(or "The Real World Tells Stories Too")
(And a hearty "welcome back!" to all the Joss Whedon fans who visited my blog!)
Whenever people try to describe Joss Whedon's 'Firefly' to someone who hasn't seen the series yet, the inevitable term they use is, "It's a Western in space." Which is true enough as far as it goes; any series that has an episode with the heroes smuggling cattle to another planet definitely earns the title "Western in space" pretty definitively. But when he came up with the idea for 'Firefly' and its storytelling engine (TV series are always very concerned with storytelling engines, because TV series look at 100 episodes as a minimum benchmark for success), Whedon didn't just decide to combine the tropes of the Western genre with the tropes of the science-fiction genre. He used the reality of the American frontier, rather than the fiction of the Old West, as his model to create a storytelling engine.
Noticing how involves a quick history lesson. What we think of as "the Old West", with gunslingers and bank robbers and grizzled settlers and sheriffs who were the only law in their town and madams with a heart of gold, et cetera, was a product primarily of the Civil War. There was settlement of the West prior to the Civil War, of course, but when the Confederacy collapsed, many of the former Confederate soldiers who didn't want to live under a government they'd just spent four years fighting drifted westward, where the United States' authority was minimal and they could use their military experience to make a living in a lot of not-particularly-legitimate ways. This meant living a lot rougher, but again, four years of being in a war had left them with different standards as to "civilized life" than the average person.
These semi-lawless veterans flooded into an already not particularly lawful part of the country that was still awash with gold prospectors and settlers who were also leaving the civilized parts of America for their own reasons (the Mormons also moved west into Utah during this period.) This created an unusually anti-authoritarian, sometimes violent society...one which was within the borders of the United States, and which the federal government had to tame if they wanted to truly become a continental government. (And one which, arguably, they never managed to completely conquer--many states in the western part of the US remain firmly libertarian and anti-authority, although the streak seems to have been put to positive uses for the most part.)
So this was the model that Whedon used for 'Firefly'. The conflict between the Sino-American Alliance and the "Browncoats" (and note that Whedon has always been vague about the exact causes and ideals of the Browncoats--Mal, of course, simply says they were for "freedom", but just about everyone thinks they're fighting on the right side) is an analogy for the Civil War, and Mal is one of the many disaffected veterans of that war who moves out to the frontier. The societal model for 'Firefly' feels real because it is real. It's got the kind of logic that's been tested by history. Writers should never feel afraid to borrow from history, because it's the only kind of plagarism that audiences admire. *rimshot*
Other elements of the Western in 'Firefly' are born out of economic logic. Sure, you could probably use a futuristic hover-buggy to ride around in, but if fuel is short, a horse is cheaper to feed. Laser pistols? A fancy toy for the rich, and a bullet kills just as sure as amplified and focused light. Why build tables out of wood instead of synthetics? Because it's cheap and plentiful and we've been working with it for the entire length of human history, and we know how to do it. The tropes of the Western aren't just there because Whedon thought they would look cool, they're there because they make sense within the story. (The only real "Western trope" is the idea of the Reavers as frontier savages, and Whedon deliberately subverts the idea in order to avoid the uncomfortable subtext of racism that's frequently present in Westerns.)
I've talked a lot about storytelling engines in this column (mainly because that's what it's about), but 'Firefly' does remind us that one of the quickest, easiest, most reliable storytelling engines comes from the world around us. Because the world is always full of stories, more than can ever possibly be told.