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
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