From Terminator and iRobot, to AI and Almost Human, we’ve seen robot uprisings and AI apocalypses in all forms on screen, but they all explore the idea of machines posing a threat to humanity. Adapted from 2012’s Swedish TV series Real Humans, Channel 4’s new sci-fi drama, Humans, dares to take a less high-octane look at the lines between humankind and AI.
Upon first glance the eight-part co-production with AMC doesn’t seem to be following the robotic takeover route, but rather focusing on what it means to be human, and what differentiates humanity from machines. AI might be stronger and faster and better equipped to do the jobs that humans do, but if they don’t have the capacity to love, or feel pain, or dream, they’re still just robots. This idea is immediately introduced in the Humans pilot episode.
Set in a parallel present where android servants known as Synths are the norm, we follow the Hawkins family as they adjust to life with their seemingly ‘perfect’ new Synth, Anita (Gemma Chan). With hopes of relieving the stress on his strained marriage, Joe Hawkins’ (Tom Goodman-Hill) impulsive purchase of a shiny new Synth doesn’t sit well with his lawyer wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), who dislikes the idea of her children growing up with a robot (though she initially seems more perturbed by the idea that the Synth might replace her role in the family).
The Hawkins react to Anita in varying ways; Joe is delighted by the fact that he no longer has to cook or clean, teenage son Toby (Theo Stevenson) is stunned by the flawless Synth his father has brought home, while youngest child Sophie (Pixie Davies) treats Anita like her long-lost best friend. It is the reactions of Laura and sulky older daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) that show the more sceptical perspective. Laura watches Anita’s movements with growing suspicion and concern, whilst Mattie’s choice to threaten and insult the Synth reveals more about Anita than it does the rebellious teenage girl. There is much more going on behind Anita’s eyes than her blank, poker face gives away.
Elsewhere we’re introduced to William Hurt’s George Millican, a widower who’s using his Synth Odi (Will Tudor) as a substitute son, relying on the out-of-date Synth to fill in the blanks when his fading memory fails him. Despite being told that his archaic, malfunctioning machine will be replaced for a newer, updated model whether he likes it or not, George can’t bring himself to part with Odi. George’s absolute dependence and devotion to his Synth is portrayed superbly by Hurt, who’s already a real asset to the series after a single episode.
Colin Morgan’s Leo is a more mysterious character, as he tries to track down a woman who’s gone missing – who just so happens to be the spitting image of Anita. Through Leo we realise that there are rogue Synths that have developed the capacity for human emotions, which doesn’t so much as pose an initial threat to humanity, but rather the Synths themselves. Leo and his ‘conscious’ Synths are being hunted by a man who wishes to eradicate the problem before the problem eradicates humanity.
This first episode of Humans is a promising indication of what the series will become. Departing from the action-packed man vs. machine tales that have graced the big screen and going for a more sedate approach is a clever move by brit writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley. Rather than being all-singing all-dancing chunks of metal, there isn’t anything visually to separate the Synths from a normal person aside from their glowing eyes. They look the same, they speak the same language, and they have the same abilities. It’s the emotional void that sets them apart and gives the Synths an eerie quality.
Anita is perfectly pleasant to the Hawkins family, but it’s all too nice and polite. She instantly calls them by their first names, which implies a strange sense of intimacy that we know isn’t there. The scene where Joe cracks a joke and Anita laughs in a loop until she’s told to stop will no doubt prompt nervous giggles from people watching the series too. As a viewer, it’s easy to forget that Anita isn’t ‘human’ until she does something that feels painfully unnatural.
Anita’s mechanical qualities are offset by moments that suggest a level of humanity lurking in the depths of her AI shell. Laura finds Anita staring at things with longing – her daughter sleeping, a photo of Laura holding a baby, the moon. From fragmented flashes we know that Anita is experiencing something akin to memories flitting through her mind, but neither she nor we can put the whole puzzle together yet.
Whether it’s exploring the blurred lines between Synth and human, or setting up the secret that fugitive Leo is hiding, the Humans premiere episode delivers a lot of ideas and questions to ponder. However, it’s Gemma Chan and Will Tudor’s performances as Anita and Odi that linger most when the episode ends. Both actors have mastered the balance between human and machine; the specific tone of their voices, the perfectly measured body movements, the unfeeling eyes that betray nothing but a calm indifference. It’s equally mesmeric and unsettling to watch.
Co-producing with AMC has given Humans a slick and polished feel that’s often lacking from British dramas, and the record-breaking viewing figures bodes well for the rest of the series. This is a TV show we can believe in, a world that doesn’t feel far removed from our own and I’m already looking forward to continuing the story next week.