Contains spoilers for Humans series one.
It seems a long time since the Hawkins family unwrapped what they thought was a box-fresh Synth to help around the house in episode one of Humans. Over eight episodes in 2015, Humans’ domestic drama span out into a sci-fi thriller. Servant ‘Anita’ emerged as Mia, a Conscious Synth with an inner life and family of her own including surrogate son Leo and sister Niska.
Series one was focused on the reunion of Mia’s Synth family. Its finale saw them divided once again and on the run. Niska, wanted for murder, was last seen alone and in possession of code capable of spreading consciousness to Synths around the world. Among the humans, rumblings of discontent with the Synth penetration of everyday life were getting louder.
Ahead of the series two premiere this Sunday on Channel 4 at 9pm, we chatted to actors Gemma Chan, Emily Berrington and Will Tudor about what to expect from their Synth characters in the new episodes…
One of the gratifying things about the first series of Humans was its domestic focus. It wasn’t all robot armies and massive battles, it was essentially about families. It seems though that series two is opening the world up. Emily, you’ve described it as “epic” I think?
Emily Berrington: I did. It still definitely has that root in the domestic, it’s very much about relationships and the characters we know and love. It is more epic though, it’s much more international but it definitely doesn’t go off into the realm of impersonal action-style drama. It’s very much still personal.
Gemma Chan: It’s definitely not all explosions and big action scenes! It still has that very intimate, domestic character-driven storylines, at least for most of the series. We couldn’t do exactly the same as we did in series one because we’ve got to show something new and obviously the world has broadened. But we’ve still got the Hawkins family and you get to meet other characters and be involved in their day-to-day life.
The stakes are very high though. It’s a tricky thing to get the balance right from taking what works from series one and then trying to still show something new.
How do the international locations affect your characters? Are they displaced around the world?
Will Tudor: It’s hard to say without giving anything away. There are lots of locations this series.
EB: Nobody stays in the world that you’ve seen them in before. I think that’s true of pretty much everyone in the series.
WT: Which is great, because we really see people challenged. We see them outside their comfort zones. Certainly for my character, his life was so contained and he had his owner who, as much as a Synth can, he relied on and loved in terms of how George saw it and then that’s not there anymore and we see how a Synth can deal with the world without his reason to be.
I remember my colleague describing that relationship [between George and Odi] as like Geppetto and Pinocchio. Is that your take on it?
WT: That’s lovely! There were so many references that kept coming up. The father and son thing was there but then there was also the idea that it’s a man and his dog, that kind of loyalty and absolute incontrovertible attachment. But I do like that a lot, Pinocchio. It was very moving for me to read the part and then—especially when [George] dies, to not be able to, as an actor, give any emotion in that scene.
EB: It was all up to the audience to feel it, wasn’t it?
Your characters make an interesting comparison in that way because as a non-conscious Synth, Odi doesn’t have an inner life but Mia and Niska certainly do. Niska in particular has been shaped by her experiences.
EB: Oh yes
How much would you say he time with George and little Sophie in the Hawkins family affected her?
EB: A lot, in the sense that in series one Niska was very distrustful of humans because of what they’d done to her. By the end of series one, she’s met at least one human, i.e. George, who has been loyal to her and that she has been able to depend on. She’s also met… I hadn’t thought about it with little Sophie actually, but that’s another human she had a positive experience with.
WT: Such a lovely scene, that. Really beautiful.
EB: I loved those scenes.
Because prior to that point, Niska had been an object of abuse in many ways. There’s that hint about David Elster that he didn’t always treat her like a child…
EB: There’s a lot in series two about what her past did to her and what she can do now in order to deal with her experiences. So yes, you certainly find out more about her past prior to the beginning of series one. That certainly is with her, and the challenge was to bring all of that and all of what happened in series one into series two without her being completely unrecognisable. She’s still very much who we know her as.
By the beginning of series two, things are not as clear-cut for Niska as they always have been in terms of her belief system, which, as we all know, sometimes when you get challenged over what you believe, it’s painful to have to go through. It’s easier if you think ‘I know how things are’, so that’s what we see her experiencing at the beginning of series two.
Gemma, what can you tell us about series two?
GC: I think it will hopefully surprise people in a good way. When I was reading the scripts, I thought the writers have been really clever in exploring so many different things through this prism of Synths. It’s still rich with possibilities. It’s not just going over the same thing.
And Mia is interacting with some of the new characters?
GC: I did meet Carrie-Ann Moss, my character crosses paths with her a little later in the show, but initially most of my work was with Sam Palladio who plays Ed. He’s running a café in a very run-down seaside town and Mia is working there. He can’t afford to employ people or to buy a Synth, so he’s renting a Synth as it were and they form a bond of sorts.
For Mia, it’s the first time in her life that she’s trying to discover who she is. She was created for a specific purpose, to care for Leo, and then she ended up being part of the Hawkins family, in that household, against her will, so this is the first time she’s really getting a chance to discover who she is. She’s putting herself out there and it doesn’t all go to plan!
Actors often talk about their characters in terms of what they want in any given situation. In series two, what is it Mia wants?
GC: She wants to be able to live. She wants all of them to be able to live their lives, whatever that means. Leo [Colin Morgan] very much always needs to be on a quest and for Mia now, she just wants to actually live a real life, her idea of what a real life is.
Will, seeing your name on the cast list for series two was a nice surprise because we thought we’d seen Odi decommissioned. Was it always the plan for him to return?
WT: It’s always so up in the air isn’t it? We knew there was going to be a second series from where the first series was airing and then it was only really official maybe three months after the first series aired. It was a lovely surprise. There had been conversations about what could happen in the first series but you just never know.
Unlike your other show, Game Of Thrones, where the cast must always be flicking through scripts checking they’re not being killed off, you could have a job for life as a Synth on a show like this. Your character can get an upgrade and voila!
EB: That’s what we’re hoping! That whatever happens, you can always make it back somehow!
WT: You just hope there’s another version made of your Synth model!
The Swedish series Akta Manniskor spent a lot of time using the Synths or ‘Hubots’ allegorically to stand in for various politically oppressed groups, whereas Humans series one seemed to have more interest in the philosophical implications of AI, consciousness and what it is to be human and freedom. Which way does it lean in series two?
GC: I think you do get to see more of the wider response to Synths from people in series two. Yes. Definitely, you do.
WT: I certainly felt in this series the political side of it is there, even if it’s not explicit. Very much the philosophical side keeps going though. Reading the first few episodes, I got very excited by the ideas of it. It makes your brain start to whir.
EB: I become one of those very boring people at dinner parties going ‘Did you know this about consciousness?’ [Laughing] Because we’ve all read so much and talked about it so much non-stop.
WT: We had dinner the other day just before the wrap party and the ideas that we’ve had to look at are absolutely fascinating. It’s amazing that a show can inspire that I think.
Has it changed your perspective on AI in real life?
Gemma Chan: Definitely. Making the documentary [AI doc How To Build A Human, airing Saturday the 29th of October at 9pm on Channel 4], I learned so much from the people I’ve been speaking to. The main thing that struck me is that debates that seemed purely theoretical even just a few years ago, the pace of the technological development is such that we really need to be having these conversations now.
I test drove a driverless car and then had a conversation whilst being driven by it about the ethical dilemmas that throws up. This is a car that’s going to have to make life-or-death decisions. If a scenario happens on the road where it can choose to either crash you or kill someone else, how do you programme morality into a machine? Would we want a machine to make that decision for us? It’s been really eye-opening. I spoke to a really interesting guy called Martin Ford who wrote a book called The Rise Of The Machines and his whole thing is that our whole economy and society is already being changed by the fact that we have increasing unemployment, mass unemployment and that’s what we’re facing in the future because of increasing automation. It’s not just the physical tasks any more, we have articles written by AIs…
…teaching kids English in Korea.
Yes, exactly. It’s a wider range of jobs. In the past, we’ve always come up with new jobs for humans to do and so it’s always benefitted us, technological progress, but now we’re not really creating enough new jobs to replace the jobs that are being automated.
Emily and Will?
EB: I think it’s made me very wary of the aspects of technology that replace our own abilities. There’s a fine line between something saving you time and replacing a bit of you that could be useful. I’ve certainly become more and more aware of that. All it takes is for my phone to run out of battery and I need to find a place and I suddenly realise I have no sense of direction anymore because I’m so used to using it for that. I do think as a result of the show I’ve tried to be less reliant sometimes on technology. I try not to always use self-check-out and things like that! [Laughs]
WT: They say that the advent of AI is forcing us to ask a question that we haven’t asked in millennia, which is what makes us different to AI? In the past it was what makes us different to animals? We had to work out that we can do this or that and animals can’t and suddenly, AI can do a lot of stuff that we can and can’t do. It makes me think ‘what makes me human?’ Those existential questions, why are we here, what makes us different…
EB: What purpose do I have?
WT: And how we care for people. Certainly with the Odi storyline and the theme of elder care.
It used to be the case that robots in sci-fi, or perhaps more properly their cackling mad creator, were always the villains, the antagonists. And more and more with Humans and Westworld and Battlestar Galactica a few years ago, we’re telling stories about AI characters as the protagonists, it’s about empathising with their experience.
GC: I think it would be great if Humans does start a conversation about those things. If we just create and don’t think about what might happen, that’s when we’re going to get into trouble.
WT: I think what that says is suddenly it’s forcing us to ask the questions about ourselves that those stories where AI were the evildoers never did. It was always them versus us, whereas now it’s us augmented by them or us reflected in them, which has never really happened before. Slowly that’s become something we have to think about, like driverless cars.
EB: I read recently that someone set up a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Robots in America. The idea being that if something robotic can have responsibilities then it should also have rights.
There’s series three – a courtroom drama! There’s already been talk about moving beyond series two. Tom Goodman Hill [Joe Hawkins] said that the cast’s jaws dropped when the writers explained their plans for the future.
EB: Oh, I know what he was talking about. Certainly when I read how series two ends, I gasped [laughs]. If we do get to do another series, if there is another series, they’ve certainly set up some really cool things, some cool ideas.
GC: The stakes are really high by the end of series two. I don’t know what series three would look like really.
The writers Jon and Sam [Brackley and Vincent] told us they were surprised in series one how quickly the audience came down firmly on the side of the Synths. They’d expected a more ambivalent response. Were you always firmly on their side?
GC: My sympathies were with the Synths in series one. I’m probably a bit biased because I was playing one. I think we have a tendency to support the underdogs and I think that the Synths seemed like the underdogs in series one.
EB: Mine certainly laid there because from an acting point of view you need to look at what you’re bringing in and I felt that the Synths in series one were the vulnerable party, the Conscious Synths at least. I think what’s interesting in series two is maybe it’s less obvious who is vulnerable when.
GC: In series two the balance of power starts to shift a bit and there are definitely some ambivalent characters that come up, both Synths and humans, so I don’t know how people are going to feel about them.
WT: We really see the complexity of what [David] Elster had done to the Conscious Synths and how much he’d reflected human consciousness and how complex we are as beings, that’s something certainly explored more in the second series.
Gemma Chan, Will Tudor and Emily Berrington, thank you very much!
Humans series 2 starts on Sunday the 30th of October at 9pm on Channel 4.