Saturday, November 05, 2016


The latest go-to genre for TV and films commissions looking to fulfil their 'thoughtful sci-fi' quota is artificial people. Westworld and series 2 of Humans follow the movie Ex Machina into probing the 'how will we all get along?' and 'who's exploiting whom?' questions that have been asked, at least, since Mary Shelley penned what is arguably the greatest science fiction story of all time. Actually her 'monster' has proven to have very big shoes to fill, and its re-creations have rarely done as good a job of highlighting the pain of both creator and creation. Sometimes an opening batter is so good that the rest of the order pale by comparison, and, unlike other sf genres (think space travel and aliens), this one has changed remarkably little over the generations. Presumably, because the end-product is so specific - not necessarily physically (you could make much the same argument for artificial intelligence even when embodied in all sorts of objects) - but we really only know how to imagine human consciousness and emotions.

There is a split between the original 'one of a kind' and mainly more recent 'we are legion' approaches, but it all boils down to one question: what makes you one of us?

When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, European colonialism was at its height and the slave trade was still booming, Darwin had yet to come up with Origin of Species and experimental psychology was still in its infancy. Yet the criteria for being human are remarkably consistent throughout the two hundred years since then: to be capable of love and empathy and have a need for them, to seek some purpose to life and find a place in society. The limitation of the genre is both a strength and a weakness; a strength because by examining something trying to be a human we examine the foibles of humanity; a weakness because, being human, we just can't seem to empathise with anything which doesn't have human feelings and therefore we just keep regurgitating the same model over and over.

It is an assumption, within this theme, that humans will want to create replicas of themselves, and there is good evidence that, with the available technology, we will indeed do just that. The purpose is usually to create slaves, although there are exceptions - Data in Star Trek for example and Bishop in Aliens, and the conflict between releasing ourselves from hard graft and danger versus our unease at treating entities which appear like us as inferior and disposable. It is, of course, exactly the moral argument which raged about slavery in post-enlightenment Europe, which ironically provided an excuse for another wave of brutal colonial oppression ostensibly to prevent Africans owning and selling other Africans. 

Humans doesn't quite achieve that complexity, but, after a cutely parochial English first season, there is a distinctly international flavour to season 2. Where it takes this remains, at time of writing, to be seen. The artificial people in Humans are refreshingly diverse in outlook, and this is linked back to nuanced experiences in their past. Depth of character is Humans' best feature and, given budget limited special effects and choreographed scenes, is front and centre of the presentation. In fact, it almost feels as if the writers had a tick list of kinds of relationships: old master and faithful servant dying together - tick; extra-marital affair - tick; same sex metrosexuals - tick; work colleagues - tick; children, teenagers - tick tick. It is impressive that all these characters are thoughtfully portrayed with depth and subtlety while still dragging along an over-arching jeopardy plot. The trick, as always, is to make the creations human-like, but recognisably different. This is achieved via both the fairly traditional: enhanced speed and abilities, coloured contact lenses, fixed facial expressions, and via some nice touches: plugging in to charge at the end of the day like a smart phone, a condom down the throat in order to wine and dine and fit in. Humans is ambitious, from its teaser trailers presented as pure info-mercials for owners of 'synths', to its attempt to incorporate disparate threads: hacking, law and order, sex-work, families. There's even a dilapidated cyborg in case the pure synths were too shiny and slick for our taste. 

By contrast, Westworld looks like its had the budget of a small nation thrown at it. Everything about it is big, bold and glossy - but soulless. This shouldn't be the case - Ex Machina has a similarly sterile setting to the cellars where Westworld's automatons are endlessly patched up before sending up to the themepark to be shagged and shot by visitors, yet the film managed to create an air of menace and intrigue to which the series aspires but has so far fallen short of. While Alicia Vikander's Ava made herself desirable to her male counterpart with understated emotional vulnerability, the artificial females in Westworld indulge in dead-eyed sexual activities with male visitors who look like they're pretending to enjoy themselves while secretly wishing they could get the hell out of Dodge. It's not the sex itself that's the problem - the sex in Humans is used effectively to show the different ways humans and machines could relate to each other - but rather the lack of vulnerability. Since you know that each day the protagonists can be mended, scrubbed clean and sent back out, it quickly ceases to be shocking what happens to them. There is a clear gender divide too, between artificial females who are slowly waking up to the hell in which they find themselves and male visitors who are so repugnant that the attempt to introduce a genuine black hat style villain falls flat since we're relieved someone's actually taking the time to properly torture the inhabitants. 

And there's the nudity. Not a problem in itself, but really, if this is supposed to echo the horrors of concentration camps in our collective conscience then it's way too clean and perfectly made up. It also loses its potency because it is so ubiquitous and everyone seems completely oblivious to it. Anthony Hopkins admonishes an employee for covering up one of the artificial people: "They don't have modesty." he says. I, for one believe him. 


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