Sci-fi show ominous but oh so human

Quality British drama is a counter-balance to TV3’s reality shows

Will Tudor stars in Humans, which will have viewers hooked from  the first episode.
Will Tudor stars in Humans, which will have viewers hooked from the first episode.

This could be TV3’s most galling move yet. Just when we all thought it was safe to write the channel off as a John Campbell-less wasteland of mindless reality shows, they turn around and bring us one of the year’s most highly acclaimed new shows – a legitimate, quality British drama series, for heaven’s sake – and they’re even screening it in a viewer-friendly timeslot.

Humans (Tuesday nights, 8.30) is a “sci-fi thriller” in the most accessible, engaging sense of those words, set in a parallel near-future where synthetic humans – “synths” – are a common household appliance. These lifelike robots have reached a point where they’re barely distinguishable from humans, and are all the creepier for it. They can do everything: cook the dinner, do the laundry, lurk ominously in doorways …

In its tense, slightly uneasy atmosphere the show shares more than a few similarities with Charlie Brooker’s popular Black Mirror series. But where that show can threaten to beat you over the head with a dystopian “message” to each episode, Humans seems to be more measured in its approach to exploring the possibilities and problems presented by the rise of artificial intelligence.

Our sympathetic human entry point into Humans‘ synth-assisted world is pale, sad-eyed Joe Hawkins, a familiar-looking but unpinnable everyman (Tom Goodman-Hill, who was the bloke who hired David Brent to be a motivational speaker in season two of The Office). With his wife out of town on business he has been left to skulk about the house despairing at the tedium of family life. In the end it’s the picking up the kids’ shoes that does it. He snaps and announces: “We’re going shopping.”

What sets out threatening to turn into a needlessly elaborate supermarket ad quickly gets interesting when we discover he’s not talking about popping down to the Tesco for a pork pie and a packet of Hobnobs. He’s got his heart set on a lovely synth to pick up all the shoes for him. Activating his family’s new domestic slave by pressing under her chin and “bonding” her to him with a few simple steps is eerily similar to the way you would set up your new phone or computer. His youngest daughter chooses her name: Anita.

But the Hawkins family are late, reluctant adopters – “we don’t need one”, the synth-skeptic Laura admonishes him when she gets back from Leeds to a sparkling clean house. Synths have already been on the market for years by this stage, and widowed doctor George Millican (William Hurt), who played a part in their invention, has developed an attachment to his glitching, obsolete early model – his only remaining link to his old life – which he treats like his own son. In a sad role reversal, he has wound up caring for the device that is meant to be caring for him, resisting a newer, better government-issue appliance.

Grounding the show in these relatable domestic settings serves as a nice counterweight to the show’s dark and mysterious science fiction element, which is revealed over the course of the first episode. You know you’re hooked when a rogue scientist’s big expository explanation of the theory of “the singularity” – the hypothetical point in time when artificial intelligence attains consciousness and becomes able to reproduce and improve itself – has you hanging on every word.

While it’s a co-production between Channel 4 and US cable channel AMC, Humans is a British show in every perceptible way. And at a decidedly British eight episodes in length it would seem guaranteed to unfold at a satisfying pace with little time for mucking around. By the first episode’s quietly chilling final scene, the table has been irresistibly laid out for an intriguing, must-see series.

Calum Henderson is a TV writer for

- NZ Herald

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