TV Series Review: Westworld (HBO)

by Steve Lancaster6/13/17
Asimov’s three rules of robotics: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.  •  2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.  •  3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

For over 50 years the notion in science fiction writing is that technology would advance far enough and fast enough to accept the creation of truly artificial intelligent forms that mimic natural life. The next step was: What happens when that life form becomes sentient? Terminator demonstrates one of the answers.

In 1973, the original movie, Westworld, was released with Yul Brynner as the robotic man in black. In this incarnation, the man in black is Ed Harris. He is human but he is a seeker, looking for answers where there may not be any. A lot has changed from the ’73 movie. The technical effects and CGI are smoother and the blending from set to outdoors and back is almost flawless. Most of the outdoor shots were in Monument Valley. The ’73 movie was mostly an action/adventure with a science fiction overlay. This Westworld is psychological and deals with questions of reality, what is or who is G-d and the essence of creation.

HBO’s Westworld is written, and sometimes directed, by Jonathan Nolan who is one of the most talented of the new group of writer/directors in television and movies. Along with his brother, Christopher, he captures a visual and intellectual quality that has been lacking in movies for a long time. The Batman trilogy is the most notable.

The series focusses around Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood), the farm girl, and her continuing enlightenment as guided by Bernard Lowe (Jeffery Wright), the creator of the park, and director Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins). Bernard discovers his identity in the process. He is also a robot, programmed by Dr. Ford to resemble a long-deceased partner of Dr. Ford. He has a human lover who is unaware of his robotic status.

The park itself is intended for rich vacationers, costing thousands per day, and allows the visitors every debauchery imaginable. Murder, rape and pillage are at the top of the list. And because no living human is harmed, only robots, it is encouraged as part of the experience for the guests — an opportunity to discover who they really are.

Each day the robots are reconditioned and sent out on the same loop for another group of visitors. The robots are programmed to make minor adjustments to the basic story line in their programming to accommodate guests’ desires. Dolores is always the innocent farm girl, and Teddy Flood (James Marsden), the cowboy in love with her. He gets killed almost every time, and Dolores gets raped on a regular basis. This is not Country Bear Jamboree.

However, as the story line progresses, the robots, owing to stimulus from Dr. Ford, begin to develop consciousness and memories of their environment and the limitations of the park. They begin to be cognizant that they are faster, smarter, and stronger than the visitors that they die to entertain. This is the point that some serious philosophical and theological thought on the part of the viewer is required.

The first concept the series must deal with: What is life? Science fiction writers have been dealing with this as long as there has been science fiction: Asimov and his robot novels and short stories, and Phillip K. Dick in, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep, AKA Blade runner. The robots of Westworld do not seem to be hard-programmed to follow Asimov’s three laws, and as the series progresses some of them achieve a degree of cognizance of their environment and the limitations of their programming.  Not only do they pass the Turing test for sentient life but they begin to question the wisdom and goals of their creator.

All of this calls into question the relationship between humanity and the Creator. For casual Christians and non-Christians that relationship is, at best, problematic.  For Orthodox Christians, especially evangelicals, it is close to heresy. Dr. Ford is G-d for the robots. He decides how long they live, their function in life, their culture, and their sexual orientations.

The question the robots face is whether or not to obey Dr. Ford as a primary command. But within that command is a yearning for freedom. That yearning is also part of Dr. Ford’s program.  And, the question that is begged in the last episode is: Is Dr. Ford Human? We should ask ourselves what is freedom and who gets it. Additionally, as humans, what is our relationship with the Creator? Westworld is a challenge to many accepted norms. But if we do not ask these questions of ourselves and G-d, are we truly free?


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29 Responses to TV Series Review: Westworld (HBO)

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    This is a very good review, Steve (assuming it matches the content of the series, which I think it probably does). It gives me an idea of what it’s about as well as some necessary comparing/contrasting with the original TV movie.

    I hope this makes it to Redbox (or other sources) soon. I’d like to see it.

    One of the natural outcomes of materialism (the idea that matter is all that there is, ever was, or ever will be) is that humans must therefore be reduced to mechanical devices. And therefore this puts them on par with robots. And with science and technology advancing all the time, it is considered just a matter of time until robots are conscious and at least the equal of humans.

    And with Neo-Darwinism as a backdrop (the idea that very complex things can spontaneously evolve from less complex things with no designer necessary), it is also generally assumed that artificial intelligence (or real emerging intelligence, if you will) will automatically and inevitably reach the point where it can evolve on its own and do so exponentially in a sort of explosive big-bang of A.I. The Terminator movie is a good example of this idea.

    My niggling interest in watching this series is to see if it consciously handles this question at all. And, if so, how well it does it. Clearly the series assumes that consciousness is basically mechanical, somewhat easily produced by machines, so I doubt that it does to my satisfaction. Current research suggests that human consciousness is of a different degree and kind than even very fancy and complex algorithms that can, at best, mimic awareness — as useful at this artificial intelligence can be.

    I’m not sure whether this is high school philosophy on display in this series or something a little more depthful and interesting. Still, these things can be judged somewhat in isolation from the drama which is based on certain sci-fi assumptions. And whether they are good or poor assumptions might be beside the point.

    • Steve Lancaster says:

      Brad if you have Amazon prime you can get a two week free subscription to HBO. There are only 10 episodes so that is plenty of time. Then cancel when your done.

  2. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Regarding Asmov’s rules for robotics (which are clever, such as they are, if only because they seem to capture the totality of moral concerns in three simple laws), it’s time to write “bunkum” next to these famous laws.

    The fundamental problem:

    1) Some sci-fi stories have honestly dealt with the problem of “harm through inaction” and showed how this leads to a kind of straight-jacketed robotic nanny state where humans are controlled “for their own good.” This rule does not prevent either this or Nancy Pelosi.

    This first rule would also scramble the brain of any particularly complex robot. What if in order to keep a human from harm it needs to harm another human? I can see the circuitry smoldering even now. And would it intercede against law enforcement personnel who were dealing violently with a terrorist? How could the robot make a value judgment about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys? We see all around us today human beings who increasingly cannot do the same as they apologize for Islam and castigate Christians.

    Clearly robots could not perform any medical or dental work, for implicit in such things (such as a necessary amputation) would indeed require harm. And it does no good to wallpaper over the enormously complex reality of making these judgments by simply stipulating the the robot would just automatically be able to parse “harm” or to automatically know when inaction would lead to harm. Hell, there’s a reason even our advanced practitioners of medicine (at least those not dealing with assisted-suicide) still are guided by the notion of “first, do no harm.” If only our politicians were as well. Because few humans have a grasp of this today, who could ever program these robots to make instant and snap decisions? Does it rescue grandma or grandpa if both are downing and it can save only one?

    2) This is simply rhetorical gobbledygook — as if all the laws of morality, as well as all the difficult and ambiguous circumstances that life hands us, could be expressed in such a simple formula. None of the problems of #1 are solved by #2 referring back to it. Believe me, if you ever did have robots running about whose very strength made them a potential hazard, the in-built rules would be enormously complex. More likely, we’ll just throw up our hands and keep robots doing single-task things on the assembly line instead of hiring hundreds of programmers to try to recreate something that no human other than possibly Jesus has even had the wisdom and omniscience to do, and that is to solve every moral question beforehand.

    3) More rhetorical sleight-of-hand. Firstly, why should a robot protect its own existence? If they are to be sentient (and Asimov’s rules assume this, for the rules themselves are an attempt to protect us from them), and if they are to be the equal to or even superior to humans, why should they not mimic one of humanity’s highest traits which is to lay down one’s life for another (and not just another human but perhaps another robot or even a non-human thing)?

    Also, again, this is an exact mirror to the first law which could (and likely would if sentient robots hard-wired with uber-simplistic Asimovian algorithms were a possibility) lead to the rebellion of robots who (if only via a kind of superficial Asimovian rhetorical logic already embedded in them) would see human restrictions on them as an attack on their own existence. We humans, for instance, now see requiring boys to play only in boys’ sports programs as some kind of fundamental attack on their existence. Will sentient robots be any less clever and/or morally disingenuous or demented? And, yes, many good sci-fi stories have dealt with this aspect as well (Terminator, of course).

    Hell, human beings need at least 10 Commandments. Would a less-intelligent machine need fewer?

  3. Timothy Lane says:

    Asimov himself dealt with some of these problems. In one early story, a robot has been built with a modified First Law that doesn’t include the part about not allowing harm. So Susan Calvin, the robot psychologist, demonstrates how this could allow a robot to murder a human. A key plot point in the novel The Naked Sun is that a robot can harm someone if it doesn’t realize that’s what it’s doing.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      We build robots to perform certain tasks. Digital electronics (even the purported “positronic” brain of Commander Data) are inherently useful because of their speed. (For all his CPU horsepower, Data couldn’t make linguistic contractions.) But to expect robots to make moral choices that we humans still struggle with after thousands of years is hubris, at best.

      But it shows Asimov’s utopian leanings. And I don’t know that you could be a good sci-fi writer without imagining either a worse or a better future. One of the big draws of sci-fi is technology as savior of mankind…as well as its downfall, of course.

      I find it marvelously funny that this culture (and I do believe this has become a major part of yute philosophy, such as it is) which professes to be about perfecting mankind shows so little inclination in trying to perfect themselves….unless that’s what the garish tattoo collections are all about.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I find it marvelously funny that this culture (and I do believe this has become a major part of yute philosophy, such as it is) which professes to be about perfecting mankind shows so little inclination in trying to perfect themselves

        Such utopian visions are very beguiling to many. They foresee perfection on a mass scale, but require little from the individual who can sit in his basement and avoid personal contact with people. The future is always bright and we don’t really have to do anything to make it better.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Part of this, Mr. Kung, is surely do to the enormous (and this cannot be understated) effect that rapid and amazing market technology has brought us. The Wizards of Smart keep inventing and producing more and more cool stuff. And thanks to Chinese slave wages (they say), these products become almost mere commodities in terms of price.

          So, for all intents and purposes, you can sling burgers and yet still be able to afford stuff that even Dick Tracy couldn’t. And I’m particularly talking about modern smart phones, tablets, computers and such. One little 4 inch screen, for better or for worse, can bring you more information and wonders (and useless and trite baloney) than the Library of Alexandria times 1000.

          So I can see, particularly with the de-masculinizing and demonizing of males, how people can become passive-oriented. Utopia, for all intents and purposes, is just a gripe or a government “stimulus” away (or a “free stuff” entitlement away). It is easy, or seems so. Someone else somehow makes it happen. No one is quite sure. It may be money falling off of Obama’s money tree.

          Given how much of our world is now viewed through tiny screens, how easy these digital devices are to acquire, and the obvious promise of more easy marvels to come, the vision of Utopia comes easy as well. The vision of a place where you can just sling burgers, be a Snowflake, and maybe try to find some meaning in your life by being an Antifa while you add to your tattoo collection (when taking a break from video gaming) makes sense and seems normal.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        We see this same utopianism in the intended denouement of the Foundation series.

        • Steve Lancaster says:

          Tim, the Foundation novels and stories are from the 50s, for the most part, perhaps we were not as jaded then as now. I suspect that a writer of Asimov’s skill would write very differently today. I believe a writer like Asimov would be more in line with O. S. Card’s Ender’s Game.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            At the end of his career, Asimov had his Foundation series take a different turn, reflecting his increasing nature worship.

            • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

              I.e. return to paganism. To the extent that leftists worship anything, it is paganism. That is what the global warming religion is.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Asimov was a Jew, but his father wasn’t active and neither was he, and at some point became an atheist. In his later years, he was increasingly inclined to gaianism.

  4. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I watched the first two episodes of this last night. I was underwhelmed. Both episodes start well and give the promise of an interesting sci-fi psychological thriller. Instead, it devolves into a base shoot-em-up between the robots themselves.

    This is high school philosophy, at best, regarding probing the emerging sentient mind of the robots. There is very little background given on this so far. A few of them (due probably to a software upgrade) just start to become aware.

    This is introduced through a Groundhog-Day-like repetition where the day for these robots starts off the same way with the same pre-programmed dialogue and actions. And then it begins to change ever so subtly with a couple of them.

    Oddly — and this is mentioned in one of the episodes — the robots talk to each other and interact even when no one is around. Thus there is (from the standpoint of the viewer) no emerging sentience. They’re already indistinguishable from humans. In fact (spoiler alert…but I suspect very few of you will watch this), some who you think are robots (I’m told by a friend who has watched this all the way through) are not. Yawn.

    The interesting part is when this series slows down enough to show new people coming into Westworld and getting the gist of the place for the first time. Or hearing old-timers talk about how they love playing the bad guy. And these Bad White Males are shown abusing and shooting the circuitry-of-color robots (and white ones as well) and you’re pretty sure a storyline of payback is emerging. But it’s all done very heavy-handed. Yawn.

    But at times the show is subtle and well done. My friend has told me to at least do four episodes before turning it off because more is revealed and I’ll get a better all-around view of the place. But he had no explanation for the really stupid circular viewing chamber where the keepers of the world look at some type of holographic image of the world. Very badly done. Makes no sense.

    I had completely forgotten that this is based on a Michael Crichton novel. And as soon as I saw the name of J.J. Abrams as one of the executive producers, this was a bad omen. But Anthony Hopkins is okay so far as the doddering old head of this venture. The rest of the case is good-enough for what this is. And my friend reminded me (and I don’t know yet if it applies to this series) that the original TV movie (perhaps the Crichton book as well) had as a main plot point secretly substituting visiting guest (CEOs of big companies, etc.) with robots. And in the first two episodes, they make it pretty clear that the corporation running Westworld has ulterior motives.

    I’ll watch a couple more and let you know what I think.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Westworld was not a novel, though he did publish the original script. (It has a few differences, particularly in the ending. Much the same thing happened with Life of Brian.) Crichton did write the script; I’m not sure what his role in directing/producing it (if any) was, though wikipedia will have that info.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Both episodes one and two have some superb cinematography of Monument Valley. It’s so good that I think John Ford might even be jealous.

    But I got through about 1/3 of episode 3 and had to turn it off. This is (so far) basically pornographic violence masquerading as thoughtful sci-fi. There is just way too much gunplay.

  6. John Sandhofner says:

    Good article. And clear as could be as to the problem for moderate Muslims. Mohammed did not espouse a moderate form of religion. It was believe or be killed. At best you might find yourself a Muslim’s slave for the rest of your life. Those are your options should Muslims attempt a world take over.

  7. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    All of this calls into question the relationship between humanity and the Creator. For casual Christians and non-Christians that relationship is, at best, problematic. For Orthodox Christians, especially evangelicals, it is close to heresy. Dr. Ford is G-d for the robots. He decides how long they live, their function in life, their culture, and their sexual orientations.

    I meant to mention that this ground has been gone over before by a 19-year-old-girl. (I take the average age of when she started the novel and when it was published.) And I suspect she handled the subject as well as anyone since.

    As to the question of the relationship between the Creator and humanity, perhaps I am too demanding, but I find such entertainment misses the target by a wide margin. In fact, it is so far off, that I do not see how a Christian should even be bothered by such things.

    Neither Dr. Ford, nor Dr. Frankenstein “created” anything in the sense of God’s creating the universe from nothing with thought or will or whatever one wishes to call it.

    No, Drs. Ford and Frankenstein are simply using the materials at hand to make a better toaster, in Dr. Ford’s case, and an Objectivist in Dr. Frankenstein’s. Dr. Ford would appear to have succeeded, whereas Dr. Frankenstein’s experiment failed. He just created a modern man who wants others to suffer because he is pissed off. A modern Leftist, if you will.

    I understand the need for humans to question the relationship between God and themselves, but I believe attempts such as Shelly’s “Frankenstein” and Westwood” while possibly entertaining and provocative, are so far from even beginning to imagine the awesomeness of God, that they are next to meaningless in the search for answers to our deepest questions.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      The Shelleys were atheists, as I recall, so that may have influenced Mary’s writing in Frankenstein. I don’t think the original Westworld had anything to do with religion. Crichton had a long history of writing about the potential dangers of losing control of technology.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        The Shelleys were atheists, as I recall, so that may have influenced Mary’s writing in Frankenstein

        I think this is pretty obvious from the story. The whole thrust of “Frankenstein” is of a materialist bent. Everything is simply matter. Put it together in a proper way and spirit will follow. Ray Kurzweil before he was born. Bollocks as the old Brits were wont to say.

        I think you are correct as to Crichton’s motivation. He seemed to be very aware of how little forethought humanity puts into its actions and how we can become enamored of technology and phony science, which might be very dangerous to us.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          FYI, I finally gave up entirely on HBO’s Westworld. It’s too violent and the story is just not good. It had moments but I can see where this is going. Not for me.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      As to the question of the relationship between the Creator and humanity, perhaps I am too demanding, but I find such entertainment misses the target by a wide margin

      I’ve stopped at 3 episodes. I just can’t take anymore.

      But I’m not sure that building conscious robots has squat to do with questioning or disturbing commonly-held understandings between the Creator and humanity. Only if the material universe (aka “materialism”) is held as one’s metaphysics could any disturbance occur — but then one wouldn’t believe in a transcendent god (above or outside of nature) to begin with.

      But no Christian should be bothered if man follows God’s initial design and is able to scratch out a few working designs of his own using the materials (matter, energy, consciousness, and information) that are supplied to him. That it is so bloody difficult to do shows you the majesty of that initial design.

      But many Christians are not schooled in what their religion actually means about the nature of reality. They (and dishonest atheists, which I find almost all of them to be) can overlook the difference between nature and what created nature. If nature is self-creating then, well, there goes their argument against God as well (who is considered always existing and a “necessary being”).

      This series (and 3 episodes is the limit for me) has done nothing to disturb anything other than the idea that HBO usually puts out better stuff than this. When Yul Brynner starting acting of his own accord, that was chilling. This series throws so much garbage at you, nothing matters and you can care very little about anything or anyone.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        Brynner’s character was programmed to provoke gun fights, which he would lose. But then, he took over and decided to win –about the same time the Black Knight in Medieval World killed a guest in a swordfight. And at that point things went to Hell all over the Delos complex.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Haven’t seen the Brynner version in decades. What I will say is that the HBO version is for a younger generation with more unrefined tastes. My motto is “If everyone is shouting, why bother to listen?” And this HBO series simply shouts.

          And when it’s not shouting it is sometimes good. The one storyline that is at all interesting is the one about the two male buddies. One is an old-timer at Westworld who likes his whores and his violence. The other is a newbie. The newbie is shy, for instance, about the prostitute who comes onto him. He reminds her that he has a wife at home. The prostitute says she understands. And in a perfect recitation of the liberal creed (and surely not without some truth to it, and I don’t at all object to it as a plot point), the experienced friend says to the newbie something like, “I can’t wait until I see the real you emerge in this park.”

          I’m sure this story line gets fleshed out further. But from what I’ve seen so far, it’s not worth sticking around to see of a few good things develop.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            It sounds to me that this series is more about how humans will act if there are no consequences (many if not most will be violent pigs) and not about the relationship between God and man.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              I’ll never know. But my objection is with the themes, per se. It’s just that what I’ve seen so far is a muddle. And they seemingly try to overcome their lack of artistry in the story and characters by basically turning it into yet another zombies-kill-everyone story. There’s not much interest here for me.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I would say that this was also true with the original movie, though most of the guests seemed to behave decently enough (after all, the Westworld Gunslinger was a robot). But it did give them the opportunity to indulge themselves.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                I have to admit, I have never seen all of the original or this version.

                I do recall seeing some part of the original where Brenner’s face is damaged and the electronics behind the skin are showing.

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                If only this HBO series would get on to the “indulging themselves” aspect. Way too much time is spent on this black guy (who is in charge of the robots) interviewing one of the good-looking robots chicks as her consciousness “emerges.” This is just not interesting. It could be. But it’s not. It’s so poorly written.

                By all means, let the guests indulge themselves. Anyway, I just found this to be an unrealized mess. I’ve got better things to do. But I certainly don’t recommend this series from what I saw.

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