Lancer is a TV Western series from 20th Century Fox, set in the California of the early 1870s. The Wikipaedia entry describes it as a ‘darker and more complex version of the more successful Bonanza”.
Murdoch Lancer, the owner of 100,000 acres of the San Joaquin Valley, California, is under threat from land grabbers, or ‘land pirates’ as he rather quaintly describes them. His foreman, Paul O’Brien, is murdered and Murdoch himself shot in the back by the leader of these land pirates, a man called Day Pardee. Murdoch calls Pardee ‘the big dog that gets the meat’ in a land where pack rule is the only law.
Murdoch has been married twice and has two sons, neither of whom he has seen for twenty years and neither of whom knows about the other. He sends Pinkerton agents to find them, offering them $1000 dollars for an hour of their time. Scott (aged about 24) and Johnny (21) arrive, accept their father’s offer of an equal partnership in the Lancer ranch, and foil Pardee’s attack.
The threat over, they both stay and the two series chart their lives as they build a new family.
played by Andrew Duggan
An immigrant Scot (apparently from Inverness) Murdoch arrived in the US probably sometime in the early 1840s. He married Catherine Garrett, the daughter (possibly only child) of a rich Bostonian businessman Harlan Garrett, against Garrett’s wishes. They moved to California where Murdoch bought the ranch, (in 1844/45?) probably just about the time of the US-Mexican war. California was then Mexican, and not exempt from the troubles – in 1846 it became a part of the US. During this upheaval, the ranch was the target of an earlier group of landgrabbers led by Judd Haney (Yesterday’s Vengeance). In 1845, Murdoch sent a heavily pregnant Catherine to what he hoped would be safety, Harlan travelling to meet her at Carterville, Ca., where she died giving birth to Scott. Harlan took the boy back to Boston and refused to give him back.
The timings posted here tie in with Scott being about 25 in 1870, and Murdoch’s less-than-detailed story of his marriage and Scott’s birth that he gives in the show’s pilot, The High Riders: “Your mother’s family thought she was mad marrying me, and me less than a year off the boat from Inverness. She died, you were born, I left you in their care. Period.”
A couple of years later, Murdoch meets a Mexican woman, Maria, in Matamoros (clear over the other side of the continent, mind you). She got pregnant and they married, and Johnny was born on Lancer (has to be around 1847). Maria eloped two years later with a gambler, taking Johnny with her, and disappeared into the ‘border towns’, the strip of land that runs the length of the US-Mexican border and which was a by-word for violence and lawlessness. Murdoch again, from the pilot: “A couple of years later I met your mother down in Matamoros. She… we got married, you were born. Two years after that I woke one morning to find you both gone.”
Later it emerges that Murdoch made one trip to Boston when Scott was five, arriving on the boy’s birthday, to try and reclaim him – he would have already lost Johnny by this point – but Harlan used his wealth and position to prevent Murdoch succeeding, (Legacy).
Apart from this one sighting of Scott, Murdoch has seen neither son for twenty years. He’s spent the time creating one of the biggest and most successful ranches in California, telling his sons that he loves this land “more than anything God ever created. I’ve got a grey hair for every good blade of grass you see out there.” Certainly it’s a big estancia, and the house itself, the hacienda, is huge and imposing, with richly furnished rooms in the western style. He’s a successful man, but self-evidently not a happy one.
In the pilot, Murdoch isn’t a likeable character. He is brusque and uncompromising with his sons – “We’re strangers to each other.” – not in the least conciliating. He refuses to explain himself, telling them that it’s all in the past, over and done with. While it’s clear he’s a gentler, more kindly man when he interacts with his ward, O’Brien’s daughter Teresa, he does not welcome his sons in any meaningful way. He does offer them one-third each of the ranch in return for their help in getting rid of Pardee, but insists the he will call the tune. Astonishingly, given their reception, the two accept.
It becomes clear as the series progresses that Murdoch, while embittered by his experiences, is honest, forthright, honorable and, under that crusty exterior, warm-hearted. Both canonically and in fanon, the relationship with Johnny gets off to a shaky start (Chase a Wild Horse) and he seems to bond more easily with Scott. But despite the unpromising beginning, he does forge a very strong relationship with both his sons.
Scott Garrett Lancer
played by Wayne Maunder
The elder of the two Lancer sons, Scott has been brought up in Boston in a live of wealth and privilege, under the apparent assumption that he was unwanted by his father. When approached by the Pinkerton agent in the pilot, he has just made his escape from a young lady’s bedroom, just as her father and a couple of toughs burst in. He’s an idle dandy, well dressed and a little decadent. There’s no indication that he has to work for a living and he certainly has no pressing financial reason for accepting Murdoch’s offer of $1000 – indeed, when they do meet he is still disinterested in the money Murdoch’s offering.
Scott is very much the Eastern dandy when he arrives, dressed in a very un-western suit with a bowler hat. In the pilot, his clothes are the cause of much comment, but he soon conforms to the western norm and leaves his dandyism behind – although he’s rarely seen without a pair of gloves, a nice piece of characterisation to remind the viewer of his background.
In discussion with Johnny, Scott reveals that he was in General Phil Sheridan’s unit (Cavalry) in the Civil War – he has a photograph of himself and the General in uniform. It emerges later (The Escape) that Scott had joined the Union Army as soon as he was old enough, was captured and spent a year in a Confederate prison camp. Fans interpret his idle life afterwards as a form of post-traumatic stress, his experiences in the war leaving him restless and unfulfilled in Boston.
Scott has a few adventures with the ladies. He had been engaged to girl, Julie, who had broken it off with him (Legacy), chivalrously befriends girls like Polly (Foley) .and Zee (Zee) but never seems to have a serious love interest in the series.
The most interesting relationship to watch is the growing bond he has with his half-brother, Johnny, and certainly this is the stuff of the vast majority of existing fanon. He and Johnny are not very alike, but their relationship is swiftly established and becomes pivotal to both of them.
Johnny Madrid Lancer
played by James Stacy
Johnny has been brought up in the towns along the Mexican border, following his mother’s elopement with a gambler. He doesn’t use the Lancer name, but is more famous as Johnny Madrid, a notorious gunfighter (“All I ever wanted to be was Johnny Madrid, good at my trade.” Warburton’s Edge).
His mother’s fate is unknown, and little is known about Johnny’s childhood: he mentions a stepfather in The Kid (“My stepfather used to whomp me, teach me some manners.”), says he’s had very little formal education (Measure of a Man) and that he turned to the gun because he “grew up hatin’ ” (The Kid). We know from the pilot that he believes that he and his mother were thrown out by Murdoch – Teresa puts him right on this. Fans suggest that Johnny, being half Mexican, would have suffered from prejudice all his life, and it’s this, plus his belief that Murdoch rejected them, and living through a childhood spent in poverty and deprivation, that made him turn to the gun.
At the end of the pilot, he accepts the Lancer name and the change of life that becoming a rancher involves. But throughout the series there are references to his past, making it clear that escaping Johnny Madrid is never going to be easy. He is continually recognised – “I’ve heard tales of John Madrid from here clear down to the Mexican border.” Shadow of a Dead Man; “What’s another dead man to Johnny Madrid?” The Heart of Pony Alice; “Madrid’s an awfully expensive gun to hire.” The Kid; “I saw him gun down two of the best in Nogales once.” Measure of a Man… etc etc. This trope is one that is constantly exploited in fiction, many writers exploring endless variations on Johnny’ struggles to put Madrid behind him and get everyone to understand that “I go by Lancer now.” Scarecrow at Hackett’s
Johnny’s love life is as lively as Scott’s, and just as unsuccessful. He has dalliances with missionaries and shop-owners, a mute girl who saves him when he’s blinded; is attracted to married school teachers and the girl who almost sacrifices Scott to save her own brother. But again, fans are far more interested in his relationship with Scott than with anyone else.
Oh, and if Scott is a dandy, how to describe Johnny? He dresses Mexican style: his pants are calzoneras, buttoned down the length of each leg with silver conchos and with embroidered buttonholes, and his favourite shirt is pink with black embroidery; he wears an Indian bracelet and necklace. There’s a man secure in his own sexuality, and very secure in his ability to out-shoot anyone who calls him on it!
Teresa O’Brien (Elizabeth Baur) the orphaned daughter of Paul O’Brien, Murdoch’s foreman. O’Brien is murdered in the pilot, leaving Teresa as Murdoch’s ward. Thankfully, there’s no love interest with either son.
Jelly Hoskins (Paul Brinegar), an irascible old conman with a heart of gold, who comes to live on the ranch and becomes an indispensable member of the extended family. We meet Jelly as the guardian of a motley collection of homeless orphan boys, and he seems especially fond of Johnny, who he evidently sees as one of his boys, grown up.