As soon as I saw the advert for Channel 4’s Humans, I was intrigued. Based on a Swedish programme, ‘Real Humans‘ (here’s a Den of Geek article comparing the shows), Channel 4’s adaptation featured a strong cast with many familiar faces, including Gemma Chan, Katherine Parkinson, Colin Morgan and William Hurt – to name a few. But the first teaser trailer didn’t show us any of the main characters. Instead it worked as a fictional ad for Persona Synthetics themselves, introducing the idea of ‘Synths’ to the audience. I find the uncanny fascinating but equally unsettling, and the concept of ‘Synths’ raises troubling questions about the human nature, the existence and nature of the soul or consciousness.

‘Humans’ poster

The tagline for the promo posters was: “Made in our image. Out of our control”. There’s the clear allusion to Genesis and the Biblical narrative of “God creat(ing) man in His own image” (Genesis 1:27) which ‘Humans’ alludes to here. Humans are now the life-givers, with technology replacing the divine spark and Synths made in the human image.

The show follows the Hawkins family as they discover the reason behind their Synth Anita’s (Gemma Chan) strange behaviour. The family becomes embroiled with police investigations into ‘rogue’ Synths, and we see the dark underbelly of anti-Synth extreme groups and illegal hackers and modifiers. I thought it was commendable that ‘Humans’ presented hacking as being used for destructive purposes but also the recovery of Mia from the overriding Anita programme.

It becomes apparent this group of ‘rogue’ Synths in fact possess consciousness – the ability to create memories, experience emotions and feel pain. They were created through the wild genius of David Elster, the man credited with inventing ‘Synths’, but their existence was kept hidden from the government and the wider public.

We Are People (W.A.P) are an extremist group who organise rallies and deliver a message of frustration and fear of Synths, believing their existence is making humanity redundant. Arguments that Synths are taking away job opportunities and an emphasis on the ‘Othering’ of Synths evokes strong comparisons with anti-immigration sentiment and even hate crimes. W.A.P doctrine also feeds into underground fight clubs where folk place bets and watch their fellow humans destroy Synths. The Synths have usually been modified to de-activate their ‘laws of robotics’ (in the Asimov style) of self-defence and protecting humans from harm.

Campaign poster

Prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, and ‘Humans’ gave a disturbing insight into the future of sex as a profitable service. Niska (Emily Berrington) one of the sentient Synts, is trafficked into prostitution, and is objectified and commodified. She is imprisoned in a booth, and subjected to degrading assembly-line health checks and an endless stream of sordid customers. Leo (Morgan), advises her to de-activate her pain receptors while they try to find a way to rescue her, but she is adamant that she was “made to feel”. Berrington presents Niska as a woman who has been sexualised from her moment of creation (even by Elster, her own creator) and resents humanity for its base desires and abuse of others. She does fight back, literally, and one of her most harrowing lines is delivered to the brothel’s Madam: “Everything your men to do us, they want to do to you”.

Synths are equipped with sexual functions and an ‘Adult mode’ which is supposed to activated by over 18s and used as a form of sex toy. The programmed behaviour of desire and synthetic pleasure is presented as being awkward and terribly sad, void of intimacy and sincerity as I imagine encounters of that nature commonly are. It’s a clinical and unsatisfactory caricature of intimacy where spontaneity isn’t possible and pleasure is mechanical.

Niska screaming in her sound proof prison

There’s a rather heavy-handed bit where Niska carries around a copy of Arthur Koestler’s ‘The Ghost in the Machine’ (1967) which itself takes it’s title from philosopher Gilbert Ryler‘s description of Cartesian dualism. However, ‘Humans’ does explore questions about the nature and existence of the soul, and the sanctity of life. The characters of Mia/Anita and Karen/Beatrice also ask us to explore the fundamentals of identity. For example, Mia’s autonomy is overridden by the ‘Anita’ programme so she exists ‘trapped’ in her own body. But for Karen, she has been created to replicate and replace the dead Beatrice Elster, but she doesn’t possess those old memories and has been rejected by the other conscious Synths. I thought it was particularly poignant that Dr Millican was so attached to glitching Odie because they shared memories of Dr Millican’s deceased wife. The existence of human-machine hybrids such as Leo (Colin Morgan) evokes Science Fiction literary themes of post-humanism or trans-humanism.

Dr Millican and Odie, adorbs

There’s an overwhelming sense of consumer culture gone unchecked. Every possible need and desire can be catered for by a Synth. In this world, Synths are considered property with no legal status. Many Synths are relegated to ‘menial’ tasks which are actually fundamental to keeping society running. This begs questions to do with class, unemployment and the value of labour and reminds us of people’s past fears of industrialization. I couldn’t help but think of Marxist theory regarding the alienation of the worker.

The sentient Synths possess the ability to awaken consciousness in other Synths, an idea which fills many people with dread. This is presented as a mixture of disgust towards the ‘unnatural’ and a fear that Synths will gain power over humanity, embodied by the government officials who work to control and subdue the sentient Synths. Arguably an essential part of being human is freedom and autonomy and that is what the Synths capable of desire are striving for.

I thought Series One was a strong opener, and I am very much looking forward to the next series. However, whilst ‘Humans’ does everything right, I didn’t feel it particularly pushed any boundaries or brought anything new to the discussion of the themes it explored. But I remain optimistic, as often a show’s first season must lay the groundwork for greater things to come.

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