Sunday 16 August 2020

Westworld Season 1 by Crichton, Nolan & Joy

Well, I've finally caught up with the TV series of Westworld. And, spoiler alert, I'm impressed.

I still have vivid memories of the 1973 Michael Crichton movie it's based on. Not so vivid that I couldn't do with seeing it again, though.

Indeed it's clear that I need to give Michael Crichton a full blown reappraisal. He was an influential, intriguing and diverse talent.

But for now let's talk about the TV series that he inspired, which started in 2016. Crichton was given full credit in the first episode, but from that point on his name was shunted into the small print at the end of the show.

This is what happens to you if you die in Hollywood. It's reprehensible, but what can you do? Especially if you're dead.

The series was developed for television by Jonathan Nolan, whom I'm sure is utterly sick of being identified as the brother of Christopher Nolan.

Jonathan Nolan is very much a talent in his own right and he is also responsible for Person of Interest, another favourite TV series of mine.

He developed Westworld in collaboration with Lisa Joy, whom I'm sure is utterly sick of being identified as the wife of Jonathan Nolan...

Nolan and Joy have done one hell of a fantastic job. Essentially the original Crichton movie was about a cowboy theme park robot (memorably played by Yul Brynner) rebelling in a lethal fashion.

(There's a nice little nod to the movie in the TV show when we glimpse the decommissioned Yul Brynner robot in the background in one scene.)

As I recall, in the movie our sympathies were pretty much with the Brynner robot's human victims — the theme park's customers. And the story was essentially from their point of view.

In Westworld the TV series, this is cunningly reversed. We see the situation from the robots' point of view. Which has seismic implications...

The show is full of wit and intelligence. One of the dominant recurring images is a player piano in the saloon in the town of Sweetwater.

Its pre-programmed, inflexible routine, playing music guided by a punched paper tape,  is a cogent metaphor for the lives of the robots, repeating their own programmed scenarios, again and again.

Indeed, when you tell this story from the robots' point of view it becomes a very scary version of Groundhog Day.

The horrible plight of the robots — sexually exploited, tortured, murdered, all for the pleasure of the theme park's customers — is powerfully conveyed.

The story alternates between the robots, officially called 'hosts', and the corporate humans who control their destiny. 

The humans callously call the hosts 'livestock' and there are rooms full of their discarded, maimed nude bodies.

No longer exactly robots, they have been pushed dangerously in the direction of becoming human, because this makes for better business — "Your humanity is cost effective."

I was well aware of Westworld, both because of the Crichton source movie and the (well deserved) acclaim it received.

But I had no idea about the calibre of the cast. Thandie (pronounced 'Tandy') Newton is Maeve, the madam of the saloon bordello in Sweetwater.

And none other than Anthony Hopkins is the creator of her and her fellow robots, Ford — a rather on-the-nose name, don't you think, for the pioneer of a new consumer technology?

While most of the robots go unquestioningly about their hellish lives, Maeve has begun to question what is going on. When her character gets killed, and taken in for repair, she wakes up in the lab and glimpses reality.

So she begins to arrange her own death, to get more of these glimpses of the real world — rather like the use of the 'suicide express' in Philip José Farmer's Riverworld novels.

Maeve is great, and Ford is pretty intriguing, too. But for me one of the most engaging characters is the monstrous Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman), the heartless nerd in charge of 'narrative' for Westworld.

In other words, he creates the horrible fates for these poor robots.

There's plenty more to say about Westworld. And as I finish this first season and move on to its sequels, I hope to discuss it in some detail.

(Image credits: IMDB.)

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