West­world grap­ples with big ideas and shoots from the sci­en­tific hip in its open­ing episode, while Gor­don Buchanan ru­ins my favourite TV show sta­ple for­ever – baby an­i­mals

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The chief cul­prit is Ed Har­ris’s Man in Black, who taunts and tor­tures the robots and searches for a hidden layer in the game. He’s ba­si­cally you when you’re watch­ing True De­tec­tive

Have you noticed any glitches in the fab­ric of re­al­ity lately? (A resur­gent prop­erty mar­ket in the wake of the big­gest crash in his­tory? A hu­man ham hock in a wig run­ning for pres­i­dent of the United States? The Arts Ed­i­tor is look­ing at you funny?)

That’s one dis­turb­ing un­der­cur­rent of West­world (Tues­day, Sky At­lantic), the new JJ Abrams-pro­duced re­make of Michael Crich­ton’s 1973 sci-fi clas­sic: What if we’re just au­toma­tons liv­ing in a sim­u­la­tion de­signed for the en­ter­tain­ment of oth­ers? (The Arts Ed­i­tor, for ex­am­ple).

I don’t know about you, but frankly, I can’t rule it out. The pi­lot episode walks us through the un­re­mem­bered Ground­hog-daily rou­tine of a ro­bot named Dolores Aber­nathy (Evan Rachel Wood), which isn’t a very Star Wars name for a ro­bot (R2D2 and Dolores Aber­nathy?), at a theme park in which wealthy vis­i­tors en­gage in con­se­quence-less ad­ven­tur­ing in an er­satz old West.

“Some choose to see the ug­li­ness in the world, the dis­ar­ray. I choose to see the beauty,” she says Polyan­nishly, but she feels a real, if pro­grammed, love for her beau (James Mars­den) and her mal­func­tion­ing fa­ther (Louis Herthum). The lat­ter has started to re­cite ran­dom snip­pets of Shake­speare af­ter find­ing a con­fus­ing pho­to­graph of life be­yond West­world. And Dolores her­self is also trou­bled by bur­geon­ing self-aware­ness.

Be­hind the scenes, black-clad tech­ni­cians have in­tense re­al­ity-ques­tion­ing, 2001ref­er­enc­ing con­ver­sa­tions with naked robots, test­ing their safety pro­to­cols and sense of re­al­ity (we’ve all had sim­i­lar meet­ings with HR).

In the base­ment the ge­nius founder, Dr Ford (An­thony Hop­kins), tin­kers away, cre­at­ing new ges­tures and emo­tional mo­ti­va­tions for the robots, while oc­ca­sion­ally chat­ting to a rusty out-of-com­mis­sion Buf­falo Bill (the ro­bot equiv­a­lent of a Nokia) and over­see­ing up­grades that cause spo­radic out­bursts of mech­a­nised havoc. Yeah, when­ever old Bri­tish men es­tab­lish fu­tur­is­tic theme parks ( Juras­sic Park, West­world, Amer­ica), things go wrong.

There are a lot of lay­ers here. There’s an eerie ques­tion about the true pur­pose of the park, and a sub­plot about ne­far­i­ous em­ploy­ees ma­noeu­vring for con­trol of the com­pany. And at the core there’s a mov­ing story about “peo­ple” (well, sen­tient robots) trapped by things they can’t com­pre­hend. But they’re also en­act­ing a show-within-ashow, hok­ily scripted by an amoral Bri­tish hack (Si­mon Quar­ter­man) and are prey to va­ca­tion­ers who revel in play­ing HBO-style bad guys, rap­ing and mur­der­ing ro­botic lo­cals who can’t fight back.


Yes, some­times it feels like HBO it­self is also be­com­ing self­aware (much like Life­time did with its re­al­ity TV drama UnREAL), ques­tion­ing the na­ture of its own ex­is­tence and prod­ding its reg­u­lar view­ers about their lust for vi­car­i­ous sex and vi­o­lence. The chief cul­prit is Ed Har­ris’s Man in Black, a re­peat vis­i­tor to West­world, who taunts and tor­tures the robots and searches for a hidden layer in the game. He’s ba­si­cally you when you’re watch­ing True De­tec­tive.

Thank­fully the showrun­ners, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan, have their sights on more than just tele­vi­sion crit­i­cism.

West­world also presents us with a near-the­o­log­i­cal analysis of what makes us hu­man, wrapped in a pes­simistic view of progress. The old West set­ting is apt. The boundary-less fron­tier of Amer­ica’s ro­man­tic foun­da­tion myth is, at West­world, walled off. The fu­ture has lim­its, Dr Ford tells us, be­cause hu­man­ity is now in the hands of science, not evo­lu­tion.

“We’re done,” he says. “This is as good as we’re go­ing to get.” Then Dolores, who we have been re­li­ably led to be­lieve can­not hurt a fly (it’s a mo­tif through­out the pi­lot), hurts a fly. This is a bit on the nose, but it’s an in­trigu­ingly ro­botic, philo­soph­i­cally trou­bled and newly sen­tient nose, so I’ll be tun­ing in for episode two.


Else­where, the great wildlife cam­era­man Gor­don Buchanan is back to ruin baby an­i­mals for us ( An­i­mal Ba­bies, Sun­day, BBC 1). Sadly, this is not a pro­gramme in which baby lions hug baby bears un­til my heart ex­plodes, but a beau­ti­fully filmed show that could have been called An­i­mal Ba­bies, Red in Tooth and Claw or, pos­si­bly, An­i­mal Baby Bas­tards or The Key Word in “Baby An­i­mal” is “An­i­mal”.

Gor­don, who was, tech­ni­cally speak­ing, once a baby an­i­mal him­self, starts by show­ing us the birth of a cute, stag­gery baby wilde­beest. Yaaay! But it is soon in the jaws of a chee­tah. Booo! But the chee­tah is just do­ing this to feed its six adorable lit­tle chee­tah cubs. Yaaay?

Only 10 min­utes in and I’m very con­flicted. I didn’t ask for baby-an­i­mal-themed moral rel­a­tivism. Just show me a baby ele­phant romp­ing, Gor­don, for God’s sake! There you go. That’s more like it. Look at her lit­tle legs. Ah no, now several baby ele­phants are be­ing swept down a river, away from their moth­ers. Je­sus, Gor­don.

Oh look, two cute baby mon­gooses are tod­dling be­hind their opera-sound­tracked fam­ily (all the an­i­mals are sound­tracked ac­cord­ing to their in­di­vid­ual tastes: opera for mon­gooses, En­nio Mor­ri­cone for chee­tahs). Oh, the fam­ily are bul­ly­ing the weak­est baby mon­goose and leav­ing it be­hind to die. That’s great, Gor­don. Thanks. (I’m be­ing sar­cas­tic.)

Now look, a heroic lit­tle baby bird! What’s it do­ing? It’s knock­ing its sib­lings’ eggs from the nest us­ing its arse, much like Don­ald Trump did to his ri­vals in the Repub­li­can party. The baby bird is a cuckoo and a com­plete bas­tard. Of course.

For fu­ture ref­er­ence, I would pre­fer a West­world- style scripted re­al­ity ap­proach to baby-an­i­mal doc­u­men­taries. Per­haps a chee­tah cub and a baby ele­phant could go on a road-trip to­gether to find the real Amer­ica? How about… a baby mon­goose just wants to dance, against the wishes of his for­ag­ing, work­ing-class fam­ily, but ev­ery­one learns about ac­cep­tance when he gets a schol­ar­ship to dance col­lege and a part in an off-Broad­way show?

Or, and bear with me, I es­tab­lish a shel­ter for way­ward baby an­i­mals and take in a baby ele­phant, wilde­beest, chee­tah, mon­goose and cuckoo. I give them spe­cial tablets (note to self: re­search this) to stop them grow­ing into adult an­i­mals (my house is quite small), and I raise them to­gether as a les­son to mankind about peace and love. I will call the pro­gramme An­i­mal House and I am con­fi­dent that the ISPCA won’t get in­volved be­cause I am “nice”. Would you like to be on the ground floor for this ex­cit­ing new ini­tia­tive, Gor­don (my own lit­tle West­world)? Con­tact me at the usual email ad­dress.

James Mars­den and Evan Rachel Wood in Sky At­lantic’s new sci-fi se­ries West­world

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