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Virtually human

07 August 2015


IT’S not how God does it. Humans, the Channel 4 Sunday-evening drama series, was perhaps even more significant for the theological and philosophical questions that it raised than for the usual basket of plot, script, acting, etc.

A very few years from now, many chores about the house and in society generally are performed by synths, humanoid robots who, being artificial, aren’t bothered by the repetitive nature of the work. But the malevolent genius in charge of the program has created a group — or is it, as they themselves think, a family? — of super-synths, whose superior programming enables them to think creatively, feel emotion, make attachments, and recognise affection and rejection (in other words, live in that twilight of existential angst known as the human condition). But he still retains control: the missing ingredient is free will.

This is, of course, light years from the way in which J*W*H acts as creator. The series played out the resulting dilemmas: how far are these machines or creatures? Should we care about them, treat them with dignity, fall in love with them? A range of contemporary dramatic clichés was employed, including police and political authorities unwittingly in cahoots with the forces of evil, a renegade but good cop, a seemingly normal suburban family that manages to confound the might of the Establishment — and teenagers whose hours online in their bedrooms have turned them into computer programmers able to outwit all the professionals. Last Sunday’s climactic apotheosis took place in the crypt of St Mary Magdalene’s, Paddington. Perhaps the subliminal message is the unforeseen triumph of Anglo-Catholicism.

A different moral world was portrayed in Life in Squares (Mondays), BBC2’s dramatisation of the life and loves of the Bloomsbury Group. The newly orphaned sisters Vanessa and Virginia demonstrated their liberation from Victorian middle-class conventions by tossing their corsets out of the window. They will be known to the world by (ironically) their married names of Bell and Woolf.

I found this less than fully delightful. These privileged, self-centred young people are of interest only because of the revolutionary significance of their painting, writing, and intellectual genius — and we saw nothing of that. In fact, the authentic interior lighting levels meant that you couldn’t see very much at all. It was a relief when Lytton Strachey grew his bushy beard: at least I could tell him from the others. This lack of visual clarity may have been a blessing, given all the sweaty coupling depicted. But their sexual freedom was set to hit the familiar buffers of boring old love, jealousy, and affection grown cold: ideal forcing ground for art.

For real force of nature, turn to Atlantic: The wildest ocean on earth (BBC2, Thursdays). Last week’s first programme focused on the Gulf Stream This current of warmer water creates stupendous profusions of marine life along its route, billions of plankton launching a food chain that ends with the largest mammals on earth. It seems immemorial, eternal; but global warming might divert the whole thing, with unimaginable global consequences.

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