Kill all humans

(Mild spoilers…)

I never thought much of the original Westworld movie. Michael Crichton was not a great director, and I was never a fan of Yul Brynner. So when I heard that HBO were making a TV series based on it, I wasn’t terribly interested.

But the buzz pulled me in and I enjoyed the first episode so much, I watched it again. Like last summer’s Humans, it’s your typical robot/artificial intelligence story: the robot uprising is coming. Kill all humans. But in its execution, it offers complex and interesting entertainment.

The main thing that sets it apart, of course, is money. Compared to Daleks and Cybermen, compared to the synths of Humans, compared to just about everything that has come before it, Westworld looks expensive. From cinematography to scoring, production design to casting, this is premium TV, as we’ve come to expect in the Platinum Age.

There are layers within layers, of course. And the trick the scriptwriters have to pull off is making us care about the ‘scripted’ theme park narratives – the play within the play, as it were – when we know that these robots are just performing something akin to a Disney theme ride. There’s much to interest narratologists here:

  • events that occur once but which are narrated more than once (the post-mortem interview with Dolores, which opens and closes the episode);
  • events which occur many times and which are narrated many times (the pattern of repetition and difference as Dolores wakes up and greets her father; Teddy arriving in town on the train; the sheriff trying to raise a posse);
  • events which occur many times but which are narrated once (the – albeit ramped up – saloon robbery);
  • And events which occur once and which are narrated once (most of what happens in the “real world”, bar the Dolores interview;
  • (I should add that there’s a special category for dialogue lines delivered more than once in different situations, providing new levels of signification.)

The effect of all of this is to make you feel empathy for the androids and their endless suffering while also beginning to like or dislike a number of the human characters. And this is in – remember – just one episode. Even the best TV series can suffer from opening episode issues: trying to introduce the fictional world, too many characters and too many plot threads at once. But this is deft and gripping, even as it tells us enough about this world to make us care. Perhaps it helps if you remember the premise of the movie. Regardless, it’s excellent.

There are a couple of neat tricks. First is the introduction of a character, who – because he arrives by train like the visitors – we think is a human, right up until the point he’s revealed as a robot. And the brilliance of this is, because you spend time thinking of him as human, you continue to see him as human after the reveal. So you feel his suffering as well as the power of narrative. Then there are the flies, which at first seem like a creepy reminder that we’re in Uncanny Valley, but then prove to be freighted with greater meaning.

I’m also enjoying the intertextuality: Anthony Hopkins as God, for example, sitting thoughtfully as Vitruvian Man is pulled out of the growth vat. Or the musical cues: Dolores chased by Teddy as they ride across the stunning landscape to a Big Country style Western theme; or the Stones’ “Paint it Black” done in the style of Ennio Morricone during the saloon robbery. Or the use of milk, a white fluid that at one point pours out of a bullet wound like the android “blood” in Ridley Scott movies.

So much too love, and that’s before we get to the anchor character of this opening episode: Dolores, the longest-serving host in the park, whose life is clearly endless torment.  So much so that it’s actually sad when you realise that she doesn’t just “forget” everything at the end of each run-through with a memory wipe. So much so that what might be a throwaway line in any other circumstance (“They come here every day”) is loaded, as is her smiling response to being shown a crumpled and faded photograph: “Doesn’t look like anything to me.”

It’s the new Best Show On TV.


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