Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“I know things will work out the way they’re meant to,” says Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) in Episode 1 of HBO’s Westworld. The TV series, which is based on Michael Crichton’s sci-fi classic from the 1970s, is one of the most anticipated shows of the year – and judging by this first episode, there’s more than enough going on below the surface to meet the hype.
Westworld, for those who don’t know, is a theme park populated by robots, all programmed to let human guests live out their every desire. As we all know from Itchy & Stratchy Land (if not the original Chrichton film), that’s a recipe destined to go wrong. But while that might have been down to a computer glitch several decades ago, this new take on the concept (co-created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy) is far more complex.
That much is immediately clear from the head-spinning opening, which sees Teddy Flood (James Marsden) arrive back in the Wild West-themed town, where he’s greeted by a smiling Dolores. Quicker than you can say “How does human-robot sex work?”, Teddy’s revealed to be a bot. The human in the equation is someone else entirely: Ed Harris’ rogue gunslinger, The Man in Black, who makes a horrifying, nasty entrance. Harris’ warped guest has lived in the park for longer than any of the robots can remember – literally, as they have their hard drives reset every day, so they can act out their programmed role in the town’s narrative all over again.
Coded to be fodder for bullets, or much worse, it’s an entire attraction based around story tropes and stereotypes – a set-up that takes the troubling questions its prologue raises and expanding them to humanity on a wider scale. Is Dolores’ role in Harris’ cruel narrative a fault of the people who designed the park to begin with? Or is it a fault of the people visiting, who expect and desire such things?
The series follows those concepts in your typical multi-strand form: on the one level, we have the robots on the ground, alongside the humans experiencing it all for the first time (watch out for Thandie Newton as tough-cookie brothel owner Maeve Millay); and below, we have the engineers pulling the puppet strings, led by veteran Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins, better than he has been for years) and upcoming computing talent Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright in full Source Code mode).
The result is masterfully put together in every department. The production design for the Wild West universe is as brilliantly convincing as it is curiously fake, full of expansive vistas, gorgeous sunsets and music that takes hits such as Paint It Black and remixes them in Morricone-esque style. The behind-the-scenes rooms, on the other hand, are all shiny greys and soulless blacks, the robots being manufactured out of a creepily pure white substance that looks like milk.
The people here as just as intriguing. There’s game overseer Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babbett Knudsen), who spends her time discusses the sinister set-up with brown-nosing mid-level employee Lee (Simon Quarterman), writer of dialogue for the robots. Lee realises that the park is one thing to the guests, another to its shareholders and another to its managers, that it all works because the guests know the hosts aren’t real. And yet, compared to Knudsen’s composed corporate type, the show’s success lies in the fact that the androids often seem more real than the humans – something that’s testament to both their own exchanges and the mesmerising cast.
We learn that new “reveries” recently added by Dr. Ford are helping to make them appear less artificial – a kind of ghost in the machine that’s part muscle memory, part actual memory and part fragments of old codes from previous installations. The result is something approaching self-awareness, which introduces all kinds of threatening complications: will the robots, if they can recall what’s been done to them (or their loved ones) in the past, start to rebel? And what does that mean for their future? And what, exactly, are Dr. Ford and Bernard trying to achieve anyway, as they position themselves as gods in this inevitably flawed universe?
“You don’t know anymore,” says Dolores’ father, Peter, with a weight of emotion and scorn that’s normally reserved for folks of flesh and blood. “You’re in a prison of your own sins.” Just watching him – and Evan Rachel Wood’s creepily blank face – is the kind of thing that promises to keep you hooked for weeks; these characters are programmed to be honest, polite, and never hurt a fly – but what if that can change?
These are all questions rather than answers, but what questions for a TV show to be contemplating – Nolan are Joy waste no time in diving into the philosophical dilemmas that have haunted science fiction for years. What’s spooky is that the people are the unpredictable part of the equation, not the machines: the Man in Black, the detached, perhaps delusional creators, the company managers keen to spin a profit. It’s telling that the standout moment in the first episode is when a shootout takes place, with Lee penning a new speech for the sheriff to deliver – only for the human element to ruin the whole thing.
“You’re smart enough to guess there’s a bigger picture, but not smart enough to see what it is,” observes Theresa at one point, enigmatically. Sure enough, the show keeps its cards close to its chest, but just as much as we want to find that bigger picture out for ourselves, we also want to find out how much the robots can see of it. “I know things will work out the way they’re meant to,” says Dolores. They’re lines she’s presumably recited before, but the conviction with which she says it is eerily human. Already packed with absorbing details, Westworld is shaping up to be an epic sci-fi of glossy surfaces and fascinating hidden depths.
Westworld Season 1 is available to watch on-demand through Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it live and on-demand on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) and FOX UK (The Walking Dead) to Sky Living (Divorce) and Sky Atlantic (Westworld, The Young Pope). A 7-day free trial is available for new subscribers.
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