I never used to get sci-fi. Our relationship didn’t start out well. I was one of those kids who have never seen Star Wars (this was rectified at the age of 21) and the guff that my brother used to watch on the BBC (in what became The Simpsons time-slot) was just awful. He loved Stargate (this is a fact, but he tells me that wasn’t on tv when we were kids – I mean Farscape. This is proof of how much attention I paid). I thought it was toss. He’d watch re-runs of Star Trek: The Next Generation until the galactic space-cows came home, I was sick to death of it. Every week it was the same old crud – distress call! aliens! they’re so strange and mysterious! they’re evil! or are they?! are they in fact… JUST LIKE US?!!1!! The moral message was always writ large in heavy-handed caps lock because this was MEANINGFUL and IMPORTANT and despite trudging through tired old tropes every week, watching the programme made you a BETTER PERSON. (You may be wondering why I suffered through this week after week – why didn’t I just watch something else? Readers, we were a one tv household until well after I left for university, and the internet didn’t exist. What was I supposed to do – go outside and get some healthful exercise?!)
Maybe the problem was that I came to sci-fi in the ’90s when the shiny chrome spaceships had tarnished. There wasn’t even the Doctor to save the world – my fondness for Ace’s leather jacket and Sylvester McCoy’s umbrella wasn’t enough to hold my attention or even keep the show on the air. The genre was ripe for satire and that’s where I got my fix. I adored Red Dwarf in all its glory – rude, gritty, sentimental, ridiculous, hilarious – and really enjoyed Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct with its friendly bug-eyed alien police officers and flying cop cars.
So with these prejudices still shadowing me all these years later I saw the trailer for Humans on Channel 4 earlier this summer and yawned. Androids. Sentient androids. Making a heavy-handed and laboured point about our essential humanity. Bound to be a cheesy American import. YAWN. But I saw the cast had some great actors in it, and it was a British show. I was intrigued. I put the first episode on and quickly powered through the whole series. It was proper sci-fi, and it was great!
It was a series about what makes us human, but the message was subtle, intelligent and never dumbed down. It was a dark drama about love and fear and family. The plots were slow, but that made the action, when it came, all the more shocking. The characters had depth and were terrifically well cast, especially Katherine Parkinson as the struggling Mum and Emily Berrington and Gemma Chan as two very different androids from the same family. It was as if it could all happen tomorrow; a freakishly strange and yet entirely possible future for our tech-obsessed humanity. If I’d known that Channel 4 had pulled an ad stunt for the show with actors in London playing ‘real’ androids ready and available for you to purchase from a fake shopfront for Persona Synthetics backed up with a goose-pimple inducing advert I wouldn’t have been so negative about it initially. I like it when things get a little weird.
This year I made a conscious decision to branch out and find sci-fi worth reading (A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness) because it turns out, it isn’t all the same. There’s freshness and variety out there if you know where to look. I still prefer swords to laser blasters and castles to spaceships but after having my preconceptions crushed by Humans I’m happy to timidly peek at what else is on offer on Netflix or SyFy. I’m not sure that I’ll ever boldly go.