Humans episode 1 review

Channel 4's Humans asks the question, are the synths more human than we are? Here's Michael's review of episode one...

This review contains spoilers.

It’s probably all just a matter of time. Maybe it’s something to do with having crossed the artificial barrier of the millennium. Perhaps it’s all the spin-off products of the internet that are so commonplace that we hardly think of them as ‘innovations’ any more, even though we may still occasionally marvel at their power. Whatever it is, don’t you get the feeling that we’re living in the future? Or at least one of the possible futures that have been mapped out during the past few decades. 

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Now, we might not (yet) scoot around skedways on hoverboards and we don’t (yet) swallow protein pills for our entire daily nourishment but there are several additions to daily life that offer a marked change from life in the long-dead twentieth century. We can, if we so choose, enjoy instananeous communication with people almost anywhere on the planet for less than the price of a coffee, we’re increasingly served in shops and at train stations by (mostly) obedient machines and we have fingertip access to much of the world’s information. For a good many of us, the pretty devices that accompany us everywhere are even called ‘Androids’. 

This feeling of the everyday future is deeply embedded in Humans, which takes several of these innovations to a singular logical conclusion. The setting is so crucial to the show’s ideas that the show’s writers have even referred to their world as a ‘parallel present’, rather than a fictional future. It’s a neat trick that makes Humans closer to Black Mirror than Blade Runner and a device that is as effective as it is jarring. The world depicted in the show is recognisably our own with the sole exception of the population of synths, who function as an all-purpose assistant that the user sets up like a smartphone.

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It works because it avoids the distractions of other innovations (so no off-world colonies or flying cars) and leaving the writers with the freedom to concentrate exclusively on the frozen-faced replicants they have created. The presence of the synths offers so many intriguing thematic avenues (among them the nature of consciousness, self-determination, the purpose of work, the experience of emotions) that one of the challenges that the show must face is how to adequately address them all in the space of eight episodes. There are hints, even in this first episode, that they will attempt just that. It’s a bold move.

The contrast of this boldness of these ideas with Humans’ simple ordinariness is marked. Indeed, the show’s greatest strength is its applied mundanity. The Hawkins are such damnably down-to-earth family, almost sitcomesque in their structure, that no time is wasted in establishing familiarity. It’s occasionally a little heavy handed (as shown in Joe’s free use of the word ‘bollocks’ and Matilda’s well-trodden adolescent cynicism) but it leaves a lot of room to explore the central concern of their different reactions to Anita. It’s an effective blend of soap operatic drama and sci-fi philosophising. The long-term strains on Joe and Laura’s marriage are exposed through the introduction of Anita to the household; the question of whether she’s here to support them or replace them. It’s there in the coldly efficient manner with which she completes the dull tasks of home life. It’s there too in the way that Joe’s eyes are absently drawn to her backside. 

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Laura’s response is the most interesting; her initial objections are refreshingly simple; for her, the synth is an appliance too far, too expensive and not strictly necessary. Laura is presented as a woman who isn’t interested in owning a particular item of equipment, not someone with a long-standing animosity to the principle of synths. That antipathy, it seems, must be earned.

Of the dramatic possibilities of that, there is little doubt. The parallel storylines of synth liberationist Leo, the ‘Special Technology Taskforce’ and synth hunter Hobb suggest that there is already something terribly wrong with the technology behind the synths and their relationship with flesh and blood humans. Interesting questions are posed, including the right to, and responsibility for, sensory experience (synths, it appears, can turn off the sensation of pain) and of consciousness itself. This latter point is very neatly expressed in Hobb’s brief exchange on consciousness: ‘How do we know they don’t just simulate it?’ ‘How do we know that you don’t?’

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The fear that the synths may be more human than we think, or more tantalisingly, that they simply prove that we are less human than we think, is explored in the heartbreaking storyline of George Millican. The relationship between George and his synth, Odi explores the theme of memory and identity in such a clever and tender manner that it’s difficult to see it ending well. The value that Odi has to George as a companion and repository of memories comes across like a genuinely emotionally intimate friendship, albeit one forged in the Uncanny Valley. George, a lonely widower with a failing memory, uses Odi to help preserve the details of his life before they are gone forever while Odi, the malfunctioning D-Series, needs George to help him recall those details too. 

It was almost unbearable to see Odi monotonously repeating and faltering in his recollection of bald facts, in a scene that cleverly switched the expected roles of carer and patient and recalled so many dramas about the struggle with Alzheimer’s. In this moment, the synthetic human looked like nothing so much as a real person struggling with the mental failures of age, while his human master seemed desperate to forestall an inevitable separation from his companion. The problem with synths, perhaps, is not that they are capable of feeling, but that we are. 

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Elsewhere, the hints of something beyond mere machine thinking come across as sinister foreshadowing, rather than touching memories. Gemma Chan’s performance as Anita was note perfect, nine parts machine to one part human, with that last part freighted with enough dread for the whole. It’s a curious thing to note that for synths like Anita, the sinisterness is driven by the flashes of humanity that they display, while for others, such as the still silent Vera, it is the absence of life that makes them so frightening. The differences between the syths, whether between individual models or series lines suggests the possibility of inter-synth conflict and may prove to be Humans’ masterstroke. The actors playing the synths use similar mannerisms to portray a kind of assembly line universality; we, and the fictional humans with whom the interact, are meant to regard them as all essentially the same, but what could be more human than being essentially unique?

Read our interview with Humans stars Colin Morgan and Gemma Chan here

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