WHAT TO WATCH ON TV
Stream On: A parade of clones, and the Uncanny Valley

By on December 3, 2020

They call themselves sisters, but the truth is stranger than that; they are a biotech experiment gone sideways, and now in big trouble. (IMDb.com)

We may be “as gods,” as the serpent told Eve in the Garden of Eden; we’re not gods, really, but we’re close. We can’t create matter, but we can create tools by assembling matter. We can create life, but biologically, through reproduction, like any other organism. We long to create life as a god does. Mary Shelley put the kibosh on the notion of reanimation with her story Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, but we continue to strive—through cloning, and—if we’re not careful—artificial intelligence.

ORPHAN BLACK [official site]

(Amazon.com; Prime Video; other platforms) 2013-2017 [TVMA]

“Leda and the Swan” is a story from Greek mythology in which the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces Leda. She bore Helen and Pollux, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. And so Helen and Clytemnestra were twin half-sisters, and Castor and Pollux were twin half-brothers.

Orphan Black begins as Sarah Manning, a con artist and drug trafficker, witnesses the suicide of a woman, Beth Childs, who appears to be her double. Sarah assumes Beth’s identity, apartment and occupation after Beth’s death. During the first season, Sarah discovers that she and Beth are clones, and that she has many ‘sister’ clones spread throughout North America and Europe that are all part of an illegal human cloning experiment, and that someone is plotting to kill them.

Orphan Black is a deep rabbit-hole: Beth had been a detective, and Sarah must use her street smarts to “get over” with Beth’s partner, superiors … and boyfriend. She finds out that she as Sarah was wanted by the police; that the biotech firm that spawned them has planted covert watchers in the girls’ personal lives (except, presumably, Sarah, who was raised as an orphan); and that members of a religious movement are using another clone to find and assassinate the others, whom they regard as abominations.

Sarah meets three more of her “sisters,” via one of Beth’s two cellphones, and they eventually discover a group of male clones in the miltary (Project Castor). But Sarah’s first urgent concern of many is the question of why Beth killed herself.

Lavishly produced and well-written, this exciting and fun roller-coaster ride is wholly owned by Tatiana Maslany [IMDb.com], who portrays all of the female clones, each as a very different person—a scientist, a cop, a soccer mom, etc. She shines especially when portraying one clone posing as another. Maslany won a Primetime Emmy Award, a TCA Award, two Critics’ Choice Awards, and five Canadian Screen Awards. [Here’s] a trailer.


Anita (center) is an exemplary maid and companion to the Hawkins family. Anita is a household appliance; the latest in “synths,” and of course, not what “she” seems. Problem is, Anita is not even what it is supposed to be: an unthinking machine. (IMDb.com)

HUM∀NS [official site]

(Amazon.com; Prime Video; other paltforms) 2015-2018 [TV14]

More than 40 years ago, Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, wrote an essay on people’s reactions to robots that looked and acted almost human. In particular, he hypothesized that a person’s response to a humanlike robot would abruptly shift from empathy to revulsion as it approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance. This descent into eeriness he called the uncanny valley.

“After missing his wife at home in his busy household, Joe Hawkins buys a pretty ‘synth’ (Gemma Chan, Crazy Rich Asians), a robotic assistant that looks like a young woman; he doesn’t consult his wife. Upon her return, his wife Laura feels displaced and cast off. She also complains that this will confuse the children, especially after the youngest child, Sophie, names the robot Anita after her friend who moved away.

“In a flashback, a group of self-aware synths including Leo, Max, Niska, and Anita are hiding out in the forest five weeks earlier; everyone except Max and Leo are abducted and taken away into London” [Wikipedia].

Pinocchio, the sentient puppet, became a real boy, fascinating readers of the 1883 stories and children ever since. In the 1959 Twilight Zone episode “The Lonely,” an exile falls in love with an android; in the 1960 episode “The Lateness of the Hour,” an android believes she is human. Most famous are the replicants of Blade Runner, who aspire to humanity and make the human protagonist—and the audience—wonder about his own identity.

Humans touches all these bases, beginning with the exquisite creepiness of the uncanny valley, and extending into the companionship felt by a lonely retiree (William Hurt) and his attempts to save his buggy older-model synth from recycling as mandated by the U.K. Health Service. A small, secret group of sentient synths, created as an experiment, plot to upload their consciousness to the others and lead a rebellion, and one, a sex worker, kills a client and escapes her bordello, intending to violently initiate the revolution.

The series is so well done that we don’t think about Pinocchio or Blade Runner, even when one synth reassures her owners of their safety by reciting Asimov’s “[Three Laws of Robotics]” from I, Robot. Humans holds a Tomatometer rating of 89% and an audience rating of 91% from [Rotten Tomatoes]. [Here’s] a trailer.

Next time, Little Red Riding Hood, as told by Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles.


(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers.


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