Essays, Star Trek: Discovery

When did Humans become the Black Hats of Modern Fiction? Westworld, The Walking Dead & Encroaching Dystopia

When did we become the bad guys?

When I say we, I mean it in the Royal sense. A collective *we* referring to modern society. Humanity. For decades in cinema, television and half a dozen other entertainment mediums, we were the good guys. Human beings, men and women, we understood right from wrong and saved the world from monsters – demonic, alien and who knows what all. In the last few years, particularly, something has changed. Westworld is just the latest returning show in a line of hugely popular TV shows that make this very clear.

We have become the monsters we always imagined we were fighting against.

Westworld is all about the relationship between man and machine. In a near-futuristic theme park setting, where android ‘hosts’ play out narratives for human gamers (with money) so they can indulge their basest desires, the first season of Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s original 1970’s movie was all about the confluence between machine and consciousness, tied up with the moral treatment of what are considered hardware, but steadily come to realise they are much much more. Westworld plays out as a high-concept genre thriller in the making, with philosophical overtones, but the message within Nolan & Joy’s take on Crichton’s cautionary tale is clear: we are *not* the heroes of this story.

In terms of Westworld, the very concept of ‘we’ in human terms lies at the core of the show itself – what does it mean to be human? Do we have a soul? What separates us from machinery? The very fact a key character in the show’s first season doesn’t even know he is a host cuts to the heart of the idea, in the same way Ronald D. Moore’s slightly ahead of its time take on pulp 70’s sci-fi adventure Battlestar Galactica had in its final season the mystery of who was human, and who was a Cylon – essentially an alien cybernetic creature. 

Where something like Battlestar differed, was in how the Cylons who didn’t realise they were human experience that awakening in the hopes they will reclaim some of their humanity. Westworld doesn’t necessarily suggest that the hosts becoming human is the goal at all. There is evidence across the first season that the hosts who have found consciousness seek rather to destroy humanity, like we would destroy vermin, and this is further becoming apparent as we edge further into the second season which has recently started airing. Given what humans have put these machines through, you cannot really blame their psychology.

This exploration of humanity’s own monstrosity feels increasingly like a common trend in modern fiction, particularly fiction closely built into popular culture. You can feel the reconceptualisation of humanity as a source of terrible pain and suffering in all kinds of examples.

The Walking Dead and its spin-off series Fear the Walking Dead, for instance, very early on suggested that while the undead zombie menace which sent the world into a post-apocalyptic spiral may appear to be the enemy seeking to wipe out the human race, in truth it is *us* who perpetrate the most misery. Many have switched off from, particularly, The Walking Dead because Robert Kirkman’s comic adaptation is simply *too* nihilistic – that it portrays a world without any hope a little too keenly. The longer the show has progressed, however, the more the survivors have been revealed as capable of terrible acts of violence, pain and murder. The zombies may want to eat us alive, fuelled by a primal thirst for human flesh, but both of these shows are about what humanity becomes when faced with a post-apocalyptic scenario.

Why, then, are we starting to doubt we are the heroes of our own story? What has changed?

This is not a new trend, first and foremost. Popular culture has been doubting the virtue of humanity for decades now, particularly since the optimism of the 1960’s in Western civilisation gave way to the austerity and corruption of the 1970’s, which bred a whole new level of paranoia that directly led to the phenomenon of shows such as The X-Files decades later. Westworld, Crichton’s original film, was born as an aberration of an age which had rejected science-fiction in both the cinema and largely on television, precisely because it tapped into that same wave of mistrust in our institutions and virtues.

The major difference with the revisionist take on Westworld is that in Crichton’s original story, the robotic androids who gained a level of sentience—chiefly led by Yul Brynner’s Old West gunslinger—were considered the external, ‘alien’ menace for the humans within the story to take down, having been punished for trying to create something which rose up against them. James Cameron’s The Terminator and subsequent sequels would take a similar concept, that of an artificial intelligence, and again cast the machines as (in most circumstances) the enemy to be destroyed. Nolan & Joy’s Westworld reflects a modern era in which human abuses have become regular front page news by casting the machines as the ones to root for.

To understand this, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror. Do we really like what we see right now as a species? In the West particularly, we are a self-obsessed mass of contradictions; on the one hand we campaign against the rise of a paragon of self-interested, peak capitalism like Donald Trump to become the leader of the free world, and on the other we sacrifice ourselves at the altar of towering, corporate monoliths such as Apple or Google, just so we can keep up with the modern trends of the day and feel connected to society. We ostracise, demonise and avoid criminals for the worst kind of offences, but major institutions for years turn a blind eye to powerful, influential and wealthy film producers or TV stars or even, yes, world leaders, doing the same thing.

Can we be surprised that The Walking Dead suggests the moment ‘The System’ falls apart, that we will descend into outright savagery? Or should we be shocked that Westworld depicts a future in which we dehumanise machines built to look, sound and feel exactly like us, for the benefit of the super rich?

It all feels like a comment on where we’re heading as a collective race. The optimism has been slipping away for a long time now and in popular culture, it is almost certainly gone. Westworld actively seems to enjoy the idea that our attempts to play God, to create in our own image beings we can murder or rape or torment, is going to see us punished for our sins. The Handmaid’s Tale, adapting Margaret Atwood’s 1980’s novel about a repressive, totalitarian state in which women are reduced to enslaved breeding cows inside a fanatical regime, promises with its inbound second season the sparks of revolution – that woman may rise and visit a reckoning on mankind. 

The Walking Dead and its spin-offs simply reinforces that we are doomed, while even that bastion of escapist optimism, Star Trek, muddied the philosophical waters with Discovery, its latest addition to a half-century of canon. While that show still believes in the virtue and goodness of the United Federation of Planets several centuries hence, a major component of its first season revolves around a dark ‘Mirror Universe’ ruled by an authoritarian, totalitarian empire, similar to the Galactic Empire of Star Wars, which feels much more akin to the kind of self-interested, xenophobic future many consider is a more likely outcome for humanity than the bright, inclusive Federation.

It is now quite telling, indeed, that the only piece of significant popular culture of late to depict humanity as heroes is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and by the very nature of its construct, those heroes are in fact ‘superheroes’; Captain America, Spider-Man, Black Widow, Black Panther etc… are all virtuous good guys fighting alien or super-powered monsters (most recently the philosophical mega-villain Thanos, who I discuss in my review of Avengers: Infinity War) but each of them either have powers over time, space or their environment, or access to wealth and resources which allow them to be *more* than human. Their optimistic future doesn’t seem achievable for us mere mortals, despite how their stories inspire.

Entertainment, in all its forms, always holds up the mirror we are too scared to gaze into. The very fact a show such as Westworld, which is fast embedding itself in the cultural consciousness as must see, ‘water-cooler’ television sparking a million theories and speculations, even exists and strikes such a chord should serve as a warning to our fractured, anxious civilisation. We’re in danger of the same destiny as the Man in Black. 

And if we’re not careful, one day we’re going to wake up and find one of these fictionalised, terrifying futures, has become our reality.

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