Western Journey

Published 2007-11-29

When I was a kid, one of my favorite TV shows was a genre show called Western Journey. Set in 1870, the show followed the adventures of a small band of US Marshals who traveled around the Wild West in an enormous and wonderful stagecoach called the Venture. The show followed a loose formula. Every week our band of heroes would ride into an isolated town — usually a village populated by previously-uncontacted Indians with surprising and thought-provoking cultural systems (who nevertheless all spoke English). The cultural tension between the locals and the crew of the Venture provided a counterpoint for the cultural prejudices of the show's modern audience. Although it pretended to be a western (in the vein of contemporary genre pieces like Gunsmoke or Bonanza), it was really about something else: modern America.

Western Journey was produced just before my time, and had some corny anachronisms — its sexual politics were particularly suspect. The attention to period detail was sometimes contrived but surprisingly believable. Several plots were resolved with unusual technical applications of horse tackle, Remington repeaters, or late 19th-century medicine. The original Western Journey enjoyed only limited popularity during its first run on television but acquired a new life in syndication, spawning half a dozen films, three of which managed to surpass the original material.

Some years later, the creators of Western Journey revived the franchise, moving its setting ahead 80 years, to 1950. This seemed like a bold dramatic maneuver, but almost immediately disappointed. Western Journey: The New Generation stuck surprisingly close to the formula of its predecessor. The West of 1950 was not much changed from that of 1870. There were no Interstate highways, strip malls, airplanes, or Disneyland. The new characters still traveled from Indian village to Indian village in a somewhat larger and fancier stagecoach (again called Venture), although the six-shooters were styled differently, and the crew wore a different kind of ten-gallon hat. Actually, it wasn't all that different, now that I think about it.

Apparently, in the 80 years since the original events of Western Journey, American politics, history, culture, and technology had advanced only incrementally. The Wild West was still plenty wild, although the Indians were portrayed a bit more sensitively, and with slightly better costumes. (Of course they all spoke English, except for the Lakota, who occasionally spoke Lakota for some reason.) The only indications of progress — political, technological or otherwise — were in the persons of a Lakota scout who served with the Venture (the Lakota having been the main heavies of the original series), and an anachronistic robot crewman. The crew occasionally spoke about how less wild the West had become, which they demonstrated by extemporizing ponderously before almost every shootout. More than once I opined that, for all the apparent lack of cultural evolution in the 80 years between the series, they might as well have set WJ:TNG in 1880. It certainly would have been more believable.

Oh, and the new stagecoach Venture was outfitted with an enormous Super Nintendo video game system for the crew’s entertainment. About every fifth episode actually took place inside a Super Nintendo videogame.

So, to summarize: in 80 years, technology and society had advanced this much:

  • The U.S. is no longer at war with the Lakota
  • US Marshals deliver monologues before shootouts
  • The six-shooters, stagecoaches, and ten-gallon hats are totally different
  • Someone invented Super Nintendo, and its sole application is apparently for the entertainment of US Marshals
  • Someone invented self-aware robots, but only made one of them, and it also rides around the West in a US Marshal stagecoach

Where WJ:TOS was a phenomenon, WJ:TNG was a runaway success. It produced twice as many episodes, four movies (all of them inferior to the TV show), and two spinoffs:

  • Western Journey: Fort Vancouver was set in the far Northwest Territories, in a trading post which was apparently a lot like a suburban convention center-cum-shopping mall.
  • Western Journey: Traveler followed a group of US Marshals who found themselves cast halfway around the world, in the highlands of New Guinea. They had to battle their way through an utterly exotic landscape, among utterly foreign cultures, to make their way back to North America. The landscape of New Guinea turned out to look a lot like the American West, and it was populated by English-speaking Native Americans.

By the end of WJ:T’s run, much of the romantic spirit of Western Journey was drained from its fictional universe. Western Journey episodes had become an elaborate Wild West kabuki of diminishing interest to all but the most fanatic admirers. Most plots resolved themselves through the techno-fixes occasionally employed in WJ:TOS. The Wild West seemed like a strangely static place: you had your marshalls, you had your Indians, you had some occasional settlers, and they never seemed to change or go anywhere, or evolve, or die. Most of the characters seemed like technocrats or technical specialists of one kind or another, and most of the dramatic action seemed to involve people typing on typewriters and delivering monologues.

Then, a few years back, Western Journey appeared in its final incarnation. Set 100 years before the original Western Journey, Venture promised to refresh the sagging franchise. The premise was brilliant: by moving the show’s setting to 1770, the writers could exploit the encyclopedic backstory of the Western Journey universe, and reintroduce the wild romance of the original series. I had every hope, in fact, that it might prove more wild and more romantic, as it was set before the invention of six-shooters or the founding of the United States, at a time when stagecoaches were dangerous and unpredictable, and none of the Indians could be expected to speak English.

Within about two episodes, Venture had proved itself: the world of 1770 was pretty much like that of 1870. In the second episode, one of the Venture’s crew invented the six-shooter, and by the fourth episode we witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The new (old?) Venture employed a linguist specializing in Native American languages, although again, most of the Indians spoke English. To be fair, this time around the ten-gallon hats were very different. They had pockets.

But apparently, the exploration of an untamed continent, the birth of a nation, and the Revolutionary War presented dramatically unsuitable ingredients for an adventure show, because most of Venture’s long-running plot lines revolved around time travelers from the 25th century who were fighting a war in 1770. Altogether this gave the unsatisfying impression that the entire culture and history of the United States were lifted in 1770 from 25th century time travelers.

I’ve recently heard of a new entry into the Western Journey canon: a new film featuring the characters of the original television show, but set before the events of the first season. I don’t have high hopes that this entry will breathe any new life into the franchise. It has a promising cast, but then, the sustained failure of Western Journey hasn't been talent, but imagination. In a perverse way, this might be the the franchise's most impressive achievement.

With more than 700 television episodes and ten movies, filmed over a period of almost 40 years, Western Journey expresses a grand narrative arc of almost exactly zero. If we are to believe the evidence presented by the fictional universe of Western Journey, the greatest advances of almost two centuries of American history were in the fields of military headwear and the interior styling of stagecoaches.