“This is the best thing that you will do for your family”
At first I thought all of my dreams had been answered when I saw an advert about ‘synths’ on Channel 4. A robot that can do the house chores? Bingo! However, it all turned out to be a con…and so we have Channel 4’s Humans. The show lands at just the right moment. Stephen Hawking has warned us about the unrelenting advance of A.I., a new Terminator film is hitting our screens, and there’s a hotel in Japan fully staffed by robots. Is Humans a glimpse into our future? Better yet, is Humans a worthwhile glimpse into our future? The first episode introduced almost too many plot lines and characters to reconcile over eight episodes. But the themes it brought up, while some were less subtle than others, will strike a chord with the masses. What about the unrelenting progress of A.I.? What about the impact on humans? What about jobs? The first episode of Humans managed to encase these BIG QUESTIONS in an enthralling drama that sometimes got caught up in the common problem of today’s TV: too much going on!
In Humans, the synths that populate middle-class households are the only obvious depiction of “science fiction.” There weren’t any holograms, space colonies, teleportation devices, etc. Instead, Humans exists, according to the writers, in a ‘parallel present.’ So the only focus is on synths on their impact on society. It’s a clever move, actually. Creating a science fiction involves creating a whole world full of futuristic stuff. The writers of Humans have bypassed this completely. People communicate via mobile phones, the younger people are hooked on tablets and the internet, people walk down similar streets to you and I. Even the place where Joe Dawson, the everyday husband/father, picks up a synth is remarkably low-key. It’s not even a Google HQ type of place, more like a car dealers’ place. Instead of making the vision seem remote, this reflection of our present brings us deeper and deeper into the societal game changer that is synthetic beings.
Of course, all of the big questions involving synthetic organisms are addressed in the course of the episode. Are these robotic housekeepers slaves? What happens when they develop a consciousness? What is consciousness? What happens when the synths can do complicated jobs, like brain surgery? Joe’s daughter, Matilda, explains her falling grades at school with the fact that synths will be able to do most jobs. The synths will be immeasurably better than humans at any given task at that point. “My best isn’t worth anything,” she moans. Of course, the assumption behind Humans is that the synths have displaced thousands of workers. But that’s okay, they’re lower class workers. What happens when the synths start to displace middle class workers? The lack of evidence of any social disruption due to the synths was the one thing that irritated me throughout the episode? What about the working class people who have been thrown out of a job? Where are they? But perhaps that particular theme is being saved for a later episode…
“You are different”
Our look at the average life of a synth was brought to us by Joe and his family. Each member of the family gave us a different perspective of their new synth, named Anita. The youngest daughter clings on to her in the growing absence of her mother, Laura. Laura is away for long periods of time (possibly having an affair?), which pushed Joe to buy a synth. Laura sees Anita as an unnecessary purchase, like a tumble dryer or a dishwasher. Joe sees Anita as a thing that can help him around the house. Matilda teases Anita and treats it like a slave. “She’s not a slave,” her dad points out. “That’s exactly what she is,” Matilda shoots back. As a whole, the show has a tendency to shout out about the big themes mentioned above. But the family and the synth was a lightly subtle way of exposing natural reactions to the robot in the household.
However, the multitude of storylines, plus a flashback of ‘Five Weeks Earlier,’ didn’t exactly oil the wheels of the storyline. After the success of Game of Thrones, every TV series seems eager to throw as many storylines and characters into the mix. Done effectively, the storylines interweave and interlink effortlessly. Done terribly, it can confuse matters and drag the episode down as a whole. While Humans handles all the storylines well, the constant flicking between them does distract at times. It especially distracts from the sense of unease that haunts the Dawson family.
“You’re just a stupid machine, aren’t you?”
However, it helps that the other storylines have something to intrigue the viewer. Leo’s synth freedom fighter adds an air of mystery, as does the parallel story of Hobb, the synth hunter. Hobb is asked if a synth could have consciousness or merely simulate it. Hobb simply answer “How do I know that you don’t?” The story of George Millican, the creator of synths, was heart-wrenching. He has Alzheimer’s, and his old synth Odi was a substitute for his receding memories. However, in a reversal of roles, Odi was the one who became broken and forgetful, and George had to fix him. The uncaring NHS was depicted as a hindrance for George, rather than a help. The only story that didn’t gain any traction was that of DS Peter Drummond. His wife/partner was left paralysed from the waist down, and a synth is helping her recuperate. Obviously, the theme was Drummond’s masculinity being taken away by a robot, but it felt unnecessary.
Overall, however, it was a successful first episode. The multitude of storylines was well balanced in the main, with only one feeling superfluous. The family drama brought a sense of unease and dread to proceedings, while Leo and Hobb brought mystery to the table. All stories are interlinked, of course, and the success of the interlinking will cement the success of the series. What really topped off the episode was the “synth” music; 80’s sci fi music that morphed perfectly into every scene. All in all, off to a good start!
VERDICT: 7/10. Raised obvious questions about robots and humans, but gave us drama and mystery in equal measures.