Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams is like Black Mirror lite. ‘Lite’ on existential crises, that is, not quality.
But don’t worry, there’s still existential ponderings and philosophical questions aplenty.
Electric Dreams is a science-fiction anthology series currently streaming on Stan in Australia, based on the short stories of Philip K. Dick. Each episode interprets one of the short stories published during Dick’s career, and there are many to choose from. As well as 44 novels, Dick published approximately 121 short stories during his lifetime.
Dick’s imaginative renderings of authoritarian governments, monopolistic corporations, and questions of consciousness are having a modern moment. There’s the Blade Runner sequel, Blade Runner 2049, a continuation of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? And Amazon recently adapted his ‘alternate history’ novel The Man in the High Castle, which imagines a world where World War II ended differently.
Electric Dreams will consist of ten standalone episodes, and we are currently at the halfway point. Like any collection of short films, or short stories, the quality of each varies dramatically, as does the subject matter and central philosophical questions.
The first episode to air, The Hood Maker, has been the most immediately engaging episodes so far.
In an alternate 1970s version of London, an unnamed cataclysmic event has wiped out technology. This leads, naturally, to a steampunk aesthetic and lots of overcoats. More importantly, radiation from this same cataclysmic event has resulted in people being born as telepaths, or ‘teeps’ to use the pejorative used by the general public. Telepaths are recognisable by the birthmarks that blaze across their faces like solar flares.
The government has decided that trained telepaths should be used to monitor people’s thoughts, which is a believable turn of events. At a time in our own history when right-to-privacy debates are raging, and an alarming amount of our metadata is owned by corporate entities, it’s a prescient plot point. Predictably, the people of this alternate earth aren’t happy.
What complicates matters is that it’s hard to be entirely on the side of the proletariat. The public doesn’t like the government’s decision, but they also don’t like telepaths. Telepaths in this vision of London face the challenges and bigotry the same as any minority today. They are treated as invaders of the country they were born in.
This fraught, political setting becomes the backdrop for what is perhaps a love story, or then again, perhaps not, between Agent Ross (Richard Madden, a.k.a Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) and Honor, a telepath (a phenomenal turn from Holliday Grainger). The question is not how much should the government know about our thoughts; but how much can we ever know about the person we love?
The second episode, Impossible Planet, takes us sailing across the solar system on a cruise spaceship, crewed by the unsophisticated and dissatisfied employee Brian (Jack Raynor) and his cynical supervisor Ed (Benedict Wong). Their regular itinerary is disturbed when an elderly woman, Irma Louise Gordon (Geraldine Chaplin) boards the interstellar cruise liner, and asks to be taken to Earth.
There’s just one problem: Earth no longer exists.
Brian and Ed take the woman’s generous offer of payment anyway, and decide they will take her to another, random planet that closely resembles what the decimated and destroyed Earth would have looked like. Along the way there is a surprisingly touching May-September romance; and after some interference from Irma’s robot chaperone-slash-butler, our intrepid travellers might end up on the real Earth after all…
Impossible Planet is a surreal tour through outer space, and the outer limits of human behaviour when isolated from society.
The Commuter, the third episode, is one of the most emotionally satisfying of the series to date. Timothy Spall gives a moving, nuanced performance as Ed, a man with an unsatisfying job and a difficult home life. He discovers a town that should not exist, and after encountering this non-town is granted an easier, happier life, but with one enormous sacrifice.
The episode is written by Jack Thorne, part of the team who wrote the continuation of J. K. Rowling’s beloved series in a theatre format, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Ed’s son, Sam, is played by Anthony Boyle who was first cast as the character Scorpius Malfoy in the same play on the West End.
The fourth episode Crazy Diamond is, well, crazy. There’s dystopian government control, rising sea levels, cloned humans, chimera pig-people, and implanted quantum consciousness. Basically, there’s a lot going on, but the only thing you really need to know is Steve Buscemi stars as the central character, Ed. It’s a strange, neo-noir thriller of saturated colours that is held together by strong performances from Buscemi and femme fatale Sidse Babett-Knudsen.
I’m hoping the fact that three of the episodes have featured characters named Ed becomes a part of some mind-blowing, overarching narrative at some point, but even if it doesn’t, Electric Dreams has been a satisfying ride. From telepaths to pig-human chimeras, it all comes from the imagination of Philip K. Dick. Bring on the second half of the series.
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