Westworld is the most promising new science fiction series of the season

Enlarge / Ed Harris is the Man in Black, a gamer who has discovered a hidden game within the immersive game of the wild west theme park Westworld.

Westworld is unlike anything you’ve seen before on television, and I don’t mean that in the sense of visual effects. The series takes two familiar sci-fi tropes—out-of-control robots and immersive gameworlds gone wrong—and builds a complex, plausible futuristic scenario around them. As a result, we get a rich, disturbing, intense story about how the evolution of storytelling is bound up with the birth of artificial life.

The new HBO series, debuting Oct. 2, is about an enormous wild west amusement park populated by robots indistinguishable from real people. Human "guests" can do whatever they want with the robot "hosts." Though it's not clear how far in the future the series is set, we do know that the park has been in operation for at least 30 years, during which time the robots have evolved from simple machines with small repertoires of phrases, into fully-interactive creatures who can learn, adapt, and even dream. Westworld, which looks like Monument Valley, is so big that even experienced players have never found its edges. The park's creator, Ford (Anthony Hopkins), is a roboticist with a serious Messiah complex who has secret plans for the park. Ford works closely with lead programmer Bernard (Jeffrey Wright), who also seems to have some off-the-books plans for the robots--he's been secretly analyzing the code running beautiful, kindly robot Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) during creepy late-night hacking sessions.

As the series opens, Ford has just released a software update that nobody realized was coming. The update is called "reverie," and it gives the robots new set of gestures that make them appear to be staring off into space and dreaming. Thought it adds to the robots' realism, it also has some unexplained side-effects that cause the robots to crash. So Bernard and his team, along with an ops crew led by Theresa (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and security chief Ashley (Luke Hemsworth), have to come in and clean up the mess. Of course it's not going to be easy, because Ford's update was a lot more than it seems. And it appears to be spreading like an intellectual virus from robot to robot.

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