Watching Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Amazon’s new sci-fi anthology series based on the author’s short stories, is a potent lesson in just what a long shadow the prolific and endlessly imaginative author has cast over the world of contemporary science fiction in all its forms. Each episode provides reminders anew of the debt owed Dick by nearly every practitioner of the genre, as well as evidence why his tales are returned to time and again by those looking to make challenging sci-fi on either the big or small screen. Dick did plenty of borrowing himself, from older narrative tricks and philosophical explorations, but he arguably did more to update them—not just for his own time but also the era of postmodernity itself, in which we still find ourselves—into futuristic and forward-thinking molds that have yet to see any sell-by date arrive, even if they may require slight tweaking here and there to account for how the world has changed.
But Dick’s stories ultimately turned inward, using sci-fi trappings to investigate age-old questions about the self, the ways we conceive of ourselves as human, and just what that term could and should mean. The new series is a welcome addition to the roster of intellectually engaging sci-fi shows, a solid resource for anyone mourning their too-soon completion of the latest round of Black Mirror. But unlike that series’ commitment to exploring the meaning behind technology itself and how it interacts and disrupts our capacities for traditional human behavior (whatever that might mean), the best episodes of Electric Dreams focus squarely on the people embedded in these situations, grappling with genuine ethical and emotional crises and dilemmas. More often than not, any technology or future society depicted is incidental to the actual drama, a MacGuffin through which to deal with heady psychological issues and moral questions. Yes, such drama is timeless, but isn’t it more fun when filtered through the lens of a noir-inflected future world filled with cool gadgets?
Bryan Cranston and Michael Dinner, based on the stories of Philip K. Dick
Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Anna Paquin, Juno Temple, Greg Kinnear, Timothy Spall, Maura Tierney
Friday, January 12 on Amazon
Hour-long science fiction drama anthology. Complete season watched for review.
That genre-wide debt to the renowned author actually works against the new series at times, in that a number of these stories and ideas have been liberally repurposed (or outright stolen) by numerous other films and TV shows in the intervening decades, sometimes to greater success. A show with a concept as fundamental as “Does reality shape our minds, or do our minds shape reality?” needs some additional bells and whistles—beyond a star-studded cast—in a post-Matrix world, at least if it hopes to surprise or give audiences something newly fecund. As it is, there are a few installments of the series that feel as retro as a Nintendo 64—still charming and entertaining, but not giving us anything we haven’t seen before, and in some cases long ago.
That sense of conceptual déjà vu means the series can often feel like an anthology of previous anthology shows, as various entries play up different aspects of Dick’s interests, emphasizing the formats and types of story he was capable of constructing. “Real Life,” the first episode, is arguably one of the most Black Mirror-esque, with its tale of a cop (Anna Paquin) so haunted by a tragedy that she’s encouraged to take a “neural vacation” in which she’ll literally become someone else in a kind of dream-state break from her worries. Reality quickly starts to unravel, but as with all of Dick’s fascinations, he ultimately cares more about the reasons we choose to engage with technology than the results of said tech upon our psyches.
But from there, the series pinballs through a variety of stories, echoing other sci-fi-inflected shows of the past. “Human Is,” with Bryan Cranston (who also executive-produces the show) as a petty and vindictive soldier who supposedly dies fighting aliens, only to return and raise questions about his personality, features courtroom speechifying straight from one of Jean-Luc Picard’s more on-the-nose monologues. “The Father Thing,” with Greg Kinnear as a loving father who may or may not have been replaced by an alien, is more wooden Twilight Zone plot than trippy mind game. And second-to-last entry “The Commuter,” one of the most moving installments (featuring Timothy Spall as a depressed guy whose son suffers psychotic episodes), would be right at home in Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories. What keeps them all feeling of a piece is Dick’s obsessive reworking of his central theme: what it means to be human in a reality that often seems doggedly persistent in breaking down that definition.
Or at least the more successful ones deal with that question. Steve Buscemi is largely wasted in an episode that deals more with a standard midlife crisis than any existential quandary; day-to-day mundanities were never Dick’s strong suit, an idiosyncratic crafter of everyday conversations if ever there was one. Cranston’s offering likewise suffers from been-there-seen-that familiarity. And political paranoia—the author’s other great talent—is largely restricted to a pair of episodes exploring the human tendency to circle the wagons when faced with even the vaguest concept of an “other” in our midst. “The Hood Maker” pits Game Of Thrones’ Richard Madden as a cop with a psychic partner (Holliday Grainger) in a world that has just passed laws allowing telepathic scanning of all people, triggering outraged violence against the superpowered minority. And the season finale offers the most overt and unsettling parable of them all, as a politician (Vera Farmiga) introduces a seemingly outrageous concept—“Kill All Others”—only to have the proposal become eerily normalized in a society more concerned with maintaining an even keel.
After a strong start, Electric Dreams meanders through a few uninspired segments—and like any anthology series, those weaker episodes detract from the overall sense of wonder and engagement. But Dick’s visions retain such appeal, and the execution of the better entries (helmed by some excellent directors, including Dee Rees and Julian Jarrold) land so forcefully that the show outpaces its missteps, delivering a smart and transportive sci-fi series that cleverly finds its most human moments in the least humane of situations. Reality isn’t always recognizable in these stories, but the characters that populate them are all too real.