I’ve been intrigued by the trailers for Humans and the first ep tonight didn’t disappoint me. Where I thought I knew where it would be going, it took a big swerve with the introduction of Colin Morgan’s character and his compatriots.
This series is an adaptation of the original Swedish series Real Humans but truthfully both owe a huge debt to ‘90s SF. Greg Egan’s Permutation City came out twenty-one years ago and, as ever with mainstream culture, it’s only now that TV can deal with the themes and tech that SF dealt with back then. Delving further back, every contemporary film or TV series (Ex Machina, The Machine,Black Mirror White Christmas) seems to have some version of Gibson’sWintermute lurking as an AI baddie. Obviously, Mary Shelley has ultimate dibs on ‘created being kills its creator’ though I prefer my nemeses to be more Arnie metal machine music and less dead-body collage.
Humans at least acknowledges the vast history of fantastical fiction it inhabits in the scene where the ‘synths’ (synthetic humans) are said to be be bound by Asimovs, as in Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. It was a nice touch and probably made many an elderly sci-fi geek like me a little sentimental.
So, because I’ve been loving robots since I was a tiny, tiny child, I find TV/film SF to be too simplistic when it comes to androids. It’s nearly always an excuse for bludgeoning male gaze, handily gorgeous fembots undressing for no narrative reason (hello, Ex Machina) or some kind of wittering about ‘human essence’ or ‘soul’ or other god-bothering bobbins.
Humans doesn’t seem to be falling into any of that so far. Yes, there’s been one sexbot scene already and yes, she was female (why do we never see male sexbots, hmm?) but I don’t feel the scene was too prurient, it was played more to be disturbing, to have the viewer identify with the bot and not the grubby human using her.
Since I’m being utterly spoiler-free, I shan’t talk about plot details but what I can say is that the cast are all tight, on it and beautifully embedded whether they’re playing synths or humans. The Brit lawyer family could be any average Brit family (barring the robot) and it’s the attention the director has paid to setting that up mundanity that makes the intrusion of the synth more believable.
Similarly, I don’t actually know what Colin Morgan’s Leo character is. Is he a synth? Doesn’t sound or act like it but I’m prepared to be surprised – maybe he’s a new model who’s great at looking grizzled and being fancied by every girl I know. That’d be a sure-fire moneymaker.
For the actors playing the synths, Gemma Chan, Ivanno Jeremiah, Emily Berrington, Sope Dirisu, it’s not an easy job. They have to both portray absolute synth-ness and, on occasion, deviations from that. The actor is acting a robot with sentience that’s acting at being a robot without sentience. Gemma Chan, in particular, handled this brilliantly. In ep 1, she created a complex synth character that was simultaneously terrifying and sympathetic, KILLER BOT and Runaway Slave. Which leads me to…
For those of us born with genetic sunblock, Humans will inevitably make us more uncomfortable. We will realise that if this was 150 years ago, we could be the property owned by these whites, we could be harmed or raped or killed and no-one would care because, after all, we aren’t human, we’re just things. And then, of course, we remember that slavery isn’t dead and that human trafficking is a thriving trade but it’s been mostly displaced from our Western eyes.
Humans does what the best of SF does: by changing one thing or saying ‘hey, what if…’ it creates narratives that move beyond middle-class comfort fiction. It holds up a mirror to us and it makes us examine our lives, our societies, our identities and what being human means. Is it flesh? Is it thought? If we create beings who are sentient… will we enslave them? Will we treat them with the inhumanity with which we treat other humans?
I’m looking forward to episode two.