Perhaps it was doomed from the start. Electric Dreams, a sci-fi anthology series comprised of ten episodes all based on short stories written by Philip K. Dick was released in 2017 to lukewarm reviews and little promotion. This was during the height of the cultural phenomenon surrounding Black Mirror, which was airing its fourth season at the time, and comparisons to the dark and dystopian science fiction staple were inevitable. By all accounts, Electric Dreams could not distinguish itself from the more successful and well-regarded competition.
But the potential was there; with PKD’s ever-reliable fount of source material, and the author’s own daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, serving as a producer. A plethora of well-known actors signed on, and a large budget was granted for the cost of hiring that level of talent and name-recognition – not to mention the gargantuan amount of money required to bring ten separate (mostly) futuristic worlds to life through CGI, costume, and set design. And for its part, Electric Dreams succeeded in those aspects: the worlds are gorgeous and many of the acting exceptional.
Where the series falls short, however, is in its methods of filling up the time slots. Each episode has a runtime of around fifty minutes, and each episode, save a couple, is based on a short story that ran no longer than ten to fifteen pages. What comes from that is a lot of “storytelling fat,” which certainly would have been cut out if it weren’t necessary to hit the episodes’ goal. There are unnecessary subplots and plenty of filler, and what makes them so obvious and distracting is that the same quality isn’t there. As can be seen even in Blade Runner, Total Recall, and most recently in The Man in the High Castle, faithfully adapting PKD, never the most cinematic of authors, has always been a challenge. And amidst the few classics is a sea of forgettable dross like Paycheck. So when an episode takes a hard turn into contrived subplots, written specifically to pad out the runtime, you can tell that it’s diverting from the source material – and not in a good way.
Still, there are moments of genuine beauty, heartbreak, horror, tension, and mystery. And despite its uneven output, Electric Dreams is deserving of a wider audience, because as we spiral further into the twenty-first century, the stories of a twentieth century writer musing on the future of humanity have only become more prescient, more apt, and more unnervingly close to home.
The three episodes that touch on these aspects the best are also three of the overall greatest in the series: Autofac, Safe and Sound, and Kill All Others.
Autofac, based on the 1955 short story of the same name, tells of a dystopian world ravaged by war and pollution. A small settlement of people living in their own Eden, subsisting off an agrarian, self-sufficient system in possibly one of the last pockets on Earth where organic food can still be grown from the rapidly contaminated soil, spend their time warring with a sentient, self-replicating machine system first developed to assist with the mass production necessary to meet the demands of a world war that has long since ended, but not before culling the vast majority of humanity. The problem now is that nobody can turn the machine off. Operating, in an awkwardly Amazon-like fashion, through a web of drones dotting the sky, Autofac never stopped mass-producing, creating products for a population that no longer exists, all the while destroying the planet’s environment with its never-ending output and subsequent pollution. What follows certainly differs from the source material, with a twist that does work and elicits an existential horror that fits well into PKD’s oeuvre, but the message remains the same: Overconsumption and overreliance on technology will inevitably be the death of us all.
Safe and Sound, based on the 1955 short story “Foster, You’re Dead!,” is a modern retelling of corporate greed and brainwashing capitalizing on Cold War-era paranoia to turn a profit. Instead of bomb shelters (which were the focus of the original story), Safe and Sound is about a world so immersed in technology that anyone who doesn’t have a special wristband that connects to just about everything necessary to function in this society (a not-so-subtle nod to smart phones) is treated not only as a social pariah, but a possible terrorist. Foster and her mother, a diplomat from one of the “bubbles” in the East United States – areas of the country now split in half that reject technology and see it as a method of mind-control and forced subservience to political and corporate corruption – move to the technology-reliant West United States for Foster’s mother to play the necessary political games to keep the West’s culture from bleeding into their communities.
More importantly, though, it also serves as a peace-keeping mission, as the West’s media is saturated with what Foster’s mother considers false flags – preplanned and faked terrorist attacks by members of the Eastern bubbles upon the West, serving the us-versus-them mentality that fuels further paranoia, forcing West United States citizens into further reliance on their Orwellian technology under the guise that it will protect them. They are on the grid, their security is entirely dependent on the wristband, and it is the only way they will remain safe from the Eastern terrorists who wish nothing more than to destroy their way of life. It’s not yet a law that you have to wear the wristband, but when everything your life depends on requires its use, it becomes less a suggestion, and more an order. I think you can see where this is going.
Feeling the weight of peer pressure, Foster breaks into her mother’s bank account with the help of a new friend, and buys herself a wristband against her mother’s wishes for her to remain uncorrupted. What follows is a horrifying conspiracy with Foster as the pawn of a much greater plan put in place the moment she and her mother arrived to the West, and her sanity and safety unravel before our eyes as the greed of PKD’s Big Brother figure stays always one step ahead with the help of the omnipotent technology at their disposal. It’s a stress-inducing fifty minutes that intensifies until the (literal and figurative) explosion, almost on par with the tension of the infamous “Shut Up and Dance” episode of Black Mirror. Almost. As good as Electric Dreams can be, the similarities and subsequent comparisons are hard to avoid. And when that happens, unfortunately the series fails to meet the moment.
The strongest of the three timeliest episodes, though, Kill All Others, is a near master-class of a dystopian adaptation for the modern age. Based on the 1953 short story “The Hanging Stranger”, writer and director Dee Rees takes the original concept and makes it her own in the best way one could.
“The Hanging Stranger” was a story about a race of bug-like aliens who, in one fell swoop, body-snatched the entire human population, save a percentage of stragglers who avoided the event by luck or happenstance. The aliens, in an effort to bring the remaining humans out into the light, hanged a man by a lamppost. Those who were already body-snatched paid the hanging body no mind, but those who were still human and unaware of what had occurred were obviously horrified by the sight. Thus, the aliens could tell who had not yet turned. It’s a great concept on its own, but Rees turned the idea into a post-modern cautionary tale about the society we live in today. Taking out the aliens entirely, those now doing the brainwashing are our own culture and government.
Philbert Noyce (played with astonishing sincerity and empathy by Better Call Saul’s Mel Rodriguez) is one of the few remaining human workers in an automated factory. The United States has merged with the rest of North America into a single “meganation” called MexUsCan, and now operates under a single-party system masquerading as a democracy, wherein candidates are voted out more for the entertainment of those watching as if it’s reality television, than as any form of actual choice by the citizens. The President-elect, known only as “The Candidate” (Vera Farmiga) takes questions on a televised talk show, when seemingly out of nowhere they (it’s made purposefully unclear whether The Candidate is a robot or simply androgynous) makes the remark that we need to “kill all others,” before quickly moving on to other points, and this odd and ominous statement is completely ignored by everyone in attendance – except Philbert.
As he watches from his living room, Philbert becomes distraught. Why is no one saying anything? How could they just say what they said, and no one else is reacting? He goes online, desperately searching for any others who are as disturbed by The Candidate’s comment as he is, but finds nothing. He goes to work the next day, where his remaining three coworkers brush it off as political theater, and urge him to ignore whatever is said by the government. It’s all fixed and just for views, anyway. None of it matters. It’s just entertainment.
But Philbert can’t shake off this feeling of alienation. As a viewer, you can feel yourself getting as frustrated and horrified as Philbert. Rodriguez’s acting is one of the best performances of the series, and you empathize with his every reaction as he becomes more and more paranoid and confused. Signs begin flashing outside his train home from work, stating the same hallucinatory words: KILL ALL OTHERS. He watches a woman tackled and beaten in broad daylight for being an “Other.” He doesn’t know what any of it means. What is an “Other?” It could be anyone. Why are they being targeted in the first place?
The term “Kill All Others” came to Rees when Louisiana Congressman Clay Higgins took to social media, calling for U.S. citizens to hunt down every suspected Islamic terrorist, writing: “… identify them, and kill them. Kill them all. For the sake of all that is good and righteous. Kill them all.” Again … this episode hits a little too close to home. And maybe a little too on the nose, which is really its only weak point.
Where Electric Dreams falters the most though, is when it tackles more standard sci-fi tropes that are less about the parallels to the human condition told through speculative stories of PKD’s caliber, and end up drowning in the clichés that may have been cutting-edge – or at least, in demand – in the mid-twentieth century when the original short stories were written.
A prime example of this is easily the worst episode of the series: The Father Thing, adapted from PDK’s 1954 original. It’s the story of a boy who, after witnessing a strange meteor shower while camping with his dad, watches with horror as an alien creature kills and then takes the form of his father. What follows is the most run-of-the-mill, creature-feature, Invasion of the Body Snatchers rip-off you can ever hope to find. The child actors are terrible, the script is awkward and under-delivered, and the premise lacks any semblance of originality for an adaptation of a nearly seventy-year-old short story that has the foresight to know how overdone this subgenre is by now.
I hate to end on a bad note, but often times the weakest link is the sum of one’s parts, and as great as some of the other stories are, episodes like The Father Thing and the similarly poor The Impossible Planet (which ruined the perfectly fine 1953 short story of the same name by introducing a pointless romantic subplot for the sake of extending the episode length) drag what could have been a remarkable and exciting series of adaptations down to a more forgettable, flawed, and uneven piece of television.
At least we’ll always have Blade Runner.