‘Humans’ Episode 1 spoiler-free preview: The kind of sci-fi we need right now

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When you lift your head from the screen for a moment and think about it, we have an odd relationship with our gadgets.

We take a cold lump of circuits into our homes, bedrooms, pockets, and we train it into being our own, one swipe or tap of personal information at a time. Memories, selfies, our sweetest, Tinder-est desires; we pour our lives into it until it’s a microchip symbiote, permanently clenched to us. And then when it’s no longer slim enough or smart enough, we coldly toss it away and get a new glowing thingumajig.

Channel 4’s Humans is that techno-dependent sentiment taken to a point with a face on it and a body that might briefly fool you into arousal. This is our parallel present, where catalogue-handsome androids called Synths do the menial work (including, inevitably, prostitution), and fleshy Humanity has acclimatised to allowing Abercrombie & Fitch automata into their homes.

Case in point: the entirely nuclear Hawkins family buys Synth ‘Anita’ (the terrific Gemma Chan), a beautiful set of servos and wires that has clambered out of the Uncanny Valley only to stand atop Mt. Creepy and do the ironing in their very John Lewis household.

Mum Laura (Katherine Parkinson, always a delight to see) feels threatened with maternal obsolescence; surly teen daughter Mattie sees Anita as a representative of the tech that will render her unemployed in the future; awkward teen son Toby is too busy stifling an erection to ponder the philosophical consequences of a greater dependency on anthropomorphic technology.

Meanwhile Anita just watches. Watches. And watches. And you know there’s more behind that benevolent vacant stare than the programming to read a bedtime story.

Humans 1 2 Anita (Gemma Chan) and Toby Hawkins (Theo Stevenson)

As one home is coming to terms with a robotic carer, another is facing the prospect of losing one. William Hurt is particularly affecting as Dr. George Millican, an old man whose paternal relationship with his obsolete Synth (think of an original iPhone in an iPhone 6 world) is oddly, but understandably, moving, as he faces the prospect of having a lifetime of memories broken into scrap.

Also evading the scrapheap (or worse) is a small band of rogue Synths, led by the far-from-robotic-in-any-sense Colin Morgan (Merlin), all of whom possess a self-consciousness that would fool the Voight-Kampff test. With that comes the nagging worry that we’re approaching an age when Humanity is obsolete, tossed on the scrap heap. How long till the world will be solely populated by walking white-goods with iSouls?

That’s one of several big questions posed. Not new questions by any stretch – Isaac Asimov was entertaining us with them some fifty years ago in I, Robot and The Bicentennial Man – but the domestic setting that Humans largely anchors itself in makes doubts over trust in AI feel more immediate. It’s hard to ignore an android’s motives when it’s in your living room, folding your pants.

Humans 1 1 Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson)

Humans isn’t original, but it is an engaging slice of pure sci-fi, and in being so reminds you how little sci-fi we actually make in this country nowadays. Why? Is everyone that intimidated by Doctor Who? Is there a lack of courage to commission? Or a lack of good ideas?

This is Blighty’s remake of the Swedish series Real Humans (I wonder if in their show the Synths were in flat-pack with an Allen key and had to be assembled at home with a side order of meatballs), but Spooks writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley have given it a British politeness toward tech and, more-impressively, packaged a deep, thought-provoking world into a satisfying and cogent first episode.

It’s an opener which will stir the juices of devoted sci-fi fans without alienating the casual viewer. No matter its point of origin, that’s the kind of sci-fi we need right now in the UK.

We certainly need it more than the next glowing thingumajig.


Airs at 9pm on Sunday 14 June 2015 on Channel 4.

> Order Humans on DVD on Amazon.

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