Originally broadcast on Channel 4 in the UK between 2015 – 2018, Humans is a sci-fi drama that manages to dig into psychological and sociopolitical questions about the nature of consciousness, whilst remaining broad and accessible enough for people to get sucked into the lives of its characters.
In the world of Humans, artificial intelligence has progressed to the point where many people own humanoid robots called ‘Synths’. These conscious synthetics have become invaluable as household appliances in much the same way as periodically upgrading your smartphone. They cook, clean, nip to the shops, babysit, chat with you emotionlessly, do all the manual labour jobs in the workplace, get programmed to be sex workers: the lot. So what is so off-putting about the blankly odd behaviour of Anita (Gemma Chan from Eternals), the new synth bought by the Hawkins family?
Over the course of three seasons, the show uses the Hawkins family and others as human counterpoints to the growing unrest and rebellion regarding synths, as well as a clutch of special synths that we grow to care about. Yes, some synths are fully conscious and almost indistinguishable from humans (except for the telltale hue of their eyes) and it isn’t a surprise to learn that while humanity is happy to make tools in its own image, it isn’t so happy about those tools having thoughts, feelings, or opinions.
The morality of how humans react to the perceived threat of synths is one that each season covers in different ways, and the plotting of Humans can get rather convoluted at times. Even if you may not exactly remember how we got here, the strikingly strong character work means that you’ll be absorbed in the fates and decisions of those on-screen during any given scene. Katherine Parkinson deserves particular praise. She breaks out of her shouty sitcom past (The IT Crowd) to deliver a wonderfully dramatic performance as Laura Hawkins, matriarch to a family of 5, all of whom are inadvertently drawn into the growing synth crisis.
Whilst arguably each season gets more complicated by adding layer upon layer on top of a solid sci-fi base, if you enjoy the first season’s slow burn beginnings then you will be hooked. Gemma Chan is amazing as a synth, managing to deliver a convincingly robotic performance when the script calls for it, but also exuding an aura of sadness and pain under the surface. Other main cast synths express rationality (the stoic yet imposing Max), bubbling rage (Niska, whose burning righteousness drives much of the plot) and vulnerability (the out of date and malfunctioning Odi).
Humans delivers high concept sci-fi that is given licence to explore multiple implications of its premise. Yet, it stays grounded with a relatable cast whose priorities and world views shift between big picture and small bubble thinking in a way that leads to deliberately contradictory actions. There are tastes of such authors influences as the fatalism of Philip K. Dick, yet also the cynical hopefulness of Terry Pratchett, all while wrapped up in a plastic sheen of our modern Black Mirror attitudes to technology. Plug in, and charge up.
Words by Mike Record
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