Human Is – Putting the Human Ideal to the Test

Terra is dying, there is only five months of breathable air remaining and the only way for Terra to survive is to invade Rexor IV for its supply of hydron.

Silas Herrick (Bryan Cranston) is a cruel man to his wife Vera (c) 2017 Channel 4
Silas Herrick (Bryan Cranston) is a cruel man to his wife Vera (c) 2017 Channel 4

At the beginning of the 26th century Terra is a devastated wasteland. The only way for people to breathe is if precious hydron is used to clean the air. Unfortunately Terra has run out and needs to find more, quickly. Silas Herrick (Bryan Cranston) is a brilliant soldier, but a cold and cruel husband to his beautiful wife Vera (Essie Davis). His cruelty is fuelled by his drive to secure hydron at any and all costs.

Vera wants desperately to connect with her state selected husband, but his cold and calculating demeanour continually forces Vera away. They are partners in name only.

Vera (Essie Davis) tries to find a sliver of kindness from her husband Silas (c) 2017 Channel 4
Vera (Essie Davis) tries to find a sliver of kindness from her husband Silas (c) 2017 Channel 4

Vera is so distraught with her life she willingly risks exposure to the ground level of Terra, The Maze, in order to find some sort of connection, any connection, with another human being. She ends up at a darkly erotic brothel and surrenders herself to a couple she finds appealing.

Vera surrenders her body (c) 2017 Channel 4
Vera surrenders her body (c) 2017 Channel 4

When Silas is sent on another covert mission to Rexor IV to secure more of the precious hydron, Vera cannot help but be conflicted. She loathes her husband, but she’s also fearful of losing him. If not for her outings and the support of her colleague and friend, Yaro, Vera would most likely have had a nervous breakdown.

During the mission to Rexor IV, Silas and his ship are attacked and forced to withdraw. He and one other soldier are the only survivors to make it back to Terra under the power of the ship’s autopilot. During the voyage home, nothing is heard from the survivors.

Silas’s injuries are minor, but they worry Vera and being a dutiful wife, she cares for her husband. But something is not quite right with Silas. Something has changed. Something that Vera can’t quite bring herself to believe. Silas’s experiences have made him a caring and loving husband. One full of concern for Vera’s well being and fearful that anything might happen to her. Isn’t this what every wife wants from her husband?

Silas returns from Rexor IV a different man (c) 2017 Channel 4
Silas returns from Rexor IV a different man (c) 2017 Channel 4
Cover of Startling Stories Winter 1955
Cover of Startling Stories Winter 1955

Human Is was first published in Startling Stories Winter 1955. It is yet another example of Philip K. Dick’s obsession of the question of what is it that makes us human. It’s a theme he explores over and over again and Electric Dreams adaptation is the closest we’ve seen yet in the series. While there is much that is altered and injected into the story, Jessica Mecklenburg has kept the core the same.

Bryan Cranston does an excellent job portraying Silas from his initial callous cruelty to his transformation into a more loving and caring person. Essie Davis is equally adept in her role as Vera. She convincingly plays the part of a wife and woman torn between her need to love and be loved, and her repulsion at the man she loves.

Human Is ably comments on the sources and reasons of what makes us human. Not in any startling or truly revelational way, but still in a satisfying and generally entertaining manner. Human Is has taken the original story and worked in such a way that is recognizably Dick, but still given it a modern spin all its own.

The question of what makes us human and how we identify it will not be answered easily or soon. It’s a question that bears repeating until we do answer it in a manner that speaks to our most basic selves. I’ll leave you with a comment about the story from Dick himself.

”To me, this story states my early conclusions as to what is human. I have not really changed my view since I wrote this story, back in the Fifties. It’s not what you look like, or what planet you were born on. It’s how kind you are. The quality of kindness, to me, distinguishes us from rocks and sticks and metal, and will forever, whatever shape we take, wherever we to, whatever we become. For me, Human Is is my credo. May it be yours” – Philip K. Dick (1976)

Electric Dreams returns in 2018 on Channel 4.

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