Äkta människor (Real Humans)

19 Jul

“Graceful. Elegant, efficient. Did your life just get longer? Good morning. The Hubmax phd takes care of the day to day chores while you can focus on what really matters. Are you ready to change your life?”

Back in 1986 Channel 4 aired a TV movie which introduced Max Headroom to the British viewing public. The Subtitle of that pilot 20 Minutes in the Future could easily be applied to Äkta människor, for this is a science fiction series which is set in a world recognisably similar to our own. The cinematic and televisual history of the robot subgenre is mined and exploited within a series designed for the iPod generation and whilst acknowledging and celebrating the cyberpunk movement the series is structured so as not to alienate those whom may not be familiar with the works of Gibson, et al.

Äkta människor is a ten part series produced by Swedish public service broadcaster SVT. First airing in January 2012 the series has already generated an active international fanbase that is engaged in varying degrees of productivity. Significant academic literature exists concerning the phenomena of media fandom but the communities which celebrate and appropriate Scandinavian televisual and filmic texts is relatively under explored within the discipline of Cultural Studies. How this particular fandom responds to Äkta människor is a development which must surely warrant further investigative analysis.

Although I have seen all ten episodes of this series I will only discuss the pilot so as not to spoil viewer pleasure. Those wishing the show in its entirty should lobby BBC Four to acquire this superb show and also contact Arrow Films to secure a DVD/Blu Ray release.

The series opens with the image of a deserted stretch of county road in the dead of night. The only source of illumination is the headlights from a pick up truck. The sound of a mobile phone ringtone signifies that whilst this is a science fiction series the fictional world is not too far removed from that which we, the viewers, currently inhabit. A senior citizen is on the phone to his partner telling her that he will shortly be home. He refers to her as “pumpkin” which is an oblique reference to the Cinderella narrative,  one of the many sources which the producers’ have employed in the construction of this text.

Momentarily distracted whilst placing his mobile phone in the docking station, the driver fails to notice a woman standing in the centre of the road and his car collides with her, sending the body crashing over the bonnet and smashing the windscreen. Whilst surveying the damage to the car we notice a sticker placed in the corner of the screens notifying us that the driver supports an organisation called “Real Humans”. The aims and objectives of this group are withheld for now but within the context of this scene it serves to distinguish between humanity and mechanised lifeforms, something that becomes apparent when the driver exits his vehicle to see if he can offer any assistance to the female he has knocked down only to baulk in terror upon hearing mechanical sounds which signify that his car has not knocked down a human as he had previously thought but has instead damaged an android (referred to as hubots within the narrative). The sight of a group of hubots marching in the distance terrifies this man and he returns to the vehicle and drives off to the safety of his home – where we see that he has a “Real Humans” sticker posted by the entrance.

Tension is accelerated as domesticity clashes with paranoia and robophobia within the confines of a rural home. We, the viewer, are directed to enquire why this man has so much to fear from hubots. At this stage in the narrative information has not been disclosed as to the function and purpose of hubots although tension has been signposted through the use of the “Real Humans” sticker (twice) and the possibility that a revenge attack for the mowing down of a female android may be about to occur. Thus, already we are employing intertextual coordinates in the reading process and may be drawing from the robot as sentient threat narrative which has been employed in several filmic texts, most noteably Blade Runner. The, thus far, unnamed driver expresses his paranoia to his wife;“This is what I’ve been talking about all along, isn’t it? I’ve warned about this and now they’re here.” Ramming home his point the domestic sphere is swiftly placed under siege. Windows are smashed as arms reach in grappling for door handles. Gunshot proves no match for this so for obliquely seen opponent.

Whilst the house and its occupants are terrorised a subplot is deftly woven into the narrative which in contrast to the brutality displayed elsewhere suggests that synthetic lifeforms are capable of experiencing love for humans. This moment of tenderness is enhanced when the hubot is captured by scavengers thereby initiating a quest for her recovery.

The teaser sequence establishes the narrative world and core parameters to be explored in this pilot episode and the series’ remaining segments. The viewer is treated to a discourse of conflicting and competing information. We are unsure for certain, at this stage, if the hubots are the primary threat to narrative equilibrium or if they are acting to preserve the new species from the threats posed by both the “Real Humans” movement and scavengers who might swoop at any moment to appropriate technology which they can recycle, rebrand and sell on through the black market.

Äkta människor has several narrative strands which explore the interrelationship between humans and technology. Additionally, it explores what it means to be a “real human”. Is it our capacity for emotional intelligence that defines humanity? As we become increasingly reliant on technology is our “humanness” being eroded? Conversely, as we create ever more intelligent hardware at what point does the paradigm change from usability to slavery? If hubots are capable of experiencing love then what right do humans have to erase this information from their electronic brain? These issues are explored throughout the pilot episode and thankfully no firm conclusion is reached at this stage in the series.

Äkta människor is the most satisfying science fiction series I have viewed since the introductory seasons of Battlestar Galactica and Heroes. Production values are comparable with anything currently being made by American studios and the scripts for all ten episodes are superbly structured. Additionally, the performances by the ensemble cast are grounded and at times evoked very strong emotional responses from me. Definitely a show to savour.

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