If John Wyndham were alive today, he’d probably be scripting stuff like Humans. Channel 4’s synth-filled co-production with AMC feels so much the product of a singularly British form of sci-fi it’s somewhat surprising to recall that it’s actually based on a Swedish series called Real Humans. Admittedly its glacial pace and love of longueurs does call to mind the current crop of in-vogue Scandinavian crime shows but the plucky middle-class, middle England family reacting to possible apocalypse with stiff-lipped stoicism between G&Ts is pure Day Of The Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos.
That’s not to call Humans old fashioned. The issues it highlights about the tipping point between artificial intelligence and consciousness are all too relevant to the world we live in today. Humans may not have been quite as cerebral, incisive or thought-provoking in its examination of machine self-awareness as Ex Machina but as an eight-part TV drama it doesn’t have the luxury of a film’s concentrated, focussed format. A TV drama needs interweaving plotlines, multiple characters, a bit of action every now and then, and Humans successfully married the issues with the thriller structure. “Humanity is not a state, it’s a quality,” is the show’s key message. And by episode eight, you’d be hard-pressed to think that just because someone was built rather than born, they don’t have a soul.
Set in a near future where synthetics (androids) do all the dreary work, Humans is the story of two families, both fractured but in vastly different ways. One family, the Hawkins, is human: mum and dad are growing apart, the elder two kids are in various states of rebellion, the youngest is cute and preternaturally wise-on-demand in that “out of the mouths of babes” way that scriptwriters love for a bit of poignancy. The other family was built, by David Elster, co-creator of the synths. He developed a group of sentient synths to be friends to his cyborg son Leo (he had a bit of an accident, y’see). It was all done in secret because the world isn’t ready for the sentient synths yet. Then he died…
So when The Hawkins buy a new synth, they’re shocked to discover that underneath her unemotional facade there’s a real consciousness struggling to get out.
A MELTING POT… AND WE DON’T MEAN THE SYNTHS STOOD TOO CLOSE TO A RADIATOR
Also in the mix are a synth-phobic cop, a dodgy scientist with own agenda for the synths and David Elster’s ageing partner-in-synth-creating crime, now serving as a handy tool for exposition while having a touching relationship with his ancient, faulty, first generation synth. That’s all the elements for an engrossing drama that explores many facets of human/synth interaction.
There’s load to admire here, including some great acting – especially from former Merlin star Colin Morgan as Elster’s cyborg son Leo and all the synth cast who manage to convey both sides of their nature with an eerie sensitivity; they are the “living” (for want of a better word) embodiment of the uncanny valley. William Hurt also impresses, giving his role a great deal of dignity and warmth, though it’s a shame Rebecca Front –playing an emotionless nurse maid – is wasted in a role that barely requires any acting.
The overall plot hangs together well, making the most of a limited budget to suggest robo-apocalypse was just round the corner. Various relationships explore how the introduction of synths into society might affect different people. Most importantly, it’s a well-constructed thriller with some emotive, low-key sci-fi visuals.
Some moral issue are raised then tossed aside. For example, if synths can theoretically live forever does that mean they have no fear of death, and is fear of death one of the things that makes us human? Niska pays lip service to the idea then the show quickly buries it. Something to explore in season two maybe?
Humans is also occasionally guilty of those handy coincidences TV too often trades in. The Hawkins’ daughter, Mattie, just happens to be hacker. Handy. A phone call halts an operation just in time. A character will change their mind just when it’s most dramatic. Also, the stately pace and naturalistic tone of the first seven episodes suddenly gives way to a more rushed and slightly (only slightly but we’re talking comparatively here) melodramatic feel to the final episode, with Danny Webb’s Hobb suddenly one step away from being a moustache-twirling villain and some suspiciously easy getaways and escapes.
Overall, though, Humans was a minor, low-key triumph; a high concept UK show that didn’t look like it really wanted to be a US show, and which dealt with hot sci-fi topics in an exciting and thoughtful way. What’s more it was sci-fi with mainstream appeal; the viewing figures prove that if nothing else. For that alone it should be cherished and applauded – broad appeal sci-fi that also makes you think. A bit like Channel 4’s other great, recent telefantasy hit, Black Mirror.
But if only one of the boffins had puffed on a pipe at some point, to make it really feel like a John Wyndham novel.
ONE LAST THOUGHT: Did anybody else think that Odi (Game Of Thrones’s Will Tudor) looked uncannily like In The Flesh’s Kieren (Luke Newberry)? You have to wonder whether Newberry would be annoyed he didn’t get a role that looked like it was written for him, or relieved he’s not been typecast.