Humans Series One Review

One of the finest sci-fi dramas of recent years.

Once in a while, something comes on television that is very special and in Humans, Channel 4 has found their most successful show in 20 years. A remake of the Swedish drama Real Humans, the UK version has captivated audiences with a great sci-fi mystery, fascinating study into human nature and a compelling drama for eight weeks.

What makes Humans so engaging is that it isn’t over the top, with a world of futuristic technologies and killer robots threatening humanity. It is all very real, an alternate reality of early twenty first century rather than a leap forward to a possible future for our world. At the same time it plays on our own recent history; the title sequence that shows the history of the development of Synths begins with the very same humanoid robots we have seen on television. If anything, the only real difference between our world and the one presented on the show is that in this version scientists like David Elster just got their earlier.

It all feels so natural too, with London and the Hawkins family feeling no different to any real world drama on television. The Synths are fully integrated into society, with charge up stations in shopping centres and upgrade packs that look like anything you would get with your latest IPhone or other electronic device. The synths even sound like macs booting up when activated. All so real and yet so different at the same time.

And it is because of the very real portrayal of this world that we can get so utterly absorbed in the lives of the synths and the humans they interact with. Katherine Parkinson delivers so much heart and passion to her role as the Hawkins matriarch, a woman trying to juggle a demanding career as a solicitor with a growing family. It is through her eyes that the audiences is drawn into the mystery, first in trying to figure out what is ‘wrong’ about their newly acquired synth Anita and later in helping Leo reunite his own synth family against the more insidious authorities.

Parkinson also has a great cast supporting her role as Laura Hawkins. Tom Goodman-Hill is the slightly submissive Joe, the man who purchases Anita to help his wife and children with daily life, inadvertently dragging them into the mystery. He wants to understand his wife and kids and struggles more often than not, leading to the rather huge mistake of activating Anita’s over 18’s Adult program, to disastrous results. Lucy Carless starts off the rebellious daughter but her programming skills make her an essential character as the series progresses. Theo Stevenson is Toby, the awkward teenage son at first enamoured with the arrival of Anita as any teenage boy probably would be and then carrying the weight of his family’s angst by covering for his father when the adult program activation is discovered. Even Pixie Davies is cute without being irritating or cloying, striking up an endearing bond with Anita and later the more hostile Niska.

Overall, the Hawkins become a family worth fighting for, for all their foibles and also the biggest allies of the self-aware synths at the series’s end. And for a show about artificially created machines, family was perhaps the biggest theme in Humans. George Millican’s love for his synthetic son Odi. Pete Drummond’s failing relationship with his wife Jill. And the kinship between Leo and his synthetic siblings, a family that became as essential as the Hawkins.

But of course there was more at play than just the study of humanity, love and family and therein lies the intriguing mysteries at the heart of the show. While the concerns Laura has over Anita play the more traditional – is my robot helper going to harm my family? – route to start with, the hidden personality of Mia takes this in an exciting new direction as the series progresses. Gemma Chan is brilliant in the role, playing automaton Anita in a believable manner, with any sense of something insidious nicely downplayed behind innocent, emotionless charm. Her Mia is a strikingly simple adjustment, as soft and caring as Anita but with the warm mother-hen nature too that is explained through her creation to care for Leo.

Talking of Leo, Colin Morgan delivered on of his best roles as a man tortured by his past, desperately trying to reunite his family. Whole obviously human, there are plenty intriguing moments in his story, particularly the moment Max ‘plugs him in’ when he is injured. The revelation of his death and resurrection by his father as part cyborg ties nicely into the car drowning flashbacks Anita hides and becomes a fascinating addition to the synth evolution within this alternate world. Talking of Max, Ivanno Jeremiah delivers a character with great heart, one of the most human characters in the show, while still remaining utterly manmade.

While Sope Dirisu’s Fred makes less impact on the show due to his imprisonment for most of the series, Emily Berrington’s Niska becomes one of the most intriguing synths of them all. First seen as a synth prostitute, there are early hints that she is more than just her standard programming in the scene where she lets out the silent scream over her treatment as a sex slave. But it is when she brutally murders the client looking to play out his peadophilic tendencies that she becomes really interesting. She hides herself in plain sight as a human but isn’t content to hide in the shadows like her synthetic siblings. Her attack on the humans at the synth fight club is brutal and she remains actively hostile to everyone but her family, first to George Millican, one of the founders of synth science – and there is great tension where you wonder if she will brutally murder him too – and then to the Hawkins. Amazingly, it is little Sophie that thaws her icy heart in the lovely scene where they play with her dolls, so much so that she appears to show genuine remorse when the Hawkins uncover her actions just before the dramatic episode seven cliffhanger.

Then there is William Hurt’s Dr. George Millican. He is a somewhat tragic character, one of the original creators of synth technology without the fame and prestige of his partner David Elster. Forgotten by society he lives in his cluttered home with his malfunctioning synth Odi (Will Tudor delivers an equally endearing, innocent performance). Odi has become his only family member and his impending ‘death’ weighs heavy on his heart. Odi’s replacement by the ice cold synth nurse Vera (Rebecca Front in an effective but sadly wasted role) almost stems on abuse and his death at the hands of Karen Voss is the way out he was looking for and leads to one of the most bittersweet moments in the series where Odi cradles his dying body.

Lastly there is DI Karen Voss. I found Ruth Bradley’s performance in the first half of the show far less impressive than the rest of the cast due to her largely flat take on the character. But it all made perfect sense when it was revealed she was another self-aware synth hiding in the real world. As the synth version of Leo’s dead mother, she emerged as a pivotal in the final run of episodes, chiefly as a villain; Killing George and leading Hobb’s men to the Hawkins house, deciding to lead her synth family to their deaths before having a moment of redemption helping her synth family in their quest to make all of their ‘people’ self aware. Her story ended in a far more interesting place, walking off together with a seemingly accepting Pete Drummond. Pete of course began life as a complete jerk to his wife and synths before finding himself a hero in the final episodes. Of all the characters at the series’ end, if it Karen I am most intrigued to watch next.

The series ended with some explosive drama as anti-synth riots marched through London and Leo’s synth family accessed the code to make all other synths self aware. The fact that the duplicitous Niska was the one to walk away with the code opens up many exciting possibilities, making her a potential hero or villain depending on what way she turns. It was also a satisfying end for all the characters, with the Hawkins seemingly reunited and Leo’s family finding their freedom, even if poor Fred was left behind and under Hobb’s control. Danny Webb’s Hobbs still has a lot of mystery to him too – was he David Elster’s protege? And just what will he do next in his quest to hunt down the self-aware synths; is his motivation to destroy or control them?

I am thrilled that Humans is getting a second series. While it ended in a fairly satisfactory manner, there is still much story to explore and as long as the show maintains its balance of drama, sci-fi and intimate character moments, then this show still has much more to give.


Updated: Aug 09, 2015

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