Humans: Series 1
First broadcast: 14 June – 2 August 2015
As Humans started it gave me a slight sense of unease – but not necessarily in the way the writers intended. Seeing ‘things’ who are not quite ‘people’ is an adoption of the well-worn concept of the Uncanny, and the synths, human-like robot servants of the future, are a good example of that. But my unease came from… actually, how old-fashioned it was.
You have the useless dad (Tim Goodman-Hill), who can’t cope being a parent for more than five minutes without his wife doing the majority of the work – which is (initially) an unchallenged stereotype in the show. The family is all very precocious and middle-class, living in a nice neighbourhood in the suburbs. There’s the sweet one, the teenage boy who masturbates and the stroppy tearaway girl with thrown-away potential. So far, so white.
Enter Anita (Gemma Chan), the Asian servant. Casting an actress of Hong-Kongese and Chinese descent to portray the lead synth definitely links to this sense of ‘exotic Othering’. There’s literally a foreign body in the white people’s house. The synth is even renamed, appropriating her into their culture with a name they are comfortable with, because it is familiar. The non-white person is the subservient party, misunderstood and even mistreated by the white people. The white people have land ownership on their side, but they are deeply suspicious of anything outside of their sphere. Only the colour-blind innocent youth, the youngest Hawkins child, sees no difference between Anita and anyone else.
I’m not saying Humans is racist, by the way. It is interesting that, as the series starts, this uneven racial discourse is really evident, but it (rightly so) disintegrates as the show goes on. Respect and affection is learned and exchanged, people are assessed by their actions not what they look like or what they are. For instance, Anita is finally accepted by Laura (Katherine Parkinson) because she saves her son’s life; the useless dad stops getting away with it, and gets some comeuppance for his actions. If there was an intention to explore a racial dialogue in the show, then there was also the intention to challenge it.
Didn’t I mention, Humans is brilliant? Like all great sci-fi shows, it keeps one hand clasped on real human drama while the other gropes about at far-flung concepts. Although, it is true to say that the final two episodes suffer from feeling too far removed from the original premise, and a second series must rectify this. It all gets a bit Scooby Doo, with the kiddies racing around, helping make scientific history on their kitchen table. But the first few episodes are a masterclass is top TV.
The cast is, without exception, glorious. Colin Morgan, Goodman-Hill, Will Tudor and Jill Halfpenny in particular shine. (The star of Merlin is looking good these days, isn’t he?!) I did find it slightly strange that well-known actors such as Halfpenny and Rebecca Front have quite limited roles in the show. Especially given what Front can do; compare her bumbling politician in The Thick of It to this. What range! Similarly, Naoko Mori pops up for – count it – just one scene! What a waste of a fantastic actress. Even the child actors are all brilliant, the three Hawkins kids don’t induce a single cringe, and the boy has wonderfully expressive eyebrows.
William Hurt proves himself to be more than just a hook for the American audience, and there is not a single duff movement from any of the synth actors. Thanks partially to the sound effects, direction and make-up, the synths remains utterly believable as ‘unreal’ throughout. The biggest achievement is when we see the ‘half synth half human’ versions in action. Ruth Bradley in particular is brilliant at this, dropping hints that she is not entirely human before the reveal, and giving just a bit more away afterwards, but at the same time, her movements are fluid enough that it is believable that no one has realised her identity. (When DI Voss revealed her true nature, with that brilliant mouth-bag circus trick, I said aloud to my TV “I thought her hair was a bit too straight!”)
But without a doubt the show belongs to Katherine Parkinson and Gemma Chan – too incredible actresses in two well-written parts that see them spar and spat and then relate and concede. The drive of the narrative of Humans is simply this: the relationship between two maternal figures, two struggling but strong women. Chan is a beautiful talent, who manages to ooze charm and emotion even from under the synth mask. Initially I was concerned that Parkinson has been cast in yet another slightly hysterical mother role, after In the Club and The Honourable Woman, but she is capable of lifting her performance above the writing if need be. Over the years, Parkinson has showed us she’s a gifted comedy actor, and I’m elated she’s proven to be as accomplished in serious roles too.
As I said, most of the strongest parts of the series are frontloaded at the start. The sexual assault set-pieces are harrowing and sadly probably realistic, and it is incredibly shocking when Mr Hawkins puts Anita in Adult Mode. I think it is one of the biggest missteps of the series that the consequences are not fully teased out, and there is little by way of confrontation, especially when ‘Mia’ is humanised. Plus, who didn’t have an inward chuckle when tragedy strikes just as Max is running on low battery? We’ve all been there with our iPhones…
There are a few problems in Humans, though. It starts well by avoiding getting bogged down in the philosophical debating, until the close of episode one, by which point it feels dramatic and urgent. Later in the series, however, it sometimes feels like the action is ground to a halt so that characters can play out a debate, rather than the plot teasing the arguments out as it moves along. Any series that runs to as many as eight episodes gets repetitive at times, and Humans is no exception.
Often the scripts, from Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, are marvellous. Chilling lines like “In many ways, I can take better care of your children than you, Laura” stick in the memory. In spite of this, dialogue is probably the show’s biggest failing, in that some of the speech feels contrived. Lines like “After you lost your mum and dad so young…” are clear story signposts that needed to be disguised better, and the conversation where Mattie’s friend says he has no career prospects and he’s not clever is a bit cringey. Furthermore, I’m really not sure how the Tom mystery was relevant at all. It felt like a slight anti-climax when all was revealed, and it had next to no impact on the important matters at hand, like the synth-human question. Perhaps I’ll reserve judgement on this until Series 2…
The positives definitely far outweigh the negatives, however. Humans builds a whole world on screen, quickly, with fleeting mentions of black markets, prostitution, the health service. The details of the show really sell it, from the electronic musical score to the “no synth parking at any time” signs. At times, Human feels like a Dennis Potter story, a sequel to Cold Lazarus – which is high praise indeed! Most often it feels like other modern sci-fi success stories, such as In the Flesh and Orphan Black. In its early, intriguing stages, it almost feels like it is playing mind games with you. If a drama can do that, then it must be a great drama.