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Channel 4's Humans gets a bit lost in translation from Swedish version


Humans - Anita, played by Gemma Chan

Humans - Anita, played by Gemma Chan

Humans, Channel 4

Humans, Channel 4


Humans - Anita, played by Gemma Chan

THE British newspaper reviews of Channel 4’s heavily trailed new science fiction drama Humans, which started on Sunday night, were in the main positive, if hardly overflowing with superlatives.

Set in an alternative near-future where humanoid robots called “synths” are used as manual workers, domestic servants, companions for the elderly and, at the seedier end of the spectrum, sexual playthings, the series is — like the synths themselves — a slick, shiny, well-engineered piece of work.

And yet, there was something a little meh about this first of eight episodes. It’s as if the makers have tried so hard to make this parallel world, where people purchase robots in the same casual way they might buy an iPhone, look like a just-about-credible vision of the future that they’ve ended up making it look rather ordinary.

Humans, as I pointed out in a column last month, is a remake of a Swedish series called Real Humans. The entire first season (there have been two so far) is available free on the streaming site Vimeo.

I’ve watched several episodes of Real Humans, which has been shown in 50 countries, including Australia, France and Germany, and consider it superior in every way to what we’ve seen so far of the remake. Admittedly, that’s only a single episode, but a comparison of the two series’ opening instalments illustrates the fine line between excellence and competence.

The two versions have the same premise: an already troubled suburban family is disrupted further by the arrival into their home of a pretty female synth — called a “hubot” in the original — they name Anita.

The family’s youngest daughter sees Anita as a friend, but the older one feels threatened. Anita also arouses sexual feelings in both the father and the teenage son.

What nobody knows is that Anita is one of a group of robots that have developed free will and emotions, and are being hunted by a special police taskforce. Criminals kidnapped and passed her on to an unscrupulous dealer, who reprogrammed her for sale.

Meanwhile, the grandfather, an elderly widower with a place of his own, has come to love his own hubot/synth, a near-obsolete model called Odi, like a son. When Odi malfunctions and injures a supermarket worker, he hides him away in his home, despite being required by law to turn him in for destruction.

Humans changes a few character details (here the old man, played by American star William Hurt, a casting choice that reflects the involvement of US cable channel AMC as co-producer, is not related to the family) but tells the same story — thus far, anyway.

The real difference between the two is how the story is told. The Swedish original has an unmistakeable, understated Nordic coolness that perfectly suits the material.

The world of Real Humans is recognisably our world, yet at the same time it feels unsettlingly sterile and alien: reality skewed through a prism.

It’s not just the locale, either, that gives the Swedish series the edge over the Channel 4 one. The scriptwriting is crisper, sharper and more linear; the characters feel, dare one say it, more human.

The remake, mistaking confusion for complexity, mucks around with the chronology, resulting in needlessly muddled storytelling. It’s also in so much of a hurry to squeeze everything in that you aren’t given enough time to get to know or care about the characters (not that the human ones, Hurt’s old man excepted, are especially likeable anyway).

The hip opinion to have is that a remake is never as good as the original. Sometimes they are. This is not one of those times, though.