Thursday, November 21, 2013

Almost Human, Season 1, Episode 2: Skin

A man and a beautiful woman are together in a hotel room – she in her underwear and, as the conversation progresses, it’s clear she’s a sex worker. She keeps offering to have fun but he seems more interested in testing her, using devices to check her mouth and a light to scan her skin (she assumes for STDs). There’s a camera in the room and at the other end a man is watching several monitors showing men and women together (presumably other sex workers) and his attention is drawn by the man’s scanning her (not by the other… more distracting images). He turns up the audio and blows up the image. He calls his boss, Andrei, and shows him the video –speaking in what seems to be an Eastern European language.

Andrei makes a call, two men arrive at the hotel, spraying themselves with an aerosol that makes their faces appear as white cut-outs to CCTV. They go to the room and kill the man with the sex worker; scanning and taking hair samples is a big no-no it seems. They check his ID - the driver’s license on the dead man says Sebastian Jones – and then leave with the sex worker; leaving behind a device the explodes and coats the room in stranger, white-green light.

John and Dorian arrive on the scene and a group of kids are impressed to see a “bot”; Dorian impresses them by showing the lights on the side of his face. They seem pretty disappointed by boring old human John – who tries to impress them by stabbing his synthetic leg. Yes, that doesn’t go down well, with all the screaming. Community policing isn’t his strong point. As Dorian points out, he hasn’t even been a child and he knows that would scare one and tells John he has negative energy that kids can sense (and cats). Leaving John having to defend his issues with cats.

Banter aside, they reach the room and that bomb was apparently a DNA bomb, tainting any evidence in the room – along with special silenced bullets and “flash masks” for the CCTV. Examining the footage they do have, Dorian sees that the woman is an android.

Back at the precinct they join Detective Valerie and Captain Sandra to look up Sebastian Jones – he’s a sexbot maker (engaging in industrial espionage it seems) with no criminal record and Dorian and John keep up the banter – that’s definitely beginning to grow on me. All sexbots have to be registered, apparently but the woman in then hotel room isn’t on file. Sebastian is apparently a pioneer at his trade and Richard-the-always-awful praises his work, Valerie tries to shame him by suggesting he has experience but Richard has no shame about it and sees no reason to be ashamed. According to Sandra, violence in the sex trade is down considerably since the sexbots had been introduced.

Despite that success, Sebastian is bankrupt, his company bust and all his assets are in storage by a repo company – next stop, that storage unit where they find a number of deactivated sexbots and plans for more as well as papers showing that Sebastian was being sued. John gets a call from Valerie – while the guys left no DNA, every surface the sexbot touched left the DNA of a woman called Nicole who was kidnapped in a car park.

Elsewhere in the city, another woman is kidnapped in a carpark by the two men who killed Sebastian.

Naturally Valerie connects this at the police station who passes on the information to John with 3 more missing person cases that look very similar. Though they do have the woman’s young son, Victor, who was at the scene – Dorian thinks it’s a bad idea for the awful-with-kids-John to talk to the child. John denies it vehemently then goes to speak to him – after a dubious start he picks it up by giving the kid an amazing giraffe toy (I want one!); he gets the number of men and the colour and type of car from the kid.

Of course while CCTV finds the car it also finds it has stolen plates. They also hope to find the sexbot so they can access her memory as a possibility – and Valerie arrives with a new lead. The person suing Sebastian was Lorenzo Shaw – for intellectual property infringement. He’s just set up his own sexbot show himself.

In the car Dorian and John hope to get Victor’s mother back alive and Dorian is struck by the enormity of having to tell a child their mother is dead – John brings out the usual platitudes that people give when someone dies – telling them they’re going “to a better place”, though Dorian finds them questionable since they’re unverified – just hope of something after death – John tells him it’s to give hope while Dorian thinks the better proof of life after death is to be remembered afterwards. Which brings up the difficult subject of John’s dead partner’s son who John never spoke to.

They arrive at the sexbot show where a number of half naked sexbots display themselves. Lorenzo doesn’t recognise the sexbot from the hotel, nor any of the women though he admits that all of Sebastian’s intellectual property would revert to him. He also reveals that they’re using some of the technology in Dorian in their new sexbots so they can show greater empathy and response to their “clients”. Lorenzo tells them that despite their excellent sexbots Sebastian went bankrupt because he was always pushing to make things better, spending vast sums into new potential technology, leaving them no capital when their biggest client dropped them suddenly. He’s reluctant to give up the name of the clients but John threatens expensive, disruptive subpoenas and he folds – their client was an Albanian consortium who had found a new supplier. Dorian wonders if the sexbot at the hotel belonged to the Albanians but an increasingly nervous Shaw pleads ignorance and tries to end the conversation. John throws in a question about human DNA in a sexbot – Shaw again claims ignorance, especially since it’s illegal.

John is distracted by one of the sexbots which, of course, gets him some snark from Dorian since he supposedly doesn’t like robots. John gets Dorian to hack Shaw’s network (normally requiring a warrant which they quickly brush over)

Moving on, John’s plan to “stir the pot” – at a club run by the Albians, police forces move through checking the sexbots for human DNA and looking for the sexbot from the hotel. They speak to the manager, Yuri and Andrei who, of course, deny knowing the sexbot while Dorian picks up their elevated heart rates.

Valerie has another lead on the silver car (and more tech has been used to scramble the number plate); they head to the industrial facility where it was last seen. They arrive and find the remains of the sexbot from the hotel – but without skin or hair

They take her back to Rudy and he points out they shot her in the head in just the right places to destroy her memory. Rudy pulls her apart to find the remains of the components in her head to see if there’s anything to salvage – he notices Dorian is disturbed by the graphic deconstruction and apologises. John sees the missing skin and realises that may be the key – using human skin on a sexbot would make it far more realistic; though Rudy objects to the term sex machine since not everyone visits them for sex (with hints of his own loneliness in the objection).

Dorian and John are back in the car for one of their talks starting with the serious of Dorian considering his own mortality before moving on to tormenting John with a fake dating profile he’s set up for him which gets even more uncomfortable with bioscans and sperm counts and how John hasn’t been getting any in a while. John demands all this stop – ye gods stop! Especially the testicle scanning – then is interested in exactly who answered this dating profile. Valeria rings at just the right moment to ensure much more mockery.

While the mockery is fun, the reason for her call is she’s found the silver car again. They pull it over, hold two Albanians at gun point and a female sexbot gets out the back seat. Dorian takes her DNA – and has a match with one of the kidnap victims. They take her back to Rudy – but elsewhere the most recent kidnap victim is being taken to surgery.

At the police station Sandra tells them they need to get the kidnapping victims’ locations from the sexbot, Vanessa, because the Albanians aren’t talking. They talk to her, John asking who made her, who owns her while Dorian changes “made” to “born” and is clearly unhappy with “owns”.  She still doesn’t seem to understand and reaches out to John, even if to do nothing then to talk (though her hand suggests more). She does recognise a picture of the first sexbot – Charlene – and wants to see her; Dorian asks why, which confuses her (why would a sexbot want to see another sexbot?). He realises that she has been designed to bond with people and she notices when they’re not around and misses them. She does tell them that Yuri sent her with the men.

Time for a raid on the club – with guns and numbers. As they head down, in the lab the latest kidnap victim is having parts of her skin removed and Yuri and Andrei burst in and tell the doctors to shut everything down and destroy the lab – even if it will kill the women. John and Dorian clear out the club – but the skin lab isn’t on the premises. Dorian does find a chip though – a chip based on early DNR androids. This chip was stopped being used because every time the android updated it broadcast a GPS signal allowing them to be tracked – he calls Rudy and asks him to check the first time Vanessa’s GPS activated – when she was born in the skinlab.

Rudy gets incredibly embarrassed and awkwardly plugs Vanessa in and gets the data they need.

Charging off again, they arrive at the skin lab, taking down several cards while others hurry to destroy the lab. They quickly secure the place and find two of the women alive, including Nicole, Victor’s mother.

Back to the police station, Valeria says they should celebrate (definitely love interest between her and John developing) and Dorian says John will – he has a date off the dating website, much strangled, awkward babbling follows. They go on to see Sandra who tells them they have to deactivate the bots – they can’t have Androids with human DNA. John goes on to angst at a picture, as he does.

While Dorian goes down to Vanessa, wanting to be there when she’s deactivated. She asks where she’s going and Dorian tells her “to a better place”. She asks if he’ll be there and he says “I will remember you.” He watches as she’s turned off.

John goes to see his deceased partner’s wife and son

Well that was a lot deeper than imagined. There’s a whole lot of complex issues raised over the sexbots. In the very beginning they make it clear that the sexbots have reduced violence against actual sexworkers by a dramatic amount, increasing the safety of people. But the question of whether they are alive – and, if so, enslaved – has to be considered. Even if we accept that androids like the MX are devoid of emotion, agency and personhood, we have to except that DNRs like Dorian are a much fuzzier line. We see Vanessa forms friendships, misses people and shows a level of fear or anxiousness that makes turning her off a poignant and sad affair. This causes a whole lot of moral turbulence not only over whether to turn her off or not - but the very idea of a self-aware, feeling sexbot in the first place. It was complex and nuance and pretty well presented.

What it doesn’t address is the fact that the sexbots are taking income off an often very desperate population – nor the idea that combating violence that so often is caused by viewing a person as an object by outright turning a person into an object is dubious – but that’s likely beyond the scope of the show anyway.

I think the relationship between Dorian and John has vastly improved over the first episode – and not just because of the lack of hostility. Dorian’s constant teasing not only shows him as human but establishes an excellent bond between the two and goes a long way to improving John – and his acting. It has expanded him beyond his 2 facial expressions and endless, brooding angst and made him into something resembling a character (albeit a clichéd one) rather than a walking, dull trope.

Two episodes in and I have to say I’m really impressed by the sci-fi elements of the show. It’s futuristic – but in ways I can see happening. It isn’t vastly alien as I’d expect a world, say, 1,000 years in the future nor has it reached a point where the technology isn’t functionally different from magic. It’s really well portrayed as being future technology – believable, casually displayed and omnipresent.

To me, the second episode has rescued the show to a large degree. I watched the pilot and, honestly, didn’t want to continue. I feared it was going to be so dull and clichéd with characters I couldn’t invest in that I would dread recapping it – the second episode has turned a lot of that around.