Tony Fyler gives permission.
The second episode of Humans, the new sci-fi drama series on Channel 4, takes us into darker territory than its opener, showing several instances of the inequality between humans and Synths – the droids that live among us, doing our dirty work with a smile. Anita, the Hawkins’ synth, already crossed a boundary or two in that first episode, but here, it’s all about the permission to touch, something Synths are required to get confirmed before they initiate contact.
Toby Hawkins, the teenage son in the family, raises the issue in typical teenage boy style by at first just holding Anita’s hand while she’s recharging, and then trying to feel her breast. Synths, it seems, come with an alarm, and any inappropriate touch must be reported to their primary user – in Anita’s case, Joe, Toby’s dad. But the Synth who clearly has more control over her destiny than she’s letting on cuts him a break since the alarm was triggered just before he actually touched her.
The issue of touch comes up again and again in Episode 2 – Niska, the Synthitute, having given a chillingly silent scream, suggesting she simply turned off her voice, reacts violently to a client; having informed him he needs to give her permission to initiate contact, when it turns out what he wants from her goes beyond the pale of her moral code, she touches him in a way he won’t forget, before storming out, and giving a chilling reminder to the female keeper of the club and brothel – ‘Everything they do to us, they want to do to you.’
Doctor George Millican, co-creator of the Synths and now living quietly, shambolically, with Odi his original synth (we wonder about OD – Original Design, maybe?), is also the victim of an advancing tide of development over the question of a Synth needing permission to touch humans. His new psycho-nurse, courtesy of the NHS, raises the question of who, if you’re a patient, the Synth’s primary user is: in her case, it’s the NHS Trust, and when George disobeys instructions that are ‘in his best interest’ she is entirely able to manhandle him into compliance, raising the uncomfortable question: if the primary user is not the patient but the Health Trust, then where do the best interests of the caregiver lay – an issue that could be said to apply to our non-Synth world too when it comes to the price of human dignity.
That question of touch and dignity also comes into play in the Drumond household – DS Peter Drummond, from the Synth-Crime unit, feeling increasingly emasculated and disconnected from his wife Jill, as he struggles to carry her to the toilet, and when he offers to take her for the hydrotherapy appointment that will aid recovery from her accident, she chooses her Synth Simon, on loan from the insurance company, over her husband, because ‘he just knows what I need.’ Drummond is a man on the edge of lashing out at the Synth world – a dangerous thing in his line of work – and the matter of permission to touch is at the heart of it, albeit in his case an inversion on the usual: Simon is more than permitted to touch Jill Drummond, he ‘knows what she needs’ – the implication being that Drummond himself either doesn’t know or can’t deliver what the hunky Synth can. Sleep at night with that thought in your head, I dare you.
Even the Hawkins’ daughter, Mattie delivers a take on the permission to touch rule – she and some fellow cyber-nihilists at school kidnap a Synth by putting a bag over its head, which is a fairly terroristic use of inappropriate, uninvited touch – and the Synth can do nothing to stop them trying to hack its brain. The Asimovian idea of androids being able to defend themselves or their primary users from harm so long as they do not harm another human in the process is all very laudable, but Humans takes a flamethrower to it in a way that is depressingly realistic – in the real world, we’d want to be very very far on the safe side of Asimov’s laws.
That idea comes full circle not once but twice within the scope of the episode – times when you might want your Synth to touch people without permission. We see that first when Leo, the leader of our gang of programme-breaking Synths takes his Synth ‘brother’ Max to see a bunch of illegal hackers and overclockers (led by Paul Kaye, who seems to be getting his face usefully into all the best geek fare at the moment), and Leo gets beaten to hell and back. Synth programming dictates that Max is powerless to intervene.
Synth programming does not necessarily apply here. There’s also a spoiler in that scene that, if you’ve managed to avoid it so far, I won’t ruin for you. I’ll just be over here looking a bit smug and deciding I really must actually watch Blade Runner some day.
And finally, in an episode which takes a variety of tacks on the line between human and helper, and manages to make many of them shocking and thought-provoking, there’s a second instance of Synth programme-breaking to good effect, when Anita, at first declaring she cannot cuddle the young Sophie Hawkins when she has a nightmare without prior permission from the child’s parents, then simply does it, rendering tenderness and comfort without any kind of primary user permission.
The dilemma is hard, and the mirror the series continues to hold up to humanity is dark – in a world where they are constantly met with hostility, indifference and the worst impulses of human beings, where even those with whom they share their lives think of them as open to invasion of space, invasion of will, and even invasion of mind and body, the conscious Synths have developed the ability to care. It’s the notion that her creepy client might ‘do this to you’ in the real world that drives Niska over the edge. The idea that his brother might die that pushes Max to intervene. And the idea that a child might be frightened that makes Anita take it in her arms and hug it till it’s calm again. As DI Karen Voss says in this episode when DS Drummond goes a little loose at the skullnuts – ‘Every bad thing that’s ever happened to me has been done by human beings.’ It’s a message that resonates throughout the series so far: our humanity is only called that because good people were good people. We have a duty to be as humane as humans can be. And in Humans, so far it’s mostly the Synths who show the humanity we’d expect to find in ourselves.
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