Star Wars, that sprawling, multiple-trilogy saga that references at least one thousand years of backstory on the screen, has been aided and abetted by what has come to be known as the Expanded Universe, a teeming collection of novels, comic books, short stories, and videogames (indeed, some would argue – probably correctly – that it was the EU that helped to keep the property alive and kicking during the many years when no films or television series were in production). The Matrix latched onto a wider universe of stories and media right away, using its various direct-to-video anime anthologies and videogames to help fill in the gaps that the filmmakers didn’t have the time to address in the movies proper. Babylon 5 has arguably used the concept the best (well, before the new, Disney-owned Lucasfilm decided to jettison the old SW Expanded Universe and begin anew, this time in [more or less] narrative cohesion), with series creator/showrunner Joe Michael Straczynski supervising each new novel and writing most, if not all, of the comics and short stories himself.
The bottom line across all these examples is the immense storytelling benefits that arise from a franchise carefully erecting and then sustaining a multimedia footprint, using each new release to either further explore certain narrative components or character backstories or to convey exposition in ways that could never otherwise (organically) be handled – even the Marvel Cinematic Universe using its Marvel One-Shot short films to, say, add a certain measure of resolution to such tertiary characters as Agent Peggy Carter (Hayley Attewell) or the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) falls neatly into this category. And this says nothing of the benefit to fans, who are only too happy to spend even more time – even if it requires even more money – in some of their favorite realities of all time.
All of which leads us to a simple and direct question: given just how thoroughly Westworld already seems to exist beyond the scenes we got to experience on our television screens across the first season, would HBO’s newest success story warrant having its very own Expanded Universe? There’s actually quite a bit to argue both for and against it.
The case for
Westworld is, without a doubt, a complex series that tells a complex story, and such complexity naturally begs for further avenues for it to be explored (and distilled). The series painted a world that quite clearly extends well beyond the screen with just a few well-placed sentences here and there, starting with the simple fact that the park has been operational for some 34 years by the time the show starts. That’s a huge collection of guests, hosts, and narratives to explore, with such expanded material helping to answer the huge collection of more-or-less mundane questions that the showrunners didn’t have time to address in the first season – matters such as how booking tickets works, or where the park is located, or when.
But we don’t have to stop there – there’s the opportunity to either go even broader (much more so than what would be possible in the TV show proper) or much narrower, boring down into exact instances or explanations. How does the rest of society look at Westworld, generally, or Dr. Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), specifically? What else does Delos Destinations do, and how many other (secret) pies does its board of directors has its fingers in? What would “Odyssey on Red River,” Lee Sizemore’s (Simon Quarterman) rejected new – and apparently epic – storyline, have really entailed? And, for that matter, how about getting to actually know Sizemore, or other why-are-they-even-main-cast-members such as security chief Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) or Elsie Hughes (Shannon Woodward – who may or may not be dead), in the first place?
The final example – the one that the showrunners seem destined to continually and deliberately eschew in the series proper – is the existence of all the other parks at the Westworld compound. We got just a fleeting glimpse of one of these, Samuraiworld, in the season finale, and Dr. Ford off-handedly mentions some sort of murder mystery show in another episode, but there could potentially be dozens more, each revolving around a different setting or theme or, even, alternate reality. As the hosts-in-revolt carnage plays out in the second season, and as Westworld continues to focus on its ramifications in only the titular theme park, there is ample opportunity to see how the fallout lands in all the other parallel locations. When put in this context, doing an Expanded Universe seems like a no-brainer.
The case against
Except, of course, that it’s not – not by a long shot.
There are two main objections to be made for exploding Westworld out into such media as print, comics, videogames, or, even, webisodes or DTV content. The more minor of the two is actually only “minor” in comparison to its counterpart – it’s of such immediate concern that it’s enough in and of itself to stop any rush to mass-produce an EU dead in its tracks, and it can be summed up in just two words: quality control. In all the instances mentioned in the introduction, the original creators and/or the main executive producers themselves directly oversaw the conceptualization and execution of the additional materials (although, in the case of Star Wars, it took 23 years and a change in leadership in order to make the supervision happen), which, obviously, helped to keep the new stories consistent in tone or direction with the source material and to help ensure that everything would be complementary instead of destructive. Maintaining the involvement of co-creators/showrunners Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy would be absolutely imperative.
But even this wouldn’t necessarily be enough to cover the “quality” part of the quality control that would so desperately be needed. Good, talented, insightful artists would need to be discovered and then assembled in order to fashion stories that are genuinely good enough to warrant being consumed by audiences in and of themselves, and not just as mere extensions of the main intellectual property. Jeanne Cavelos, who wrote the techno-mage trilogy of novels for the Babylon 5 EU, is the perfect example, an individual who could not only write well, but who also found a brand-new perspective on the originating material that was fresh and insightful without being contradictory to creator Joe Michael Straczynski’s take. That’s damn near impossible.
And then there’s the second – and more formidable – objection. Westworld is a series that is, fundamentally speaking, conceived of and delivered to viewers from the very limited perspective of its hosts – hence its nonlinear storytelling and its lack of huge swaths of background information (y’know, that info which helped us make the case for an Expanded Universe in the first place). Adding a different story would almost automatically entail adding a different perspective, particularly since, say, books operate differently than does a TV show or, even, a comic book. Attempting to remain true to Nolan and Joy’s highly exact narrative modus operandi would present a creative obstacle that may very well be insurmountable, no matter how talented the author is or how adept she may be at squaring other storytelling circles.
Now that we’ve laid out both of our cases, it’s time for you to decide: should Westworld take the Expanded Universe plunge or just stick strictly to its originating format? Let us know in the comments.