection for the western. Whether I’m watching Captain Kirk command the enterprise off into the depths of space, or John Wayne ride off into the sunset of a vast dusty desert, I am filled with a sense of excitement and possibility.

Not only is space, my current day version of the west, but it is a chance to correct all the wrongs that were made in the bloody battles of manifest destiny. In space we can idealize the way that things would go down with heightened knowledge, intelligence and technology. But besides learning from history and the mistakes that were made, I think that mentally speaking –we all need a “west”. A distant foreign locale, an undiscovered country, for which we can imagine, and explore. How boring would it be, if we held a complete and finite understanding of all space and time as we knew it? Without something to foster the yearnings of adventure and exploration our spirits would be dampened. At least I know mine would.


Blogger phinney said...

well put. i love the old west/space ideas.

5:45 PM  

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