I know, I know, more TV shows and not more books. But this year’s summer TV has actually delivered some pretty cool new shows, especially in the sci-fi realm. AMC’s latest show Humans, for instance, is a really interesting tale about a near future society where synthetic human robots, or synths, have become common place.
The show has three prominent plot lines so far. The most action-y of those plots is the kind of fare you’d expect from a show about robots. Some of the synths are starting to develop human emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. A fugitive named Leo (Colin Morgan) is trying to save a group of them, but on the other side of the coin is Hobb (Danny Webb), an agent who is trying to track down these synths and eliminate them because he considers them dangerous. This plot is fun and adds a thriller element to the show, but it is with the other characters that Humans truly shines.
The primary thread follows the Hawkins family. The father, Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), feels overwhelmed by the work he has to do around the house with three kids while his wife, Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is working in another city. Without consulting his wife he buys a synth (Gemma Chan) that the children eventually name Anita.
How the different members of the family react to Anita is probably the most interesting part of the show. The wife, who doesn’t feel very close to her children because she works away from home for stretches at a time, is resentful of Anita and feels that the robot is replacing her. And Sophie (Pixie Davis), the youngest daughter does quickly adopt Anita as a kind of mother figure. The eldest daughter Mattie (Lucy Carless) doesn’t like Anita but for different reasons. She has given up trying at school because she feels synths will replace humans in everything, and she treats Anita like a slave because she dislikes the synths. Then there are the men of the house, Joe and the son Toby (Theo Stevenson), who view Anita in a sexual light. Watching how the family members interact with Anita is fascinating, and the fact that Anita is beginning to remember having a human-like consciousness only makes things more complicated.
The final primary character is Dr. George Millican (William Hurt), a widower who developed some of the original synths. He is clinging to his outdated synth Odi (Will Tudor), even though the machine is essentially defective. But Millican is starting to lose his memory, and Odi was in his life when his wife was alive. Through Odi he can remember the time he spent with his wife, and he treats the machine almost like a son.
While the thriller aspect of the show keeps the plot moving and provides some more action than it might otherwise have, Humans appears to be a show that is really going to explore some of the potential issues of how humans would relate with robots or replicants. Some of the conflicts I can see arising this season are things like, is it cheating on your spouse to have sex with a synth? If you consider them just machines, then that’s arguably not too different from using a sex toy, but the human resemblance makes that a more complex issue. And then there are the emotional attachments to consider. Can a machine be a parent? Can a machine be a lover? Could we ever see machines as our own children?
All of these things are issues that sci-fi literature has been exploring for some time, but Humans is one of the few shows I can think of that is taking a nuanced look at our relationship to technology on mainstream television. For this reason alone I hope the show succeeds. Tech companies are continuing to make fascinating advancements in the fields of robotics and “machine consciousness” every day, and I think we need a cultural narrative in the popular zeitgeist that doesn’t just tell us to fear machines (read: Terminator) but instead asks us to really think about our relationship with technology and how it could develop moving forward.