Trail boss was beamed to new planet - but without a Beagle

American Science Fiction TV
March 18, 2005

I guess few of us who queued hopefully to take our place in the sixpenny (old pence, mark you) seats at the Saturday morning pictures, to be fed a diet of Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autrey et al, realised that we were watching the birth of the American science-fiction genre. Those dreadful offerings - man in white hat (the goodie) beats man with moustache and black Stetson (the baddie) - spawned the TV series of the late Fifties and early Sixties: The Virginian , Cheyenne , Wagon Train , Rawhide and the best of them all, Maverick . The recurrent theme for these western soap operas was simple: regular cast of characters encounters way-out-West crisis; they solve problem, invariably with tribes of hostile Indians seen off or villain shot/jailed; as a result, the romantic lead gets girl, albeit for a short-lived romance. Then the heroes move on to the next episode, different place, same time the following week. You could watch variations of the same plot every weeknight and twice on Saturdays by switching between BBC and ITV.

It was a well-tried formula that adapted well to the TV science-fiction production line. For Star Trek 's Captain Kirk, read trail boss/wagon master; and substitute a phaser for the Colt .45. While there was not always a doctor out on the prairie, the cook could usually be relied on to dig out the odd bullet by drawing on his knowledge of butchery.

I simplify, but not by much. Jan Johnson-Smith's thesis in American Science Fiction TV is much as I have compressed it into a few facetious lines. She, of course, says it more eloquently than I and with as great a depth of knowledge of sci-fi of the Eighties and Nineties as I seem to have retained of those cowboy-and-Indian sagas I was brought up on. Whereas Johnson-Smith's treatise is scholarly, I remember only the pub-quiz trivia - did you know that Rawhide 's Sheb Wooley made the transition to sci-fi with a 1958 hit single about "the one-eyed one-horned flying purple people-eater"? But I digress. It is often said that the US does not have much by way of a history other than the pioneers who headed west in the 19th century. But they were continuing a tradition begun in the Middle East, the cradle of civilisation. From there, the cultural centre of the world moved to Greece, on to Rome, Spain, Portugal and the UK, before Columbus and John Cabot took it across the Atlantic.

Thus you could say The Arabian Nights , the Odyssey and the Iliad were forerunners of Wagon Train and Star Trek . Johnson-Smith believes that the US's adventure in Vietnam, and the debacle that followed, can be equated with the demise of the TV and film western. Once the West had reached the East, with alarming consequences, the best way out was up, towards space, the final frontier. TV science fiction is, therefore, America's future history.

What is next? Who knows? I like my science fiction a little closer to reality, where the science borders closely on the plausible, as if it might be true in a few years. Why not go the whole hog and have a series about a bunch of British scientists in woolly jumpers and anoraks trying to send a craft ( Beagle 2 does rate a mention in American Science Fiction TV) to Mars to look for life and, who having failed once, decide to try again? No, it's too far-fetched. Until someone is brave enough to make Beagle 2: The Movie .

Johnson-Smith's book is a must for the genuine anoraks and Trekkies who follow Captain Kirk and his ilk.

Colin Pillinger is head of planetary and space sciences, Open University.

American Science Fiction TV: Star Trek, Stargate and Beyond

Author - Jan Johnson-Smith
Publisher - Tauris
Pages - 308
Price - £12.95
ISBN - 1 86064 882 7

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