Humans: Series 1 Episode 1 Review
Reviewed by Louis Rabinowitz
While genre television is currently experiencing a renaissance in the US, with dozens of sci-fi and fantasy shows racking up some of the highest ratings on TV, there’s been something of a dearth of genre shows in the UK lately, with only US imports and Doctor Who remaining after a slew of recent cancellations. However, with the help of US cable giant AMC (home to The Walking Dead), Channel 4’s latest original drama series, Humans, hit screens to record ratings this weekend. How did the first episode of this ambitious co-production fare?
Humans’ first episode introduced three separate narrative strands, pivoting around the central concept of a Synth, an AI replica that is commonplace by the time the series begins. Though there were only tenuous links between the three separate stories, all three managed to cover an impressive breadth of themes and genres, clearly laying the potential for an in-depth and wide exploration of the sheer multitude of tough philosophical questions that the idea of AI beings raises across the series. The main story, however, was of Synth Anita’s entrance into a normal, domestic family – it’s the same ‘kitchen sink’ approach to genre that worked extremely well for In the Flesh, grounding the innately heightened concept of Synths in a recognisable and relatable backdrop.
However, it was Anita herself who was the most compelling element of this central storyline – the disconcerting nature of the character was heightened by the uncanny valley aspect in Gemma Chan’s performance, with scenes such as Anita’s bizarrely overlong laughing fit adding to the deep unease created by Chan’s spot-on facsimile of human behaviour. Even more unnervingly, it’s made abundantly clear that there’s something strange about Anita – the moments where her neutral, robotic façade cracks to reveal a rawer, emotional side of the character add an intriguing sense of mystery to the Synth. It’s clear that there’s a lot more to Anita that meets the eye, and the premiere does an excellent job of sowing the seeds for an ongoing mystery surrounding the Synth’s true nature.
The second plot, following Synth freedom fighter Leo, was partially successful for adding a great deal of momentum and urgency to a slow-burning episode, but it was perhaps the least successful strand of the episode due to the general lack of coherence – Leo’s story is engaging and doesn’t shy away from the brutal reality of Synth exploitation, but there’s a slight lack of coherence to the plot. The premiere is so keen to begin in media res as the Synths are captured that it skips over key details – it was only on a rewatch where I managed to catch all the details and hints regarding the future in Leo’s plot. The faster pace of the plot was necessary to counter the deliberately sedate pacing of the other two story strands, but Leo’s story packs in too many characters and plot points to truly register the same impact as George Millican or Anita’s story, with key elements somewhat lost in the wash.
However, Leo’s story effectively introduced a very intriguing plot point – the idea of an ‘enhanced’ Synth that can think and feel is a fascinating one that raises tough questions about human nature itself, and whether these Synths have any less worth than a real human. Thankfully, Humans seems ready to tackle the multitude of thematic concepts raised by this idea head-on. While some of the dialogue in ‘theme’ scenes such as the news interview is a tad heavy-handed, clumsily spelling out the themes Humans will tackle over the coming weeks, the ambition in trying to provide genuine, in-depth exploration of these tricky philosophical questions such as the value of work is admirable. The link to the Anita story, through Leo’s missing Synth, is a tantalising mystery, further adding mystique to the character of Anita and effectively setting Leo and the Hawkins family on a dangerous collision course for later – while the third story strand was a little divorced from the rest of the episode, Leo’s and Anita’s stories intertwine effectively in a relatively subtle and seamless manner.
The third story strand was a quieter, more restrained affair than the other two stories, focusing on the character of retiree George Millican and his malfunctioning Synth. As stated above, there’s work to be done in connecting Millican’s story to Leo and Anita’s stories, but on its own, Millican’s story this episode is a quietly tragic, moving one. The idea of Millican’s Synth Odi functioning as a surrogate child was a well-explored one, heightening the tragedy of the slowly malfunctioning Synth. It’s both disconcerting and surprisingly human – there are shades of real life conditions in Odi’s slow breakdown and inability to recall memories, which contributes intriguingly to the central theme of Synth possessing more humanity than their owners and masters may think. William Hurt is a surprisingly high-profile star for Humans, but his performance in this episode clearly shows the value of his presence – Hurt’s performance is rarely showy or ostentatious, helping to establish empathy for the doctor in an impressive manner, with an efficiently delivered backstory that may lack originality, but at least allows the viewer to sympathise with Millican’s plight.
With the cliffhanger showing Anita calmly whisking the youngest Hawkins child away, it’s clear that things are going to go very wrong, very soon – and Humans’ premiere efficiently lays the groundwork for the conflicts to come; with both the protagonists and villains established with a decent amount of depth, there’s reams of potential now for Humans to move forward and actually answer the tough themes that are raised in the premiere. It’s an episode that’s mainly concerned with set-up, but it’s abundantly clear already that the writers have created an engaging and varied world of characters, with each story possessing a distinctive tone and focus that ensures that all three main plots contribute an equal amount to the show’s exploration of the Synths. There’s work to be done in terms of coherence and connectivity, but Humans’ premiere is a thoroughly engaging, thematically rich opener for the show. Let’s just hope they can follow it up…