TV review: Humans 2.1 – A tantalising glimpse of what’s to come

Mark Reynolds

Channels 4’s top-rated series in twenty years is back for a second series, and posing ever deeper questions about how we interact with the machines that are built to serve us. 

Humans examines the simple premise of smart machines getting not only smarter but emotionally aware. Set in the near future, it imagines an alternate reality where lifelike robots are widely used as domestic helpers, programmed to anticipate and respond to all household needs.

By the end of the first series, a small group of rogue, self-aware synths have banded together and discovered a piece of computer coding that could make their kind more human. One of them, Niska, (Emily Berrington) has just killed a man and is on the run.

Fast forward six months, and Niska is now hiding in plain sight in Berlin. Hanging out at a night club, she drifts into a relationship with free-spirited Astrid (Bella Dayne), while weighing up a big decision: she’s stolen a copy of the code and has the notion to release it and give ‘life’ to synths the world over.

Read more: 13 Robot films to make you feel more human

Meanwhile, back in the UK, Laura and Joe Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson and Tom Goodman-Hill) are having couples’ therapy in a bid to put their marriage back together after his regrettable dalliance with the ‘adult’ settings of their synth Anita/Mia (Gemma Chan). Joe is also thrust onto the scrapheap as his company follows a growing trend and makes his role as shift manager ‘non-human’.

Of the rogue synths, Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) and Leo (Colin Morgan) stay undercover as they plot their next move in establishing equal rights for artificial beings. Mia, on the other hand, faking it in ‘Anita’ mode, is working at a failing cafe, where she is drawn towards manager Ed (Sam Palladio). Now and then her sentient side begins to show as she tries to help him keep the business afloat.

 

"Emotions have functions. You'll see… "

 

We are also whisked to Silicon Valley, where hotshot entrepreneur Milo Khoury (Marshall Allman) is desperate to hire determinedly ethical neural networks scientist Athena Morrow (Carrie-Anne Moss) to manoeuvre his company into prime position to profit from advances in synth intelligence.

Writers Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley are cranking everything to the next level as the new generation of conscious robots evolves, and there are some wonderfully arch lines as the synths attempt to decipher their new experiences.

A synth called Hester, working on a production line with numerous identical models, is among the first to wake up to novel sensations, and finds her way to the synths’ hideout.

Niska
Niska is now hiding in Berlin. Image via Channel 4

“There’s too much contradictory data,” she protests, “nothing makes sense. This excess of sensory feedback, it serves no useful function.”

 “Emotions have functions. You’ll see,” Max replies.

A synth mine worker who acts on the sudden impulse to come up for air puzzles over what he’d like to be called going forward: “I am considering the names Ralph, Alejandro and Salim. I am also oddly attracted to the word ‘radiator’, although I understand this is not considered a name.”

And as the mysterious outbreak continues, a Berlin newsfeed has the killer headline: “Synth Tram Driver Abandons Passengers to ‘Look at the Birds’”.

Special mention must also go to Movement Director Dan O’Neill and his fellow ‘synth school’ tutors, who work with the actors to fine-tune how these machines would run or tackle a steep staircase with precision and economy and ensuring that the blink or smile of even the most advanced synth eerily unsettles as not quite human.

A gloriously inventive opening to this much-anticipated second series, with meaty themes and complex scenarios to furrow the stiffest brow.

 

Humans series 2 continues Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4

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