Premiering this Friday on Amazon, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is an anthology series based on ten of Philip K. Dick’s short stories. Best known for writing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book behind the blockbuster film, Blade Runner, Dick’s mark on the sci-fi genre is well-documented and that shows in the names attached to this project (Steve Buscemi, Janelle Monàe, and Vera Farmiga are just a few of the actors appearing). Every episode is standalone, and a book collecting the stories adapted for this season has been published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
[*Note: the order of airing and numbering these episodes has been changed for the American release vs. the UK, so numbering has been removed to prevent confusion.]
Here’s an early review of four of the episodes:
Ed (Timothy Spall) has worked at the train station for over twenty years. He knows where the train stops, so when a woman asks for a ticket to a station that doesn’t exist, he’s confident in the knowledge she must be mistaken. Instead of admitting her error, the woman disappears, and reappears in other locations. Ed can’t shake these encounters and finally decides to hop on a train and look for Macon Heights himself.
The result is a modern train being treated like a boxcar, that can be hopped on and off of at will – highly improbable, highly dangerous, but necessary to get to Macon Heights. One of the first things Ed does after arriving is eat a slice of cake, and it feels like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds in Greek mythology. Most of the people are dressed in similar attire but you can’t make a ruckus out of ‘most.’
Of the four episodes I’ve watched so far, “The Commuter” is the one that’s gotten under my skin. It gets to the heart of who men like Ed are, and the good face they can put on. They’d rather give you tea from a teabag in the trash than admit they ran out, or share.
I do wish the episode had spent more time with Ed’s wife, Mary (Rebecca Manley). Ed is hung up on this idea of what he thought his life would be like, but it’s not a given most would feel the same way, but the ending is untouchable. It gets right to the truth of the situation.
In “The Father Thing,” Electric Dreams taps into the current nostalgia for 80’s films starring preteens. Most of the genre trappings are here – underage cursing, bullies who aren’t as tough as their gruff – but set in modern times, with modern technology. Instead of walkie talkies that fall out of range, the internet goes down, preventing the besties from video chatting.
Something’s happened to Charlie’s dad (Greg Kinnear). He looks like his dad, but something’s off and when the internet was up, there were other people citing changes in their friends and family, too.
The first words out of Charlie’s mouth are “My father is not a d*ck,” so you’re prepared for Dad to go bad, but if Charlie (Jack Gore) hadn’t said anything, you probably wouldn’t think so. Going back in time three days, viewers are primed to look for signs of trouble and their mindfulness pays off. Father and son are not being honest with each other,, and a camping trip that seems to go well in person gets poorly reviewed when they’re asked how it went.
“The Father Thing” has subtle drama, and a healthy perspective on divorce, but the episode makes a mistake, moving towards heavy sci-fi. It doesn’t help that the visuals get tough to discern, as well. At one point one of the boys says they believe Charlie now. While the camera holds on the revelatory scene, you mostly take his word for it.
In life, you get what you paid for and for tourists looking to visit outer space, Astral Dreams has multiple sightseeing tours they can choose from. They can even promise good weather. Norton (Jack Reynor), one of the pilots on Dreamweaver 9, counteracts rising cloud density by digitally enhancing the view from the space craft’s window. Everyone’s a happy customer when they don’t realize it’s fake, and the truth is bad weather spoils things. By being disingenuous, people get what they want.
This is the cue for “Impossible Planet,” to test that theory with a 342-year-old woman. Irma Gordon (Geraldine Chaplin) wants to hire Norton to take her to Earth. The planet’s extinct, but she won’t take no for an answer, so after offering Norton and his friend, Andrews (Benedict Wong) a heap load of money, they accept her cash incentive.
It’s not that different from the other lies they’ve told, but on a larger scale. Chaplin is fantastic in the role of Irma but, for being the cheated party, she’s a frustrating character. While any comment on her part elicits guilt, she’s knowingly asking for something that’s going to disappoint and acting surprised when it does.
The ending is exactly what you’d expect, which in this case, isn’t the best, but the design for Irma’s robot aide does come as a surprise. With a face like a sad mask, there’s no attempt to make him lifelike and, in a future that’s made so many strides, it’s interesting to see that restraint.
I’m sure the creators of Electric Dreams weren’t thinking about the new Jumanji movie when they were planning this episode, but there’s an amusing crossing of wires between the film, which has Jack Black playing a teenage girl’s video game avatar, and this episode, which has Sarah (Anna Paquin) entering a virtual reality where she’s George (Terrence Howard).
“Real Time” hits some familiar territory, but is excellently played by both stars. It’s not like you don’t see the growing confusion over which world is real coming, but the approach takes some original detours, and the decision to ground the story in a discussion of survivor’s guilt makes what the episode has to say truly important. On a lighter note, you get to watch George wrap his head around driving a car, after being used to flying in Sarah’s future, so there’s something you don’t see every day.
Season 1 of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams streams on Amazon January 12th. Look for a review of three more episodes at the end of next week.