Wednesday, 7 September 2016

British TV Serials Worth Watching: 4. Humans

And now for some sci-fi, which remains my favourite genre (though relatively few sci-fi films and TV shows achieve greatness).

In the wake of films like Ex Machina, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, WALL-E and Her (among others) and TV shows like Battlestar Galactica and Extant, we can compile a long list of questions about the dangers and advantages of artificial intelligence, questions like:

  1. Will A.I. ‘machines’ replace humans in the work force (and if so, how will that impact human life and meaning?)?
  2. How will A.I. ‘machines’ relate to humans and each other (can they love?) and how will that impact human relationships with other humans?
  3. How will A.I. ‘machines’ be used as sex objects and how will that impact the sex life of humans?
  4. Will A.I. ‘machines’ inevitably see humans as inferior and take over (think Terminator or The Matrix)?
  5. Will A.I. ‘machines’ learn to reproduce themselves?
  6. Will A.I. ‘machines’ be constrained by the Asimov blocks (laws governing A.I. robots)?

Lots of fascinating questions, many of which relate to bigger questions of social justice (e.g. the exploitation of labour) and the meaning of life.

And I have recently watched the first season (eight episodes) of a British TV series that brilliantly engages with all of these issues. It’s called Humans and is based on the Swedish TV series Real Humans. I am naturally skeptical of English-language remakes of quality TV shows in other languages,  and my expectations were not high. Humans, while not perfect (and I look forward to watching the Swedish series someday), had no trouble exceeding those expectations and had me awed and captivated throughout the first season. This was not because of the outstanding science or special effects or acting or other production values, but because of how ‘human’ this show is. By this I refer to its engagement with those questions above and with the underlying question of what it means to be human. Humans is one of the most thought-provoking TV shows I have ever watched, and few criteria, if any, are higher on my list of what I look for in TV entertainment than ‘making me think’. 

Besides being thought-provoking, Humans is also a well-structured drama and suspenseful sci-fi mystery/thriller. Its plot revolves around the near-future creation of ‘synths’ (A.I. robots) and what happens as they evolve (with the often-used plot element of introducing the person who created the synths). Humans is an ensemble show, with far too many key characters to name them all here, focusing on the Hawkins family and how one particular group of synths changes the family's life. The acting is strong throughout, though not outstanding. Created (and generally written by) Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley, Humans is not original (I’ve seen most of this before), but it does such a great job of asking vital questions in an entertaining and emotionally-compelling way (i.e. the writing is often superb) that I give it a solid ****. My mug is up. Not to be missed if you’re a sci-fi fan, though I’m sorry to say it’s not on Netflix (at least not yet). 


  1. OK - you've caught my interest. And I appreciated your opening list of questions about A.I. - except I have to ask: what are you implying by putting "machines" in quotation marks? How intentional was this and does it mean that you've already been half-indoctrinated? Is the battle not half-lost when we start putting quotation marks on the word "machines"? Part of me can think somewhat rationally about these questions but another part wants to be quite reactionary and shout: "Didn't you see the end of Ex Machina?" Or indeed, "We do remember the whole opening premise of The Matrix don't we??" And then I start muttering and whining about why it is that we never heed the warnings that we see in movies anyway. Sigh. Forget about sex - maybe we just need to create A.I. robots that we can complain to? Although maybe then for sure they would rise up and rid the planet of us.