Humans series 3 preview: Channel 4’s sci-fi drama enters a brave new world

After the synth awakening at the end of series two, the Channel 4 series has rediscovered its original power says Huw Fullerton

Mia (Gemma Chan) and Niska (Emily Berrington) in Humans series three (Channel 4, HF)

When it debuted on Channel 4 in 2015, Humans had a killer premise. What if robot servants were as common and everyday as iPhones? And what would happen to society if those robots – called synths in the series – started to think for themselves?

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A slow-burn sensation with seriously creepy undertones and a terrific marketing campaign, it ended up being Channel 4’s biggest launch in years, gained critical acclaim and catapulted some of its stars – most notably Gemma Chan – into fame.

Things weren’t so rosy however when series two returned in 2016.

By that point HBO series Westworld had begun exploring similar sci-fi concepts with an all-star cast and bigger budget, while Humans’ series two storyline – which involved a trial for synth sentience and more robots waking up – just didn’t grab audiences in the same way. Ratings declined, and there was some doubt whether the series would return at all.

However, after a bit of a longer break between series, Humans has indeed come back – and I’m very glad it did.

For the first time in a long while the series finally delivers on its premise, showing the bleak consequence of the synth awakening – which took place at the end of series two – one year on, with thousands killed in the initial confusion and the synths themselves now confined to ghettoes.

As the synths are shunned, denied basic rights and even murdered by humans, the series has obvious social parallels with real-life religious extremism, racial profiling and immigration. It’s searing stuff that you’ll struggle to take your eyes off.

The series also attempts (largely successfully) to have its cake and eat it by introducing a new breed of still-obedient “orange-eye” synths (as opposed to the self-aware green-eyed model), providing the series’ trademark use of blank, unnerving humanoids for moments of pathos and humour.

Meanwhile, synths Mia (Chan), Max (Ivanno Jeremiah and Niska (Emily Berrington) try to lead their new society, give synths a better image or, in Niska’s case, just get on with living as normal a life as possible. But while they struggle in this brave new world, other newly-awakened synths are growing tired of living under humanity’s yoke, and resort to extreme measures to fight for survival.

Elsewhere, undercover synth Karen (Ruth Bradley) tries to keep her robotic “son” a secret, enrolling him at school and trying to leave behind her life of fear.

On the human side of things the central Hawkins family has fractured, with Katherine Parkinson’s Laura separating from husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) and trying to fight for synth rights while Joe himself moves to a synth-free community. Daughter Mattie, meanwhile, is haunted by the part she played in the synth awakening, and the lives she may have inadvertently cut short.

It ends up being a surprisingly gripping first episode right up to the cliffhanger ending, and is a fairly easy starting point for new viewers. In fact, considering series one ended with the synths attempting to wake up all their brothers and sisters, you could almost skip series two entirely when watching, save the odd plot point (Colin Morgan’s Leo is in a coma after events in the 2016 series) that can largely be picked up in context.

Future episodes – which will apparently see Laura join a commission on synth rights and meet a dashing scientist (played by Mark Bonnar) with a tragic past, while the synths try to thwart a terrorist group – also look like they’re exploring interesting ideas, without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the series’ interconnected relationships.

It’s a promising sign for a drama that’s so much more than just the UK version of Westworld. Fingers crossed the rest of the series can live up to this episode’s momentum.

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Humans series three airs on Channel 4 on Thursdays at 9.00pm