HBO’s “Westworld”(2016) and comparisons to “The Prisoner” (1967)

It’s one season (or in modern terms, a handful of episodes) into HBO’s new “Westworld” TV series, which is based on the 1973 Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”) movie of the same name and overall idea (robots at amusement park go on rampage…no one’s happy).  The new series is to the 1973 film what 2003’s Battlestar Galactica was to its 1978 predecessor; a tremendous jump in sophistication and creativity that makes the original looks quaint and almost tacky by comparison.  Sorry original BSG fans… I loved the old series very much when I was 12, but facts is facts, folks.

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Westworld 2016 goes from a simple, rampaging robots idea to a mind-f–k of a series that plumbs the depths of artificial intelligence and turns every expectation on its head.   In this version, the robots of the Delos park are less evil machines and more synthetic people (“hosts”) who are systematically being traumatized into self-awareness by the abuses visited upon them by the ‘guests.’  They’ve become receptacles for our worst impulses; basically created, as repeatedly said on the show, to ‘shoot and f–k.’   And even though their memories are supposedly reset from one narrative to another, lingering memories of being killed or raped remain with these hosts.   Their dawning reality is that they’re objects to be mistreated ad infinitum and nothing more.

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Now comes the execution of this idea.  Westworld 2016 has come under a bit of online criticism for being a bit too slow and arty as opposed to direct and linear.   There is some merit to this; this show is NOT for the impatient or for those who expect their TV shows to wrap everything up by the end of the hour.   It’s a slow burn, but if the season finale (“The Bicameral Mind”) is any indication?  There ARE answers… and yes, it does fit.

As my wife and I were stunned by the mind-blowing season finale, my comparisons-inclined brain was looking for something (anything) that this series reminded me of (besides 2003’s BSG) and it came to me… Patrick McGoohan’s “James Bond in Wonderland” TV series of the ’60s, “The Prisoner”; quite possibly the GREATEST mindf–k series ever created.

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Prisoner also shied away from easy answers.   And while the 17 episodes of the (sadly) short-lived show were often self-contained in their plots, the series finale (“Fallout”) was like a Rorschach test for the viewer; it was whatever the viewer imagined it was.   It only made ‘sense’ if you believed (as I did) that the entire show may have been one long hallucinogenic nightmare in the mind of Number Six; the titular prisoner, played smartly by series lead/producer/co-creator/writer Patrick McGoohan.  This show was McGoohan’s brainchild, and it also was a huge middle finger to most television conventions of the day.    **** FIFTY YEAR OLD SPOILER ALERT ****  The ending of the series basically shows the enigmatic ‘Village’ seemingly destroyed, as all hell breaks loose (to the strains of The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love”) and Number Six discovers he appears to be the mysterious “Number One” who runs the whole damn place.  He escapes the village (implying we’re prisoners of our own minds rather than of any one place).

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Now back to the relevance with Westworld.   Both shows are clear passion projects; it’s not as if JJ Abrams (“Star Trek 2009” “Lost” “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens”) and Jonathan Nolan (“Inception” “Dark Knight” “Man of Steel”) saw a pile of gold awaiting in a relatively obscure cult science fiction movie from the early ’70s (in its defense, the original did spawn a sequel movie, 1976’s “Futureworld” and a mercifully short-lived TV series, “Beyond Westworld”).   But, like Ron Moore with Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica, saw something in the idea… something with the potential (especially in the iEverything age) to say something truly relevant to our technologically obsessed era (try tearing people away from their mobile devices for more than 2 hours these days).   Just as Patrick McGoohan used elements of his own conventional spy series, “Danger Man” (1960-62) and upended all of them for “The Prisoner.”  Some argue that Prisoner is, in fact, a sequel to Danger Man, but McGoohan allegedly denied this many times before his death.  And both are not easy series to love; they require patience, they require the audience to accept nonlinear storytelling and they often raise more questions than they answer.

I first got into Prisoner back in the late ’80s when a work friend of mine told me about the reruns airing on CBS late night TV.  I watched one episode (“Free for All”) and I was hooked.   It was, literally, unlike ANYTHING I’d ever seen on television up to that point.   I loved the idea of a TV show that was so brazenly unconventional (’80s TV was largely linear, paint-by-numbers stuff; despite a few exceptions here and there).

Westworld has a different audience to win over; being on HBO it has LOTS more freedom, both with language and sexuality.   Anybody who is sensitive to either best not watch.  I’m not offended by either, so long as they serve a point and they do so within the context of this show.   In Westworld, the nudity of the hosts (which is often full frontal) isn’t really sexual at all; it’s like we’re seeing animated cadavers or toys come to life.  They’re not recognized as ‘human’ so we, the audience, do not necessarily ‘see’ them as human (even though they clearly ARE; given some of the hosts’ emerging sentience).

That said? I am an unabashed fan of both shows, and while The Prisoner was resurrected for a spectacularly unsuccessful revival in 2009, Westworld seems poised to take up the mantle as the premiere surreal series for lovers of television that doesn’t offer easy answers and solutions to its viewers… shows like this don’t patronize; they CHALLENGE.

And as a fan of the genre and challenging television?  I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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