As anyone who ever read Topless Robot‘s list of the 10 Greatest Sci-Fi Westerns will be quick to point out, the merging of cowboys and aliens is always a welcome thing (okay, except when Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig are involved, apparently). You see for nearly as long as sci-fi shows have been on the air, writers have been utilizing the American West as a backdrop for their fantastical tales. So much so in fact that Western episodes of sci-fi series have now become a familiar trope for TV writers to take advantage of. The reasoning for this is simple: the Old West opens up plenty of exciting storytelling possibilities that can shake up the status quo of a series. Thusly, sci-fi shows ranging from Batman to Star Trek: The Next Generation have all briefly transplanted their characters to the lawless frontier with enormous success. With that in mind, today’s Daily List focuses on the seven best Western-themed sci-fi episodes. Just a quick disclaimer before be begin — this list only includes installments of sci-fi series that didn’t typically have a Wild West setting or weren’t considered space Westerns. As such, you won’t be seeing The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr., Firefly, Bravestarr, etc. on this list. Got it pardners? Good. Now let’s get started because high noon will be here before you know it.
7) Battlestar Galactica, “The Last Warrior”
Kicking off this list is a delicious slice of 1970s cheese from the original Battlestar Galactica series that followed Apollo as he crashed on a frontier planet. One that looked eerily like the soundstages where The Waltons and/or Little House on the Prairie were filmed. While trying to figure out how he’ll get the fuel he needs to make it back to the Galactica, he bonds with a woman and her child. This bit of weird domestic bliss is interrupted when he discovers that the area is patrolled by a Cylon named Red-Eye. It turns out that the metallic monster crashed on the Laura Ingalls Wilder-esque hunk of rock as well. Damaged in the accident, the Cylon was taken under the wing of a local con man (whose outfit is that of someone who possesses a serious Boss Hogg fetish). Anyways, the crook proceeded to use his alien henchman to control the town. This doesn’t sit too well with Apollo, and soon the stage is set for an awesome High Noon-styled showdown between man and machine. Check out the full episode above and flash back to a simpler time when a scheming fat man could easily control one of the universe’s most fearsome robots. Ahh, the ’70s.
6) Doctor Who, “The Gunfighters”
Decades before Matt Smith declared that “Stetsons are cool,” William Hartnell rocked a cowboy hat in this divisive Doctor Who episode from the show’s third season. Over the years, “The Gunfighters” has been unfairly maligned thanks to the song (“The Ballad of the Last Chance Saloon”) that recurs throughout the serial. If you have written this one off, give it a second chance and you’ll probably be more appreciative of the silly fun that results from the Doctor interacting with Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, and company. As for those of you who still don’t like it, take some solace in the fact that it won’t be long until you’ll get to see the Eleventh Doctor, Amy and Rory having their own romp through the Wild West. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the only visit to the O.K. Corral featured on this list…
5) Star Trek, “Spectre of the Gun”
Given that Wagon Train was Gene Roddenberry’s primary influence when he was creating Star Trek, it is shocking that it took until the third (and final) season for the series to do a Western episode. When the Enterprise crew meets yet another race of snotty aliens who think that humans are all savages, Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Chekhov and McCoy get placed in a trippy recreation of Tombstone, Arizona circa 1881. The incomplete sets and lack of location shooting featured prominently here probably had more to do with budgetary concerns than creativity, but the look of this episode is unforgettable nonetheless. Our heroes have been sent here as punishment for approaching the planet of the Melkotians (the aforementioned pissypants ETs). Realizing that they are now fated to die in the Showdown at the O.K. Corral, they attempt to use their smarts to escape from the predicament. Meanwhile, Chekhov mistakes the experience for a trip to Delos, and his attempts to get some kinky frontier sex result in his death. Bummer. But before you can say “Spock ex machina” the Vulcan mind melds with the rest of his pals in order to get them to believe that the events they are experiencing aren’t real and therefore they cannot be injured. The plan works and everyone returns to the ship, including a now revived yet sadly not a zombie Chekhov. The Melkotians contact Kirk and tell him because he is such a swell and non-violent dude they can now all hang out. Kirk happily accepts, reinforcing my belief that I would be the worst Starfleet captain in history. Because if some aliens put me through the ringer like this they’d be staring down the business end of a photon torpedo.
4) The Twilight Zone, “Showdown with Rance McGrew”
Of the various Western-themed episodes of The Twilight Zone that aired during the series’ five-season run, “Showdown with Rance McGrew” is arguably the most memorable thanks to its not-too-subtle criticism of television. In the story, Rance McGrew (a wonderfully weasely Larry Blyden) is a successful actor whose off-screen cowardice is a startling contrast to the heroic persona he embodies on a popular TV western. After a particularly diva-like outburst in which he demands to drink ginger ale in a scene instead of whiskey, he suddenly finds himself face-to-face with the real Jesse James in the Old West. It turns out that legendary Western villains aren’t exactly pleased with the way they’ve been portrayed on McGrew’s show. In order to stay alive, the chickenhearted thespian agrees to make his program more true to how the Old West actually was and returns to the present…with James watching over him. Because this episode was written by Rod Serling, it’s obvious that historical inaccuracies in television are a subject that he feels passionately about. He’s biting the hand that feeds here. This aspect of the episode coupled with the installment’s meta commentary on showbiz in general further illustrates that there still has never been anything as interesting on TV as the original Twilight Zone. For more Wild West goodness from the series, check out “Mr. Denton on Doomsday” and the epic “The Grave.”
3) The Prisoner, “Living in Harmony”
The 1960s mindfuck known as The Prisoner always resulted in an awesomely atypical viewing experience. That goes double for this episode, which planted Number Six into the Western frontier town of Harmony without any explanation to the audience as to what the hell was going on. Completely devoid of the standard opening credits, the episode begins with Patrick McGoohan’s incorruptible everyman resigning from his position as sheriff before he is attacked by a gang that refuses to let him leave town. It’s a daring — and familiar — sequence that sets up the next 50 minutes as the most ambitious attempt by his captors to break him in the series to date. They fail of course, and by the end of the episode the status quo is restored (after a chilling denouement that features murder and creepy cardboard cutouts). Besides the series finale, “Living in Harmony” is the most notorious episode of The Prisoner because it was left out of the show’s initial U.S. run for reasons that have never properly been clarified. One possible explanation is that the violence content on display here is exceedingly graphic and disturbing — most notably the repeated strangling of Valerie French’s Kathy character. But even without those scenes, “Living in Harmony” would still be unnervingly nightmarish… and great television. Hmm. On second thought, maybe this is a typical episode of The Prisoner after all.
2) Star Trek: The Next Generation, “A Fistful of Datas”
Like Deep Space Nine‘s “Our Man Bashir” after it, the Patrick Stewart-directed “A Fistful of Datas” is an episode that transcends its malfunctioning holodeck story roots to become something truly special. You out can check out a trailer for it above, but all you really need to know about this gem is that it features Data in drag and actually gives the Troi character a purpose for once (ditto for Alexander). Still not convinced that this one belongs on here? I’ve got five words for you: Worf in a cowboy hat.
1) Red Dwarf, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse”
Red Dwarf fans who were anxious when word leaked that the sixth series would be ditching the titular ship and Holly character had their fears alleviated when the new episodes premiered in October of 1993. The show was revitalized by a season-spanning story arc that mixed laughs with fascinating sci-fi concepts and further developed the characters of the Cat and Rimmer. Arguably the season’s highpoint was the Western episode “Gunmen of the Apocalypse.” With a Simulant-created virus infecting Starbug, Kryten is forced to attempt to come up with a cure. To monitor his progress, Rimmer, Lister and Cat enter a Wild West-themed virtual reality videogame that allows them to take on new (and uncharacteristically heroic) personalities. They discover that the virus has transformed Kryten into an alcoholic sheriff who faces getting run out of town – i.e. existence – unless he fights the illness that is ravaging his circuits and the ship. “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” finds the Grant Naylor partnership at the height of their creative powers, from the noir-ish opening sequence in which we discover Lister’s insatiable desire for VR sex to the final scene that has Starbug flying into the sunset. A sci-fi Western comedy that doesn’t suck? Impossible though it may seem, that’s exactly what this episode is. Lister and company may be a few gunmen short of a posse, but they sure know how to make some great TV.
Chris Cummins is a pop culture writer and Archie comics historian who has contributed to The Robot's Voice, Den of Geek US, Philebrity, Geekadelphia, Uproxx, and Unicorn Booty. He is the co-producer and co-host of Nerd Nite Philadelphia, and is regularly involved in producing and hosting New York Super Week events. In 2014, Chris began Sci-Fi Explosion, a mix of live performance, trivia and funny clips celebrating the weirdest in science fiction that regularly travels around the United States. He wrote the introductions to the compilations Archie's Favorite Comics From The Vault and (with Paul Castiglia) Archie's Favorite High School Stories. You can find Chris on Twitter at @bionicbigfoot and @scifiexplosion.