Beyond Westworld (1980) -- a nearly-forgotten TV series that was broadcast a mere three times on CBS (though five episodes were produced) -- has long held a reputation for being absolutely dreadful.
I always chalked this reputation off to two important facts.
The first fact is that newspapers and other periodicals tend to review the first episode of a series only, and don't typically revisit a series as it grows (and hopefully improves).
Exhibit A: Star Trek drew terrible reviews from Variety and other mainstream periodicals (including TV Guide), on its premiere.
We all know how that turned out.
I'm certain those critics wish they had been given the opportunity to update or modify their original harsh reviews. Today, their reviews look silly.
Secondly, circa 1980, science fiction was still generally considered by mainstream critics to be cheesy kid's stuff, unworthy of serious attention or study.
What this means is that there was little chance that critics of the day would like a series called Beyond Westworld in 1980, even if it had the name Rod Serling attached (which it does not).
Even if it had the name William Shakespeare attached, actually.
So going in to Beyond Westworld, I was hopeful. Perhaps I would unearth a lost, underappreciated treasure.
After actually watching the pilot episode, "Westworld Destroyed," however, I can understand, at least, why critics hated this series.
In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a worse introductory episode or a sci-fi TV series.
My hope at this point is that the later episodes are better. I'm keeping an open mind, as I post reviews over the rest of the week.
The concept behind Beyond Westworld -- that lookalike robots are infiltrating important positions in 20th century society, at the behest of a misguided "creator," Dr. Simon Quaid (James Wainright) -- isn't bad in and of itself. In a way, the remade Battlestar Galactica (2003-2008) adopts this premise closely.
Rather, at least in terms of this episode of Beyond Westworld, the story is incoherently executed. The story jumps from place to place, location to location, with seemingly little reason, and the result feels like visual whiplash.
But first, a synopsis of "Westworld Destroyed," or as Quaid calls it, "the final chapter of Westworld."
Dr. Laura Garry (Judith Chapman), an employee at Delos Corporation, summons security expert John Moore (Jim McMullan) by helicopter to the company's skyscraper.
She has bad news: Westworld -- a futuristic amusement park run by Delos -- has been destroyed ostensibly by the creator of the humanoid robots that populate it, Dr. Simon Quaid (Jame Wainright).
Worse, Quaid has replaced a human crewman aboard a U.S. nuclear submarine, the Remora, with a robot duplicate. That duplicate is preparing to launch a devastating nuclear attack against Delos.
Now John must identify the robot, and stop Quaid's plans.
First off, no Westworlds are actually destroyed in this episode. The title is odd, considering that the series' lead characters actually visit Westworld, and leave it intact before the hour is over.
As you may be able to tell from the synopsis, Beyond Westworld feels more like an episode of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) or The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) than it does a legitimate follow-up to the 1973 film from writer/director Michael Crichton.
How so? An attractive young profession is assigned a mission to track down and dispose of fembots -- er, robots -- in different settings each week. For "Westworld Destroyed," the setting is a nuclear submarine.
Of course, most Six Million Dollar Man and Bionic Woman episodes are coherent. You have an idea how and why characters move from point A to point B, and what their goals are in that movement.
Beyond Westworld's first installment doesn't achieve that level of competence.
Some of the things the story seems to leave out: how exactly and when did Quaid make his exact duplicate of the agent? How did he get him aboard the sub? Wouldn't security be pretty tight?
Secondly, how is John able to get aboard the sub at sea so easily, several times in the episode?
Early on, we see a helicopter lowering John aboard aboard the sub, of course, but there is another interlude on the same sub later, and there's simply a scene change, with no indication that Jim has had to travel some distance, or take some time, to get to the submarine. Both he and Laura seem to come and go to from the sub (which is always moving...) with no fuss at all.
"Westworld Destroyed" also features a largely pointless return to Westworld.
There, a gunfighter (Alex Kubik) -- a pale imitation of the iconic Yul Brynner character -- is activated by Quaid in an attempt to murder John and Laura. John takes him out almost instantly, a fact that weakens the very premise of the series. In the movie, the character was virtually indestructible. He was, essentially, the Terminator of his day, and of the 1970s.
Now, the robot is offed instantly by a mid-level security specialist, and that's rather underwhelming.
Also, why does Laura tell John that Westworld is destroyed in their first scene together, and then take him to Westworld, which seems unharmed.
I won't go so far as to ask why there is a poster for Westworld (1973) in Laura's office, one featuring the faces of Benjamin's and Brolin's characters. Aren't these real character, in this franchise? Another poster for the film shows up later in the series, in "Sound of Terror."
Beyond Westworld also doesn't deal well with nuance. Quaid is intent on taking over the world with robots because he feels that the world's values are "obscene." He sees the robots as a corrective, and is supposed to be the TV program's villain.
Yet we also see, at Delos, an example of a female robot -- Jan -- who has been designed to survive cave collapses, and can therefore rescue trapped miners.
So Delos is already working on a way to integrate robots into daily life, which is only a degree removed from Quaid's plan. It seems like Quaid and Delos want the same thing, to improve daily life with robots. Yet they are pitted against each other.
Some of the visuals of "Westworld Destroyed" don't hold up to scrutiny well, either. For instance, when the robot is outed on the nuclear submarine, he gets sprayed with foam from a fire extinguisher. A close-up shot shows us the robotic face, with what looks like shaving cream, or worse -- cream pie -- all over it. The shot gets giggles, not chills.
There are reports on the Internet that the original pilot for this series was two hours long, and if so, that may explain why this hour seems so slapdash and sub-par. There is no connective tissue between scenes, no establishing of characters, and no real build-up of drama. The hour just races from scene to scene with no apparent rhyme, reason, or logic.
It's also extremely interesting that Delos -- the villain of the features films -- has been transformed into the savior of humanity on the series. I guess we should just think of it as the OSI.
Tomorrow, I'll move to episode two: "My Brother's Keeper."