Entertainment, Review

“Is Westworld the next generation of science fiction?” — Ryan Geraghty

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By Ryan Geraghty

Science fiction is the genre of possibility: the possibilities of technology, evolution, encounters with alien species and the prospects of what could be. It is interesting, therefore, to contemplate the possibilities of science fiction itself. Historically seen as a cult genre, science fiction has often gotten lost in the mainstream with only occasional successes such as Star Wars and The Matrix. In the modern era, however, science fiction seems to be finding more ways of making itself appealing to a wider audience, whilst still maintaining its core values and holding onto the magical ingredients that have attracted people to it since the beginning. Home Box Office’s (HBO) Westworld has become a prime example of this.

Whereas once it was Klingons and Daleks that dominated the sci-fi world, the genre now finds its greatest success in intelligent dramas which connects emotionally with people and reflects real world issues. The truth is, in this regard sci-fi hasn’t changed that much at all. Was it not intelligent drama when Roy Batty confronted Deckard on that bleak rainy rooftop in Blade Runner? Did it not connect with people emotionally when Jean-Luc Picard defended Data’s right to be free in Star Trek: The Next Generation? Did it not reflect real world issues when an oppressed working class fought their masters in Metropolis?

The recipe for great science fiction has always existed, but, to appeal to a mainstream audience, it has had to evolve with the times. People interested in ‘Robbie the Robot era’ sci-fi really have become a minority, with such things falling more into the realm of science fantasy rather than science fiction (not that this can’t appeal to the mainstream too, many would put Star Wars into this same category). As technology such as artificial intelligence, cloning and mass surveillance becomes less fictional and closer to a reality, it’s these issues that seem to dominate science fiction.

Black Mirror is scary because people believe its ideas can happen within their lifetime, which makes it relatable. Rick and Morty is popular because it appeals to a sense of cynicism embedded in a generation left behind. Whilst Westworld is less grounded than Black Mirror, and less wacky than Rick and Morty, people relate to the ideas in the show which helps them become immersed in its world. Of course there is much more to Westworld’s success than dealing with relatable sci-fi issues. Westworld is the culmination of an exquisitely written narrative, deep interesting characters, painstakingly thorough world-building, and production values that HBO are willing to spend a lot of money on. HBO were willing to hire the writing talent, the acting talent, and invest a substantial amount money into the show, because they knew that science fiction, when done right, can appeal to a lot of people.

In an era dominated by reality TV, social media and celebrity gossip, shows like Westworld provide an intelligent and engaging alternative. Westworld brings an excitement to people’s lives that the casual viewer is not accustomed to, much like Twin Peaks and The X-Files did in the 1990s. Hollywood is still dominated by superhero films, and more instant-spectacle-based sci-fi, and these work as a two-hour experience, but when it comes to the long-term investment required for a television series, people need to be engaged in a different way, this is what Westworld gives to its viewers.

So is Westworld the ‘next generation’ of science fiction? The simple answer is yes, but not in the way you might think. The themes dealt with in Westworld are nothing new; you could quite easily see the same ideas covered more thoroughly in the 2004 Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek: The Next Generation before that, or even as far back as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927. The ideas of science fiction have always remained mostly the same, they are simply repackaged. Westworld is not the future of sci-fi because of its ideas, it is its future because it has found a formula for achieving critical and commercial success without compromising what makes science fiction so beloved, and, in doing so, has begun to change the perception that science fiction can only be enjoyed by the minority.

Ryan Geraghty is a freelance journalist and political writer based in Manchester. He is a contributor to The Word newspaper and is currently studying M.A. in Multimedia Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @RP_Geraghty

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