Thursday 23 November 2017

Channel 4's new sci-fi drama Humans is a chilling look at a not-impossible future

Humans - Anita, played by Gemma Chan
Humans - Anita, played by Gemma Chan

It sounds like my kind of future - one in which every family can have a Synth, an advanced robotic servant to carry out domestic and childcare duties. "Faster, stronger, more capable than ever before. Part of your family . . ." so runs the chilling advert for a beautiful female Synth. An au pair, basically, but one you don't have to teach English, or listen to complaining to her family back home via Skype every evening, or feed. And at the end of the day, instead of her watching TV with you, or retiring to take up a whole room of your house, you simply put her in the garage, and switch her off. You can see why the families in Humans, Channel4's new eight-part drama series, decide to buy in.

There's Laura (played by Katherine Parkinson; The IT Crowd, The Honourable Woman), a busy woman with a career as a lawyer, loving husband and three children. Except secretly she's struggling with unresolved internal demons, and not quite coping. So her husband (Tom Goodman Hill; The Devil's Whore, Mr Selfridge), in an attempt to take some of the pressure off, buys a Synth, called Anita (Gemma Chan, above; Dates, Fresh Meat), whose role is to glide noiselessly about the house, intercepting glasses before they fall to the ground, serving dinner, minding children. "A teacher, a helper, a carer, a friend," that's the ad again, from Persona Synthetics, the company behind the creation of these highly evolved au pairs. "She is whatever you want her to be."

The problem is, what about what she wants to be? Because if we know one thing, from films such as Blade Runner, I, Robot, AI and many more, as well as a host of sci-fi novels, it is that nearly-human is never quite enough. Somehow, a kind of humanness seeps through the technology, a poignant would-be humanity, that means our creations are never content to remain purely clever metal. And so it is with Anita: pliant, servile automaton, who every now and then does something unexpected.

Others are there for more complex reasons, such as George Millican (played by the wonderful William Hurt), a widower who forms a close relationship with his Synth, Odi, whom he treats more like a son than a piece of machinery. Except that Odi is out-of-date, and Synths have a strict shelf life. Then there's Vera (Rebecca Front; The Thick Of It, Just William), an NHS-funded, rather overbearing, carer Synth, whose role is to administer slightly cold, institutional comfort to the elderly and infirm. And in the middle, negotiating much of the fall-out, is police officer DS Peter Drummond (Neil Maskell; Utopia), who works for the Special Technologies Task Force.

Alongside the thorny issue of how human is human, comes the question of - what are we once we have created lookalikes who perform our tasks to a level of perfection we cannot ourselves achieve? It's no longer simply a question of "will my husband fancy the au pair," but more "if the 'au pair' is better than me at everything, where exactly does this leave me?"

Humans is written by Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (Spooks, Spooks: The Greater Good), and based on the award-winning Swedish sci-fi drama Real Humans, sold to 50 countries so far. Perhaps it's a pity Channel4 didn't just buy the original, created by Lars Lundstrom, who has said that he thought about the ideas behind Real Humans for years. He imagined a drama series about "robot servants that you could also have sex with . . . I was fascinated by what would that do to human relations," he said. "Would it mess them up or help them?" It's a question all right.

The Channel4 version contains less nudity than the Swedish version, apparently, but also confronts the issue of human-robot intercourse, along with a thoughtful series of questions about the nature of humanity, society and our relationships with each other.

Humans starts June 14 on Channel4


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