One of the defining tropes of sci-fi TV is that androids and aliens are as human as the rest of us. Battlestar Galactica’s cylons are even better at being irrational passion monsters than we are. In Captain Kirk’s words, Spock not only had a soul, but it was the most human soul of any he’d encountered. There was a whole episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation legally proving Data’s sentience, freeing him from a life as property. Pretty much any time an Other is treated as less than human in science-fiction, we’re primed to root for the Other and to pat ourselves on the back for our empathy. What Humans does better than anything I can think of is present the other side. Its synthetic android assistants are mostly trumped up computers, complete with auto-hassles that you have to correct. They’re high-tech property, however the optics look. The problem is some of the synths are learning how to think and feel. Leaving aside the threat of artificial intelligence, what does that mean for the status of pre-sentient synths?
As a network-narrative drama with pilot tics, “Episode 1” is most interesting as an introduction to the premise, this relatively credible universe where there’s a synth in every garage. The title credits pick up where Battlestar Galactica left off. What starts as a line of Rosie Jetson tray delivery bots becomes a whole subculture of synthetic humanoids capable of all kinds of functions. As the episode reveals, there are general domestic workers, elder care bots, trainers, prostitutes, and a healthy labor force. The Boston Times reports, “Robots Threaten 10 Million Jobs,” and Mattie Hawkins (Lucy Carless) is hiding behind a perfectly valid excuse that by the time she gets through medical school, they’ll already have doctor bots. Older models are recycled. The UK government uses bots for welfare services. There are hundreds of millions of synths in operation and not a single reported incident of one knowingly injuring a human. That’s how they get you.
Unfortunately there are also a handful of robots programmed to feel and think, and some of them are on the lam in the woods around London. It’s early yet, but I have a lot of skeptical questions about this part of the premise. Because what’s the purpose there, and wouldn’t governments have preemptively banned such an experiment?
Humans is an AMC co-production with UK’s Channel 4, but it’s based on the Swedish series Real Humans. I suspect the basic backstories are the same, but a few episodes into Real Humans, I don’t know how certain androids developed sentience, but it’s not implied that they were created that way. It’s implied they were made that way by a hacker, which is a natural loophole. A hacker isn’t bound by laws, and his goal is chicken-crossing-the-road-level tautological: to see if he could get away with it. Whether it turns out they have the same origin story as on Humans or not, Real Humans doesn’t lob that speculation grenade at us from the get-go. Most of the adaptation changes are inexplicable, gumming up the storytelling in service of making it more serious.
For instance, the Swedish synths, called hubots, have shiny make-up and obvious wigs, whereas the synths look basically human, save the giant green irises. It’s like translating the X-Men to the screen and turning their colorful costumes black. However, the peculiar effect of the synths remains. Anita, the domestic bot who moves in with the Hawkinses and eventually kidnaps their daughter, simultaneously puts me at ease and unsettles me. The latter is what I expected, but this is a world where everyone has an android in the home. That has to make sense, and it does, thanks to the writing, the controlled performance of Gemma Chan, and the reactions to Anita. She moves in slow, deliberate motions. She’s not allowed to initiate contact, and she’s gentle with people. And her sleeves come to points at the shoulder, with clear seams that make her look like an action figure with articulated arms. In short, she’s convincingly harmless.
And then things start to go awry, but she has plausible deniability. When she’s holding a pan from the oven and either youngest daughter Sophie (Pixie Davies) or mom Laura (Katherine Parkinson) is going to get burned, she naturally prioritizes Sophie’s safety. Laura calls it an accident, as if Anita made a mistake, and you scoff like she’s complaining about her computer not working when really she’s just not using it right. But still, there’s a lingering concern. Could Anita have meant to burn Laura? Anita overhears a touchy conversation, and she watches Sophie at night. Just a program without enough boundaries yet, or a sentient being with her own thoughts? At the end Anita goes outside to look at the moon. She says to Laura, “The moon is beautiful tonight, don’t you think?” A pre-programmed piece of small talk or a personal evaluation of beauty? “Episode 1” flies through these questions instead of naturally building tension. It has somewhere to be. Finally Anita disobeys a command and checks on Sophie. That’s when you know she’s gone rogue, and it puts everything else in a new light.
That would have been an unnerving ending, Anita watching Sophie from the hall after she’s been explicitly told not to, but “Episode 1” keeps going. Anita carries a sleeping Sophie out the door, leaves it wide open, and walks down the middle of the street at night. I’ll give Humans the benefit of a doubt, but this looks cheap to me so far. It makes Anita look like she’s malfunctioning, not like she’s sentient, which makes it a lot easier to argue she should be recycled or repaired or something, not treated just like you and me. But more damningly, it’s a stunt. It abandons all the intrigue and suspense of Anita’s relationship with Laura and the Hawkinses and dives right into the sudden but inevitable betrayal. It’s not a vote of confidence. It’s a plea to please keep watching.
Presumably Anita’s looking for her comrades. A flashback to five weeks earlier reveals that she was on the lam with a group of synths and a human named Leo (Colin Morgan) when they stopped to set up camp for the night and a van (that somehow knew where to go) kidnapped her for resale. She was refurbished by one of these companies and repackaged for Joe Hawkins’ (Tom Goodman-Hill) domestic needs (and perhaps sexual ones). As for her allies, they’re now split up. Leo’s wandering with a synth named Max (Ivanno Jeremiah), but Fred (Sope Dirisu) was discovered at his job and taken by government and corporate interests for investigation, and Niska (Emily Berrington) is working at a bot brothel where she’s treated like property that can obey commands. Humans shoves this one in our face, staging a scene where Niska bends over toward the camera and her head keeps throttling in and out of focus with every thrust. She tells Leo that she hasn’t turned off her pain, because she was made to feel. Synths are ostensibly unable to lie or feel, except for this handful, apparently. The point is the tragedy that she’s forced to sell her body, but Humans skips some steps getting there and it plays more like “I’m not touching you”-style provocation.
The other two stories don’t immediately connect with the Hawkinses or Anita. William Hurt plays George, a man in need of elder care who clings to his obsolete synth, Odi (Will Tudor). The joke is that George is really the one taking care of Odi, whose senility manifests in a freak-out at the grocery store and a general state of confusion. In contrast to Anita, he’s fidgety, eyes jerking back and forth. He dresses with one collar tucked into his sweater and one out. He looks at a jacket and recalls an old memory about it, which sounds like fond reminiscence but for a computer is more like calling up a first draft instead of the latest. George tries to use a scrapbook to jog his memory, but Odi’s a machine. “Fatal error.” “Okay. Keep trying.” It’s a pointless request—the Alcoholics Anonymous definition of insanity comes to mind—but when George is just about to dismantle the robot, Odi recounts the missing memory. I don’t know enough about computers or biology to explain that, but I am ready to hunker down in my survival shelter as soon as these things hit the market.
When Odi has his accident at the grocery store, synth-related crime detective Peter Drummond (Neil Maskell) is the one who orders Odi be retired. Inexplicably he lets George handle the retirement without any oversight, and now there’s a machine who can remember things that aren’t in his storage. So that’s on him. Anyway, Neil comes home to physical therapy synth Simon (Jack Derges) helping Neil’s wife Jill (Jill Halfpenny) regain use of her legs after some sort of accident a while back. Almost as soon as Neil walks in the door, Simon carries Jill off to the bedroom. That’s it for the Drummonds this week, but it’s a smart reversal of Joe Hawkins pocketing the “Adult Options” pamphlet. What would it be like for a straight woman to be cared for so personally by a fit male synth?
Based on the closing voice-over, from a news interview about synths asking if love can be learned and if synths dream, Humans sure seems committed to exploring the questions that arise from its premise. It’s just that it’s already skipping ahead to The Singularity, and we just got here.
- The Humans adaptation was created by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, who co-wrote every episode, from Lars Lundström’s Real Humans. “Episode 1” is directed by Sam Donovan.
- Sophie comes downstairs the morning after they bought Anita and the table is set and covered in food and drink. “Is it a party?!” Joe says, “No, Soph. This is what breakfast is supposed to be like.”
- Apparently Laura lost her parents a couple years ago, and she’s been distant from her family ever since. Joe tells her, “I didn’t buy Anita to replace you. I bought her to get you back.” “But I haven’t gone anywhere.” Except for the fact that her absence is the whole reason Joe bought Anita, sure. That’s another adaptation change, by the way. In the original, he doesn’t decide to go out and buy a synth. He’s almost saddled with one and then finds out he likes it.
- Eldest Hawkins daughter Matilda is going through some shit. She calls Anita to her room to test her speed against a BB gun. “I own you and I’m telling you I want it to hit you.” Anita grabs the barrel and asks, “Why?”
- Anita also has memories apparently. I’m not sure what her refurbishing entails, but you’d think it’d be like reformatting a hard drive. Yet Anita has flashes of being underwater with someone from her life before the Hawkinses.
- The men who have Fred discuss studying him. “Robert, these machines are conscious.” “How do you know they don’t just simulate it?” “How do I know you don’t?”
- “You’re just a stupid machine, aren’t you?” “Yes, Laura.”