Humans series 2 episode 3 review

Can a soul be expressed as a digital readout on a screen? This week's Humans delves deeper into philosophical questions...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This review contains spoilers.

Appropriately, for a programme concerned with duality (human/Synth, real/artificial/ conscious/automaton), Humans likes to approach its story through two lenses. Never was this more apparent than in this episode’s continued probing of the nature of consciousness and selfhood, which it achieved through the two separate pathways of Niska and Mia. One artificial, one somehow more natural.

The test is presented in a deliberately clinical, simulated manner, from the precise legalism of the arrangement to the intentional absurdity of the examiners expecting somehow to see Niska’s consciousness, her ‘soul’ if you like, as a digital readout on a screen. Set up like some cross between the Voight-Kampff test and the Ludovico Technique, Niska was presented with a series of fake ideas and scenarios and expected to react. ‘It’s all abstract’, she protested in an utterance that smarter researchers would regard as a bigger clue to her consciousness than any number of test responses. Maybe they should have asked her about her mother.

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This was all rather standard fare for any synthetic lifeform science fiction. However, it was much improved by the juxtaposition of Niska’s cold examination and Mia’s real world exploration of love. The distinction, though occasionally hammered home, had a necessary starkness. Free of the constraints of direct observation, Mia is able to develop her own understanding of her consciousness as strange, exhilarating and downright scary it may prove to be. The Synth actors are generally all good (the products of the behind-the-scenes Synth acting bootcamp) but Gemma Chan was particularly impressive in the touchingly uncertain manner of her self-discovery. I’d have liked Humans to have spent more time setting up this relationship, in particular by examining Ed’s feelings a little bit more (lonely man drawn to stunningly attractive synthetic human is a little thin as motivation) but overall, it was very well performed and does more for the process of Synth rights than any number of tests.  On this score, the suburban romance of Karen and Pete offers some very useful support work, not least in showing Pete’s natural husbandly concern for his partner’s health. Switching Karen off via her chin button isn’t quite the same as bringing her a steaming bowl of chicken soup in bed, but that is largely irrelevant in the face of his emotional state. He truly cares for her.

The emergence of Mia’s feelings for Ed, and his uncertain reciprocation of them, were appropriately adolescent in nature; the product of a prolonged process of self-learning and absorption rather than any sudden download of feelings. It seems that, as with certain theories of child development, all it takes is the necessary equipment to experience feelings and enough time to let them flourish. At this stage in the series, it seems that this is the likeliest method for prompting Synth consciousness and the probable source of Milo Khoury’s ‘purer’ ideas and of the Seraphim class of Synthetics. There were several, occasionally heavy, hints that child Synths will be revealed by the end of the series, with current likely candidates being Renie, the ‘synthy’ at Toby’s school, Martin’s ‘son’ and Hobb’s ‘grandaughter’. Sophie Hawkins, who we have known since the beginning of the first series and who was very deliberately shown to bleed red in this episode, is in all likelihood a red herring. Assuming, of course, that nothing untoward has happened in the interval between seasons.

The idea of Synth children is a troubling one. All of the Synths we have seen so far, indeed, the entirety of Synth culture, has shown that the artificial humans all have some kind of economic purpose. Although many, such as Odi and Mia, have become a source of comfort to their owners, this is a secondary role. The best case scenario for the prospect of child Synths is that they are intended to be adopted into families and raised as people, with some mechanism for physical growth. This would be a social and emotional phenomenon. It is difficult to see a direct economic benefit to having child Synths unless you peer uncomfortably closely into Niska’s comment about the punter she killed; ‘he wanted me to be a child’. ‘Wouldn’t that be better?’ asks Laura, lawyer-like, ‘that if he had such impulses, he took them out on a Synth?’. Grim as it is, it’s a natural question but not one that would survive an understanding of Synth personhood. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the Synths on trial lines of this season, it would serve us well to remember that there are a lot of powerful people who would benefit from the denial of personhood to Synths and, for that matter, to people too. 

Read Michael’s review of the previous episode here.