Did you watch Westworld? Enjoy all the twists, and the accompanying guesswork about who might secretly be a…. host? I wanted to write robot there, but a few episodes into the series I noticed that none of the characters seemed to have used the word robot, and I guessed that over the course of the season none of them would (I wasn’t paying very close attention to see if anyone did or not, but I don’t recall noticing the word). Which might seem a little odd, because it’s a series all about robots. Cowboy robots. Most of the characters we see are robots. And they meet the criteria according to the two definitions in the OED:
- A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer
- (especially in science fiction) a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically
But they’re always referred to as hosts. But then, that doesn’t really seem that odd. Because it’s prestige television, and robot isn’t really a prestige word, is it? And I don’t mean to be critical of the producers’ attitude, because I understand their aversion to the word. Because robot just sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it?
It shouldn’t, because it’s a perfectly legitimate word that describes real-life machines that make a lot of our favourite products. But when you hear the word robot, you probably don’t picture this:
No, you probably picture this chap:
or one of these guys:
Because we always associate robots with science fiction, which is understandable, because they feature in the genre a lot. But sci-fi has always been a genre that people have found hard to take seriously (despite there always having been lots of high-quality examples of the genre, as well as some less-reputable fare). But recently, science-fiction, or at least some examples of it, has become popular. Every year superhero films make obscene amounts of money, and they certainly count as sci-fi. People are going to queue tomorrow night to see the new Star Wars film at midnight (how pathetic is that!?)
Ah, but that’s populist fare! you say. People can still turn their nose up at it. True, but look at Westworld: critically acclaimed, and popular. And sci-fi. Only they don’t like to admit that, even if the storytelling is classic sci-fi, harking right back to Frankenstein, one of the first great works of science fiction. But if you tell people to watch this fascinating drama where hosts grapple with existential questions about their own existence, and the programme questions just what the difference between a human and a host is, they might be intrigued. Lots of people clearly are. But tell them it’s about robots who look like cowboys that you can shoot, and they’ll probably think that it sounds like that cheesy ’70s sci-fi film.
Look at Game of Thrones, HBO’s other big success. While it’s fantasy, not sci-fi, both genres share a lot of the same connotations of being geeky or nerdy. And while there might be the occasional dragon or shadow-demon birth in Game of Thrones, there’s much more grounded character development in castles and fields you could imagine are part of our own history.
As someone who has always dabbled in such genres, and not considered them as less respectable than other genres, I have mixed feelings about this apparent embarrassment about genre. I can understand it, because sometimes sci-fi can be cheesy, and underplaying the tropes of the genre can help people enjoy it who might not normally be interested in it. But I also don’t believe anyone should be embarrassed about what they create, and if some people make a really interesting programme about cowboy robots, they should be proud of their cowboy robots. And downplaying the tropes of the genre might lead one to avoid incorporating some of the genre’s more interesting elements. One of the main attractions of science-fiction for me is that it can imagine fantastic worlds or situations far removed from our present reality, but with the sense that they might be achievable, even if only in the far future. But if you don’t think of what you create as sci-fi, you might not explore all the avenues the genre offers you.
But ultimately, I don’t really mind if they avoid the word robot in Westworld, because it would sound weird, especially because the robots don’t look like robots. But The Walking Dead? Yeah, the word zombie might sound even sillier than robot, but when I watched it (I gave up after a while: *walk to apparently safe place – relax – get surprised by bad-guy attack – walk to apparently safe place…* got very old very quickly), I couldn’t suspend my disbelief that no-one would refer to the “walkers” as zombies. That’s clearly what they are, and everyone in the programme would know the word!
But the most egregious example of denying one’s genre roots is in the following clip from Man of Steel (2013):
Even before playing the video, the lack of colour is apparent. Why associate your film ABOUT SUPERMAN with the positivity and wholesomeness of the character, and the vibrant colours of comics in general, when you can make your film a joyless plod of grey (I’m not even such a big fan of Superman in general, but why adapt a character to film if you’re going to ignore so much of what they are?) But the worst part about it is that the filmmakers were so embarrassed by the name of the main character that they not only didn’t include it in the title, but couldn’t even include it in the film itself. If you can’t bring yourself to call your character Superman, is he really Superman?
I’m all for creativity in adaptation, and don’t see the point in slavishly copying one’s source material, but there still has to be some semblance of the character there. If you’re so embarrassed about making a superhero film, why make a superhero film? But then the same director wasn’t so embarrassed about using the name Superman (or Martha!) in Batman v. Superman, and look how that turned out.
So in conclusion, it’s ok to call the cowboy robots hosts on Westworld, but it’s not ok to avoid calling Superman Superman. Makes sense, doesn’t it?