Sunday, 21 June 2015


Humans: Sunday, Channel 4

Prized Apart: Saturday, BBC One

Paul Whitelaw

Set in a parallel present where lifelike synthetic humans are as commonplace as iPads, sci-fi drama Humans takes the bold – some might say foolhardy - step of exploring territory that many great writers have traversed before.

Yet while the questions it poses are familiar – is artificial intelligence capable of feeling? Do we have the right to create it? Are we in danger of being usurped by the technology we're increasingly reliant upon? - it handles them with care and, in terms of world-building, precise attention to detail. 

And while it's too early to say if Humans will add up to much, at least its influences are openly acknowledged in a rather playful way.

It began with a harassed husband and father purchasing an android servant – known colloquially as synths – to help around the home. His wife, Laura, is a busy lawyer beset with mid-life malaise (none of the humans in Humans are happy). She's grown distant from her family, a problem compounded – despite her husband's contrary intentions – by the arrival of Anita, a strikingly beautiful synth whose eerily perfect countenance sets Laura on edge.

A sly wrinkle on the notion of a spouse feeling threatened by a partner's interest in a younger model – a theme echoed by the sub-plot involving a detective and the hunky synth who cares for his sick wife - this dysfunctional domestic setting is a master-stroke. It grounds an essentially fantastical premise in plausible reality. Though we automatically feel sympathy for Anita – after all, she's only following pre-programmed orders – we regard her with suspicion when viewed through Laura's eyes.

Sure enough, Laura has reason to be paranoid. It gradually transpires that Anita belongs to a rogue group of synths who have somehow developed independent thoughts and feelings. She's merely pretending to be subservient. But why?

Meanwhile, her fellow sentient synths are on the run from scientists fearful of their advanced state. This conspiracy thriller element coexists smoothly with the claustrophobic unease of the suburbanite scenes and an intriguing strand involving a widowed scientist (William Hurt) and his malfunctioning synth/surrogate son.

A droll sense of humour also ensures that Humans never feels pompous, even when confronting its hefty moral quandaries head-on. With its chilly aesthetic and dry spurts of satire, it occasionally resembles one of the better Black Mirror episodes. I particularly like the way our world, with no cosmetic alterations at all, is depicted as a bland, cold, chrome and glass wasteland.

But Humans wouldn't work if it was wholly cynical. It succeeds in asking us to sympathise with Laura and invest in Hurt's Geppetto/Pinocchio plight. Plus the horrifying pathos of robots cursed with living souls haunts the show throughout; the scenes depicting a sentient synth sold into prostitution make their point with unsparing yet compassionate intensity.

Regardless of noble intentions, the whole enterprise would capsize completely were it not for an utterly convincing performance from Gemma Chan as Anita. Mercifully free of the body-popping tics which often blight actors playing robots, her subtly precise, blandly benign demeanour is unsettling and – given what we know of her true nature – ineffably sad.

By sheer coincidence, Prized Apart marks the first instance of a quiz show devised and fronted by robots. A conceptually flawed bore, it sends members of the public on a Moroccan quest to win £100,000 via harness-enhanced stunts. Meanwhile, their loved ones back home in the studio provide half-hearted commentary in a sterile hangar commandeered by chief Auton Emma Watson.

None of it makes sense. The location segments don't gel with the stilted studio diversions – they're clearly not happening simultaneously - and there's never any sense of genuine peril, triumph or momentum. Imagine I'm A Celebrity... without the celebrities. Or Bake Off without the baking. Or life without meaning. That still doesn't come close to the echoing pointlessness of Prized Apart.

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