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October 4, 2016

Review: Westworld 1x1 (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on October 4, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


In the US: Sundays, 9pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, Sky Atlantic

The first of anything is usually pretty ropey. Whether it's a book, a computer program, a movie genre or a species of animal, you can usually bet it'll be a while before all the bugs are ironed out of it.

Arguably, Michael Crichton's 1973 directorial debut Westworld wasn't even his first 'theme park goes wrong' story. After all, although The Andromeda Strain isn't about a theme park, it still embodies the fundamental Crichton idea of a great technological construction going wrong because of imperfect human knowledge and hubris, with the whole thing subsequently doing its best to kill all the human beings in its environs. 

But Westworld is still his first proper theme park and as a movie, it's not that great. It sees a whole bunch of tourists coming to a fantasy world populated by androids and gynoids who are there to enact scenarios and interact with the guests for their entertainment. But as said robots aren't alive and don't have animus, the guests are able to kill them, shag them and do all manner of unconscionable acts to them conscionably and without fear of reprisal or harm to themselves.

Then one day the slaves revolt and turn on their masters, with one gunslinger in the cowboy-themed 'Westworld' deciding he's going to hunt down two guests in particular.

Part of the general dystopian sci-fi of the 70s, there's not much to Westworld. You get a general tour of the various 'worlds'. You get to watch as our heroes have a bit of fun playing dress up as cowboys. Then everything goes pear-shaped and it's a mad race for survival.

But that's about it. There's no real examination of the morals and ethics of the theme park and no proper explanation for why everything goes wrong - for that, you have to wait for the un-Crichtonesque sequel Futureworld, and you'll have seen better explanations for unexplained computer behaviour on the average App Store update list. 

Westworld's biggest contribution to culture was certainly not the brief spin-off TV series, Beyond Westworld, which you might have caught of a morning in the 80s on ITV if you're an oldie like me. That was actually worse than the movie, following on from Futureworld by giving us a mad scientist using the Delos robots to try to take over the world.

No, Westworld's sole proper contribution to global culture was its iconic gunslinger played by Yul Brynner - a relentless implacable, near-indestructible robot, whose first person robotic POV we get to experience on occasion, he's the clear progenitor of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator.

In fact, it took a new book by Crichton, Steven Spielberg and another 10 years before Crichton's theme park motif could be perfected in the form of Jurassic Park.

But as Anthony Hopkins points out in HBO's new version of both Westworld and the Crichton motif, evolution only works by making mistakes. Those mistakes enable even better versions of things to be created. And HBO's Westworld is both beautifully made and close to genius, even though it's quite hard to watch.

The show's written by Burn Notice's Lisa Joy and her husband Jonathan Nolan, who's not only helped to write some of big brother Christopher's finest (Memento, The Prestige, Interstellar, The Dark Knight, he's also no stranger to the world of artificial intelligence, having created and exec produced Person of Interest. Rather than take the Westworld plot and string it out over an entire season, Joy and Nolan instead decide to use it to examine - in much the same, but far less glossy a way as Channel 4's recent Humans did - not only what it is to be human but what it must be like to be artificially intelligent, and how the way we treat what we regard as sub-human shows us what we're like.

The first episode gives us both twists on the original's gunslinger as well as a whole new set of characters, including brothel owner Thandie Newton, but principally Evan Rachel Wood - a seemingly ordinary, happy gynoid but one who has a secret revealed at the end. Through her, we're shown what it must be like to have one's consciousness subject to reprogramming and memories subject to constant erasure. We also learn of man's potential for inhumanity to both man and woman when he believes there are no consequences and that's frequently disturbing and unpleasant to watch.

Behind the scenes, we have a slightly Hunger Games vibe, with Borgen's Sidse Babett Knudsen trying to run the park smoothly, Luke Hemsworth trying to keep the robots in line and Simon Quarterman trying to come up with fun scenarios for the guests. Meanwhile, programmer Jeffrey Wright (The Hunger Games 2) is trying to find out why the latest update from creative director Anthony Hopkins to the robots is causing problems. Could it be his decision to allow memories to pervade as a subconsciousness in the robots is enabling them to become something more than intended? 

Westworld's most interesting when it's at its subtlest, musing on some aspect of human behaviour, such as how memories can inspire mannerisms, or how closed systems invariably will come into conflict with other systems and have to adjust - such as when a photograph from the outside world turns up in Westworld, prompting one android to have a Community finale moment:

But it also benefits from decades of advances in computing and familiarity with computing. It's not mystical and abstruse as it was when the original movie came out. Upgrades, downgrades, bug fixes et al are the stuff of the everyday now, and the show is able to use that and turns them into something far more interesting. If intelligence can be artificial, what would it mean if you could be made smarter or more conscious through a simple .1 upgrade patch? Or if your free will could be turned off with a slider in your preferences settings? Westworld goes there, but questions mechanicity and asks if such a thing is even possible, or is there something more to being human - albeit something that could be reproducible?

All of which makes it sound less fun than it actually is. But there's also comedy, pathos and more, as well as twists to keep you intrigued. You're going to need a strong stomach, too, because even though you know firstly that it's a TV show and secondly the characters are robots, it's as hard to avoid empathising with them as it is to avoid feelings during the title sequence of Android. Is that what separates us from robots as Phil Dick postulated in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Or is even that difference an illusion?

All in all, an extremely promising start and I expect that Joy and Nolan are only just beginning to limber up for the real meat of the story. Fingers crossed, this will be a classic.

October 4, 2016

Review: Timeless 1x1 (US: NBC; UK: E4)

Posted on October 4, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by E4

Time and tide wait for no man, but that's not going to stop US TV networks trying this season. There's at least three time travel shows on the radar, with Making History hitting Fox in 2017, Frequency on The CW later this week and last night we got Timeless on NBC. 

Making a TV show about time travel shouldn't be too hard - and indeed all those shows are as different from each other as they are from Doctor Who - but Timeless arrives on our screens already bearing a lawsuit from the creators of El ministerio del tiempo (The Ministry of Time) for being just a tad too similar in concept. To be honest, though, I reckon the show's a Ron Silver or a Jean Claude Van Damme away from an equally valid suit from the creators of Time Cop.

Lots of black British actors are saying the only route to a good career these days is to head to the US. Certainly, everyone's favourite 'should have been Doctor Who' Paterson Joseph had to head over to the States to be able to have his own time machine. Although being the US where everything is bigger, better and available in more colours, he got two.

Trouble is the mega-wealthy Joseph didn't realise that time travel creates paradoxes, and although he kept his shiny time machines to himself, everyone's favourite handsome East European villain, Goran Višnjić (Extant, Practical Magic) has a book from the future telling him all about where the time machines are now, and he goes and steals one.

Joseph calls in the government for help, and the government calls in Delta operative Matt Lanter (Star Crossed, 90210) and professor of so much history Abigail Breslin (Rectify) to help them. Before you know it, Lanter, Breslin and one of Joseph's techies (Better Off Ted's Malcolm Barrett) are heading back into the past in the remaining time machine to prevent Višnjić from stopping America before it gets started. First stop, 1937 to ensure Višnjić can't… prevent the Hindenburg disaster? Hang on, that doesn't seem right.

Here's a trailer.

Continue reading "Review: Timeless 1x1 (US: NBC; UK: E4)"

October 4, 2016

Review: Aftermath 1x1 (Canada: Space; UK: 5*)

Posted on October 4, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share


In Canada: Tuesdays, 10e/7p, Space
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, 5*. Starts tonight

Sometimes, this year has felt like the End of Days. So many famous people dying, Brexit, Turkish coups, Aleppo. The list goes on and we haven't even reached the Trump White House yet. Or the raining fish. Or the flying zombies.

Those latter two are coming soon, though, along with meteors, earthquakes and all manner of other disasters, according to Space's Aftermath. It stars real-life couple Anne Heche (Save Me, Hung) and James Tupper (Mercy), who met back in Men In Trees, as a couple with three kids who have to somehow survive the apocalypse. Heche's former USAF, while Tupper is a professor of old things, the former therefore being handy at shooting the 'skinwalkers' that rise up, Tupper useful for explaining that all the earthquakes have freed these ancient creatures trapped under the Earth who need to possess people to interact with the world. Mayan prophecies are in there somewhere, too, and skinwalkers aren't the only things coming their way, either.

When skinwalkers drive the family out of their house, Tupper and Heche have to go on a road trip to find their errant elder daughter, but soon discover that that's easier said than done when civilisation is falling apart.

The trouble with Aftermath is that it's diabolically, laughably bad. It's stupid, cheaply made and badly directed. Skinwalkers (aka 'fever heads') can fly - badly. Giant meteors that should destroy everything for a good 10km only knock out a few city blocks. Civilisation may be collapsing but mobile phone networks are doing just fine. And Tupper and Heche aren't so much terrified as 'Huh. The end of the world? Flying zombies? Watcha gonna do, hey? Pass me the shotgun.'

I had to turn the programme off after a quarter of an hour to let the effects of the preposterous rubbish leave my system before I could continue with the rest of it. Don't bother trying even that much of it.

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