Tuesday, 23 June 2015
Humans: Episode 1
"Those robots are the Singularity!"
It's prime time hard sci-if on Channel 4 courtesy of this remake of the Swedish original, with inevitable name checks for Asimov and Capek. Wisely, there's nothing other than the synths themselves (creepily lifelike robots) to indicate that this isn't the present day; excessive futurism would alienate us from a parable which has a lot to say about our lives; yes, we have robots (sort of) and the Singularity looms, but Capek's "robots", in the original Czech, meant "serfs". There are issues of class here, not only in the "human" rights of any sentient robot slaves, but in the lazy decadence that looms for their owners.
Narratively speaking, all this requires an Everyman (Tom Goodman-Hill's easygoing Joe), an everywoman (Karherine Parkinson's Laura, thus far the main character, with more time for work than family. She is, in effect, the primary audience POV character and, interestingly, is troubled by synths. There are also three, er, every children: Vanessa is the rebellious genius, Sophie is there to be young, cute and to illustrate certain parenting duties, and Toby thus far seems to be the token boy and little else. They're all well-rounded and likeable enough to get away with the fact that they are, essentially, archetypes. They are also our way in to the drama, with Joe purchasing a synth, Anita, to do the housework so that he and Laura can spend time together.
Anita- a standout superb performance from Gemma Chan, is at once creepy and captivating, and the family's getting used to her neatly gets the exposition out of the way. The language of IT is used to discuss then, with "primary users" and "secondary users". They are treated and thought of like household appliances, but wasn't the same true of Roman slaves?
There's no suggestion, at this point, that she might be sentient, but there are already uncomfortable issues about having a robot "slave"; as Matilda puts it, why should she spend years training to be a brain surgeon when a synth can do it so much better? The human race is being threatened with uselessness.
But that's not all: an early flashback sequence with the mysterious Leo (Colin "Merlin" Morgan) establishes that a select few synths, all mates of his, have achieved sentience, complete with feelings. We observe one of them ("Fred")being caught, in rather upsetting scenes, all the more redolent for the fact that Fred, a recaptured escaped slave, is portrayed by a black actor. Then there is Niska, a synth who works on a brothel and insists on feeling every degrading moment. Towards the end the camera lingers uncomfortably as she is taken from behind, silent.
Oh, and the flashback establishes that Anita was one of these sentiments, until she was kidnapped five weeks ago. We know, unlike the Hawkinses(?), that she is sentient, although this does not rob her closing comment about the moon of its impact; not only does she have a soul, but there is poetry in it.
We meet an old man, the irascible and American inventor Dr George Millican (William Hurt), who has become attached to his rather endearing synth, Obi, which helps him with his failing memory. It seems this synth is past its sell-by date, though, and must be consigned to the scrap heap like an old, broken fridge.
There are a lot of promising strands here in what already looks like one of the dramatic highlights of the year. Humans is already outstanding telly.