Since the earliest heyday of science fiction, writers—and producers—have spun stories contrasting natural humanity against artificial humanity, in the process exploring what it means to be human. From the printed pages of RUR and Asimov's robot novel series, we proceeded to iconic shows like Star Trek (1966-various, depending on the fan) and Battlestar Galactica (1978, 2003), expanding upon those concepts and inventing new ones. And Western television was by no means the only one exploring these concepts; Serial Experiments Lain (1998) and Chobits (2002) are two of many anime series that explored the humanity of an entirely programmed person.
However, in our present day, the pickings are slimmer. J. H. Wyman's show Almost Human, a sci-fi police procedural drama, is one of very few SF television shows currently in production by a network, and is the only one which asks genuinely compelling questions about our shifting definitions of what it means to be artificial. Reams of material have been written comparing androids and robots to the human baseline, but Almost Human raises a bigger question: does that baseline exist anymore?
Like a good procedural, we begin with the premise: Almost Human stars two cops, one human and one android, in a cyberpunk near-future complete with ramen stands, holographic UIs, and frisbee-shaped surveillance drones. Human-cop John Kennex (Karl Urban) provides on-screen pathos and is the viewer's in to the show: after his entire team is killed in an ambush that saddles him with two years in a coma and an artificial leg, Kennex returns to his job only to find that new regulations require all human cops to have an android partner. Enter wisecracking android-cop Dorian (Michael Ealy), a leftover DRN-model unit from a decommissioned line of androids. After a few rough spots, Kennex accepts Dorian as his partner.
AND TOGETHER, THEY FIGHT CRIME! More specifically, most episodes revolve around a crime of the week, which was carried off using a near-future piece of technology of the week. This leads into the show's theme, as the opening voice-over narrates:
The year is 2048. Evolving Technologies can no longer be regulated. Dangerous advancements forever alter the criminal landscape. Police are not prepared. Law enforcement combats this corruption with a new line of defense, but not all are created equal. Now all cops, human and manmade together, take on the battle to watch over us all.
The focus, then, is on the setting, not the characters or the plot. Like most other police procedurals, Almost Human is largely episodic; though there are two long-term arcs, one each for Kennex and Dorian, viewers won't miss too much if they step into the middle of the series.
Almost Human's focus on speculative technology is both the show's strength and weakness. By focusing consciously on concept, the show manages to explore a lot of interesting questions about its vision of the near future in a way that heavily character-driven shows don't. However, in perhaps too many cases, technology takes precedence over character development. While some of the tech—especially whenever it relates to androids—immediately connects to the characters or the longer-running plot threads, most of the cases don't. This is unavoidable and realistic, but it also means that viewers who prefer character and long intricate plots will be put off. However, those who stick with the show will be rewarded with some extremely interesting and relatively unexplored concepts.
To take a quick survey through some great hits of robotic fiction: Asimov focused on how one might engineer robots to be like humans, without much hand-wringing over whether that makes them human; Battlestar's Cylons brought the above hand-wringing but mostly settled the question via a human-Cylon hybrid; Star Trek created AIs and proceeded to beat it into viewers' heads that if it seems sentient, it's probably wise to treat it as sentient, what is sentience anyway? We don't know, so cue credits.
Almost Human subverts these tropes by questioning whether we should care whether the android's body or mind is artificial, when so much of humanity, both the people and their surroundings, has already become artificial. In Almost Human, androids are hardly the only "artificial" element of the show's world—and even android artificiality comes in many degrees. First we learn that Dorian is an artificial android with a "synthetic soul," but Kennex also has a prosthetic leg that talks back at him. Then we learn that Dorian is not the only android around. There's a much bigger line of police-bots, the MX line, which was designed to be stereotypically "robotic," and Dorian considers them less human than himself. Finally, we learn that this world also has humans who have been artificially enhanced via genetic engineering; these humans are nicknamed "Chromes" and are explicitly shown to have heightened abilities, as well as a different experience of consciousness (a different UI in their brain, if you will), compared to humans without this alteration.
This is a point not often raised in speculative works featuring androids. In Star Trek, human genetic engineering is highly illegal except for the treatment of severe birth defects, and just in case you missed the point, the Big Bads of most of Deep Space Nine used genetic engineering to create explicitly irredeemable, violent murderers in the form of the Jem'Hadar. In Asimov's books, genetic engineering of humans is never a plot point, though it's mentioned (and in all fairness, Asimov was writing before the coolest biotech toys were developed). And in Battlestar Galactica, humans such as ourselves are coded as completely "human"; only the nature of Cylons is in question. But Almost Human doesn't take that route, instead choosing to ask harder questions about the implications of an entire world made up of almost-humans.
Acknowledgment of artificiality of both androids and humans is one thing, but Almost Human doesn't skimp on illustrating the impact of said artificiality either. In the episode "Arrhythmia," the plot revolves around two equally vital and artificial organs: bionic hearts implanted into humans, versus memory storage implanted into androids. The show asks, is it any crueler to stop an artificial human heart, than to flip the switch of an android's artificial memory? This leads the audience to uncomfortable questions such as: how many resources would we devote to letting a human powered by an artificial organ live? Would we devote the same to letting an android's equally artificial parts continue to function? Maybe it's a too-obvious parallel, but even so, it's not one that too many science fiction stories address.
Human artificiality extends beyond bodies, into environments. Indeed, Almost Human departs even further from its predecessors by forcing the viewer to be hyperaware of how unfamiliar the technology in its world is. Unlike some shows where flying cars and robot butlers are intended to be totally boring and par for the course to the characters, Almost Human presents technology as if it should be completely new to you, the viewer—just as it is also new to John and Dorian. At every turn we're shown unfamiliar and unexplained technology, which constantly reminds the viewer that everything the characters see and use and consume—electronics, computers, housing, a simple glass for pouring water—is conceived by human minds and manufactured, ultimately, out of human will. We're all artificial by now, Almost Human says, just in differing degrees and aspects.
The show is by no means flawless, either in terms of science or fiction. Its character concepts are promising, but often devolve into shallow archetypes or witty but pointless banter. It makes efforts at addressing the social changes that its technology might incur—for example, impoverished patients are exploited by companies withholding expensive lifesaving technology ("Arrhythmia"). However, other social issues were less well addressed; it doesn't escape notice that most of the sexbots in "Skin" are female.
A bigger problem, for a show that focuses on concept, is that said concepts aren't worked out as deeply as they could be, and the worldbuilding is somewhat cookie-cutter-cyberpunk ripped straight out of Gibson et al. The writers are clearly capable of thinking up their own tech, informed by recent advances in computer science, engineering, and biology—the DNA bomb ("Skin") and the drug Vero ("Perception") being excellent examples—and I hope they bring even more innovation to future episodes. And of course, there's tons of room for improvement in the show's conception of androids. Androids are destroyed for gags every so often, but does that truly mean they are so replaceable? How does Dorian, with his vaunted capacity for "human" emotion, feel about all this? Does Dorian even have rights or responsibilities? Answering these questions—preferably through the plot of an episode, or in character drama moments—would be a fantastic way to improve the show on all fronts. (I like to think the writers are holding out until season two, but this is Fox, so perhaps my biggest concern should be the existence of season two.)
Almost Human is, if you will permit me, almost awesome. If character-centric stories are make-or-break for you, then I regretfully say you might wish to give this a pass. But for viewers who are interested in questions about near-future societies and explorations of what counts as "real" when everything is man-made, I'd urge you to give this show a try. For all its weaknesses, this show's synthetic soul is in the right place.
Z. Irene Ying is a research scientist and science writer. She blogs about the science in pop culture (and every so often, the science in real life) at Aperture Science Journal Club.