Taking place in a parallel present where eerily humanoid robots, known as ‘Synths’, are the latest must-have gadget to invade our homes, the technophobic themes of Channel 4’s Humans, which began its eight-part run last night, couldn’t be more topical.
The news is currently awash with respected boffins like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates issuing prophecies of the risks of artificial intelligence, while, in cinemas, the likes of Her and Ex Machina explore the implications of our increasingly integrated attachment to technology.
This series, a remake of Swedish hit Real Humans, will do little to quell these fears, Channel 4 having unleashed a sci-fi-tinged psychological thriller that recalls Black Mirror and Cyberbully in the way it exposes uncomfortable truths about our relationship with technology.
The series does an excellent job of instantly realising this brave new world, establishing the Synths as barely accepted additions to society. Used as factory workers, litter-pickers and carers, the androids are marketed to the middle classes as affordable helping hands; meanwhile, those less privileged are worried about the prospect of losing their jobs to machines and children start to wonder whether education is worth the bother.
Director Sam Donovan lends a tense and gritty realism to proceedings by setting the action around familiar domestic locations and shooting scenes with a bleak yet glossy hue to make this dark subject matter seem frighteningly plausible.
The first episode introduces a number of different plot strands, charting the plight of Leo (Merlin’s Colin Moran), a mysterious fugitive on the hunt for a missing Synth, and the tragic relationship between troubled widower George (a masterfully heartbreaking William Hurt) and his outdated Synth, which add further texture to Humans’s vivd world whilst ensuring there’s no shortage of incident to keep the audience on tenterhooks throughout.
A third arc follows the ramifications of Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) buying Gemma Chan’s Synth – christened Anita – to ease the strain on his marriage to Laura (Katherine Parkinson). It’s here where most of the focus of the first episode resides, with the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the Hawkins’s family home playing host to a pot-boiler of a psychological thriller as Laura becomes ever more paranoid about the close bond Anita is forming with her children.
She might have been purchased with the intention of bringing the family closer together, but Anita’s unnerving presence only makes Laura feel more isolated from her loved ones – especially as she seems to be the only one to notice the subtle flickers that suggest Anita has a deeper understanding of the world than she lets on.
Such intense drama requires excellent performances to carry it off and Humans thankfully has those in spades with Katherine Parkinson once again excelling in a serious role, bringing a weary and broken vulnerability to embattled mother Laura.
It’s Gemma Chan who is most impressive, however, as she affords Anita with an unsettling, ethereal quality through a mesmerising stillness of movement that speaks of the many hours spent dedicated to its perfection. It works, too, heightening the difference between her Synth and the human family she ostensibly serves, giving their every interaction an intensely adversarial subtext.
It’s relationships that are at the heart of the show, though. Sure, complex ideas like artificial intelligence and singularity are all name-checked to maintain the veneer of sci-fi, but the series is at its bold, brilliant best when uncovering the realities of how we connect with our gadgets these days.
George’s arc feels particularly poignant, with one devastating scene depicting the moment he realises his malfunctioning Synth is losing the capability to store memories of his dead wife. It’s a gut-wrenching scene, and it feels so raw and evocative because it echoes the way we increasingly store our own memories – pictures, videos, even records of conversations – on perishable pieces of glass and circuitry. It’s powerful stuff.
Smart, gripping and disturbingly relevant, Humans is an excellent addition to the current spate of technophobic thrillers, boasting genuine characters and strong performances with an achingly human message at its core.
Click here to watch the trailer for Humans