Warning: contains spoilers for Humans season one…
What is consciousness? What does it mean to be human? What defines the self? Some time ago, these kinds of questions would only find their way onto TV if they were the subject of debate by bearded Open University professors in the wee small hours of BBC Two. Humans folded them and more into a captivating primetime drama.
We’ll leave the philosophical posers above to finer brains than ours, and focus instead on some of the more earth-bound questions left behind by Humans season one. As the long wait for the second season begins, here’s what we’ll be pondering between now and next summer…
1. Why did David Elster commit suicide?
First, a short recap of what we’ve gleaned so far about David Elster, father of the Conscious Synths:
We know that Beatrice Elster, the famed robotics genius’ mentally unwell wife, drowned herself and their twelve-year-old son by deliberately driving her car into a lake. Having already developed a Conscious Synth—Mia—to act as a surrogate mother for Leo while Beatrice was unwell, Elster revived his son by turning him into a kind of cyborg. Elster then created two Synth brothers and a sister for Leo: Fred, Max and Niska (the last of whom we’re led to believe he used for sex). Finally, Elster built a Conscious Synth in the image of Beatrice, but the now-adult Leo rejected her, leading to Elster telling the others that he destroyed her but in fact setting her free and then committing suicide.
Our question is: Why? Did Elster realize he’d gone too far by creating a human clone Synth and want to stop himself from doing further harm? (If that were the case, why not destroy the existing Conscious Synths before killing himself? And why leave them a handy program for replicating more of their kind?) Was it guilt at his having sexually abused his Synth ‘daughter’? Or grief at seeing his resurrected wife again? Was he dying already? Simply suicidal? Or…
2. Did David Elster really commit suicide?
In the form of digital memories and flashbacks, Humans shows us several scenes involving David Elster. We also hear stories about him from his Synth “children”—his incredulity about Fred and the injured fox, his habit of abandoning things once they were no longer “new,” how he “didn’t always treat [Niska] like [a child]”—but unless we missed it, we never see his suicide. It and the reasons for it, aren’t even really a subject of discussion among his children or former colleagues, Prof. Hobbs and Dr Millican.
We can probably discount the theory that one of Elster’s children murdered him (although we know from Niska and Karen that Conscious Synths are capable of killing humans) as that would likely have come up before now. But there’s always a chance that we’ve not been told the whole story, or indeed, that Elster isn’t really dead. He was a famous figure (see the mocked-up news reports in the opening credits), so his suicide must have been widely reported in the world of Humans, but it wouldn’t have been impossible to fake. As the screen rule goes: no body, no guarantee.
3. Who were Leo and the Synths running from?
Tin-foil hats at the ready, this is getting into real conspiracy theory territory. In the episode one flashback to five weeks before Anita is bought by the Hawkins family, we see Elster’s children walking through the woods when they hear a sound. Niska gets out a makeshift weapon and Leo tells her “Put that away. If it’s him, we run.”
Who is “him”? The obvious answers are the Junkers (surely a “them,” not a “him”), and Professor Hobbs, who has built an entire government-funded unit around his search for David Elster’s Conscious Synths. What we don’t know is how Hobbs, who used to work with Elster and Millican in robotics, was able to be so sure that Elster had succeeded in creating them. Had he seen them before? Interrogating Fred, Hobbs didn’t know how many Conscious Synths there were, nor that Leo was David Elster’s resurrected son. So how would he know to track them and more importantly, how did they know he was after them?
Here’s the mad we-seen-too-many-episodes-of-Scooby-Doo bit: what if the “him” they were really running from wasn’t Hobb or a Junker, but a non-dead Elster?
4. Is Karen the only Conscious Synth “clone” of an existing person?
We learned from the Conscious Synths that bodies weren’t of importance to their father, and the group’s Benetton-ad aesthetic was chosen at random. Not at all chosen at random though, is Karen’s body, which is a replica of Beatrice Elster. This presents some interesting possibilities for the Humans universe, one being that Niska, Mia and the rest of them may also have been based on real humans, and so they may each have a living human counterpart out in the world somewhere.
The second continues the Scooby Doo train of thought from above: if Elster could resurrect Leo from the dead by transferring his memories onto a digital brain, couldn’t he equally transfer his own brain into that of a Synth? Thus the creator lives on as his creation…
5. How long do Synths live?
At fourteen years, Mia is the oldest Conscious Synth we know about, and much older than domestic models usually last. Odi, the Synth belonging to Dr George Millican, is an old model malfunctioning due to his age. George is told by DS Drummond that he is obliged to take Odi to be recycled because of his advanced age.
What then, is the shelf-life of a Synth? How long can Mia and the others survive? Are they able to transfer their consciousness into other machines when their current bodies wear out? Can they live on indefinitely in that way? Or is a Synth life a short one?
6. How did Karen pass for a human DI?
This one’s more of a plot puzzle than a deliberately open-ended question. We’re introduced to Karen Voss (aka Beatrice2.0) as DS Drummond’s police partner. After being cast out by her creator, David Elster, we’re told that Karen stole the identity of a schoolgirl who died and, presumably, hacked the computer systems that would allow her to pose as a human Detective Inspector in the Special Technologies Task Force, a job she sought out presumably so she could find and destroy her fellow Conscious Synths.
There seem to be a few inconsistencies here. Depending on how much time has passed since the night of Elster’s suicide (we meet the Conscious Synths on the day Fred, Niska and Mia are taken by Junkers, five weeks before the Hawkins family buy Anita. How long have they been on the run by then?), Karen appears to have hatched and pulled off her plan in a very short time-frame. She’s a Synth, so perhaps that explains that. What’s less easy to grasp is how her Synth-ness remained undetected all this time.
Remember the door lock in Niska’s brothel cell? It had to be activated by a human to work. Presumably, the brothel wasn’t the only place tech like that would be employed in the world of Humans. Logically, they’d use it in say, police stations and other secure environments. That might have thrown up some problems for her. Not to mention the ability of other Synths—Karen’s unit’s speciality—to automatically detect that she wasn’t human. “Why don’t you share?” must haunt her nightmares. (Do Synths have nightmares?)
One catch-all explanation is that as Beatrice2.0 was the final Conscious Synth designed by Elster, she was the most sophisticated and the best able to conceal her non-human side. That might explain our questions about all that business with the tree (see below).
7. Why did Hobb let Karen walk away?
Hobb created his unit to find Elster’s Conscious Synths and locate the code used to create them. He planned to continue Elster’s work, making Synths conscious but controllable, as he’d made Fred. If uniting all of the Synths to access the code was his MO, then why didn’t he link Karen up to the rest of them in that laboratory?
And why did he let Karen simply walk out? She shot and killed Dr Millican, albeit accidentally. Surely she would be wanted by the police for murder. What kind of deal did she and Hobb cook up?
8. How could Fred stun Hobb in episode seven if he’d been programed not to harm him?
Hobbs demonstrated his control over Fred by showing that it was impossible for Fred to harm him thanks to the tinkering he’d done inside the Synth’s head. So why was Fred able to aim and shoot the stun gun at Hobb before he made his escape in episode seven?
Perhaps it’s significant that Fred electrocuted Hobb in the leg, not the chest (which, with his pacemaker, would likely have killed him). It all makes sense if Hobb engineered Fred’s escape so he could lead him to the other Conscious Synths.
9. What was all that business with the tree about?
When the Conscious Synths pulled their Vulcan mind meld trick in that crypt, their shared dream-space was dominated by a large tree. (At one point, the Consciousness code went all Lawnmower Man and took the form of an ASCII-art tree.) Metaphorically, maybe the symbol represents a family tree, as a nod to their ersatz brother and sister relationships. Maybe it’s a pun on “root” code. Or maybe filming in a wood is simply cheaper than creating a whizzy sci-fi dream realm for the Synths to get together and hold hands in.
In that dream-sync environment, the usual Synth rules didn’t appear to apply: Karen was clearly shown crying and Niska had told Sophie that Synths didn’t cry. Unless that’s one of the ways in which Karen differs from her predecessors.
A few other things are puzzling about that scene, chief of which is how Karen was able to ‘infect’ the others into shutting down their brains. Is that an ability they all have, or something only she can do? Did Prof. Hobb give her the ability to infect them as part of his “failsafe”? And if an army of Conscious Synths were to be created in series two, could Karen defeat them psychically?
10. Where did Anita take Sophie at the end of episode one?
Episode one’s eerie cliff-hanger saw Anita carrying a sleeping Sophie outside at night. When the pair had returned in episode two, their clothes and shoes were sodden. Where did Anita/Mia take Sophie and why?
Mia’s recurring flashbacks to rescuing Leo from his mother’s underwater car may have had something to do with it, but more likely, it was simply fodder for Humans’ early ‘is Anita evil?’ tease. As such, we probably don’t need, and won’t get, an answer to this one.
11. When Fred, Niska and Mia were kidnapped by Junkers, why was Mia the only one wiped?
Three Conscious Synths were kidnapped from the woods: Fred, Niska and Mia. Fred was sent to work at an agricultural facility, Niska to a Synth brothel, and Mia wound up at the official Synth shop, sold on to the Hawkins family. Neither Fred nor Niska had their existing programs wiped by Junker Silas, only Mia. Was an explanation given for this, say, Mia was injured requiring a full reboot, given in the show? Help us out if we’re missing a chunk of plot.
12. What is Niska planning to do with the code?
This is the biggie. The series one finale cliff-hanger saw a disguise-free Niska, whose face has been all over the news for her Smash Club frenzy, remember, zooming away on a train in possession of a copy (the only copy, or did the Flash drive she gave to Laura also contain it?) of David Elster’s consciousness code.
What is Niska’s plan?
Because of her treatment at the hands of David Elster and in the Synth brothel, Niska’s attitude to humans became polarised as she sought revenge for Synth servitude. First she killed the loner wishing to enact a violent paedophilic sexual fantasy with her, almost stabbed a city boy, and turned the tables at a Smash Club by setting upon the humans. Niska having the power to make every extant Synth conscious of their oppression is a dangerous prospect.
But is she still the same Niska?
Humans repeatedly teaches that experience is what shapes us. Karen’s isolation convinced her that Conscious Synths could only lead to pain and suffering. The violence towards Niska made her violent in turn. The short time that Niska spent with George Millican and the Hawkins family, especially youngest daughter Sophie, seemed to change her. Their kindness and George’s patience softened Niska. Is she still set on violent revenge or does she now want to lead a more peaceable Synth revolution?
That’s our lot for now. Feel free to add your own questions, or answers to any of the above, below.