Westworld, Battlestar Galactica & Understanding Humanity Through Our Machines

Westworld and Battlestar Galactica share many similarities, beyond merely the search for robots in disguise.

The following contains spoilers for season 1 of Westworld and the entirety of Battlestar Galactica.

“Every story needs a beginning,” Anthony Hopkins’ Robert Ford tells a newly “awoken” host (the show’s terminology for humanoid cyborgs) during last week’s episode of Westworld. “Your imagined suffering makes you lifelike.”

“Lifelike but not alive,” the host responds. “Pain only exists in the mind. What’s the difference between my pain and yours? Between you and me?”

“The answer always seemed obvious to me,” Ford says. “There is no threshold that makes us greater than the sum of our parts – no inflection point at which we become fully alive. We can’t define consciousness because consciousness does not exist. Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices – for the most part content being told what to do next. No, my friend, you’re not missing anything at all.”

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Westworld is a well-crafted, worthwhile show. The adaptation of Michael Crichton’s hokey 1973 film about humanoid robots in a Western-themed amusement park handles many thematic concepts at once. What is the nature of humanity? What are the similarities between heroes and villains? Why are so many consumers still interested in Westerns? To many viewers, however, Westworld the show, isn’t much different than Westworld the amusement park. Westworld is a game – a maze, to borrow from the show’s vernacular, where viewers scour through clues trying to decipher who is human and who is not.

With its most recent episode, “Trace Decay,” Westworld admits that it is in fact playing into this game. The aforementioned “awakened” host is Bernard, an engineer working under Ford at the park who had been assumed to be a human from the start. So it would seem that the show is instructing you how to watch it on one level. “Yes, yes, post your theories on reddit and keep on the witch hunt for secret hosts,” co-creator Jonathan Nolan purrs as he rolls around in his The Dark Knight screenplay money.

Ford’s monologue after the reveal, however, undercuts that. When Bernard wants to know what the differences between his pain and Ford’s pain is, Ford admits that there really isn’t a difference at all. The hosts spend their entire lives in a loop doing the same things over and over again and listening to their coding while humans spend their entire lives afraid to change, and following the impulses of their brain. Humans and hosts are part of the same rat race, one side is just more aware than the other.

This is a bleak, fascinating idea. It’s also not entirely unique in television history.

The similarities between Westworld and the Syfy (then “Sci-Fi”) series Battlestar Galactica are striking. Both are remakes of somewhat cheesy 1970s science fiction franchises. The aforementioned Westworld was a film while BSG was a clear Stars Wars knockoff on a frustrating TV budget. Both feature a conflict between human beings and ultra-realistic humanoid robots. And both even invent new terms for their respective ‘bots – “hosts” for Westworld, and “cylons” for Battlestar Galactica.

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Battlestar Galactica does begin with less happy circumstances than Westworld’s trip to a theme park, however: namely the near annihilation of the human race. In the world of Battlestar Galactica (which actually does take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away), humans living in The Twelve Colonies are at war with their robot creations, the Cylons. After a many-decade break in hostilities, the Cylons opt to decisively win that war by blowing up all 12 planets and killing roughly 99 percent of the human population. The surviving humans take off in a small armada of ships led by the warship Battlestar Galactica to find a new home. Throughout their journey, they are pursued by the Cylons.

That in and of itself is an interesting story, but the 2004 remake makes one significant change. While most of the Cylons retain their mechanical stormtrooper-esque robot appearances, a select few Cylon models (later revealed to be 13 models) have completely human appearances. This complicates matters for the surviving remnants of humanity, as they had no way of knowing who among them might be the enemy.

Like Westworld, Battlestar Galactica has big ideas. Its post-9/11 timing shaded a lot of critical perception of it. The notion that our human heroes would resort to guerrilla/insurgent warfare tactics while occupied by the Cylons was certainly provocative while the U.S. was mired in the Iraq War. But it also featured the game-playing aspect from Westworld that viewers enjoyed. It revealed early on that Sharon, one of the main characters, was an unwitting Cylon. And from there, it was a race to discover who else could be.

At one point near the end of its run, Battlestar Galactica indulged its viewers’ game even further by creating the concept of “The Final Five:” Five of our main characters were, in fact, the original five humanoid Cylons who created the rest.

Viewing a television show as a game that can be defeated or cracked is certainly a worthwhile way to participate in the medium, especially when TV’s best pal, the internet, is around to connect like-minded participants. But eventually, and at the end of every game, there is a solution. At the end of every maze, in an exit (or entrance).

Battlestar Galactica had fun making us guess who was human and who was a machine. Once all the cards were on the table, they had to then reveal why the answer to who was whom was important. Ultimately, Battlestar Galactica came to a different conclusion than what Westworld is offering in its first season.

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Battlestar Galactica features many religious undertones. Glen A. Larson, the original creator, was a practicing Mormon who included a lot imagery and morals of the religion within the show. And there are times when they are outright overtones, as when it’s revealed that the cast of the show had been partially made up of angels (Battlestar Galactica’s reputation for a weak finale is not entirely unearned).

That religious context makes the central premise –  sentient beings raging against their creator – all the more poignant. Like any human progeny, these robots need love and attention, and the human-model Cylons eventually begin to empathize with their creators. Cylons Number Six and Number Eight lead a cultural revolution among Cylon urging for a empathetic relations with humanity. After a disastrous experiment trying to interact with humans peacefully, the Cylons eventually fall into a civil war with around half their numbers defecting to join and aid humanity.

It’s logical and meaningful then that the cause of the Cylon society fracturing is religious in nature. One faction wants to empathize with its lonely creators for creating them, and the other faction wants to damn that creator to hell for the same reason.

One branch of Cylons, led by Number One a.k.a Brother Cavil resents humanity for creating them in the first place. He explains his beef with humanity to another human-friendly Cylon.

“I don’t want to be human,” he says. “I want to see gamma rays! I want to hear X-rays! And I want to – I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can’t even express these things properly because I have to – I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid limiting spoken language. But I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws. And feel the wind of a supernova flowing over me. I’m a machine! And I can know much more. I can experience so much more. But I’m trapped in this absurd body.”

This mindset is not dissimilar to Maeve’s experience on Westworld. Maeve is the first host to become fully conscious of her robotic nature that we’re aware of. And in response to this information, she understandably despairs. Then as she processes it more, that same despair becomes anger. Anger at humanity for forcing her to experience then relive the death of a loved one. Anger that she has had no control or agency in her life. But also anger in just how lacking she finds humanity.

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She’s likely disgusted by the two lab techs she’s paired up with (named somewhat cheekily by the writers “Felix” and “Sylvester”). They’re easily manipulated, creeps, or both. She’s definitely disgusted that her intelligence scores have been deliberately placed below that of humans.  Maeve is the only host thus far to confront her reality and like her Cylon counterparts in Battlestar Galactica, she responds with rage.

Another crucial characteristic that Maeve and the hosts of Westworld share with their Cylon counterparts is the ability to resurrect. Hosts in Westworld are repaired and restarted after dying in the park, and returned to their posts the next day. When Maeve becomes aware of this she starts deliberately dying when she wants to wake up back in the Westworld host operating room. “I’ve died a million times…I’m great at it,” she tells Felix and Sylvester to intimidate them.

For hosts and Cylons, dying is not permanent, and in some cases can even be a strategic tool. The sympathetic Cylons, however, soon view it to be the one thing that’s keeping them from their human creators. After Number Six experiences life beyond reach of the Cylons’ “Resurrection Ships” that regenerates her, she tries to explain the religious experience to a human.

“In our civil war, we’ve seen death,” she says. “We’ve watched our people die. Gone forever. As terrible as it was beyond the reach of the Resurrection ships, something began to change. We could feel a sense of time, as if each moment held its own significance. We began to realize that for our existence to hold any value, it must end. To live meaningful lives, we must die and not return. The one human flaw that you spend your lifetimes distressing over… Mortality is the one thing… Well, it’s the one thing that makes you whole.”

When it was all said and done, Battlestar Galactica had a miniseries, 75 episodes and countless other spinoffs to tell it’s story. Westworld has so far aired eight episodes. So it’s not entirely fair to compare the emotional journeys of the hosts to the Cylons. However, what Battlestar Galactica had to say about humanity, and the things we create throughout, is much more optimistic than Westworld’s to date.

Part of the appeal of Westworld is that the setting is a place that appeals to people’s most base and heroic desires simultaneously. The desire to have sex with a hooker in a saloon exists simultaneously beside the indescribable need for heroism, and one’s life to have meaning. On Battlestar Galactica, there isn’t much room for the baser instincts as humanity needs to survive first; everything else second.

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Still, both Westworld in its early stages and the entirety of Battlestar Galactica seek to draw the comparisons between machines and human beings. On Westworld, Robert Ford concludes the similarities exist in how equally mundane humans and hosts are. On Battlestar Galactica,  Number Six and the rest of the Cylons conclude similarities exist because both species are special with their complicated, fragile mortality.

By the end of Battlestar Galactica, humanity finally finds a home on what we now call Earth. Humans set up a society on their new planet, and the remaining Cylons take off into the cosmos in search of deeper purpose. One human-Cylon hybrid remains back on Earth. Hera is the daughter of human Karl Agathon and Cylon Number Eight. It’s revealed that Hera is Mitochondrial Eve for our life on Earth now (well… not like really because this is a TV show but that would be awesome). Deus ex machina issues with the finale aside, the message here is powerful. The only salvation for humanity was coming to terms with its own creation, and in part: coming to terms with itself.

Westworld may one day come to a similar conclusion. But for now, it presents the antithesis to Battlestar Galactica. Humans and hosts are similar because the reality of life comes down to working parts and probability. Humans and Cylons are similar because all life is precious, as a character in a show that sadly features no robots might say.

I’ll admit, I hope Westworld sticks to that misanthropic vision. We deserve to experience the joy of two superb science fiction series operating under the same premise and coming to two wildly different conclusions one decade apart.