To say that Philip K. Dick is one of the single most influential and visionary storytellers in the history of modern sci-fi is almost redundant at this point. It’s one of those things that’s just known, tied intrinsically to the cultural zeitgeist like Einstein and physics, Spielberg and cinema, and Brexit and terrible decisions. His influence has reached that rare level where it’s basically universal; to unpack it would require the ability to write spider diagrams in five dimensions which, to be honest, is probably something he’s already thought of and written about over the course of his frankly staggering back catalogue.
Which leads us nicely on to Channel 4’s Electric Dreams – and no, we’re not talking about a TV remake of the 80s classic/abomination Electric Dreams, pipe down Moles. For every Blade Runner (i.e. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Minority Report, or The Man in the High Castle, there’s a whole treasure trove of novellas and short stories (120 at a rough count) that remain largely unknown to all but the most ardent of genre aficionados. Enter Electric Dreams, a 10 part anthology series that’s set itself the noble quest of righting the aforementioned wrong. Each episode is a loosely based (very, in some cases) standalone adaption of one of Dick’s short stories, more like a series of self-contained films than your traditional television series, with a different writer, director, and cast for each entry.
It’s a brave and largely novel approach to television and it’s hard to tell if it’s successful or not without seeing the full series run. We watched the first two episodes from the upcoming series, introduced with a pre-recorded video from the indomitable Bryan Cranston, who serves as executive producer across the series and stars in his own episode. He spoke about how the series had a shared thematic DNA that linked episodes, a sentiment shared by series producer Michael Dinner in the Q&A afterwards, so there’s clearly a party line at play. In the episodes we saw this was loosely true, revolving around a general exploration of what it means to be human – a fairly common preoccupation in Dick’s work, so it’ll be interesting to see what the full series can do with it.
The first thing that strikes you about Electric Dreams is that it holds no punches. This thing is Ambitious with a capital A right across the board, from the casting, to the visuals, to the narratives and thematic concepts that drive them. Even the opening credits are awash in trippy imagery, the volume and extent of which is almost overwhelming – it’s how you imagine Philip K. Dick himself may have seen the world, all fish-clouds and skeletal robo-humans, so in that sense it’s undeniably effective; “strap in,” it says, “and pay attention.” Because, seriously, you’ll need to pay attention. Like Black Mirror before it (more on that relationship later), this isn’t a series that lends itself to casual viewing. It blasts along at an often dizzying pace, throwing ideas and concepts at you like a mad scientist, demanding singular attention and focus. While this is a respectable commitment to the source material it will inevitably prove divisive – turning some people off at the first hurdle while committing others to repeat viewings.
Inherently then, there’s a danger here: ambition invites pitfalls, the higher you seek to climb the more danger you have of falling, and while Electric Dreams shoots enthusiastically for the stars (and the stars and nebulae and galaxies beyond them) it isn’t an entirely smooth launch.
The first episode we saw was the series premiere, The Hoodmaker, based on the short story of the same name. It sees a near-future, semi-dystopia where a new group of humans with a telepathic mutation have evolved. True to form, mankind has reacted terribly and subjugated/ enslaved/ scapegoated the telepaths, even giving them their own dehumanising nickname-come-slur, “teeps.” Richard “Game of Thrones” Madden plays Agent Ross, a police detective partnered with a teep called Honor (a fantastic Holliday Grainger) as they work to subvert and subdue a civilian uprising. Unsurprisingly, the common people aren’t entirely on board with the whole “total-surveillance-even-of-my-own-brain” thing and when telepath-blocking hoods start appearing on the street the city is primed on the knife-edge of a threeway civil war between the the teeps, the common folk, and the government. It’s left up to Agent Ross and Honor to solve the secrets of the eponymous Hoodmaker and to try to bring things back under control – but everyone has secrets.
The Hoodmaker makes it very clear – Electric Dreams has Black Mirror firmly in its sights: dystopian stories exploring the reaches, limits, and effects of science and technology, all with the Big Question in mind: what does it mean to be human? However, for all of its gloss and style – The Hoodmaker is superbly well produced, it’s grungy, neo-noir, Bladerunner-esque world beautifully realised – it lacks the consistency of vision and delivery that so characterises Charlie Brooker’s seminal series.
The story here is interesting, opening with an excellent introductory sequence that sees Honor facing off against a swiftly aggressive group of protesters while Richard Madden goes full Rick Deckard in a street-chase. It’s tight, exciting storytelling that unfortunately starts to break down as the details of the world are slowly revealed. It’s a strange situation where you never really feel like you know enough about what’s going on, while simultaneously struggling to compute all of the details thrown at you with increasing pace as the narrative barrels towards a suitably poignant, ambiguous conclusion. For example, we completely missed the reveal that this was a world without advanced technology, meaning the teeps are a necessary tool for long-distance communication, which, frankly, answered quite a lot of our questions (admittedly, this is likely our own error, but it was worth mentioning as part of the experience).
Fortunately, any frailties in this particular episode are offset by tremendous casting and truly terrific performances, particularly from Holliday Grainger who is utterly captivating throughout, by turns devastatingly vulnerable and frighteningly powerful; she’s by far the most “human” presence on screen.
It was in the second episode of the night, Crazy Diamond, that the scale of Electric Dreams’ ambition comes back to haunt it. More than anything, Crazy Diamond could have benefited from an extra re-draft or two – there are so many moving parts, so many idea and concepts jumbled on top of one another, that it begins to feel formless and even a little frustrating.
The main thrust of the plot is clear enough: Steve Buscemi plays Ed Morris, a downbeat guy living with his downbeat wife Sally (Julia Davis) in world so sinisterly “utopian” – all bright colours, self-contained service systems, and rampant systemic denial – that it’s literally falling apart. While he and Sally dream of one day sailing away on their boat to new experiences overseas, his life is turned upside down by the sudden arrival of a mysterious femme fatale (Sidse Babett Knudsen on top form) who tempts him into a daring heist.
The main problem with Crazy Diamond is that it has a hundred ideas and no filter, instead throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks – the problem being that when the volume is high enough nothing sticks it all, cancelling itself out instead. The environment and global warming is evoked consistently, alongside overpopulation and the lack of sustainable food, and then scientific ethics ostensibly steps forward, before being swiftly replaced by a classic noir set-up of femme fatale versus hapless hero, and then it’s a heist movie complete with madcap eccentric villain types, all the while juggling themes of loneliness, desire, and freedom, and, of course, the Big Question: what does it mean to be human? The sheer noise of it all drags the episode into a weird middle-ground somewhere between Dr. Who and the dystopic refinement of Black Mirror. In a word: messy.
Steve Buscemi is, naturally, solid in the lead, skillfully finding the incredibly tricky balance between pathetically lamentable and contemptible cowardice, while Westworld and Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen steals the show as the neo-noir temptress, clearly having a lot of fun with the role. But as good as the casting is – alongside the visuals and excellent musical score – the episode is too haphazard and fiddly to get caught-up in the human stories, a pretty big misstep considering the proposed shared series DNA on offer.
It’s perhaps significant to note that, outside of the character names and a vague desire to “get away,” Crazy Diamond has nothing in common with the Philip K. Dick story it’s based on, Sales Pitch (wherein Ed Morris is a beleaguered commuter, sick of being assaulted by advertising on his daily commute from Earth to Jupiter, who’s pushed over-the-edge by an overly keen robot helper). Adaptations are tricky and treacherous, they offer the creative freedom to move around a preconceived narrative world (and narrative worlds don’t get much better than from the mind of Philip K. Dick!) but move around too much or too far and they can threaten to fall apart.
What we see across The Hoodmaker and Crazy Diamond then is two very different sides of adaptations: one that takes the framework and uses it to inform a solid story in its own right; and another that loses track of where it started and doesn’t find its way home again. Which… is a good thing, in a way. It’s a clear indication that Electric Dreams follows through on its core premise to deliver ten very different stories in ten very different worlds. What works for some viewers won’t work for others and we came away with the impression that somebody else may have the exact opposite reaction to the episodes we saw – and they wouldn’t be wrong. This is fully to the credit of Electric Dreams as a series – much like what it did with Philip K. Dick’s work, it’s wide open for interpretation and invites a close, possibly even unique, case-by-case relationship with its viewers.
Maybe Sidse Babett Knudsen summed it up best when asked how she felt about the series: “It was odd, the style was odd, we were all odd, there was this oddness.” Make of that what you will, but we’re pretty damn excited.
Electric Dreams premieres on Channel 4 at 9pm on Sunday September 17th.