At first glance, Electric Dreams can feel like British cabler Channel 4 is trying to gain back a Black Mirror hole that Netflix has taken away, but it isn’t long before the show begins to reveal itself as its own thing. With a hefty budget and some pretty fantastic star power, the show is a good step in the direction of television sci-fi that has been making a renaissance of sorts lately. Amazon Video snagged the U.S. rights, all ten episodes releasing on January 12.
The show is the kind of classic speculative science fiction that is not seen as much anymore. Based on the work of Philip K. Dick of The Man in the High Castle, A Scanner Darkly, Minority Report and Blade Runner (or, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”) fame, each episode of this anthology is heady and thoughtful in its portrayal of the future, considering what certain things can mean to humanity and taking that to a large canvas, and then condensing it to the intimate. Where Black Mirror focuses on the technology and its cause and effect, Electric Dreams is more interested in characters within morality tales.
The major draw of the episodes is the wonderful acting. You’ve got Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Timothy Spall, Maura Tierney, Mel Rodriguez, Jack Reynor, and Greg Kinnear spread across the run, all putting in excellent work and adding to each of their respective episodes. The production value is fairly high, as well, some gorgeous locales and visual work at play that is noticeable from the very moment the main title sequence begins. Some are flashier than others, but there is never a quality issue in that department. Some of the ideas on display, too, are taken to interesting places and at times come to extraordinary conclusions.
As I completed the season, the main issue became the fleshing out of these worlds. The episodes mostly felt thin on their surface level, never given enough time to fully breathe; that is to say, the worlds deserved more time to be explored. It worked out better for some more than others, but a lot of the ideas and stories could have been delved into and studied a little longer, though the 48-50 minute runtime of each episode restricted this. The rushed pacing led to a lot of cut corners not in production, but in storytelling: some things did not have the right impact, some decisions came out of nowhere, and some characters and actors never get to be much more than a presence in the story. A reason for the short shrift is likely that the non-modern episodes need more time for worldbuilding, and so end up eating into time that could have been spent on more pressing matters, then unfolding the worldbuilding over time. This is especially the case in Autofac, which even has text over a black screen.
Another thing to note: while they hold the Philip K Dick name, a lot of these stories are heavily modified and only share character’s names from the original work. Some are closer than others, but there are some wildly different than the story they are based on.
Here is a short rundown of each episode:
“Real Life” takes a very familiar science fiction trope and intends to do its best with it, but ends up feeling a little rote. It’s written by Ronald D. Moore of Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, and Outlander fame, but it takes a familiar idea of shared existence, a question of what’s real and what’s not, and turns it into a mystery thriller. It does have some good moments in there, some wonderful visuals, and Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard add a lot, but this one never quite clicked the way it was intended to.
“Autofac” is about a small community trying to survive after a near-apocalypse, and trying to communicate with a mega-corporation that continues to pollute despite the destruction. It leads to Janelle Monae, as a robot, coming to satisfy their customer report. There’s a small charm to the episode that felt a little like NBC’s Revolution, though that could be because of David Lyons appearing in both. The episode hinges on a twist later in the story, but that did not end up working as well as intended. This twist leads to feeling like everything beforehand had been a ploy or a way of tricking you, and because of its execution, ends up feeling a little cheap. It had some interesting ideas on automation, however, and so it is not a total loss.
“Human Is” is Bryan Cranston and Essie Davis as two members of a base settlement on Terra that are finding oxygen coming to a finite limit. They are at war with the Rexorians, an alien species. Cranston’s character goes on a mission to their planet, and they are overrun and thought dead. His wife, played by Essie Davis, finds herself without her abusive partner, Cranston having been cold and cruel before. But then he comes back and is loving and kind. Something is certainly wrong. It’s a good spin on the idea, having kindness be a thing that gives pause to its main character, and Cranston and especially Davis plays it perfectly. She has this vulnerability in her performance that makes it all the more interesting. But the world around it comes off a little flimsy, the science fiction side not quite up to snuff. But it is still a good episode because of the two central characters and their plight. It wasted Liam Cunningham, though, which is quite a shame.
“Crazy Diamond” finds Steve Buscemi in the starring role. It is a pretty bizarre episode that includes AI-infused people called jacks and jills, pig people, a sheep with an almost human face, seaside communities waiting to be swept away, food going bad in a day or two, and a thriller heist. Buscemi’s character, Ed, does not have a lot of motivation beyond closeness and a time limit to Jill, the woman he meets, and so it takes some effort to go along with the plot. So while the episode itself isn’t particularly perfect, all of the inclusions mentioned, and Buscemi in the middle, leads to something pretty fascinating, despite the issues.
“The Hood Maker” feels a lot like Minority Report, another Dick story, where we follow a telepathic that is teamed up with an agent rooting out terrorists. Nicknamed “Teeps”, these telepaths can dive deep into their subject’s minds and memories and root out the darkest secrets kept within. Richard Madden plays Agent Ross and Holliday Grainger the telepath, Honor. There are questions of authoritarianism and discrimination that are brought up throughout the episode, but the story comes off as a little slight and needing more to keep it afloat.
“The Father Thing” stars Greg Kinnear and Mireille Enos, and is about their son named Charlie and how the family is about to split apart. There are strange meteor showers happening at a quickened rate in the backdrop, and suddenly people start changing. This came as the episode needing the most time and suffered greatly in its back half because of it. It had its moments but came up incredibly short. The ending happened so fast that it was a whiplash effect, where it felt as though the episode needed another five minutes to get to that. It also has a similar story to “Human Is”, in terms of people possibly not being who they say they are, and so having the episodes in the same season is somewhat of a detriment.
“Safe and Sound” is the most problematic of the season. The premise it’s going for and the revelations they cause in the main character is not entirely sound in its set-up and delivery. There is a neat idea hidden in there, but it’s behind a lot of questionable choices. Foster moves to the city with her activist mother from a place called a “bubble”, and so is discriminated against. This all leads down a path of paranoia and terrorism that never quite fits well inside its own skin. It also comes across as vaguely insensitive due to its portrayal of discrimination, which did not sit well with me.
“Impossible Planet” is a simple premise but a deep episode, following an old lady named Irma who wishes to see Earth before she dies. The problem is, this is hundreds of years into the future, and it is considered lost. She offers immense amounts of cash to Captain Andrews and his cohort, Norton, to bring her there. Jack Reynor is excellent as Norton, whose moral dilemma and genuine care for Irma leads the story into a unique and great sci-fi direction. The ship’s interior and the robotic servant that accompanies Irma are well designed, the emotional core is fascinating, and overall left much more of an impression than most of the season.
“The Commuter” is deeply intriguing. Timothy Spall, always in fantastic form, works at the train station and has a troubled home life. He encounters a woman asking for a ticket to a place that does not exist, and when he looks into it, she vanishes. She pops up several more times, and he grows curious and decides to board the train to find this mystery destination. The episode asks questions about what is ideal, and what change can bring, and ponders what that can take away. The episode is the most low-fi of the season and benefits greatly from this. It’s a powerful morality tale of missing what you have when it’s gone, and whether or not something that causes pain is worth keeping if love is involved. It is written by Jack Thorne and is the strongest written episode of the bunch, combined with Spall’s great performance.
“K.A.O.” is by far the most interesting episode of the pack. In a world where ads are now in our homes and assaulting us while we shave, there is only one political candidate and Philbert (a great Mel Rodriguez) works in a factory where he’s one of only three workers, full automation not quite legal. While watching the political speech of the single candidate (Vera Farmiga), she says, “kill all others” in a casual tone and continues on. Phil is immediately caught by surprise, while no one else really seems to notice. It becomes a really great paranoia-driven episode about what otherness means and how society can turn a leader’s words into a form of hysteria. Dee Rees wrote and directed it, and it is a wonderful hour of television.
Overall, there are certainly some very good ideas in this series, but it can be dampened down by monotony and, more drastically, simply running out of time. Episodes can have incredible design and acting and moment-to-moment greatness, but be taken out at the knees as the forty-minute mark hits and there are only a few minutes left to finish. It’s that mad dash to the finish that can leave great stories feeling slight and limp or leave us wanting more. A couple brings the latter, but unfortunately, the majority come with the former.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams could benefit from two-part episodes or, if Channel 4 and Amazon allow, having more time to play with. Debuting so close to new Black Mirror episodes is a smart move, as those wanting more of that style of science fiction have ten new episodes to watch. The show is in the right direction, but in the end, suffers under its own weight.