x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

The unbearable darkness of being

Greg Kennedy previews Almost Human, the futuristic crime series from sci-fi guru J J Abrams that asks whether the soul of a machine can save one man’s humanity.

John Kennex (Karl Urban), left, and his android foil Dorian (Michael Ealy) in Almost Human. Liane Hentscher / AP / FOX
John Kennex (Karl Urban), left, and his android foil Dorian (Michael Ealy) in Almost Human. Liane Hentscher / AP / FOX

No one wears the crankypants with the élan of Karl Urban, an actor who can turn his inner irritants and demons into blistering pearls of cinematic action and intense emotion.

As the cosmos-loathing starship doctor Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the J J Abrams reboot of Star Trek, he curses: “Space is disease and danger, wrapped in darkness and silence.”

Now, as the prickly cop in Almost Human – the Fox network’s new futuristic sci-fi crime series from Abrams (Fringe, Lost) – Urban plays an android-hater who’s forced to patrol with a “synthetic” partner.

“I’m not driving with one of those things,” crabs his character, the troubled John Kennex, in the Los Angeles of 2048, where being a cop is so hazardous that robotic partners are mandatory – and expected to take a bullet for their human counterparts.

The rebellious Kennex, however, will have none of it. He throws his first robo-partner out of the car, onto the freeway and under the bus, quite literally, where it’s smashed to smithereens.

This leaves him no option but to take Dorian (Michael Ealy; Sleeper Cell), one of the earlier, abandoned line of androids that were designed to be as human as possible, but were fraught with emotional defects.

“Fantastic. I get the synthetic with a bleeding heart,” gripes Kennex.

“I’m not a huge fan of that term,” Dorian tersely replies, taking offence at being labelled a “synthetic”.

“The show is essentially about a cop who is injured and put in a coma for a couple of years,” says Abrams, who serves as executive producer. “When he wakes up, he realises he is no longer completely human. There are parts of him that have been replaced with synthetic parts – and yet he has survived, and he is coming back to the force.

“His synthetic partner actually has a bit of human in him. So there’s a kind of yin-yang thing going on.”

While Kennex may have physically survived one of the most catastrophic attacks ever made against the police department, after his 17-month coma, his own emotions are a shambles. He suffers from depression, mental atrophy, trauma-onset OCD, PTSD and the “psychological rejection of his synthetic body parts”. It’s only at the insistence of his long-time ally Captain Sandra Maldonado (the Emmy Award-nominee Lili Taylor; Six Feet Under) that he returns to work.

With Kennex part-machine and Dorian part-man, Almost Human traces the hopeful journey of two cops from the scrapheap of life who take on the villains of tomorrow.

“The crimes are set in the future – and they’re crimes we almost can’t conceive of right now,” says Ealy, whose comical interactions with Urban carry on in the grand scene-stealing tradition of moviedom’s earlier mechanical marvels such as Robby the Robot (Forbidden Planet), Commander Data (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and C3PO (Star Wars).

The futuristic landscape comes across as a believable extrapolation of 2013, where the rubber-tired cars that we recognise today, for example, still drive alongside levitated, airborne vehicles of newer technology, past holographic motorway signs.

“It’s not like everything is suddenly some crazy Jetsons futuristic world,” says Abrams. “It’s very real, very relatable, but it allows you to have hyper-real stories – stories about bad guys who are doing things that are scarier, larger, more unexpected than you could do ­today.”

As the series explores the definition of humanity, says Abrams, “the core of the show is really the relationship between these two and the adventure that they go on together. They desperately need each other. One couldn’t go on without the other. Kennex saves Dorian – Dorian saves Kennex. And the two of them go out together and save the world.”

• Almost Human begins with a special two-hour broadcast at 9pm on Saturday on OSN First HD

artslife@thenational.ae