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Let’s Analyze the New Westworld Trailer: Consent, Programming & Robot Rebellion

HBO’s full-length trailer for Westworld dropped today. By the way, the one I’ve embedded up top is the “Mature” version, and there’s another non-mature version out there as well. What’s the difference between the two versions? Well, the most notable difference that I saw between them is that the “Mature” version includes a brief scene of two women kissing each other. I’m not sure whether or not they’re main characters, though, and it’s obviously not clear just from a trailer what the larger context of that scene might be. But we do know a few things about Westworld already. Let’s recap!

So far, it looks like this new TV show will hew pretty closely with the 1973 film of the same name, which inspired the adaptation. If the theme park setting feels familiar to you, that’s because the 1973 Westworld movie was written and directed by Michael Crichton, who also wrote the novel Jurassic Park. He clearly has a knack for sci-fi hubris stories and also theme parks that spin wildly out of control.

Filling a fictional theme park with self-aware humanoid robots puts forth a much more disturbing image than filling a park with dinosaur clones, though. I mean, I do think Jurassic Park invites the audience to sympathize with the dinosaurs in a lot of ways, but once you stack your theme park with humanoid “prisoners” (to quote the trailer), you’re inviting all sorts of obvious ethical questions. This is going to be a TV show about robot rights! And we all know how I feel about robot rights.

The original Westworld was the length of a feature film, but even in its short runtime, it still managed to introduce some chilling questions about consent and power. In the original movie, there were several theme parks: a medieval one, a Roman Empire one, and an “Old West” theme park (the titular Westworld). All of these “old timey” parks harkened back to time periods and societies that didn’t exactly care about “equal rights” for marginalized people, which says a lot about the type of person who might want to attend them. The robots in the parks played pre-programmed actors in a sort of real-life roleplaying game; attendees could participate in planned scenes with the robots (such as battles), or even pay for sex tourism with the robots as well. The robots were programmed not to refuse–at least, not until the robot rebellion started. I expect that all of these elements will be part of the TV show adaptation as well… but it’s impossible to know at this early stage whether or not the show will succeed in navigating these ethical quandaries with care.

The concept of Westworld reminds me of Dollhouse, which is a show about “programming” humans (not robots), but still includes some of the same types of ethical implications. Dollhouse didn’t necessarily work for me; even though the TV show had a lot of time to wrestle with its dark themes, the show never seemed entirely sure what it wanted to say beyond, “This sure is messed up, right?” On the contrary, I liked the way that Ex Machina managed to introduce similar themes with its robot characters and make its point within a relatively short run-time (it’s a movie, not a TV show, so they had to make their point fast). I don’t think it’s impossible to tell interesting stories about consent within the framework of a sci-fi story about programming and robots, but it is difficult to do so without being reductive about the corresponding real-life issues at stake.

Since Westworld is theoretically set in a glamorized, romanticized version of the American Old West, there’s also the question of how the racial tensions of the time period will be dealt with by the narrative of the show. What type of tourist would want to go back to the Old West and live out a power fantasy there? Again, there’s a compelling critique to be made of the power structures in play here, but it’s also a concept that could easily go wrong, if it’s not written well.

If you’ve been following news about Westworld closely, including some of the more spoiler-laden news about the show, then you may have heard the the pilot episode will include the rape of a female character. I’m guessing this will tie into the previous themes I’ve brought up here about the robots getting used for sex tourism within the world of the show, and I’m also guessing that, like Dollhouse, that aspect will be a long-running theme of the show–but of course I don’t know for certain yet, the show isn’t out.

At the Television Critics Association summer press tour, when asked about HBO’s numerous shows that depict sexualized violence against women, HBO President of Programming Casey Bloys seemed unprepared for the question and eventually he responded that violence was “not specific to women” on HBO shows. He didn’t adequately address the idea of sexualized violence in particular, however. Later on that same day, Westworld showrunner Lisa Joy addressed the question more thoroughly, acknowledging that Westworld will depict sexualized violence but that “in its portrayal, we endeavored for it to not be about the fetishization of those acts.”

Based on the trailer, it does appear as though Westworld will be introducing some similar themes to Ex Machina … but it could just as easily go the Dollhouse route, and not end up saying much. Still, I’m willing to give Westworld a shot and find out what message it delivers in its opening episode, which will come out on HBO this October.

That said, I stopped watching Dollhouse because I didn’t feel that it took enough care with its subject matter, and also because I got bored (even “shock value” scenes can become boring if it doesn’t feel like the show has anything to say). Again, though, I think Ex Machina created an interesting portrayal of hubris, so I’m not going to say that I think it’s impossible to write something that uses robots as a metaphor for marginalization and manages to make interesting points as a result. It’s going to be especially difficult in the context of a show about the “Old West” ideal, because there are going to be a lot of different forms of marginalization to potentially contend with there. Westworld might be biting off more than it can chew when it comes to the issues at stake. But I’ll give it a shot, and at least now I know the pilot might contain a scene that makes me uncomfortable, so I’m prepared for that too.

(via Geek Tyrant)

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