Humans Review: Episodes 1 & 2

These freaks are the singularity.”

Humans

Humans, Channel 4’s new SF series, is the reason I still have to watch Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell on iPlayer.

We’re watching Humans instead,” said the Pragmatist on Sunday evening. “It’s SF, you’ll enjoy it. It’s about robots that have consciousness.”

Given that this premise is at least as old as science fiction itself, I was sceptical. And, now I’ve watched the first two episodes…I’m even more sceptical.

A tale of a world in which most manual labour is performed by “synths”, humanoid machines, Humans does, at least, look good. Unusually, its robots are played by actors, un-CGI’d and un-prostheticked. Since the quintessential robot myth is at least in part an exploration of anxieties around a thing that looks human but isn’t, a thing that looks like a person but is treated as an object, the use of actual humans to stand in for these objects, almost indistinguishable from the human characters, is a really neat way of encapsulating everything that troubles us about robots and their potential for consciousness. The whole show has an unsettling quality to it, a constant uncanny-valley edge-of-your-seat thing that reminded me of the similarly Twilight Zone-ish Black Mirror.

But the problem with Humans is that it doesn’t actually do anything new with this facade of unease. Self-consciously, the show is asking us Big Questions: what happens, economically and psychologically, when we take manual labour away from humanity? What happens when we grow up with machines doing work for us? What does it mean to treat a humanoid non-human as an object? Which, fine. These are interesting questions and important questions and dramatic questions. But Humans seems to think that these are new and edgy questions; that no creator ever has thought about robot-human interactions, about mankind’s relationship with technology.

It does not require an extensive knowledge of SF to realise that this is untrue.

And I think this is the heart of why Humans leaves me cold. It revels in its own uncanniness, in its own cleverness, without ever quite realising that it has become the very thing it gazes at: a simulacrum of better things (*cough* Asimov *cough*), a clever, superficial copy doing the narrative equivalent of grunt work.

Give me mad magicians any day.

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