Channel 4’s Humans is philosophical and shouty – and I loved it

As the credits rolled on Episode One, Channel 4 knew they had a hit on their hands with Humans, which racked up their best ratings for primetime drama in 20 years. So, was this sci-fi programme worth all the hype?

Humans Channel 4 William Hurt

William Hurt as George (image: Channel 4)

Humans is a co-production between Channel 4 and the American network AMC, best known for their zombies, meth dealers, ad men and comic shop workers. Production across the Atlantic was meant to be supplied by XBox Entertainment, but they went kablooey last year so AMC stepped in.

The concept: since scientist David Elster cracked the artificial intelligence puzzle, the new must-have consumer item is a ‘Synth’ – a robotic humanoid that’s mostly used to serve. Over the course of eight episodes, the relationship between Synths and their human masters is explored in a wide range of different storylines, ranging from kitchen sink drama (one family’s adoption of the latest model) to conspiracy thriller (the search for sentience among a group of Synths and their pursuers), and weaving in a link to their creation through William Hurt’s character and his own clapped-out Synth.

You don’t get a lot of metaphysics in your prime-time TV any more, do you? I don’t expect to see any of it on tonight’s series opener of The Great British Bake-Off for example – mainly because I don’t expect to see any of that programme at all – but Humans delivers it in spades. Sci-fi at its best is a morality tale, no matter what the scale, and some of the discussions between, for example George Millican and Niska from the group of Synths, really do well in setting up the deeper issues about humans, robots and the limits of consciousness among other things that separate them. Though hardly ground-breaking it’s really a joy to watch.

Another thing I really enjoyed during the series was the overall performances by the cast. Though a couple of the regulars irked me slightly (particularly in the Hawkins household), I thought Katherine Parkinson was brilliant as Laura; initially confused and betrayed at being ostensibly replaced by Anita, she’s got some baggage of her own too.

I’d also single out the Millican household, with the relationship between Will Tudor as the obsolete and failing Odi, and William Hurt as Dr Millican being so well played and even heart-warming. That’s the irony, of course; having feelings for a robot that doesn’t have feelings. As Hurt – who I’m now even prepared to forgive for Lost in Space, that’s how good he was – tells the Niska character, Odi has kept George’s memories of his late wife alive, stored in his own synthetic memory where George’s has failed due to a stroke. That’s why George relies on Odi so much despite his own slide into decrepitude – a very Microserfs sentiment, if you’ve read that book.

In an ambitious programme like Humans there’s got to be a glitch, and sadly there are a couple of issues with plot and pace – scenes are occasionally rushed through to get to the next chunk of development, rather than allowed to sit and unfurl with generous exposition. The dialogue too is sometimes a little stilted, which wouldn’t be a problem with the Synths who are still missing plenty of the subtleties of conversation, but not with fully human family ‘banter’.

Aside from those little nitpicks though, Humans is a fantastic mix of domestic drama and conspiracy thriller brought together by gripping themes, great acting and a good old Sunday night session of philosophy. I’m very much looking forward to series two!

5 thoughts on “Channel 4’s Humans is philosophical and shouty – and I loved it

  1. It was a superb show, a little lax in pacing at times, but overall I felt that it was a fine attempt at bringing back high concept sci-fi to our TV screens! This was a good read, expertly avoiding spoilers too which is never easy 😀

  2. Pingback: MrLuvva’s Luv-In #16 | mrluvvaluvva

  3. I’ve just started watching this (Thank you 4oD!), and although at the beginning, I already love all the questions it raises.
    AI is a particular fascination of mine. I was especially drawn to the older man who was quite protective of his broken Synth. I do believe that as humans, we could get attached to AI, I think I would find their knowledge base “attractive”, and I find myself drawn to characters in games. Like Mass Effect, the characters I have a relationship with aren’t real, but my relationships with them feel real.
    I found the sex workers particularly fascinating, because I had just read a science paper on that the other day! Raises a bunch of questions, not about synthetics, but about where it would lead humans.
    Anyway, I’m still at the beginning so I appreciate the spoiler free article 😀

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