Following the Dusty Trail of TV’s Weird Westerns

From series’ that make the Weird West part of their premise to established shows experimenting for an episode, television has long been open to the prospect of merging fantasy with westerns. There’s only one real requirement for a TV show to qualify as a weird western and that’s the western involve other genre elements, like horror, sci-fi or fantasy. TV doesn’t hold the monopoly on this — movies and books were doing weird westerns first — but it only stands to reason that TV should follow.

Sometimes the 19th century is given a new addition, like aliens (as in the late 60’s serial “The Secret Empire” for Cliffhangers). Other times the Old West is manufactured (the theme park in Westworld or the holodeck program created by Worf’s son and Lieutenant Barclay in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, “A Fistful of Datas”).

For a show with so few parameters for what an episode should look like, The Twilight Zone spent a lot of time in the West. Yet, given the breadth of stories the genre can tell, Twilight Zone’s westerns tend to explore similar territory. Peddlers, guns, and alcohol crop up again and again but never in the same way. That room for variation speaks to the longevity of the genre, even before you open the floodgates to fantasy elements.

Starting with 1959’s “Mr. Denton on Doomsday,” Al Denton was a sharpshooter before his life became consumed with drink. The barmaid, upset by his degradation, offers to give him a drink for free, but Denton doesn’t answer, singing for Martin Landau’s black-shirted cowboy instead. In that moment you understand how poorly he thinks of himself. Rather than accept her offer of an out, he makes himself wallow in the depths that he’s sunk.

Later you get more of an explanation for his current state. Challenged regularly to uphold his reputation as a gunslinger, Denton’s dependence on alcohol grew as a means of coping with the lives he took during showdowns. It’s a similar kind of guilt to Ethan Chandler’s in the Gothic drama Penny Dreadful, for his crimes as a werewolf and a soldier in the Indian Wars. Or the Doctor’s in the 2012 Doctor Who episode “A Town Called Mercy.” The second of two Westerns Doctor Who has done (the first, 1966’s “The Gunfighters,” is a more traditional historical serial where the Doctor gets confused for Doc Holliday), “A Town Called Mercy” actually has the Doctor question his deep-seated aversion to guns and whether he’s done more harm than good showing people mercy (Star Trek’s “Spectre of the Gun” and ongoing series, Wynonna Earp, similarly put their own spins on the Wyatt Earp story).

When a gun appears out of thin air beside Denton, then, it doesn’t feel like a solution to his problems so much as history repeating itself. Part of the gun’s magic is it goes off without Denton meaning to shoot anyone, so while he should be suffering from withdrawal symptoms, Denton recovers his reputation in no time, by accidentally shooting things with pinpoint accuracy (indeed, when he tries to hit a few targets on purpose, Denton misses completely).

While the gun’s appearance coincides with that of a peddler who’s rolled into town, Rod Sterling’s narration makes the gun its own character. Similar magical guns can be found on shows like Wynonna Earp (Wyatt Earp’s gun, Peacemaker, can send demons back to Hell), Supernatural (the brothers meet Samuel Colt in 2011’s, Western-themed, “Frontierland”) and the Showtime anthology series Dead Man’s Gun, where the title gun brings either fortune or doom to its various owners. Denton’s personal history with firearms is cursed. There’s no reason to think a magical gun will make it better.

Then there’s the question of the peddler’s motives (if he is the person responsible for the gun’s sudden appearance.) Before he introduces himself, Henry J. Fate’s name can be found on the side of his wagon, but for most of the episode he’s standing in front of his last name, so the “Fate” part really hits home when he says it aloud. Is it possible Henry’s the human embodiment of “Fate?” Actor, Malcolm Atterbury, makes you think he could be.

Unlike the Twilight Zone episode “Dust,” where providence is thought to intervene in the hanging of Luís Gallegos, Henry is a much more enigmatic peddler than Thomas Gomez’ drunken Peter Sykes. While often shown smiling, the one time Denton hesitates to obey a command, Henry’s expression changes immediately. “Dust’s” Sykes, on the other hand, is completely transparent. Where Henry operates in the background, so only Denton (and later Denton’s challenger) realizes he’s pulling the strings, Sykes’ publicness tells you he’s not the real deal, but the man who gets the credit for Fate’s intervention on Luís’ behalf. Henry’s the real peddler. Sykes’ is just the face of the operation who sells faulty rope, and “magic dust” to Luis’ father, only to be as surprised as everyone else when they actually work (the same set-up drives 1995’s Legend, a series about a writer who takes on the mantle of his fictional character so that a scientist can give him all the credit for his experiments). Fate plays Sykes, just like Fate plays Denton, and in recognition of that, Sykes gives the money he earned falsely to a group of children in need.

Denton and Luís get second chances. Sykes isn’t made to pay for trying to cheat Luis’ dad. There’s a sympathy for alcoholics that tracks throughout The Twilight Zones’ Western episodes. The series considers multiple reasons for why people drink – guilt (“Denton”), isolation (“Dust”), grief (season three’s “The Grave”). The alcoholic in “Mr. Garrity and the Graves” is slightly more complicated. While he blames his alcoholism on a broken heart, a peddler (Mr. Garrity) offers to bring his wife back to life, and he pays Mr. Garrity not to do it. You’re never quite sure whether his claim to love her was genuine or an excuse to keep people from judging him (the fact that his wife was abusive could be explanation enough, like the showdown in the Xena episode, “Animal Attraction” between the sheriff and her estranged husband, Darcon).

In The Twilight Zone episode “Execution,” on the other hand, Joe Caswell doesn’t get a second chance (though you’d be right to think that’s where the episode is heading when, instead of a gun appearing out of thin air, Joe Caswell disappears from the noose where he’s starting to hang). Like the Twilight Zone episode, “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim,” Caswell goes back in time. An unsuspecting scientist picked him up in his time machine, before realizing Caswell was a murderer. When Christian Horn went back in time in “Rim” he was still in the desert. Trucks and tap water threw him for a loop but people were generally sympathetic, and there was enough familiar in the landscape for him to gain his bearings again. It’s a different thing for Caswell, who finds himself in New York City, unable to cope with all the noise and general chaos.

Caswell wants to go back to his own time but it’s not for a noble cause, like Horn, who wants to return so he can cure his son using modern medicine. A return trip for Caswell means a return to the noose but unlike Kahler-Jex in Doctor Who’s “A Town Called Mercy,” who’s able to thrive in 19th century America because nobody knows who he is and he can start over, Caswell doesn’t regret his past so is unable to escape it. It’s the same idea perpetuated by the Star Trek episodes “Spectre of the Gun” and Star Trek: Enterprise’s “North Star.” Both present the future as being more progressive, while people like Caswell from the Old West hold onto their prejudices and predilections for violence. It’s why the alien in the revived Outer Limits episode “Heart’s Desire” doesn’t see humans as a threat. They’ll destroy each other before they ever hurt him or his race.

Caswell killed people, same as Denton did, but where Denton’s kills were in honourable showdowns, with both parties consenting to duel, Caswell shot a man in the back. Caswell died because he didn’t care about his reputation but in “The Grave,” the most supernatural of Twilight Zone’s westerns, Lee Marvin’s Conny Miller dies because he cares too much about what people think. Told that on his deathbed Pinto Sykes promised to pull Conny into his grave if he ever went near it, Conny takes a bet to visit the cemetery at midnight and is found dead there the next morning.

Pinto’s ghost is never seen but his sister, Ione, gives off an otherworldly vibe throughout the episode. Dressed in a cloak like a character from a fairy tale, it’s almost like the wind carries her out of the saloon as she haunts Conny in her own way, as a reminder of her brother’s death. Mrs. O’Brian fulfils a similar role in the Bonanza episode, “Twilight Town,” (the episode title drawing to mind The Twilight Zone). Dressed in black, the colour used to designate villains in Westerns (The Twilight Zone both commits this trope in “Denton” and calls it out in the meta episode, “The Showdown of Rance McGrew”), the truth is Mrs. O’Brian’s in mourning and the only person in Martinville who tries to warn Little Joe to leave. Having stumbled into the ghost town and having his horse gets stolen, Little Joe wakes up to find the town fully populated with folks who want to nurse him back to health. Their motives, however, are far from selfless. Later, when Pa and Little Joe’s brothers find him again, the town is deserted, but there’s a legend that checks out with all that Little Joe has seen.

Unsure how to make his family believe him, Pa decides to give Little Joe some advice: “Son, when a man knows something, deep down in his heart. When he really knows, he doesn’t have to argue about it. Doesn’t have to prove it. Just knowing, that’s enough.” We see Little Joe take this advice to heart when he finds the sheriff’s star on his belt and, instead of using it as proof, tosses it onto the ground behind him. Later in season five Hoss runs into a little green man trying to escape a bear in “Hoss and the Leprechauns.” Told by a professor that the man was a leprechaun, Hoss’ discovery sets-off a gold rush in a town of people trying to find and capture leprechauns for their stash. Pa doesn’t give Hoss the same advice he gave Little Joe but, while everyone else is searching for the money, Hoss looks for the leprechaun to prove he’s been telling the truth. “Twilight Town” never answers the question of the ghost town, but the leprechauns in “Hoss and the Leprechauns” are men that have been wrongly maligned for being short.

Most of the time Bonanza played it straight, but other westerns dealt with fantasy all the time. The Wild West saw Secret Service agents operating in the Wild West for President Grant, pulling gun parts out of shoe heels and generally showing up well-equipped with gadgets and disguises. Firefly built a cult following around space cowboys. The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. gave the lovable Bruce Campbell orbs to contend with while tracking down the thirteen outlaws who played a part in his father’s death.

Animation got into the fantasy western business, too. Wild West C.O.W.-Boys of Moo Mesa put the “cow” in “cowboys,” while Bravestarr followed a Native American marshal with spirit animal powers (both Marshal Moo Montana and Marshal Bravestarr were voiced by Pat Fraley). DC Comics dabbled in weird westerns with episodes like Justice League’s “The Once and Future Thing, Part 1: Weird Western Tales” and Batman: The Animated Series’ “Showdown.” The ’60s brought a Lone Ranger cartoon, and from Japan, you have the Japanese-American series The Adventures of the Galaxy Raiders and anime like Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, and Outlaw Star. Plenty of westerns exist that don’t incorporate fantasy but there’s something special about the ones that do. westerns deal with the familiar – it’s how you get so many iconic images – but magic shakes things up and makes the impossible viable. As long as you’re wearing a Stetson and a holster, the frontier is your oyster. There’s no place (or time) you can’t travel towards.

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