Tony Fyler is human. Probably.
The background of Humans, the new sci-fi drama showing on the UK’s Channel 4, is territory we’ve been in before – realistic human-looking androids have been perfected, and are widely available. They form an uncomplaining slave class, doing all the menial or degrading jobs, from factory work to fruit picking to prostitution to household drudgery. They do it without complaining, without demanding, and, if required, with a smile on their faces. They learn our likes, our dislikes, our routines, all to make our lives better, freer, less tense.
So far, so Robots of Death, if the Robots of Death looked really human. Those of you who know what a Voc robot looks like, if you’re not strenuously trying to avoid the idea of Voc prostitutes right now, then one of us is sick and twisted and worryingly, I don’t know which.
However, early into the first episode, it becomes clear there are rogue robots – robot revolutionaries who know more, who have more self-awareness, and who want to be free of what is a state of pacified, easily controlled slavehood. So far, then, so Blade Runner.
The point about Humans is that it’s actually, at least in style, the antithesis of Blade Runner. No glitz, no glamour, no urban space-grit, just the mundanity of British life, as enhanced by an army of robots who look almost exactly like us, and can – if they can break their programming – pass among us in the overclass. Episode 1 focuses on a handful of individual stories, almost bringing a Torchwood: Children of Earth or Miracle Day feel to the storytelling. The Hawkins family are pretty much dysfunctional, so dad Joe buys a ‘Synth’ – this series’ word for the androids, robots or replicants, depending on your sci-fi preference – while his wife Laura is away at work. Their particular Synth, who they name Anita, is a robot with a history – she has flashes of memory from a life before she was Anita Hawkins (a particularly squirm-making callback to slave culture, the taking of the family name, but also a reasonable invention, given that these days we’re encouraged to personalize our laptops and phones). She has occasional nightmares, and she has a particular affinity for the moon.
Her history – which she’s not supposed to have, having been sold as new – is tied up with a gang of Synth programme-breakers led by a human (or is he?), and their struggle is also shown in episode 1 – allegedly ‘reprogrammed,’ but not, they are reassigned to menial work having been captured once – Fred becomes a fruit picker, Niska a lapdancer and prostitute. ‘Anita’ doesn’t respond to calls.
Meanwhile, there’s William Hurt as an ageing American professor who used to be big in robotics, and who is desperately trying to hold on to his original Synth, rather than submit to the less than tender mercies of the new NHS Synth care worker. And the forces of robot control and enslavement are suitably mundane and British too – an ordinary Detective Sergeant and a gruff mystery man who talks about the point of singularity, when Synths become more advanced, more capable than humans, and aware of where their best interests lay.
It’s all very straightforward stuff in the world of robot revolutions: no laser guns, no mass uprisings, no homicidal rampages or accidental twisting off of people’s arms – yet.
What Humans has to recommend it is a freshness of take that doesn’t demand the audience suspend very much disbelief at all – it’s a parallel reality that’s as dull and dysfunctional as the one we have, but with robots to do the heavy lifting, and saddle us with the moral maze of questions that their existence would pose – how right is it to have something that looks like us and responds like us do our dirty work? Where’s the line between a dishwasher and a drone? Where’s the line between a sex toy and a Synth that comes (as Anita does) with a package of ‘18+’ options - cheat modes, essentially to unlock sexual functions. It also has a cracking cast – many of Britain’s finest character actors are here, from Tom Goodman-Hill and Katherine Parkinson to Colin Morgan and Rebecca Front and Neil Maskell. Devised from an already-successful Swedish show, Real Humans, and written in the UK by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, it’s recommended not by its flashy effects but by the believable mundanity of its scenario, and its patience – there’s plenty of action and plenty of curiosity-hooks, but it doesn’t feel the need to overpower your attention with the razzle-dazzle sci-fi of its central premise.
All good science fiction – and this is pretty good science fiction – should make you think while it entertains, and the things that Humans makes you think about are deeply uncomfortable. Quite apart from the point of singularity, where the Synths become superior and self-aware enough to know it, and the moral questions that would apply if we could create artificial life-forms as sophisticated as the Synths are, the underlying questions of Humans hold a dark mirror up to the society in which we actually live, here, now, today. Mexicans pick Californian fruit. East Europeans pick British fruit. The same two demographics are wildly overrepresented in the lowest paying jobs in society, jobs the richer among the ‘overclass’ would never do for themselves, whether it be cleaning their own houses or mowing their own lawns, raising their own children or walking their own dogs.
Women from the same demographics are also highly represented in the sex trades, their flesh not so much willingly traded as desperately flogged to any available buyer, under the threat of violence and terror from virtual owners.
There’s a telling moment in Humans, Episode 1 where Niska, the Synth who’s being put to work in the lapdancing club and brothel is asked whether she has ‘turned off her pain,’ as a defence against her situation.
‘No,’ she says. ‘I was meant to feel.’
We were meant to feel too – but the point is that increasingly in our culture, we don’t. We turn off our pain. We wouldn’t necessarily treat a Synth with the respect we think we would, and in Episode 1, Laura Hawkins makes something of that discovery and transition, going from apologizing to Anita and telling her children that the Synth is not a slave to feeling uneasy around the Synth herself and enjoying a spark of triumph as she says ‘You’re just a stupid robot, aren’t you?’
The lines between function and human being are blurred, both in Humans and in our lives – just because someone or something looks like us, there’s no guarantee that we are good enough human beings to treat them anything like as well as we expect to be treated ourselves.
The questions Humans makes us ask go beyond science fiction and into social commentary – the Synths are here already, and they are absolutely human.
Find Humans now on catch-up and prepare for an absorbing, quick hour of television that will leave its hooks in you long after it’s over.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk