The UK is something of a barren landscape for adult sci-fi television at the moment. Humans is the glass of water shimmering in the distance. Will it slake our thirst, or prove to be yet another cruel mirage, a show that has promise, but fails dismally?
On the basis of episode one, Humans isn’t any old glass of water. It’s a tall, iced glass with a lemon wedge and a curly straw. It’s the sort of grown-up, thought-provoking, unsettling sci-fi that we’ve been craving.
In the parallel-present world of Humans, robots who look identical to people are the latest must-have app. They can be domestic models, sexbots, factory workers, even NHS carers. Instead of a surly human train guard, you have a smiley ‘Synth’ with vivid green eyes and eerily precise movements.
Within this world we’re introduced to stressed husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), who hopes that buying a Synth for the house will allow him and his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson) to spend more time relaxing with their children. But Laura, already feeling superfluous in her own home, is threatened by the presence of Anita (Gemma Chan), the Synth who seems just a little too human for comfort.
We also meet William Hurt’s George, a man suffering the onset of dementia and desperate to cling to Odi, the Nokia 3310 of the Synth world, who serves as a receptacle for George’s fading memories.
At the same time, Colin Morgan’s Leo is on the run with a group of Synths who show far more emotion and autonomy than a Synth should. They’re being hunted by mysterious forces who want to keep Synths as robotic as possible.
Humans is a sprawling ensemble piece with a shifting tone. If the Synths-on-the-run story has a whiff of Blade Runner, then Anita’s story has the rising domestic paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby. The show constantly questions what it means to be human, and the Singularity looms large over proceedings. There’s a sense of creeping doom, but whether that will come at the hands of robots, or of frightened humans trying to cling to their own relevance, remains to be seen. As usual, we’re our own worst enemies.
The cast is brilliant, with Chan and Hurt especially standing out in episode one. His story adds the most human of twists to the sci-fi conceit, while Chan is alarmingly believable as the robotic Anita, hiding layers of backstory beneath her blank-faced, smooth-voiced facade.
For a tense show with a chilly colour palette, Humans does a wonderful job of making you care about the characters – even (perhaps especially) the non-human ones. The real-world setting makes the presence of the Synths unsettlingly believable, and will trigger debate on everything from slavery to the ethics of AI. On the basis of episode one, this is going to be compulsory viewing.