The easiest part of a science fiction show is the beginning. It’s much easier to ask questions than to offer answers*.
*I am incredibly guilty of referencing a certain ABC show that took place on a mystical Island in all my reviews so here is my promise that all Humans reviews will be Lindelof-free zones. But you have to admit that you’re mind went right to that like the “don’t think about elephants” example from Inception.
In episode one of Humans (which airs jointly on AMC and Britain’s Channel 4) the show proves that it’s perfectly up to the task of asking questions … or even just implying them.
We open on a green, cybernetic eye.* Then the camera pans out to reveal that the eye belongs to a cyborg, one of many perfectly calibrated, disarmingly beautiful humanoids all in a dark, lonely factory. As all the cyborgs stare blankly ahead, while our dark-haired, ethnically ambiguous woman gently cranes her neck to look at the night sky, staring at the full moon.
*I repeat: LINDELOF-FREE ZONE
It’s a perfect introduction to the show: intriguing, mysterious and subtle. It also represents the most intriguing, mysterious and subtle “Episode 1” gets. That’s not to say it’s necessarily bad. “Episode 1” is some good old-fashioned, accessible, workingman’s sci-fi; it’s just not as special as it’s first moments promise.
Speaking of workingman’s sci-fi, Humans then rolls directly into the middle class as Joe Hawkins (Tom Goodman-Hill) peruses a store, looking for a synthetic domestic helper. British TV sci-fi has excelled in the way that it’s taken the fantastical away from opulent space stations and aristocratic families and into the living rooms of the Average Joe. Humans is no different. Its Average Joe is even named Joe and he’s looking for an affordable piece of tech to make his family’s life easier, not a miracle.
The irony is that “Synth” he chooses, Anita, the very same beautiful woman from the beginning, is pretty much a miracle. Science has produced a near perfect facsimile of a human being and all the people of this fictional Great Britain are using them for is to make lunch for the kids and do laundry. That would be like if a major corporation made a device that contained the sum total of human knowledge within it and all we used it for was to watch cat videos. Oh.
It’s also not a coincidence that Anita is a woman. This particular company offers all manner of attractive Synth helpers but the fact the one the plot follows is a woman is significant.
“What if she’s not pretty? Can we change her if she’s not pretty?” Joe’s daughter, Sophie (Pixie Davis) asks. “She’s ours,” Joe later tells his daughter after purchasing Anita. Mind you, that’s shortly after Joe take a moment to check out Anita’s ass. It’s one thing to talk about Photoshopped magazine covers creating unrealistic expectations for women. It’s another thing entirely when that Photoshopped magazine cover is walking around your living room.
Naturally, Joe’s wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is uncomfortable with her new domestic threat. It’s clear Laura feels at least a little bit miscast in her prescribed role as a wife and mother. She spends weeks at a time on the road for her job as a lawyer and Joe is overwhelmed with picking up the slack at home. Now in comes the aforementioned Photoshopped goddess who is here to do all the things Laura can’t or won’t. The Hawkins’ eldest daughter, Mattie (Lucy Carless), is equally as distrustful of Anita though is also not a big fan of her mother because…teens? Son, Toby (Theo Stevenson) seems happy just to have a “fit” girl wandering around the house and Sophie is thrilled to have a new, gentle, pretty friend.
And that’s pretty much where the human characters motivations and defining characteristics end. While Anita is a miracle and thought provoking and all the good things that come along with science fiction, her human character counterparts are shockingly bland. Laura and Mattie’s mistrust of Anita is at least somewhat founded but everyone else’s insistence that they’re making too big a deal of it is frustrating. As much as I make fun of humanity taking our technology for granted, I’d have to imagine that we’d treat inviting a completely human-looking robot into our homes with some solemnity. Joe’s insistence that this is not a big deal is baffling. We’re a culture that got attached to Furbies, surely Joe would feel a little more than just pure lust for his new believably human Furby.
For that, we have William Hurt bringing some American-ness as retired scientist George Millican. George is unusually attached to his original Synth Odie and treats him as a son. He resists attempts from the state to replace Odie with a newer model, Vera. The most interesting aspect of this is that Odie is malfunctioning, dripping green-ish “blood” out of his nose and not being able to recall memories for George. In short, Odie’s malfunctions reveal him to be a machine in ways like the pristine Anita and others do not. That’s when Humans has the potential to be the most fascinating: when its revealing more about the nature of us than the nature of robots. We’re the dumb dorks likely to love a malfunctioning machine like a son.
Conversely, it robs the two other subplots of some power. Synth-sympathizer Leo (Colin Morgan) is leading a band of fully conscious Synths through the woods and looking for Anita. And grizzled old weirdo, Hobb (Danny Webb), kidnaps a Synth named Fred from a fruit-picking enterprise because he suspects him to be sentient as well. The introduction of sentient Synths is undoubtedly necessary to the long-term plot and will become the driving factor behind the whole show but for one episode it’s a disappointment. Strange as it may sound, it’s more interesting to see characters interact with emotionless machines. That way they are mirrors for each character, and not just other people.
As the end of “Episode 1” reveals Anita is one of these sentient Synths…or was. As intriguing an idea of a whole series of a non-sentient robot revealing a normal family’s fears and insecurities is, it’s not to be. Anita breaks her “Asimov blocks” by watching Sophie sleep and then taking her on a little nighttime journey.
“Episode 1” is a fine start for Humans and it asks enough questions to be interesting and worth our time. It just doesn’t ask the right questions to be unique.