Warning: This contains spoilers for Humans Season 1 and 2. Never seen Channel 4’s sci-fi drama? Both seasons are available on All 4. Read why you should catch up.
“We do our best to present a united front,” says Laura Hawkins (Katherine Parkinson), at the start of Humans Season 3. Beside her, husband Joe (Tom Goodman-Hill) scoffs silently. The pair are separated, after their family was split by the rise of Synths, humanoid machines built to serve humans – and, specifically, the rise of consciousness within them, which was facilitated by their daughter Mattie, who uploaded a firmware patch in Season 2 to save Mia (Gemma Chan), their family’s Synth, and Leo (Colin Morgan), her brother.
We pick up events one year from that incident, now known as Day Zero, and soon learn that over 100,000 people died in the ensuing conflict. Most of them, we’re told by lawyer Laura (who is an advocate for Synth rights), were accidents, but naturally, nobody in wider society believes that: the country has been plunged into a state of fear and anger, with humans directing their paranoia at the green-eyed Synths who are sentient. Unrest is brewing, and violence is ready to erupt.
It’s telling, then, that Humans doesn’t jump right into the action, instead beginning 12 months later. Humans has always succeeded because it focuses on the personal ramifications for global issues; it would be easy to compare the show to HBO’s Westworld, and dismiss the Channel 4 and AMC co-production for not having as big a budget or such epic scale. But Humans matches Westworld toe for toe when it comes to profound human drama, and surpasses it when it comes to heartfelt emotion. It understands that intrigue trumps excitement. And so the schism running through the UK is achingly paralleled in the divided Hawkins household – we feel the unsettling shift in trust and safety just sitting in the headteacher’s office, when Laura and Joe are called in to deal with their daughter, Sophie (the superb Pixie Davies), who is fighting with kids at school in defence of green-eyed Synths.
The split, though, is geographical as well as emotional: Joe now lives in a separate commune in the rural suburbs, a place where humans want to live their lives free of Synths. It’s a mindset that couldn’t be further from the good-natured green-eyes, with their leader Max (Ivanno Jeremiah) delivering stirring speeches to his group about remaining peaceful to prove that #NotAllSynths are bad. Even Niska (Emily Berrington), the crusader of Season 2, is simply trying to live her life quietly without any trouble.
The creation of a new model of orange-eyed Synths, who do obey humans and don’t think for themselves, only stokes the anti-Synth sentiment further. The result has now evolved from a topical look at our relationship with technology to a staggeringly prescient thriller about racial prejudice, the integration of immigrants and hateful extremism – themes that co-creators Sam Vincent and Jonathan Brackley (veterans of the BBC’s Spooks) confidently take in their stride.
Even with its small scale, the series’ return is more ambitious than ever, tapping into the rage of people shunned as inferior objects for exploitation, while still finding the nuances between the two political viewpoints on public display. Because like the humans, not all Synths do feel the same – and what good is a spokesperson like Max or Mia (Chan), if the others don’t listen to them? It helps that the cast are uniformly excellent, capable of using the tiniest physical tics to convey their inner emotional turmoil – or suppressing them altogether to become eerily unnatural.
We drop in, briefly, on Karen (Ruth Bradley), to see her trying to teach her robotic son how to blend in with humans – a gut-wrenching reminder of the very real, intimate stakes that are at hand. We catch up with Mattie, who is struggling with the guilt of inadvertently causing mass death. And we see Synths fighting to live, while having to make the agonisingly logical choice of who should be allowed to do so. The result is an arresting start to a sizzling third season, a distinctively British piece of sci-fi that grapples with the consequences of artificial intelligence and inhumane treatment, and grips with the nail-biting tension of watching someone stand up to an oppressor without blinking.
Humans Season 3 premieres at 9pm on Channel 4, with episodes available to watch live and catch up with on-demand on All 4.