Westworld is a true TV original: intelligent, perplexing, disturbing and sometimes moving

HBO's new sci-fi Western series starring Anthony Hopkins is multilayered drama at its best, says Mark Braxton

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If you ever had any doubts that TV is the new film, then a big, bold, wide-screen series from HBO will chase them out of town. Westworld boasts huge names, stunning locations and a multilayered script… and it’s coming to Sky Atlantic tonight.

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Look, there’s Anthony Hopkins! Thandie Newton! Ed Harris! Even Borgen’s wonderful Sidse Babett Knudsen! Though I do keep wondering what the Danish prime minister is doing in Dodge…

During the extended opening episode I didn’t once think of Westworld’s 1973 precursor, the haunting if low-budget Michael Crichton film starring Yul Brynner as a malfunctioning gunslinger. It’s as unrecognisable from its parent as the noughties Battlestar Galactica was from its 70s precursor.

If anything, Westworld reminds me more of Coma, the 1978 chiller that was adapted by Crichton. It’s all those sinister technicians in dark, hi-tech rooms full of “corpses”.

Other comparisons occur to me, albeit fleetingly, from Blade Runner and AI: Artificial Intelligence to Deadwood, The Prisoner and even Groundhog Day. That last one most of all, strangely.

But in truth, such analogies are grabbing at straws. Westworld quickly marks itself out as its own beast, a true TV original: intelligent, perplexing, flinch-worthy (this is HBO, don’t forget) and sometimes quite moving.

It concerns a Wild West-themed leisure resort peopled by lifelike robots or “hosts”, where the wealthy guests can do whatever they want. Even if it leaves the townsfolk riddled with bullet holes. “It’s OK, they’re only robots,” say the veteran guests. But it really isn’t.

Because the hosts begin to develop alarming – sometimes intriguing – glitches. Most of the problems are ironed out; some seem to be secretly encouraged. But why? 

Don’t worry if the events of episode one seem confusing and random: each week unpeels another layer of what looks like being a very potent onion. It’s all compellingly existential.

After a couple of episodes I’d already latched onto my two favourite characters: Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood, astonishing), a down-home host devoted to her pa who is slowly starting to question her purpose in life. And Bernard (the dependably excellent Jeffrey Wright), the head of programming and a man hiding a personal tragedy. His discussions with Dolores, sprinkled with code and protocol, are nevertheless heavy with humanity.

A schism soon opens up between the always-sunny top world and the subterranean control facility, packed with jaw-dropping 3D-print technology and shadowy executives. The uncomplicated dignity of pre-programmed lives on the one hand, a furtive underworld fuelled by shadowy self-motivation on the other.

Westworld gives us silky, seductive credits and fabulous music, including the use in a future instalment of Carmen’s Havanaise to underscore a deranged shooting spree. And immensely witty treatments of pop standards on a pianola to introduce scenes (No Surprises by Radiohead is a particular joy). Whoever thought of that device deserves an award.

This is television drama done properly, with heavy investment and rich themes. And where the phrase “off-scripting” has a chilling resonance.

Which production company is responsible, you ask. Bad Robot of course.

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Westworld’s UK debut is on Tuesday 4th October at 9pm on Sky Atlantic and NOWTV