When Gemma Chan, one of the leads in new Channel 4 AI drama Humans, described the show as “unchartered territory” for UK TV in a recent round-table interview, it sounded like a forgivable promo boast. After all, what actor on a promotional trail is going to call their latest job anything but ground-breaking?
Chan explained further, “It’s really rare in TV not to think, well, I’ve seen a version of this before. I know we’ve had AI films, but they’ve been quite specific in their scope. The scope of Humans is a world set up where this technology is universally accepted. I haven’t seen anything that’s dealt with it in that multi-layered, every-layer-of-society way.”
There she has a real point. Cinema has an identifiable thread of grown-up AI pictures alongside movies where robots are simply ranks of shiny soldiers to be variously employed or destroyed by a lantern-jawed lead.
Recently in particular—perhaps thanks to AI looming ever larger in real life—we’ve seen a strand of sensitive pictures probing the emotional ramifications of artificial intelligence, films that spill over into genres other than the sci-fi thriller. Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank is a film about ageing above anything else, and if Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is in part a love story, then Spike Jonze’s Her is entirely one.
On British TV though, robots have arguably yet to break out of comic and cartoon roles set by the Metal Mickey template. Outside of kitsch and kids’ shows, where’s the UK TV storytelling that probes the philosophical and ethical questions surrounding AI? A single Black Mirror episode can’t really be it. And no, Doctor Who hasn’t shied away from Big Meaningful Sci-Fi Questions, but its cyborgs, nanogenes and robots of death have always been bit-players rather than the stars of the show.
It took a glossy US reboot for Battlestar Galactica to turn the Cylons from villains to protagonists with more existential issues than Jean-Paul Sartre could shake a baguette at, and it’s taken a UK/US co-production of a Swedish original to put those issues front and centre in a British TV drama.
“Closer to humans than ever before”
Humans is a joint venture between Channel 4 and AMC (Mad Men, The Walking Dead), set in a parallel England which only differs from the present-day by the presence of ‘Synths’, non-sentient androids employed in industry and domestic settings. Its eight-part first series (a second is hoped for, according to Chan: “There are definitely still areas to be explored for a second series. It’s not completely tied up at the end”) starts in the UK on Sunday the 14th and in the US on Sunday the 28th of June.
Despite its transatlantic nature and Swedish origins, Real Humans, actor Colin Morgan (Merlin, The Fall) describes it as very British. “The London setting gives it its own identity”, he tells us. That identity though, won’t exclude American audiences. “It’s something that is universal” says Morgan, “so it will transcend”.
“You’ve got six or seven different storylines going on […] the multi-faceted story and how things interrelate is something I’ve always loved in anything, whether it’s a TV series or a film. Start out disjointed, then start to mingle, and then leave you with questions, answer some of them and intrigue you with others, and pull you along for a little bit.”
Joining Morgan and Chan in pulling us through the story are William Hurt, Katherine Parkinson, Neil Maskell, Rebecca Front, Tom Goodman-Hill and more, with scripts by Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent, based on Lars Lundstrom’s original.
“Faster, stronger, more capable”
Morgan plays Leo in Humans, a man on the run “in a lot of respects,” he tells us. “From people, from himself, from his past…”. Leo’s side of the drama tends more towards the action thriller than the domestic. “He’s certainly more in the underground, dark, dirty, dingy part of it. The car chases, on the run. It was funny because whenever any of the crew saw my name on the call-sheet they knew it was going to be somewhere cold, wet and horrible [laughing], like ‘great, it’s a Leo day’.”
Chan plays Synth Anita. “When you first meet her, on the surface she is like any other Synth, a personality that’s sort of like Siri come to life […] At the beginning of the show she’s bought by the Hawkins family and I would say pretty early on you will realise—both the family and probably the audience—that everything is not quite as it seems with her. She is different from any other Synth that any other family has. She asks questions that perhaps she shouldn’t do. Her behaviour is not quite right. I think probably you won’t quite know what to make of her. […] She’s a bit of an enigma, a bit of a mystery.”
Playing a machine presented unusual challenges to Chan and the rest of the Synth cast, which was trained in a special ‘Synth School’. “Like for The Walking Dead,” Chan explains, “which is one of my favourite shows, they have Zombie School, everyone who plays a Zombie, all the extras they go through Zombie School. We had Synth School and our choreographer came up with a universal set of rules that Synth movement is governed by.”
What kind of rules? “It comes down to the fact that Synths are machines, ultimately, and every movement they make uses up energy and battery power so there has to be an economy and a reason everything’s done the way it is. The writers and directors were very clear at the start they didn’t want anything too typically robotic or head-twitchy so we went right back to basics and thought, how can they move? We had to learn everything from scratch. How to walk again, how to stand up and sit-down. Simple things like picking up a cup for example [she mimes doing so] as a human you might stop with it there for a bit, then maybe hold it here for a bit but as a Synth you take the shortest line because why would you do it any other way.”
“All the things that you usually rely on as an actor and just fall back on, I couldn’t do,” Chan explains. “I wasn’t allowed to physically cry, they don’t breathe… so all the things that you usually connect to the breath in terms of conveying emotion, I had to find another way of doing it, which was a big challenge, not just for me, but for everyone who was playing a Synth.”
Acting alongside such uncanny performers presented its own challenges, Morgan says. “If you’ve watched any documentaries about serial killers, that’s honestly the way they are, they’re a bit non-there. I did go and watch a bit of Synth school at the beginning to see what they’re up to because my character is obviously used to being around them. I was sort of thanking my lucky stars that I didn’t have to do that because it’s really really hard.”
“This is the best thing you will do for your family”
How would Morgan and Chan describe Humans as a whole? “To me, it’s always felt like a gritty drama,” says Morgan. “It deals with a big sci-fi issue, that’s undeniable, but it’s about the effect of that on humans. Without being too clichéd about it, it is genuinely more about the humans and the effect of that on them. It covers every sector of society, the domestic setting with the family, another domestic setting with a retired gentleman, the scientific side of it, the police force, the youth, the workplace, it kind of covers everything in a really unexpected way and that’s what draws you in.”
“It’s quite an ambitious show”, Chan agrees. “I’d say there’s quite a lot of dark territory that it goes into. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily going to be comfortable viewing, I think it’s going to really be quite provocative, not for the sake of it but because these are really interesting, challenging things that we need to think about.”
“What does it really mean to be human? Do we understand consciousness? Our reliance on technology… all kinds of things. How the writers have been so clever is that even though I would say it’s an ideas-heavy show, because the characters and storylines are so interesting, it doesn’t feel like it’s being rammed down your throat. It’s very much character-driven and then all these things come up that leave you going away and thinking about it.”
Chan continues. “In episode one, you will see there is a Synth brothel, kind of like Amsterdam where prostitution is legal with certain restrictions, it’s a completely accepted thing that you have brothels completely staffed by Synths in London. It’s interesting to ask is that reducing harm? The fact that people can satisfy whatever their needs are on these machines? But there are tricky questions raised because just because you are doing something with a machine and it’s not real, can it still do you harm if it’s got some crazed, depraved thing?
“And it’s every form of Synth as well,” adds Morgan, “we’re not just talking women, it’s dark stuff. The brothel covers everyone’s needs…”
Chan nods, “There’s the argument that if you can get it all out there on that, you’re not actually going to harm any human beings. It’s a really interesting ethical question.”
“When technology surpasses us, we become inferior to the machine”
What do they think about other ethical questions raised by real-world artificial intelligence? Is Humans a world either actor would choose to live in?
“AI not so some kind of far-off thing,” says Chan. “It’s part of our lives now, from your phone to everything you do. It makes our lives easier in a lot of ways. When you think of things like medicine, people who have lost limbs now have a chance to have a limb replaced that is connected to the brain that they can actually control with their mind. That’s amazing. If we can cure things and make people’s lives better in that way, why would we not do that? But then on the other side, where do we draw the line and will we know what we’ve made? When you’ve got people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk saying that creating an AI that is self-replicating, that could evolve at an exponential rate and improve faster than us, then that would be our greatest existential threat, I think we need to listen to that as well.”
“I think it’s quite terrifying,” adds Morgan. “If you aim to create something that services your needs in that respect and if you also enable it in some way to be able to develop itself and to evolve, that’s quite worrying. It’s pretty arrogant for humans to assume as well that to endow something with qualities, that that’s the best thing for these things. That obviously our way is the way this thing should act. If you create something, do you then give it the ability to be the way it wants to be or do you limit it with human traits and limitations? […] All of us right now have a form of technology on our body. We are essentially becoming a little bit closer to Cyborgs in that respect.”
Has working on Humans changed the way Morgan or Chan think about their own relationship with technology and social media? “I have quite an ambivalent relationship with [it]” says Chan. “We’re changing the way our brains work now. I’ve realised for myself it’s become harder and harder to read books, because our attention span, we’re so used to a rapid turnover of different things, like if I’m on my laptop I have multiple windows open, my phone, to be able to focus and concentrate on one thing for any length of time is really hard.”
“There’s a lot of positives and negatives” answers Morgan, “probably for me there’s maybe a few more negatives because I’m so anti-technology [laughing] that I think it’s getting a little bit out of control.” Is that part of Morgan’s attraction to working in the theatre? It’s an experience that strips it all down to an authentic human exchange rather than something mediated by technology?
“I spent five years shooting on a show,” continues Morgan, “and one of the first jobs I did after that was doing Shakespeare at the Globe Theatre. To me, not only was that going back and doing theatre, it was also doing it at the Globe, which has no set, no lighting, no nothing, Shakespeare back to your classics, stripping. Mentally—I didn’t make it as a conscious decision—but mentally, I obviously wanted to strip away all the technology I’d dealt with for five years and wanted to get back to what it was about and why I did it in the first place, what the love of acting is about for me. To me it’s about good writing, a connection with people and the audience, and that live experience, that in-the-moment thing. I think it’s important to keep reminding yourself of that. That can transcend into real life as well. Maybe we can look each other in the eye a wee bit more and not have our phone on vibrate in our pocket, leave it at home every now and again [laughs]. Preaching over!”