Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Almost Human, Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

The nice exposition lady informs us that it’s 2048 and everything is grimdark and bad – with lots of organised crime, a huge crime rate, drugs, badness and mime artists roaming the street. Possibly not the latter. To help the beleaguered police, every officer now gets an Android.

From there we move to an outright war zone, police with big guns fighting a gang with similar big guns. The police are badly outnumbered and Detective John Kennex gets the call that one of their members are down. He wants to launch a rescue mission and overrules the android who tells him how silly it is to risk the lives of many for the sake of one man – they go in and that android gets shot in the head and destroyed. They get to the injured officer and the second android scans him and tells them that down police officer is basically bleeding to death – and there’s no point in trying to carry him out. Detective John has no patience with such a cold assessment and insists on carrying. The android refuses to stay and protect them when there are others who aren’t ignoring his advice and actually have a chance in hell of getting out of this alive (paraphrasing here).

They stand up to stagger away – and someone shoots John in the leg – well shoots his leg off below the knee. The man he tried to save is dead.

The moral of this story? Listen to the emotionless automatons! And that battle strategy shouldn’t be dictated by a man’s feeeeeeeels!

Shadowy figures converge on John and one throws a grenade (you’re going to use a grenade on him? Isn’t that overkill?). John puts on his angry determined face (this show isn’t 3 minutes in and he’s used that face 4 time or more) and tries to drag himself away before the big boom.

It’s apparently a grenade of making-out-with-a-hot-woman (amazing what technology can do in the future) because he is suddenly surrounded by white light and staring at the face of a beautiful smiling woman. Also, possibly, a hallucination, his life flashing before his eyes or desperate regrets of what might have been; since he wakes up considerably less pleasantly in a machine.

A man heads over to unhook him and apparently all of that action was a memory which the machine is helping him extract after his 17 month long coma. John shouldn’t be having these treatments yet since he hasn’t been conscious a year, but then his doctor is blackmarket from “sub Asia”. John wants to remember the people who ambushed him - and the doctor is a “recollectionist” who thinks he should let it go. John pulls out a clichéd angsty straight white male lead line in a voice that yells “tortured anti-hero”.  The woman was apparently his ex-girlfriend, Anna.

He heads back to his car, taking a pill and staring woefully at a necklace before an android police officer talks to him – with a strong suggestion of John not being the biggest fan

In case you haven’t got the hint yet, the next scene is John staring wistfully at a picture of Anna. Honestly, we get it, can we move on please? Apparently not, because he then uses the nifty future phone/computer thing to listen to a message from Anna which he’s kept for several hundred days (ok, this isn’t tortured and romantic – it’s creepy, obsessive and stalkerish). His angst is interrupted by Captain Sandra Maldonado who wants him to come in and is unwilling to accept that he needs more time – she convinces him by telling him there’s an armed robbery committed by Insyndicate (the gang that he fought in the opening credits). John spends a brief moment with angsty distant staring to properly express his deep and abiding pain before agreeing to come in.

He gets up and we see he has a bionic leg but when he takes a little box off it, it looks just like his other leg – though the box complains that his “synthetic calibration” is incomplete. Which is probably bad.

We get some nice aerial visuals of a nifty looking future city complete with hover discs as John arrives at the station. We get to see Detective Richard Paul – the arsehole who hates/envies/otherwise unpleasant person can’t bring himself to behave like a civilised human being over the return of a colleague after 2 years in a coma and detectives Vogal and Valerie Stahl. Richard blames John for the raid that went so badly wrong since he was in charge.

John registers with the system and an android called 785 approaches him telling him he’s John’s new partner. John mopes into Captain Maldonado’s office to insist on a human partner. Maldonado is sympathetic (she actually has a pretty awful over the top earnestness about her) but she’s not going to change mandatory regulation for him – especially since the psychological profile on John after the whole battle basically says that he should never ever ever rejoin the police force ever again with a string of mental illnesses attached.

She shows him footage of the robbery of an armoured car to steal bioresearch, tells him they have one of the thieves and asks him to keep the Insyndicate connection secret since he’s the only one she trusts as not being a mole.

To the crime scene where he meets Valerie who seems to have some hero worship thing going on, and 785 explains what the research stolen could involve: stimulating tissue creation. Something called Myklon red was also taken – and John has a flashback to the raid where there was also Myklon Red. When he snaps out of it Valerie tells him the local gang, Territory controls the area and has dealt with biotech before – but she doesn’t buy it. The new leader of the Cambodian gang is seen as too western and needs to prove he respects tradition to his followers so isn’t going to commit violence on the Cambodian New Year, Virak loeurng Sak. (Yes, she’s a pretty damn good intelligence analysis and a student of criminal behaviour). John seems pretty dismissive and abrupt – but I think that’s his default.

He takes another pill in the car and 785 questions John’s flashback – he noticed what happened and puts it together with where John was seen at the Recollectionist’s – where black market doctors apparently swarm. John assures him everything’s fine and there’s nothing to report, he went to the area for noodles. 785 responds by pointing out that the android who saw him didn’t see any food particles on his breath… John throws him out of the car where he’s destroyed in the heavy traffic.

Ok… that was a pretty extreme reaction.

Which means when he gets back to the police station John has to go see Rudy, the technical person to requisition a new android (Rudy finds the whole “fell out of a moving car” excuse rather… dubious). Rudy has none of the new MXs available so pulls out one that was heading for scrap – but when John sees the android he recognises him as one of the “crazy” ones. Rudy admits they had… problems. This model is a DRN or “Dorian”.

As he starts to activate Dorian, Rudy explains that DRNs were intended to be as human as possible – they were emotional. They were too human – humans have unexpected emotional responses and so to do the DRNs. It also means, just like humans, DRNs also have breaking points – they were actually a monumental success in imitating humanity. Dorian wakes up and greets John, he’s much more human than the other androids we’ve seen.

Ominous scenes of Insyndicate apparently tracking and hunting John and then on to John in a car with Dorian who is making annoying stupid noises. Dorian tries to make conversation with John and he talks much more like a human than other androids (saying “about 80%” than the actual specific percentage) and takes issue with John using the term “synthetic”. Dorian asks lots of questions about the Anna’s medallion dangling from the rearview mirror and John tries to turn him off. Dorian points out if John wants him to be quiet he can just ask him to be quiet – he doesn’t have to deactivate him or set a quiet mode. In the silence, John’s leg complains about its lack of synthetic calibration again.

While this is happening, Detective Vogal gets himself kidnapped – witnessed by his damaged android.

John and Dorian arrive at the police station where Richard is still an arsehole and Dorian snarks that the models that replaced him are intimidating. And Richard is still an arsehole. John is told that Vogal has been kidnapped so he decides to “interview” the Insyndicate member they captured

And by “interview” I mean beat up. Dorian disapproves, John tries to dismiss him but is distracted by his leg failing on him. Dorian steps in, telling the prisoner that by the trajectories of the bullets, the prisoner must have shot himself in the leg, not have been shot by any police or guard on the scene. The prisoner did it because he had to get away from the people he was with, because there was no other way out. He gives them the address where Vogal is being held.

As they drive off Dorian criticises John for violating the prisoner’s rights and John tells him not to report it no matter what his programming says; which Dorian objects to again. If he reports it it will be because he has decided to, not because he is programmed to.

At the police station the prisoner is taken to the bathroom because he feels sick – at the toilet he sticks his fingers down his throat and throws up a small device which he attaches to a pipe on the toilet.

Dorian, John and a full team arrive at the location to find a device they assume is a bomb – all humans are ordered back and Dorian goes forward (despite being told to stop). He sees a tripwire and decides it’s not a bomb. John follows with the MX androids protesting; especially when Dorian offers to lead John in. They follow the tripwire to where Vogal is imprisoned in a bullet proof glass box – and a video camera recording everything. John calls Patel, the officer escorting the prisoner, that the whole thing is a set up – just as her car is attacked. The timer on the device ticks down to zero – and the tripwire is pulled. A canister inside the glass box releases a white gas which kills Vogal, horribly (now I know why he never got a first name).

Later, John gets a report on Patel and the other officers dying and the prisoner, Trevor, being rescued. Dorian takes a vial of the dead Vogal’s blood and injects it into himself, analysing it and transmitting the information to Rudy. Back at the police station they investigate and Dorian finds out one of Vogal’s police files has vanished; Valerie remembers Vogal’s tech problem as well and John realises that “they” have got into the entire system.

And Dorian and John have an argument when John shuts him down again – John says he’s not a man but Dorian refuses to be lumped in with the MXs – they’re logic based and feel nothing and have no real free will – unlike him. He adds that he’s read the report and thinks that John is blaming the MX for an ambush that could just as easily been John’s fault and he’s sick of the way John talks to him. the argument escalates and John refuses to argue with silicon and wires – and take the interruption of Rudy calling him to walk away.

Apparently all police get super special inoculations to protect them from bioware, pathogens and any other gribblies they may come across – Vogal was exposed to programmable DNA that targets the inoculation and makes the immune system go berserk and kill him. It was a test – their enemy is targeting police specifically. John leaves, not telling Dorian where he’s going

He goes to the Recollectionist who warns him it’s too soon to undergo the memory treatment again. It’s not safe - but he’s a big damn hero, screw the rules and the risk, his plot armour will keep him safe! He undergoes the procedure and relives the memory again, including the dead man wondering how Insyndicate knew about the raid – only this time he sees some faces. And the person who threw the grenade was Anna, his lost love.

In the machine he oozes blood from his nose and has a seizure when Dorian arrives and disconnects him, treating him and bringing him back. He snarks that John is lucky he got the partner with the bleeding heart.

John tells Dorian what he saw. At least he knows why Anna disappeared after he came out of his coma (nothing ruins a relationship like trying to blow up your significant other) and his leg acts up, again. Dorian gives John some advice on handling the creaky limb – olive oil – and John acknowledges Dorian saved his life. And that he isn’t like the MXs. Dorian sums up the difference between them – the MXs are all logic, no intuition, no “soul”; DNRs are designed to draw inferences, conclusions. John realises this could be an asset – Vogal’s MX was destroyed in the kidnapping and another MX couldn’t put the scattered data back together again, but Dorian probably could.

Meanwhile, the Insyndicate people are setting up large canisters of the deadly gas.

Dorian and John check the damaged remains of the MX  - accessing the short term memory they see one member of Insyndicate doing a classic villain boasting to Vogal about how he entered an item into evidence from the case that has been erased. They want it back – and will take it from the precinct. John calls Captain Maldonado and warns her.

On the roof of the precinct, Insyndicate activates a device that works with the small object Trevor put in the toilet to shut down all the electronics in the building – including the MXs. People run to evacuate and respond – and new MXs entering the building collapse. Dorian runs on a different frequency and isn’t shut down entering the field and they head to the roof. On the roof, Insyndicate starts hooking up the gas to the building’s air flow. But they’re ambushed by Captain Maldonado and several cops (including Valerie) from the building opposite (linked by a bridge), killing several gang members and destroying several canisters. Their leader escapes inside with one intact bottle.

He uses gas from the canister to attack any cops in the way until he runs into John and Dorian. He fires on John making him dive but Dorian keeps coming – and the gas obviously doesn’t stop him. the boss turns and runs and Valerie is in his way – he raises the canister to gas her and John shoots him – in the shoulder. He’s taken prisoner.

There follows the arduous task of cataloguing everything in evidence to see what object the gang was actually after. Dorian agrees to keep trying to restore the deleted evidence files and John says “thanks man” (not treating him as a machine and calling him man). Inside a box, which I assume is the evidence, is a female android with the same blue lines in her cheek that appear on Dorian’s.

Rudy turns all the MXs back on and John looks at Anna’s recorded message again. This time he deletes it. Maldonado praises him for saving so many lives – and he thanks her for insisting he come back. It was also her who requested a DNR for John – it’s good for him and Dorian is special.


The protagonist – a tortured anti-hero, straight white male lead whose grief and angst is expressed in anger with extra man-pain from the woman he loved and lost. He is violent and dangerous and doesn’t play by the rules and Does What Must be Done to get the job done but underneath he is a good YAWN. Argh, can someone help me up? I appear to be buried in clichés. Do we really need another of these?

The only reason John’s acting doesn’t make me cringe is because Maldonado’s acting made me laugh.

I hope there will be some exploration of mental illness in John’s character other than making it another vehicle for clichéd angsty, anti-hero that will magically disappear as he becomes less insular and angry.

There’s always going to be something problematic about having the “almost human” Black character whose humanity is constantly denied by the White character- there are Unfortunate Implications abounding there. On the flip side, Dorian constantly demands his personhood be acknowledged, refused to be judged on what John knows of other Androids, objects to how John talks to him and doesn’t let word choices he doesn’t like slide under the radar. To flip back again, we’re left with the meme of Dorian having to prove his humanity to John.

There are some nice touches – like the androids not looking all the same but the same few faces are repeated over and over – so there are maybe 4 different appearances that are repeated, it’s the kind of touch I can see manufacturers including. There’s also an excellent sense of the futuristic city which the show is very good at imparting

It’s a staple of cop shows I dislike and it applies here – the rogue cop who breaks the rules for the “greater good” is not a champion or a hero – he’s a thug and a criminal. And “instinct” or going with your gut or whatever ridiculous term these cop shows use over and over is not better than “logic”. Logic is deductive, it requires evidence. It requires reason. “Instinct” doesn’t require any of that and it only works in cop shows because the writers can make it infallible. In real life, “instinct” is informed by many things – many of them ridiculous (“he looks like my ex and I hated my ex…”) and societal prejudice definitely has a place in that; which is why so many people are “instinctively” suspicious or afraid of minorities. It’s not just this show – and if it were this show I’d be less troubled by it – it’s a staple of nearly all cop shows (surprisingly, detective shows not so much: reason and logic is more elevated there) and is a worrisome pattern when we apply the lessons to actual policing.