GEEK OUT! HOW WESTWORLD HAS RE-INVIGORATED SCIFI TV

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This post contains spoilers!

Serialised story-telling in science-fiction TV really took off – we would suggest – in the early 1990s with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Babylon 5. The success of these space operas resulted in a flurry of similar type series, including two from the Star Trek franchise viz. Deep Space Nine and Voyager and the successful re-imagining of the Battlestar Galactica (BSG) movie franchise into a edgy, thought-provoking drama that reflected the times succinctly.

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In the last 2-3 years, there has been too much average scifi dross being churned out (from Syfy and CW, in particular) but this year, we have been privileged to witness the birth of a new series that takes its cues from the BSG re-imagining, to produce an illuminating scifi TV series that is this time, perhaps projecting what our future may turn out to be.

Westworld, of course, was a 1973 scifi movie – written and directed by the late Michael Crichton – which featured a futuristic Disneyland for adults, where, for a hefty fee, one could indulge in one’s wildest fantasies, set in the Wild West. Like Crichton’s other theme park gone wrong novel – Jurassic Park – the robots that populate Westworld run amok, threatening our human protagonists.

Whilst HBO’s version of Westworld (created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy) retains the central premise, it is not the immediate threat of homicidal robots that fills the narrative, rather it is a nuanced examination of the very nature of consciousness – taking the story away from its B-movie scifi-horror origins and into sophisticated Philip K Dick territory.

Welcome to the ‘mindfuck’.

For the first half of the series, the narrative appeared to be confusing and somewhat episodic – jumping from plot to plot seemingly without any relation to one another. This disconnection somewhat dissipates once the viewer realises that the various plots are in different time periods, and the genius of Westworld’s creative storytelling become apparent.

This fascination with the show’s unique narrative was fuelled by speculative theories online (notably on Reddit and Youtube) which demonstrated its success in capturing the imagination of the viewing public, with the same fervour in which Game of Thrones theories have been discussed.

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Theorists postulated THREE distinct time periods.

  1. The present, where park creator Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Head of Behaviour; Bernard Lowe (Jeffrey Wright) and Head of Quality Assurance; Theresa Cullen (Sidse Babett Knudsen) encounter certain malfunctions in the robotic Hosts which may threaten the safety of visitors and compromise the viability of the park. The prominent Hosts – Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), Maeve (Thandie Newton), Teddy (James Marsden) – are slowly beginning to become sentient (in other words, malfunction) and with respect to the former two, take steps to explore this new found self-awareness. Dolores re-enacts a journey taken thirty years ago (see 2 below) and Maeve hatches a plan (with the aid of two Westworld technicians) to escape the park. And then there’s the mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris), who is on a quest to discover the centre of the maze he discovers drawn on the inner scalp of one of the Hosts.
  2. Thirty years ago, two visitors to the park viz. William (Jimmi Simpson) and Logan (Ben Barnes), came in search of adventure and self-discovery. Instead, they fall out, William became besotted with Dolores, and William is changed irrevocably in the course of a dark and dangerous adventure they shared together. 
  3. Thirty-five years ago, the park – in beta phase – underwent a major incident in which Arnold Weber – the creative partner of Ford – was killed.

What worked in the favour of the series keeping viewers in the dark was the fact that the hosts did not age and thus it was impossible to tell exactly when a sequence was taking place. In addition,  the show’s attempts at misdirection were well handled, leaving viewers somewhat mystified and intrigued with what was happening on screen.

One exquisite demonstration involved scenes involving Bernard, which most would have assumed was happening in the present. However, in episode 8, it was revealed that Bernard was in fact a robot (!), not only that but in the subsequent episode, viewers discovered that Bernard was a simulacrum of Arnold. This meant that the many scenes where it appeared that Bernard was interacting with Dolores in the present day were in fact scenes from 35 years ago involving Arnold and Dolores! Mind blowing!!

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This shocking revelation turned the series on its head, with the confirmation that different time periods were being utilised in the non-linear narrative, it was left to the season finale to tie up all the various plot lines and deliver a satisfactory conclusion.

And the finale did just that. Just about. But most significantly, two major twists – one anticipated and one unexpected – made the 90 minute episode a clear winner. As theorised, the Man in Black was in fact a older and wizened William and while it did come as a big shock but it was immensely satisfying to have that confirmed. What was not predicted, was the ultimate role of Ford – turned out that he was not the enemy of the Hosts but in fact, had been clandestinely working for the last 35 years to “save” the Hosts i.e. to grant them sentience and dominion over Westworld.

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Do Dolores and Maeve achieve their goals? At the end, it is not quite certain although the Hosts rise up against the board of the park owners Delos in a bloody and violent denouement. We are left to ponder the outcome of that final sequence, which will be left probably for Season 2 (to come in 2018).

In the final analysis, the first season of Westworld will be remembered for its non-linear story telling, intricate plot development, vivid characters and the philosophical issues it tackled (pre-figuring the imminent singularity event in human history). In that respect, it has elevated scifi TV to new heights, nothing else in 2016 came remotely close. Kudos.

… still there’s more …