Humans, Channel 4 - TV review: Robots, rogue technology and middle-class angst

Channel 4's flagship sci-fi series is truly a drama for our times

Ellen E. Jones
Monday 15 June 2015 17:31 BST
Robotic: 'Synth' Anita (Gemma Chan, left) meets the Hawkins family
Robotic: 'Synth' Anita (Gemma Chan, left) meets the Hawkins family (Kudos/Channel 4)

"What if she’s not pretty? Can we change her if she’s not pretty?" So asked a robot-purchasing little girl in the first episode of new sci-fi series Humans. Don’t worry, little girl, she’s definitely pretty. Anita, the servile home-help robot, or “synth”, is played by ex-model Gemma Chan, a woman whose natural good looks are only enhanced by the glowing green eyes of the synths.

Anita’s arrival in the Hawkins family, and her uneasy relationship with mother of the house, Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is just one of several plot threads we were introduced to in a gripping opener. Dr George Millican (William Hurt), a lonely widower who has developed a father-son bond with his outmoded synth Odi (Will Tudor), is being investigated by DS Peter Drummond (Utopia’s Nigel Maskell) of the police’s Special Technologies Taskforce. Then, most significant of all, there’s the group of synths who seem to have developed human consciousness and are now on the run from the authorities, led by Leo (The Fall’s Colin Morgan).

Channel 4’s promotional campaign for this series has been elaborate and extensive, so you may already have guessed that this is just the same old robots-becoming-human plot that has been a sci-fi staple since the genre’s earliest days. Even the specifics of this script by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are not particularly original, seeing as it’s based on the Swedish series Real Humans.

Yet Humans has done a particularly good job of creating an uncomfortably plausible setting in a parallel-present London. It allows the show not only to play on our age-old fears about out-of-control technological advancement (“the singularity” for Ray Kurzweil fans), but also on a more mundane middle-class unease. Can it ever be fair that the labour of some affords the leisure of others? In the world of Humans, synths do all the cleaning, crop-picking, caring for the elderly and prostitution, jobs that in modern Britain have mostly been delegated to low-paid immigrant labour. So Black Mirror’s technology satire may be sharper, but Humans will certainly do until our upgrade arrives.

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