It’s an age-old idea that our increasing reliance on mechanical help and artificial intelligence might backfire on us. From the original Terminator movies to this year’s Ex Machina, we’ve known that getting robots to do our chores is probably a bad idea. Even Stephen Hawking thinks so, and he seems like the sort of person who’d know about this stuff.
That’s where Channel 4’s stylish new drama Humans comes in, a remake of Swedish original Real Humans co-produced with American network AMC and which came to attention here with its creepy TV spots (below) appearing to advertise buying a mechanical pal all of your own. In the series (set in an “alternative present’), Robots are once again rampant in our society, though now they’re called synthetics and look just like us – but the “What if robots overthrew humanity?” question has changed.
Instead, the question of the day is: “What if something artificial made you completely irrelevant – and would you still buy one anyway?”
“What you’re dealing with here is how direct a threat or benefit to humanity artificial intelligence is,” former Merlin star Colin Morgan tells me on the suburban set of Humans. “How would you feel if a synth human being was in your house and doing the things that you do, but better? And everyone acknowledged that they’re better than you at doing it.”
That’s the problem facing Katherine Parkinson’s Laura, a busy lawyer with little time for her three kids who’s furious to return home one day and find her husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) has bought a beautiful robot woman (Gemma Chan) to pick up the slack. Less bombastic than the next robot uprising blockbuster perhaps, but this smaller-scale interpretation is a refreshing approach to a well-used trope, bringing science-fiction ideas to a domestic level without sacrificing the wider questions about our own society that the genre excels at.
After all, how would you feel if a younger woman turned up, performing your role in the household and becoming your kids’ favourite? Despite her husband’s assurances, Laura can’t shake the feeling she’s being replaced, or that there’s more to the synthetic (named Anita) that meets the eye. And her feelings might be more than paranoia…
“Anita’s really an enigma when you first see her,” Chan says. “She’s been quite cleverly set up. When she comes into the family, everyone’s needs and expectations are reflected in her.”
She adds: “You’re not sure what’s she’s about. You don’t really know if she is a threat to the family. You don’t know if she has her own agenda. It’s been really interesting to play, there’s lots of levels to her. There’s what’s going on on the surface but there’s a lot of other things going on underneath that get revealed later in the series.”
Chan’s transformation into a synthetic is subtle, the only difference between her and humanity the colour of her eyes and her more fluid motions, but the latter in particular is hugely effective at giving the synths the so-called “uncanny valley” effect that makes human-like robots so unsettling in real life.
“There’s a physical language that we wanted to have so people weren’t just doing their own thing,” Chan explains. “These things are ultimately machines and they run on battery power so every movement has to have an economy and a grace to it.”
And of course Chan isn’t the only synth around, with the series following several storylines related to the robotic helpmates. Oscar-winning actor William Hurt’s storyline is something of a counterpart to Parkinson’s, with his ageing engineer Dr Millican (who actually helped build some early models of the synthetics) reluctant to part with his old malfunctioning synth due to its stored memories of his dead wife, which he has trouble recalling himself. It’s surprisingly touching, and a good way, to show the more positive side of what the synths can do – even as Hurt’s having a Nurse Ratched-esque new model (Rebecca Front) forced upon him.
Another plotline even moves into more traditional science-fiction fare, with a mysterious arc dealing with a group of synths that seem to have gained consciousness led by Colin Morgan’s troubled human Leo. Could Gemma Chan’s Anita secretly be one of them – and does she even know it?
Still, when it comes down to it the series’ strength definitely lies in its domestic approach, the stories of science-fiction cuckoos in the nest who are probably a mix of good and bad just as people are, but might be bad for us even if they do have good intentions.
As Utopia’s Neil Maskell (who plays a policeman investigating synth-related crime) puts it: “For me, the series isn’t so much like ‘what if there were robots’. It’s ‘what if the robots we’ve got looked like humans?’”
Maybe we’d be better off sticking with our iPhones after all…