After the low ratings and cancellation of Dennis Kelly’s excellent series Utopia last year, sci-fi fans could have been forgiven for thinking that UK television was no place for their genre, and that homegrown drama would continue to be confined to the realms of period drama, detective stories and kitchen-sink realism.
Fast forward a few months and we have Humans, a series full of robots and classic sci-fi ideas about artificial consciousness that has done more than just survive on the same channel where Utopia drowned – it’s thrived.
Not only has Humans been popular enough to be granted another series, it’s become Channel 4’s most successful drama of all time and the second most popular British sci-fi series after Doctor Who. We didn’t predict that when we first heard that Merlin was going to be in a show with Jen from the IT Crowd.
So it’s a surprise success and a deserved one. There have been better series (have I mentioned Utopia?) that deserved it more, yet Humans certainly has some interesting ideas and stylistic flourishes that have captured the public imagination. But it wasn’t perfect. Scanning…
Over the course of eight episodes, Humans has skillfully woven several threads of storyline into an intriguing overarching plot, all working around a central idea – what if we had robots like we do iPhones, basically – that’s both evocative and easy to get your head around.
We started out meeting the characters in isolation, but whether it was Colin Morgan’s mysterious loner Leo, Katherine Parkinson’s harried synth-wary mum Laura or William Hurt’s grumpily tragic George, all their storylines were interesting and with something to say about our own world through analogy. Just what good sci-fi’s supposed to do.
I particularly enjoyed the way that various peripheral characters – Ruth Bradley’s DS Karen springs to mind, though I’d also count Emily Berrington’s angry synth Niska – appeared to have fairly unimportant roles, only to become the focus of the latter half of the series. It was a nice way to keep us on our toes and questioning everything we saw, which is how I always like to spend my Sunday evenings, personally.
A nod should also be given towards the sterling work of all the actors playing synths (particularly in the early episodes before the series focused on the “alive” models), all of whom totally convinced both through the smooth choreography of their actions and creepy lack of emotion on their faces. If Keanu Reeves ever falls on hard times, he could definitely find a home in Humans.
I really enjoyed the creepy cuckoo in the nest-style interaction between Gemma Chan’s Anita and her adoptive family, the Hawkins. The slight menace implicit in her restrained voice and vapid smile added a frisson of danger to domesticity, and brought an ambiguity (was she a danger, or was mum Laura just paranoid?) that suggested a great mystery to come.
Unfortunately, when that mystery was solved (Chan was a nice, friendly, conscious synth who’d been programmed over), all that creepiness went away, and the synths mostly became so interchangeably human they weren’t even that interesting to watch any more. I didn’t watch Humans to watch humans, dammit.
I was also disappointed that certain storylines fizzled out, particularly that of George (William Hurt) and his severe synth Vera (Rebecca Front), which started out a bit One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and ended up irrelevant as he started ignoring her and helping Niska instead. Vera was genuinely menacing, and scenes of her controlling George were both uncomfortable to watch and raised interesting questions about how we treat our elderly. The marital difficulties of Neil Maskell’s Pete and easily papered-over homicidal tendencies of synth Niska (Emily Berrington) were similarly jettisoned. And are we just saying Tom Goodman-Hill’s synth sex with Gemma Chan is ok, now?
Pace was also an issue. While the last two episodes (when the synth hit the fan, so to speak) were great, a lot of this series was spent watching people meet in cafes or type slowly at computers. For me, the cheap “reveals” that certain characters were secretly robots (or part-robots) failed to adequately compensate. Less of that next time, please.
And as the series went on, other details also niggled. Ruth Bradley’s Karen was supposed to be an exact copy of famous roboticist David Elster’s wife, who several characters in the series knew personally – so why didn’t they recognise her when they ran into her? It’s not like she was well disguised; when she finally did reveal herself, all she had to say was “look closer” and they realised the similarity. And would synths really replace all low-paid manual labour jobs if they cost £20,000 apiece and only lasted a few, electricity-draining years? Yes, I’m nitpicking, but the higher your concept, the more the audience is bound to question its logic (at least that’s my excuse).
Yep – just like most of the UK, Laura
I’ve followed Humans’ progress from the beginning, from covering the first casting and being on set during filming to reviewing the first episode and reporting that there’ll be a second series. And yet I still couldn’t tell you why it’s succeeded where other series have faltered.
Niggles aside, it’s great that a sci-fi series is receiving the kind of mainstream popularity normally reserved for big-budget period dramas, raising questions about how we treat our fellow men (and women) and showcasing a large cast that’s diverse in both gender, age and race while still offering an entertaining story.
In short – domo arigato, Humans. I’m interested to see where you go next.