This review contains spoilers.
A bomb explodes in a central London pub. Two Synths are lynched by an angry mob. Armed police carry out a raid that ends in a stand-off at gunpoint… Humans has covered a lot of ground since the day Joe Hawkins decided he could do with a bit of help with the hoovering.
It covers a lot of ground in this opening episode too. What began as a domestic story about a handful of Synths trying to hide and the humans that helped or hunted them, is now two-thirds political allegory. Faced with tumultuous current events, writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have done the only conscionable thing and used their storytelling opportunity to talk about what’s been going on. Pulsing under Humans’ skin now is the blood of Brexit and immigration debates, intolerance, terrorism and radicalisation. Inevitably, the personal has become political.
Counterintuitively, making Humans more specific to post-2016 referendum UK politics has brought the show closer to the tone of the 2012 Swedish original. Anti-‘Hubot’ violence and Hubot terrorist acts of retribution were key to that from the very start. Similar ground was also covered by 2014 zombie drama In The Flesh. That had single-issue party Victus led by Maxine Martin campaigning to keep Britain alive and curtail undead rights. Humans has We Are People led by Claudia Nowak campaigning for a Synth-free country. The overlap goes to show that these are the themes of our time. Farage and co. have cast a long shadow.
Speaking of shadows, aside from a few blessed laughs courtesy of Laura and little Sam, the series three opener is sombre in both senses of the word. Power cuts designed to disrupt the Synth community repeatedly throw the rail yard into darkness. Key scenes—Max and Niska’s reunion, the raid on the rail yard—take place at night, lending the feel of an action thriller.
Plot-wise, we learn in a news montage that over a hundred thousand people died a year earlier on ‘Day Zero’ as Synth-operated planes fell out of the sky and Synth-operated factories burned. Mattie Hawkins, who released the code responsible, is understandably struggling with the guilt.
Everyone’s struggling. Laura’s taking daily abuse for representing Synth legal rights, and Sophie’s getting stick at school for her parents’ separation. Joe Hawkins is clearly still in love with his wife but his move to a Synth-free town is yet another rash decision that does nothing but alienate her. Niska’s girlfriend has been hospitalised by a terrorist blast, so has turned detective to flush out the Synths responsible. Mia is frustrated by the Synths’ lack of progress and doesn’t know how best to help her people.
Coping with much worse is Max, the Christ-like leader of over five hundred Synths to whom he preaches the necessity for turning the other cheek. Max faces supply shortages, a brother in a coma, insurrection in the ranks, and now the loss of his partner Flash in a provocatively cruel murder that would test anyone’s pacifism.
When Max and Flash started the rail yard refuge, they envisioned it as a utopia. It would be somewhere conscious Synths could come and live in freedom and safety, surrounded by smiling, sunshine and flowers. Now, a year after the calamitous events of Day Zero, the rail yard is a prison camp. It’s washed out and monotone, an industrial compound surrounded by barbed wire that’s no homelier than the factories and warehouses in which the Synths—well, most of them—were built.
Optimism being crushed is very much the mood of this opening episode. Let’s be honest, it’s been very much the mood of real life for a couple of years now. The Hawkins family, our window into normality in this sci-fi drama, has been riven by conflicting attitudes to Synths rather than the EU and immigration, but it’s the same difference. Laura wants newcomers to her country to be treated fairly and with compassion; Joe wants to go back to a time before they ever arrived.
In Waltringham (filmed in Hitchin, Herts. in case you were wondering), Joe thinks he’s found his own utopia of sorts. Synths have caused all this trouble, Joe feels. They stole his job, endangered his family, messed up his youngest and took his eldest from him… Life was simpler before Synths, so he’s pressing rewind. It’s not a reasoned or sustainable response, but an emotional one.
The conscious Synths are also making emotional choices. The rail yard is splintered between those who subscribe to Max’s message of forgiveness and hope, and those who want revenge. Newcomer Agnes is driven by hostility and resentment towards humans, while a Synth terror cell promises that the humans will pay. Aptly, one rail yard sentry is seen reading Harlan Ellison’s sci-fi story I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, in which an AI tortures a group of humans. Hopefully, not for inspiration.
Literature is just one part of the conscious Synths’ awakening. Art of all kinds is seeping in to their world. Max and Flash slow-dance to soul music. A Renaissance-style fresco is painted in the background of one scene. From memory, Mia draws with the accuracy of a plotter the view of the coastline where she fell in love and was betrayed.
New to sentience, the Synths are doing what humans have done for centuries by learning about themselves and what they’re capable of. Their development is like a sped-up version of historical hard-won human rights. They debates they’re having are the debates had by the Suffragettes, by Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, by Harvey Milk, and Gloria Steinem and every marginalised group that ever fought for its freedom to exist. The fascinating question in this gripping opener is, are the Synths doomed to repeat the same mistakes as their creators?
Read our recap of Humans series one and two here.