The future, then. Is it a Blade Runner-style dystopia? A land free of traffic jams courtesy of jetpacks to take us from A-Z? Or something else entirely? Well if it’s anything like Channel 4’s Humans, it’ll be the latter.
Set in the parallel present, the series, which is based on Swedish drama Real Humans, explores what it would be like to live in a world where synthetic robot servants, also known as synths, work alongside people. Taking place over eight episodes, the drama addresses our growing dependency on technology, the domestic impact of having a synth and the trifling matter of what it really means to be human.
There’s widower George (William Hurt), whose memory is failing, so he relies on his out of date synth Odi (Will Tudor) to help remember his late wife, and is understandably upset when health authorities suggest he exchange Odi with newer model Vera (Rebecca Front).
Meanwhile busy father Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill), who buys a synth called Anita (Gemma Chan) to help look after his three children when his wife Laura (Katherine Parkinson), is called away for work again.
“All the family’s different needs and expectations are reflected in Anita,” explains Chan, who previously had roles in Fresh Meat and Bedlam. “The younger child, Sophie, is a bit lonely and wants a friend, so she becomes her new favourite toy to play with. The son fancies her a bit, he’s just at that stage in his life, and Laura sees her as a bit of a threat.”
During rehearsals, Chan and her fellow robots were packed off to a “synth school” run by the show’s choreographer, in a bid to rid themselves of any human physical gestures and become convincing synths. “It was about stripping back any physical tics you naturally incorporate into performance,” says Chan, who adds that it was a “relief to go home and slouch” after a day on set.
“These things are ultimately machines and run on battery power, so every movement has to have an economy and a grace to it. I’m constantly bumping into things, so it was a challenge trying to eliminate all of that but really fun.”
And the smooth, economical movements were much more “real and spookier” than if there had been “twitching movement and cocked heads,” notes her co-star Parkinson.
The idea of robots living alongside humans might seem far-fetched for many of us, but nevertheless, it left the cast with mixed emotions.
“It’s really exciting what can be done, but at the same time, it’s terrifying,” says London-born Chan. “I’m sure someone somewhere in the world has done this [made a synth].”
And you don’t have to look too far for examples in the real world.
“Everything that seems to be making the top new stories while we were doing this has felt relevant,” says Parkinson. “That’s why Humans feels so current and terrifying – because it’s happening.”
Humans, Channel 4, Sunday, 9pm