What does it mean to be a human? That’s the question Channel 4’s sci-fi show Humans dances around. Created by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, this show tells a compelling story with multi-layered characters.
Based on an original Swedish series called ‘Real Humans’, created by Lars Lundstrom, there’s nothing particularly new about the premise of Humans, which features ‘synthetic’ humans or robots with artificial intelligence. For all its imagination, sci-fi is certainly a genre that recycles old concepts. The intrigue lies in the execution and the re-imagining of them. We’ve certainly seen plenty of robots wreaking havoc on humanity, but the show finds a way to bring something different to a very familiar conflict.
Humans features a world just like ours, with the exception that it’s a world filled with robots, called synths, who look just like humans. The synths are part of the society, performing menial jobs like manual labour, looking after the elderly, and even working as prostitutes. Amongst these mindless robots, there’s a small group who have emotions and can think for themselves. Naturally, this group is on the run from people who seek to stop them (or help them?) and they inadvertently get split up.
The series mostly centres on these robots trying to find each other, while at the same time, trying to deal with the circumstances they find themselves in. In addition, there are also human characters central to the plot. These include, but are not limited to, the Hawking family who buy one of the synths, reprogrammed, a retired old inventor and a police officer who dislikes synths with vengeance.
One of the amazing characteristics of Humans is that the premise isn’t really such a big leap or advancement. AI is being developed and robots are being modified as you’re reading this. Whether the robots will be as pretty as Gemma Chan as Anita (who’s very convincing as a semi-humanoid) remains to be seen. Humans takes place sometime around now, not in a technologically advanced future. It’s a sci-fi show for the non sci-fi fan; sci-fi that has a foot in sci-fact.
This show is a clever, well written and high-energy thriller. It has a breathless urgency and a tachycardiac pace that keeps you on the edge of your seat. The show is written so that it’s not really possible to divide the characters into good or bad. There’s a more complicated, more realistic, and frankly more interesting morality to Humans, where everyone is acting around the moral grey areas. The writers are able to nail the real-life worries and emotional connections that come when synths are a part of everyday life.
The show also addresses, but doesn’t directly answer, questions relating to having robots in our everyday life. When machines can do all the things you can do, then what’s the point of us? What’s the purpose in our lives? The teen character Mattie helps to convey this well; she believes education is pointless because eventually the synths will develop to be faster, better and cheaper than us. The show also talks about what it means to be a human and actually live. Are emotions inherently a part of us, or can they be taught and developed? In one brilliant scene, the synth Anita says to Laura, the mother of the family, that she can look after her children better than her because she does not get tired, angry or forget things; however, unlike Laura, she cannot love.
Speaking of the acting, all the actors are able to deliver engaging and impressive performances. With the Hawking family, we see each person react in different and believable ways to the new synth. The youngest daughter idolizes her, the teenage son feels attracted to her, while the mother and teenage daughter are suspicious and curious. Gemma Chan is great as the synth Anita, conveying a smoothly-robotic nature with ‘human’ qualities through a compelling and alluring performance.
Another standout actor is William Hurt, as Dr. George Millican, an engineer on the original synth project and owner of Odi (Will Tudor), an out-of-date model that the government is looking to recycle. But George can’t bear to part with Odi because he’s come to feel like family and all the memories they share. Hurt imbues George with a sense of loneliness and regret; he doesn’t like the idea of upgrades destroying the connections that families have to their synths. He also brings humor to the role as he suffers through his new, no-nonsense model, Vera, who strictly monitors his health.
By bringing these kinds of emotional touches into the episodes, Vincent and Brackley succeed in making Humans, well, very human – concerning itself not only with the humanity of the real people we meet, but with the humanity of the synthetic ones, too. With a plot full of twists and surprises and dazzling performances all around, Humans is an amazing and beautifully made show. It deserves more attention than it currently has and is worth a watch.
Humans is available on Channel 4 and Amazon Prime