October brings us many TV delights this year, not least of which is the reinvention of Westworld as a lavish HBO series with a star-studded cast. But what many have forgotten is that this isn’t Westworld’s first visit to the small screen.
In 1973, the movie Westworld made a splash on the big screen, the first feature film both written and directed by Michael Crichton, who had gotten his first behind-the-camera experience on a TV movie in 1972. With MGM offering Crichton considerable creative freedom, he wove the story of Delos, a desert vacation paradise of an unspecified future, reachable only by hovercraft, where customers could shell out a thousand bucks a day to live out their fantasies in one of Delos’ three robot-populated environments: Roman World, Medieval World, and Western World. Naturally, the movie’s two male leads – square-jawed James Brolin and future Quark star Richard Benjamin in an unusual dramatic role – choose to spend time in the lawless old west. All non-vacationers in all of Delos’ fantasylands are robots which can be interacted with, seduced, abused, or even killed; the robots are then taken underground for repairs and redeployed for the next round of paying customers…until they mysteriously begin revolting.
Westworld was a wonderfully self-contained story which didn’t exactly demand a follow-up, and yet it got not one, but two. Languishing in development hell at MGM for years, the movie sequel Futureworld eventually saw the light of day – with a completely different cast and from a completely different studio – in 1976, with its only real connecting tissue being Delos (which now had a fourth attraction, Future World) and an utterly bizarre cameo appearance by Yul Brynner’s robot gunslinger. Despite starring Peter Fonda, Futureworld was a slow-paced movie about the makers of Delos’ robots “cloning” existing humans and replacing them.
And insult wasn’t done being added to injury: MGM decided to adapt Westworld into a television series, and successfully pitched it at CBS as a mid-season replacement to air in the spring 1980 TV season. The plot involved characters never before mentioned in the Westworld movies: Delos’ security chief, John Moore (Jim McMullan), is called into action…
when it is discovered that Quaid, the unhinged reclusive genius who created the Westworld robots, intends to use those robots to take over the world.
The series visited Westworld just once, in its pilot episode, and then proceeded to live up to the “Beyond Westworld” name by never going back there again. (The TV series also turns Delos into a powerful but secretive corporation with nearly-infinite government security clearance; the movie Delos, the vacation paradise, is mentioned no further. Guess they diversified.)
The trouble with Beyond Westworld, recently released on manufacture-on-demand DVD from the MGM vaults, is that it tried to trade on the name and concept and reputation of a movie that was nearly seven years in the past, and managed to fluff even that task. The series’ leads are wooden – the only standout is a pre-Greatest-American-Hero Connie Sellecca, added to the cast after the pilot – and the plots make little sense. In the pilot, Quaid’s plan for world domination is to have a robot infiltrate a Navy nuclear submarine to gain control of its nuclear missiles. Within a couple of weeks, Quaid’s using his robots to con oil tycoons and try to win the Daytona 500…a strange way to go about holding the world hostage to his every whim.
The show’s male lead is frequently so lifeless that you can instantly tell which guest actor is playing a robot, because that’s the one showing personality in the scene. There are a handful of interesting guest starring roles – Cassandra Petersen before she was Elvira, a glum-looking, post-Gilligan’s-Island Russell Johnson, Rene Auberjonois (before Benson) as a long-haired rock star, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it George Takei cameo.
No amount of star power could put Beyond Westworld beyond the reach of cancellation, however: after airing the pilot and two hour-long episodes, CBS pulled the plug on Delos’ robots, and even Quaid couldn’t stop them. And thus ended any attempt to bring Westworld to TV – until now. The TV series simply couldn’t distinguish itself from other superhero/action fare on network TV; other CBS shows such as The Incredible Hulk were superior offerings, and spot-the-robot stories had been done better by The Bionic Woman’s numerous run-ins with fembots. Two episodes remained unaired, so the DVD features a total of five hour-long episodes.
Come to think of it, even Crichton’s original formulation of the story raised questions it seemed unprepared to answer. Did the robots rise up and claim independence from their human masters, or were they hit by a computer virus? What did the Delos vacationers’ treatment of their robot servants/playthings say about society? Even the movie that started it all skipped around these big questions…or intended to leave them lingering, unanswered, in the audience’s mind.
HBO’s reboot of the property has an opportunity to explore these issues in more depth, along with issues that didn’t even exist at the time that Crichton’s original was first threaded through a movie projector.
And if nothing else, 1980’s Beyond Westworld is a pretty good blueprint of what the new show should avoid doing: endless find-the-robot-among-the-guest-stars plots with no bearing whatsoever on the visit-the-old-west premise that originally intrigued the audience.
[Via] j people mover
About Earl Green
Earl Green has been the head writer and podcast host at the Log Book.Com since 1989, when the Earth’s crust was still cooling and dinosaurs could be heard plaintively baying for the blood of small mammals in the distant background of the pre-internet age. He has worked in his fair share of TV newsrooms (for real), and has since gone on to write two gigantic Doctor Who guidebooks, VWORP!1 and VWORP!2, and a more recent book about being geeky and daddy at the same time, Fatherhood, Fandom, and Fading Out. He’s also written for The Retroist, All Game Guide, and Classic Gamer Magazine, and hosts three podcasts: theLogBook.com’s Escape Pod (a daily dose of geeky history), Select Game (covering the Odyssey2 video game system), and In The Grand Theme Of Things (grouping movie, TV and game soundtracks together by topic). He is writing this bio from underneath a pile of cats. Please. Send help.