Tuesday, 16 June 2015

HUMANS review: 9pm Channel 4, Sundays

In the new drama series Humans, Channel 4's mix of the domestic and science fiction conspiracy is a must-see.

Part of Channel 4's ingenious marketing campaign. (Image: Channel 4)

This new drama has a commendably simple premise: technology is now so advanced that it looks like real people. This concept is laid out in a wonderfully evocative opening scene in which semi-naked ‘Synths’ – artificial human servants – stand in uniform lines in a warehouse. Neatly indicating that something has gone disturbingly awry with the Synth production line, one of them breaks ranks by raising its head to look at the moon.

A first episode by its very nature has to introduce the series’ scenario and characters, and the first part of Humans was particularly impressive as it covered A LOT of ground in under an hour. The four concurrent and related plots moved deftly from family tension to global conspiracy: the overworked and dysfunctional Hawkins family acquired a female Synth, ‘Anita’ (Gemma Chan), capable of the heresy of independent thought; five weeks in the future, an escape route for Synths run by Leo (Colin Morgan) includes Anita, who he’s in love with; a man called Hobb (DannyWebb) heads a covert unit hunting Synths who have learned to lie and change their names while, in the fourth plot line, an old man called George Millican (a movingly restrained William Hurt) refuses to trade up his defective, young male Synth for a newer model, treating the machine like a son he can’t let go of.

That’s the real genius of this series: with technology that looks human, the writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are able to invoke skewed takes on familiar situations. In a conventional drama series, Anita would be the attractive, sly home help with designs on luring Joe (the always believable Tim Goodman-Hill) away from his overworked and often absent career wife Laura (Katharine Parkinson). That’s also the case here, but it’s set up through the suggestive promise of the ‘adult options’ software that the Synth salesman palms to Joe with a wink, and, chillingly, the way Anita bonds with Laura’s children. The youngest Sophie (Pixie Davies) claims that the Synth ‘doesn’t rush’ her bedtime reading, a comment that speaks volumes about the child’s relationship with her busy mother and is typical of the sharp, focused economy of the writing. In a drama about a lonely old man, Muillican’s Synth would be an ageing dog going feral that needs to be put down – and is discussed in similar terms here – but in Humans this situation is given an extra, unnerving dimension because Millican treats his faltering companion by treating it as if it is human.

The idea is sold by the actors playing the Synths, who are all exceptional. Their still expressions, unquestioning compliance with human requests and occasional dialogue like a malfunctioning computer is a clever way of reinforcing that these facsimiles look real but aren’t, as are their luminescent eyes (reminiscent of those other alien interlopers in human form, in the film Village of the Damned). It’s even more unsettling when the self-aware Synths develop personalities and human body language as – apart from their eyes – they can’t be told apart at all.

This is what’s worrying Hobbs. Talk of the ‘Asimov blocks’ the Synths have, which means they can never harm humans, is an inevitable reference to the robot stories of the science fiction visionary and writer Isaac Asimov, who’s First Law of robotics stated that no robot could ever hurt people. With the Synth population on the verge of outnumbering the human one and some of them going rogue, the ‘big’ story in Humans suggests that mankind’s time may be up. This part of the set-up is, it has to be said, a hackneyed sci-fi idea, having been featured in everything from Blade Runner to Doctor Who, but Humans skill is that it uses the recognisably domestic to symbolise the story’s wider implications and, so far, this part of the series is the most compelling.

It was the same with Humans’ marketing campaign. Over the last few weeks, an advert for Synths appeared in the commercial breaks in and between programmes on Channel 4. It speaks volumes that I didn’t automatically dismiss the bogus ad as a stunt. ‘Really?’ I remember thinking. ‘Surely not…’ The near-possibility of synthetic, servile humans is what makes Humans the most compelling piece of sci-fi to have come along in some time.

Gotta make way for the homo superior? We shall see.

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