Is sci-fi series Westworld HBO's new hit when Game Of Thrones ends?

The lines between humans and robots as well as genres are blurred in Westworld, which boasts a stellar cast

New HBO series Westworld appears to be carrying the weight of Game Of Thrones on its shoulders.

With only two more seasons to go of the globally popular fantasy Game Of Thrones, the cable network HBO is looking for its next big hit in the face of rising competition from other cable channels and upstart streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu.

Clearly, the stakes are high for Westworld, the upcoming science-fiction western drama, especially after HBO's period music drama Vinyl (2016) - which had a US$100-million (S$136-million) budget - failed to catch on and was cancelled after one season.

Everything from the creative team to the cast points to Westworld's status as a marquee project.

Most of the time when you see artificial intelligence in film or television, they're treated as the other... The key jumping-off point for us was to turn the narrative inside out.

WESTWORLD CO-CREATOR JONATHAN NOLAN on how the series aims to be different from other works

Before a single episode has aired, five seasons have reportedly already been mapped out, suggesting that HBO is very much committed to it even as its production budget has been kept under wraps.

The executive producer is J.J. Abrams, whose golden touch extends to both television and movies with hits such as mystery thriller Lost (2004-2010) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).

The creators are the husband- and-wife team of Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy.

Nolan is behind the sci-fi crime show Person Of Interest (2011-2016) as well as co-writer of scripts such as superhero flick The Dark Knight Rises (2012) with his film-maker elder brother Christopher. Joy has written for kooky drama Pushing Daisies (2007-2009) and action drama Burn Notice (2007-2013).

The cast is top drawer, with Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Thandie Newton in the line-up.

Already, Westworld has been generating buzz.

It earned a four-star first look review from The Telegraph newspaper, which called it "sinister and spectacular", and is on the list of most anticipated/promising new shows of the fall season, according to TV.com and The Wall Street Journal.

It premieres in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 9am, at the same time as in the United States, with a same- day encore at 9pm.

Westworld puts a new spin on a topical subject.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been examined in films such as Ex Machina (2015) and the ongoing TV series Humans.

Jonathan Nolan, 40, and Joy, 39, drew inspiration from the 1973 film of the same name, which was written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton.

In it, human guests get to indulge in their fantasies in a western- themed amusement park filled with human-looking robots.

Apart from the mash-up of genres, Westworld the series also does something else different.

Nolan says: "Most of the time when you see AI in film or television, they're treated as the other, they're treated as the enemy.

"The key jumping-off point for us was to turn the narrative inside out. You're starting with the AI, you're seeing us as they would see us."

He was speaking to international media at a hotel in Beverly Hills.

Such an approach means that it is not immediately clear which characters in Westworld are humans and which ones are so-called hosts who are imprinted with a specific role and story. (To avoid spoilers, the following descriptions of the characters are necessarily a little vague.)

Hopkins plays Dr Robert Ford, the creator of the Westworld theme park. Wood is Dolores Abernathy, a rancher's daughter whose path crosses with two gunslingers, Harris as the Man in Black and Marsden's Teddy Flood. Newton plays a brothel madame.

There is also Jeffrey Wright as Bernard Lowe, who creates the hosts; and Jimmi Simpson as William, a reluctant first-time visitor to Westworld.

At the press event, even basic scene-setting questions regarding how far Westworld is set in the future and whether it even takes place on Earth are met with far from straightforward answers.

Nolan says: "When it comes to these questions, we tease a bit along the way, but we very much want the viewers to be asking those questions."

Hard look at humanity

In other words, do not expect the drama to be spoonfeeding viewers answers. Instead, viewers would do well to settle in for a slow-burn show that tackles big questions about consciousness, reality and human nature.

To the creators, these are not idle musings about a distant future.

A lot of what was science fiction at the time of the Westworld movie four decades ago is simply fact now, with artificial intelligence underlying the architecture of ubiquitous platforms such as Google and Facebook, notes Nolan.

Joy adds: "Our approach to AI was a bit more nuanced, in that now that we're looking practically at what it would be like to have AI, you realise they are the product of our inputs, of the way which we design them. The good and the bad. They are in some ways a reflection of us."

The fact that Joy and Nolan's daughter was born while they were writing the script probably lends a greater urgency to the questions posed in the show for them.

She quips of the pitching and development process: "I measured the experience in trimesters."

Perhaps that explains her choice of simile in describing a key development on which the plot turns.

"There is the possibility of human error, the fact that like any child, you do your best to rear them, but they can sometimes take on their own course. Their code can develop in ways that we did not anticipate."

While AI can develop in unexpected ways, it seems that given the opportunity to indulge, humans often react in a predictably base way and that includes violence and sexual violence.

Aware of the flak that HBO shows such as Game Of Thrones have received for the depiction of rape and violence against women, Joy says they were careful for it "to not be about fetishisation of those acts".

In a separate interview, Wood, 29, says: "It's a good hard look at humanity. In our show, the humans are the monsters."

For all the big concepts and spare-no-expense production values, Westworld is, at its core, about empathy.

Joy says: "When I think about what I would like to be as a human and parent and writer, so much of it is about listening to and imagining the full worlds of others, their pains, their happiness, their fulfilment. To really understand people who are not you and their perspective and the fact that they have as much personhood as you do.

"Some of the worst things in the world happen when people become abstractions instead of other people who are just as vital as yourself."

•Westworld premieres on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Monday at 9am, at the same time as the United States, with a same-day encore at 9pm. It is also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Channel 602).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 28, 2016, with the headline 'Howdy, robot'. Print Edition | Subscribe