A genre hybrid, a cross between two or more genres, can be a boon. It’s giving the audience something familiar, tapping into genre conventions, but also fresh.
However, it can also confuse audiences (and marketers!). Genres tend to have their own audiences and trying to appeal across them can alienate both.
The sci-fi Western genre hybrid
For example, on their surface, there aren’t two genres more different than the Western and science-fiction. For one, they tend to be set in opposing time periods, the past and the future.
Yet three TV shows demonstrate how these two different flavours can go together.
FIREFLY and SERENITY
FIREFLY and the subsequent film version SERENITY embrace the implications of Kirk’s narration from STAR TREK. Space is the “final frontier.”
One of the sources of conflict in the show is the tension between the Alliance, who control a core set of planets, and the more lawless outer planets.
Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) is the captain of the smuggling ship Firefly. He’s a typical Western anti-hero, an outlaw who the plot often challenges to do the right thing.
He and his second in command Zoe (Gina Torres) are veterans of a war fought to resist unification under the Alliance.
It may be odd at first to see horses and spaceships occupying the same story. However, an explanation is offered. The atmospheres on the outer planets have only partly been changed, resulting in desert-like conditions.
The genre hybrid is justified by the setting and the shows’ themes.
Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy created the HBO show WESTWORLD, based on the Michael Crichton novel (and film) of the same name. Its genre hybrid of sci-fi and Western means they have the best of both worlds.
WESTWORLD uses familiar Western storytelling tropes and stock characters. The madam of a brothel, the honest gunslinger, the Sheriff, the gunslingers, revenge, bank robberies, and so on.
The show also comments on these in a meta way. It’s about a theme park that allows guests to play out these roles, interacting with each other and highly sophisticated, almost human robots.
The major themes of WESTWORLD apply to both genres in different ways. This is why the genre hybrid is so successful.
The show explores cycles of violence, residual trauma and the nature of memory. It’s also concerned with identity, personhood, and who counts as human.
Some of the robots begin to become self-aware, suspecting their pasts and their roles. This is a very common development in sci-fi stories about artificial intelligence.
This is especially the case with characters that the park’s overseers “cast” as victims in the Western stories, often women:
- rancher’s daughter Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood)
- Maeve (Thandie Newton), madam of a brothel
There’s also a parallel with slavery, something that along with the American Civil War, casts a long shadow over the Western genre. Remembering the wrongs that have been committed against them is the first step towards restitution.
Whether guest or robot, initially the characters of WESTWORLD fall neatly with in the limited range of Western characters. When, through the sci-fi side of the story, the characters fight against this, the result is gripping.
THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY JR.
A precursor to some of these, THE ADVENTURES OF BRISCO COUNTY, JR. was created by Jeffrey Boam and Carlton Cuse (one of the minds behind LOST).
It’s a more straightforward Western, following the adventures of two rival bounty heroes, Brisco County Jr. (Bruce Campbell) and Lord Bowler (Julius Carry). While the sci-fi element was introduced in the first episode, its importance grew over its single season.
A metallic Orb, discovered in a mine, has mysterious powers. Brisco must prevent it falling into the hands of his nemesis, John Bly (Billy Drago), who killed his father.
However, there’s a problem with the Orb. Its origin is unknown and it doesn’t serve just one purpose in the story.
It’s a Macguffin, something all the characters want, but also a Deus ex Machina, at one point saving Brisco from death. It also gives other people super strength.
Essentially, it starts to feel like the Orb can do whatever the story needs it to do.
Genre hybrid cinema
Even as the Western itself has fallen out of favour, the science fiction Western has also made it into cinema.
George Miller’s MAD MAX franchise is another great example of a genre hybrid. The best films, including FURY ROAD, perfectly balance the sci-fi and Western sides of its premise. Max is an isolated hero, fending for himself in a lawless land on the fringes (or completely distant from) society.
This tension between individualism and collective responsibility is fundamental to the Western. Should Max save himself, or band together and help protect a group? In a post-apocalyptic world, such questions are relevant again.
Wolverine feels this same tension in LOGAN. The film makes this overt when he and Professor X watch SHANE on television in the hotel.
At the other end of the spectrum, the genre hybrid in COWBOYS AND ALIENS was less successful. It follows a group of characters seeking revenge against aliens who have been abducting and killing people.
However, the aliens feel like dropped in antagonists. The genre hybrid is there because it looks cool and interesting, rather than incorporated into the story.
Only two kinds of men get shot: criminals and victims. Which one are you?
The aliens are sort of like outlaws in that all they care about is gold. However, there’s no opportunity to connect this with the characters and their themes.
While Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) says that protagonist Jake (Daniel Craig) stole gold from him, Jake has lost his memory. His arc becomes about remembering who he was rather than changing who he is.
The time travel adventure comedy BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III left behind the gentle satire of the ’50s and the parodic future seen in previous instalments to take its characters back in time to the old West. It’s not an entirely successful or justified choice.
However, the steampunk aesthetic connects with Doc Brown’s passion for inventing. The time period also makes sense for Marty McFly’s arc, especially when he adopts the name of Clint Eastwood.
He learns, converse to much of the Western genre, to resolve problems without killing and to not rise to the bait of bullies who call him “chicken.”
This character flaw has been, to some extent, created through the Western myth. Going back to the West allows Marty to overcome it.
This whole world is a story. I’ve read every page except the last one.
A hybrid between two genres can be a perfect marriage, complementing each other, or they can grate.
It’s risky. Two of these TV examples – FIREFLY and BRISCO COUNTY, JR. – were sleeper successes. They found cult audiences but were cancelled after one season.
FIREFLY was aired out of order. Writers for BRISCO COUNTY, JR. blamed its low ratings on its poor time slot. (Which, with streaming and on demand services, might be less of a factor today).
MAD MAX FURY ROAD was a hit but both COWBOYS & ALIENS and JONAH HEX were flops.
Did they fail to find an audience? Or did the genre hybrid mean that their networks and studios were unsure who these were for and how to get it to them?
However, on the storytelling level, to make a hybrid fully successful, there’s one major test: can the themes work across both genres?