Karl Urban is a not a human being. Not in the technical sense of the term. Oh, sure, he might look human. He might walk and talk like a human. He might even like to think he’s human. But Karl Urban would be wrong! For Karl Urban is actually an extraordinary machine that has been programmed to think he is Karl Urban. Karl Urban does not know this, though sooner or later, he will, and when he does, Karl Urban will be very sad. Poor Karl Urban!
No, we speak not of the real-world Karl Urban, star of Star Trek and Dredd, but the character that this fine actor plays on the new sci-fi buddy cop drama Almost Human, which premiered Sunday night on Fox. Urban is John Kennex, a police officer in the near-future where human cops work side by side with robot cops. The pilot episode gives John a new partner, a humanoid android with buggy emotional components named Dorian, played by Michael Ealy. I am convinced that one of the big twists of this new series from J.J. Abrams and Fringe mastermind J.H. Wyman – both of whom are fond of big twists – is that John Kennex will mysteriously get younger as the saga progresses, while Dorian mysteriously, rapidly ages and corrodes. Okay, that was a joke. A literary joke! No, my very serious theory is that John Kennex ain’t a human being at all. He’s a robot, too! Or something very close to it. The pilot establishes that he has a bionic leg to replace the one that got blown off during a firefight with bad guys known as The Syndicate. But I assert that the rest of him is made of fabricated from sci-fi hoo-ha, too. Why do I believe in such a thing? Clues, man! Clues! Come, theorize with me.
The Blade Runner Connection. Almost Human – a story set in dystopian 2048, about a crusty-haunted cop who resents robots yet develops a bromantic relationship with one – is conspicuous with similarities to Blade Runner, director Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic set in dystopian 2019 , about a crusty-haunted ex-cop named Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who hunts renegade bioengineered beings, or Replicants, and falls in love with one. First, Urban could pass for Ford, don’t you think? (Squint. See?) Second, Blade Runner and the pilot episode of Almost Human have scenes set in downtown noodle joints. They also have scenes set in black-market medical clinics. (Blade Runner: The scene with Chew, the dude who makes eyeballs. Almost Human: The scene with John visiting a “Recollectionist.”) In Blade Runner, Deckard was hunting Replicants who had worked in space. In Almost Human, Dorian was assigned to work on a space station before being re-assigned to be John’s partner. Why is the Blade Runner connection relevant to my theory that John Kennex is a robot? Because of the popular, controversial theory that Ford’s Blade Runner character was himself a Replicant, but didn’t know it. Ergo: Kennex is something like a Replicant himself. After all…
“Kennex” = K’NEX. And K’NEX is a brand of construction toys, like sophisticated Tinker Toys. What this means, clearly, is that John himself is a K’Nex-like construction, which is to say, a thing assembled from synthetic, component stuff.
“Synthetic Calibration Incomplete” “Synthetic Fail – Calibration Required” Throughout the premiere episode, John has problems with his bionic leg, and it keeps bleating those aforementioned FAIL alerts. What the show wants you to think is that John’s artificial shank isn’t properly meshing with his joints and junk. But the show is pulling your leg, so to speak. This is misdirection – for us, and for John. A mechanical leg that keeps reminding you that you have a mechanical leg has the psychological effect of reinforcing the idea that the rest of you is perfectly human. And so the limb, and its alleged malfunction, is a mind game, intended to prevent John from realizing that he is wholly synthetic. My guess is that the rest of John is built from chips and and wires and silicon, artfully designed to resemble flesh and bone, blood and guts; or that he;s been developed from “programmable DNA,” another idea that gets talked about a lot in the pilot. It allows you the ability to genetically engineer custom-made people. Hence, John is a synthetic copy of his old human self – a super-fancy life-like robo-android thingy.
“The Recollectionist” isn’t who he says he is. John is secretly getting treatment from a doctor at a black-market medical clinic. John lost a lot of memory when the Syndicate almost blew him up two years ago, and the underground M.D. is helping John remember what he has forgotten. Or so he thinks. I submit that this so-called “Recollectionist” is working for the people who put our Humpty-Dumpty hero back together again. He’s programming John with memories collected from his old brain. He might be feeding him doctored versions of those memories, too. You know how John is now remembering that his ex-girlfriend was working with the bad guys? Nope. That’s what Ersatz John’s maker want him to think. Probably to keep him motivated to keep chasing after the Syndicate. Who’s Franken-John’s Doc Frankenstein? My money is on John’s boss, Captain Maldonado, played by Lili Taylor. You get the sense that the department is lousy with dirty cops. John, then, represents the Captain’s solution to the problem: She recruited a good cop by recreating the best one she knew.
“’Synthetic.’ There’s that word again.” Throughout the pilot, John insists on calling Dorian a “synthetic.” Dorian doesn’t like it; “synthetic” is a dirty word to him. It reduces him, denigrates him, subverts his sense of himself as unique, authentic living entity. This despite the fact that “synthetic” is, technically speaking, a perfectly appropriate term for Dorian. “’Synthetic.’ There’s that word again,” says Dorian whenever John throws it in his face. It happens enough to be suspicious. It’s almost as if the show itself is calling attention to the word, underscoring it and putting it in bold. Why? Some might say that the producers want us to view Almost Human as an allegory for Otherness and bigotry, although I find this reading problematic if not offensive. (Another essay, another time.) I say the producers are hammering “synthetic” into our brains to set up the ironic revelation of the series: That John himself is synthetic.
John Kennex = Dorian. The marketing for Almost Human has consisted of imagery that shows John partially or completely superimposed on Dorian and vise versa. This is very clever symbolism. It suggests a meaningful equivalency. John is “almost human” in that he is trying to recover his humanity after having life figuratively blown up and his body nearly and literally blown to smithereens. Dorian is “almost human” because he’s the most life-like android ever built, with emotions and flaws and stuff. Together, they represent humanity’s increasing reliance and enmeshment with technology, which may ultimately lead to a future in which sentient machines are indistinguishable from human beings. But I would argue that this imagery is a clue to Kennex’s true nature. Moreover, the pilot episode is full of lines that push this notion that John and Dorian have more in common than John would like to admit. Says one jerk police officer, about John and Dorian: “That’s perfect. Two cops from the scrap heap.” Captain Maldonado, to John, about Dorian: “Because he’s special. Just like you.” Dorian to John: “If I were like you, I wouldn’t know myself, either.” Bottom line: Kennex is just like Dorian . They’re both “almost human” … BECAUSE THEY’RE BOTH TOTALLY ROBOTS.
Looking forward to seeing where Almost Human – one of the season’s most promising new series – goes from here, regardless of the rightness or wrongness of my theory. What did you think of the premiere? Will you be watching next week? Please share your thoughts – and theories! – in the message board below.