Review by C.J. Bunce
By the time of his death in 1982, science fiction writer and future visionary Philip K. Dick wrote some 44 novels and 121 short stories. A master storyteller, Dick’s short story writing was often simple and straightforward, but it was packed with amazing worlds, prescient technologies (and glimpses at what would be real problems resulting from those technologies), plus truly unique and inspiring ideas and ideals. The real genius of Dick can be found in these quick stories. The 2017 British and American co-production Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a science fiction series of ten episodes inspired by ten of his short stories, available now in the U.S. for the first time via Amazon Video. If you find you’re not a fan of the series, don’t hold it against Philip K. Dick–the episodes are only very, very loosely based on his short stories, opting instead to expand on the stories and update most of the settings and plots, including swapping new technologies for those he wrote about. Ideally those new to Dick’s works will be inspired by the ideas in the series to delve into his written works and experience his creations for themselves.
Written and directed by a variety of filmmakers, Electric Dreams is a hodgepodge of styles, storytelling, and continuity. Surprisingly the writers opted against sticking with the magic of Dick’s stories, deleting key memorable scenes, and choosing to add extra subplots with a few stories barely recognizable from their source material. Most of the updates detract from the underlying story. Three episodes fare the best–coincidentally or not, these are episodes that stay the truest to Dick’s own work. The rest are less compelling, but each has its high points, either via surprisingly good special effects and production values for TV, or the choice of and performances by the actors (including Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel, Source Code), Anna Paquin (X-Men series), Timothy Spall (Harry Potter series), Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, Fargo), Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad, Total Recall), Jacob Vargas (Luke Cage), Terrence Howard (Wayward Pines), and Anne Reid (Hot Fuzz, Doctor Who, Marchlands). Based on one of the best of all Dick’s stories, Impossible Planet follows the original story to create the best episode of the series, taking viewers on a final voyage home accompanying an old (more than 300 years old) woman played by Geraldine Chaplin (even this episode cuts the most powerful scene from the short story). The Father Thing takes its time getting to the story, but once there it keeps the guts and spirit of the original story. Loyal to the source material, it also has a great John Carpenter-esque soundtrack and Greg Kinnear is perfectly cast as the father. For a person who was not remembered as a family man, Dick’s stories involving children are among his best and “The Father Thing” is no different. Ideas furthered in a story familiar to most sci-fi fans, “The Minority Report,” are examined in The Hood Maker, complete with precognitive telepaths and the concept of pre-crime. The episode follows the original story, and its “buddy cop” duo would make a great spin-off series.
The remainder of the series offers concepts that will be familiar to fans of Dick’s works, particularly those short stories previously committed to film, including “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” adapted into two Total Recall films, Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, John Woo’s Paycheck, The Adjustment Bureau, and Next (from “The Golden Man”), among others. Many Dick full-length novels have made it to the big screen, too, most notably Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? released as Blade Runner, and although it does not credit Dick, The Truman Show is obviously sourced in Dick’s novel Time Out of Joint. In addition, recently Dick’s award-winning novel The Man From the High Castle made it to home video as another Amazon series.
Was the difficulty and the writers’ need to incorporate filler subplots because they were translating a 15-page short story into the 50-minute episode format? Most of these episodes could be edited down, and would have benefitted from a 30-minute format. This includes Kill All Others, a politically charged morality tale, but only a sliver of Dick’s short story “The Hanging Man.” The film Oblivion, which never credited Dick with its core story, is a more compelling adaptation of “Autofac,” with the movie’s big surprise revealed more like a Dick story than in this episode. Updates to the short story made into the episode Human Is were more artfully crafted, cutting a key character from the original while not detracting from the nicely creepy core of the Dick fable. Real Life, the best episode cinematically, was a smart choice by Amazon to get viewers to hang around for subsequent episodes. Safe and Sound is a quality episode despite being nothing like Dick’s story, originally a short story about bomb shelters titled “Foster, You’re Dead.” Steve Buscemi stars in Crazy Diamond, the least related of the episodes to its referenced source–the creepy-cool story “Sales Pitch”–and unfortunately it is the least compelling and most drawn-out of the episodes. Timothy Spall proves his incredible acting talent in the Twilight Zone-esque The Commuter, but the episode offers several odd directorial choices compared to its fantastic source story. All of the stories hail from Dick’s works between 1953-55, most originally published in science fiction magazines. The filmmakers show a strange preoccupation with characters smoking cigarettes, despite the many updates for the future, presumably one of the series’ attempts to carry forward something prevalent in the era when Dick wrote the stories. Because the series was not made for network distribution, expect (unnecessary) nudity and language not present in the original stories, which unfortunately will keep this series from the younger set.
Some recognizable names backed this series, including executive producers Bryan Cranston, former Star Trek writer Ronald D. Moore, and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett. In addition to the more well-known actors listed above, look for compelling performances by Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction), Lara Pulver (Sherlock, Edge of Tomorrow), Tuppence Middleton (The Current War, Jupiter Ascending), Richard Madden (Game of Thrones), and Holliday Grainger (Cinderella, My Cousin Rachel). My guess–having read a significant portion of Dick’s works, including all of his short stories, and much of the scholarly work written about the writer–is he likely would have approved of the technology updates, but he seemed like an author who would have been troubled by so many significant core story changes in a series whose very title has Dick’s name in it. Still, aside from the changes, expect a quality batch of sci-fi on par with other modern Twilight Zone-inspired series.
Stream the ten episodes of the first season of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams now here, only on Amazon Video. One of the four greatest writers of science fiction short stories (along with Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clarke), Dick’s short stories are collected in five editions, still available in differing formats as they are out of print, each titled with a popular work in the collection: The Short, Happy Life of the Brown Oxford, We Can Remember It for You Wholesale, Second Variety, The Minority Report, and The Eye of the Sybil.