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wwAre you watching Westworld? If you’re not, I highly recommend it, not just because it’s a television programme made with that rare combination of intelligence and a boat-load of cash, but for another reason. Specifically, Westworld crystallises a new frontier in the way that we are consuming the media. Shows don’t just appear on screen, but can be accessed with our hands and through our minds. We can now fully immerse ourselves into a show so that it delivers more.

Westworld is the perfect vehicle for this immersion. For the unititated, HBO’s ten-part series is based on Michael Crichton’s film of the 1970s (which is also worth a watch, as an enjoyably-mocking version of the conceit) centring around a theme park-cum-computer game so real that it leaves virtual reality in the dust. Westworld, depicts everything that players love about the Wild West, from the bank heists and shoot-outs to getting the (exteremely available) girl. Realistic robot hosts have been created to enable the human guests to play out fantasies of the basest kind, they bleed when shot, and can be used for every kind of dirty act (a little like that excruciating scene between Oscar Isaac and Domnhall Gleason in Ex Machina).

Right now, the series is five episodes in and it’s already in the mainstay of executive Producer J J Abrams’ s Lost catalogue and other work written by co-writers Jonathan Nolan (yes, that Nolan) and his wife Lisa Joy. Basically, Westworld requires that the viewer to actively make sense of the plot.

Futureworld

What makes Westworld different is that it has been conceived to be consumed in our modern technological world, where the TV is no longer that sad gogglebox sitting in a corner. This show is an exploration in our own personal moral mire through the prism of brutal entertainment and, sometimes, utter confusion. The showrunners are actively using the fractured plot lines of Westworld to encourage us to discuss complex scientific principles and plot theories.

We can now interact with our own televisual robot host and turn watching the shows in to a group experience, one that lasts well after the screen goes black. Paul Macinnes at the Guardian picks up here that by searching for other content and particpating in conversation on Westworld, we are ourselves participating. We can feel the same emotions as lead character William, thrust in to pursuing a quest that isn’t comprehended, leading to an inevitable conclusion not entitely within our control.

To be clear, not everyone agrees with my enthusiasm for this new group activity. There is a school of thought circulating on television being simple mindless escapism that should be enjoyed at face value. In fact, it could be at most psychologically damaging , and at least ‘hard work’ to spend time theorising and discussing a made up world. Shouldn’t we be out trying to live in our world instead? Are us theorisers soon to become pilloried by Black Mirror?

So if that’s for you, sure, go ahead and drag your eyes away from the screen, but like Westworld’s mysterious Man in Black, I can’t stop myself from searching for a deeper meaning in the audio and visuals, something that allows me to take the show and turn it into something…user-generated.

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The Original

There have been many shows that encourage theory speculation. Why would cliff-hangers have been invented if not to tantalise? Westworld is not the first show to welcome Reddit threads and conspiracy podcasting, but I feel that it is one of the first broadcast with tacit knowledge that speculation is part of its appeal.

I hold LOST (if not Alias) as the show that directed me to this expansion of the role of television in human psychological development. I was hooked from the teaser, back more than ten years ago, when the names on everyones’s lips were Jack and Kate and Sawyer. Simple phrases are still capable of evoking crazy memories like Polar bear or the hatch or the others. Nowadays LOST has (ahem) lost its place in the world, its ending not living up to viewers unrealistic expectations, having spent six seasons weaving in so many stories that its patchwork plot no longer resembled its premise.

But LOST started a movement that had to be beta-tested. This new feeling of need to know what happens desperation, this desire to think that we can outsmart the writers by working out what happens next before it arrives on screen.

Game of Thrones took this further with audiences, who were up against an array of books with defined plots in its canon. Together with a huge budget its showrunners may have hoped to finesse this LOST magic, knowing that the show could differ from the books discovering that the speculation element drew fans. GoT was also a huge proponent of the later series pay-off (also see: Breaking Bad) where small, inconsequential moments in early episodes could then be alluded to and resolved later. Using the example of Benjen Cold Hands, the pay off came a whopping five seasons later – but boy was this satisfying for those who had predicted it four years earlier!

Today, Showrunners are (seemingly) keen to place knowledge and power in the hands of the viewer, to make a TV show more like a computer game. Abrams, Cuse, Benioff and Weiss revitalised the concept of a re-watch, and added in Easter Eggs (where the secrets to the show’s meaning are hidden in a background image or weird dialogue, also effectively used in The Leftovers).

Yet Westworld has moved beyond this. Episodes actually refer to Easter Eggs, user-testing and other game characteristics while we particpate in them, changing our behaviour and ensuring that re-watching  is an essential part of the Westworld experience. Perhaps this provides us with better value for money, or just perhaps this is helping to evolve human experience.

wwwMy Own Private Westworld

So, about my title.

Westworld is a theme park for the mind. Theory speculation is its chief tool. In the show, it’s almost certain that no one is who they seem.  One of the chief theories doing the rounds is that Westworld is set on a number of timelines, so that when we are watching one set of characters interact with one another, that cpnversation could be taking place thirty years before the next scene, and each transition is seamless. It’s only by looking into the scenes on an individual basis, by making a note of which characters interact with which others (and more importantly, which ones don’t) that we can try to second-guess the showrunners. Westworld is a puzzle.

It’s also a psycholgoical test. For example, I’ve started to look at people in a different way since the show began. I ask myself questions. Would I want to kill/have sex with a robot that looks and behaves like a human? Is modern society preventing us from meting out our rage and so that we must find a more acceptable arena for exhibiting negative emotions? Do we now have it all and we want more?

Is blowing up the heads of zombies with a shotgun acceptable or it tanatmount to murder? Westworld keeps making me rub out the line I draw in the sand about how ‘good’ (or ‘white hat’) I am. And further, people I know and respect are telling me that they would happily enter a Westworld scenario and destroy everything, and I am insulted. An ethical chasm between viewers is widening.

Westworld may well be here to make us question our own beliefs about technology and the role it plays in our future. At what moment does a robot become sufficiently humanised to make me feel that it should be treated as a human? Or at least a sentient being?

Westworld is the psychological offspring of Freud and Asimov’s deepest fears. We have now arrived at a time where the three laws of robotics and personal ethics codes have never been more important. Is the show a potretntous views of our own future Westworld? And what does this say about humanity?

And now for something completely different

The big questions are exhausting aren’t they? Maybe those ‘let’s just wait and see‘ suckers were right all along? Maybe I’ll just let television hack at my ethics code. It’s no use, I’ve entered the Park, there’s no turning back. I must know more, and there are always more theories to explore.

Many of us thrill at the words Extra content. The television world no longers stops at the credits. We have moved from extra scenes, behind the scenes footage and comparative analysis articles to the rise of the Westworld podcast. I can now insert human voices dissecting each episode directly in to my ears. Yes, we can all  experience a glimpse of the bi-cameral mind while we’re in our (currently drivable) cars, at the gym or anywhere with internet reception. Just switch on the radio or find your podcast app and enjoy.

There are an epic number of Westworld podcasts available, moving this from fan craziness to a viable business model, and viewers/listeners must find the style that they are comfortable with. I can’t live without Decoding Westworld and Watching Westworld. Joanna Robinson & David Chen, Jim & A.Ron are the comforting presence that soothe my screams of “WTF? Which one of you robots is Arnold and which year are we in and is this really Mars and OH MY GOD I CAN’T STOP THE VOICES DELORES!”

Yes you can visit Westworld –  you can even take your own personalised route to get there. Westworld has plonked me in the centre of a maze constructed by technology, aided by my own desire for answers and it happened without me signing a single disclaimer.

So, is Westworld a good thing for television? What’s your theory?

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