Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
You know you’ve found something crackling when you’re ten minutes into an episode and already looking up who directed it. For this fourth episode of Electric Dreams, it turns out to be none other than one of my favorite British TV directors, Marc Munden. (If you’ve never seen Utopia, get on that right away.) To boot, it’s an episode written by Tony Grisoni (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and it’s adapted from Dick’s short story “Sales Pitch” as to be completely unrecognizable. But that’s quite okay. Consider it nothing more than a good excuse for these two to take a bunch of money and dive into the storytelling deep end. Together, Munden and Grisoni deliver not only the weirdest, most bonkers episode of the entire series but also the most transcendent.
I’m not even sure I could describe the plot in any way that does it justice. The story takes place in a future modified by high-level biogenetics in which AI-infused humans known as “Jacks” and “Jills,” modified pig-people, sterile seaside communities, and cockney lowlifes who live in the forest all dress for the avant-garde. There’s no direct parallel to any of this; the only commonality is that everything in this world has way, way too short of a shelf life. Heck, even eggs go bad by the second day. But nobody feels it more than the people hanging onto their normal lives.
At the center of this decaying world is Ed Morris (an incredible Steve Buscemi), an AI who toils at the factory and feels bored with his ever-concerned wife. Morris does what every trapped middle-aged man does: He dreams of adventure on the seas. And that very yearning is what leads him into trouble.
Trouble goes by the name of Jill. Yes, she’s a “Jill,” an AI-infused humanoid whose day job is pushing insurance, but she’s got a bigger problem. Her shelf life is coming up and she still wants to wring a few more days out of this ole life of hers. So she enlists Ed to help her steal a new AI for one more go-around, plus another nine to sell on the black market and live like a king. That’s how good old Ed Morris gets caught up in a noir caper, one with shades of The Postman Always Rings Twice and, of course, Double Indemnity, the film whose title is referenced several times throughout the episode. The results are shady and violent, yet full of goofy verve. There are genuine elements of Coen-esque absurdity to the plot, and I’m not just saying that because Steve Buscemi is in it; the storytelling maintains both empathy and eye-rolling scorn for its subjects. And the net result is some of the freshest feeling sci-fi and neo-noir in recent memory.
I’ve been going on and on about the script work in these recaps, so you might ask why I’m not bringing up the same “what’s going on?” dynamic that puts the audience at a distance. That’s because it isn’t really what’s happening here. Sure, “Crazy Diamond” is weird as hell, but on a pure story level, it’s quite grounded. We always understand the psychology and emotions of the characters — the story line constantly approaches that clarity from oblique points of view, one brought to life with all sorts of bizarro affectations. It’s similar to the way an episode of Twin Peaks can feel “right,” even if we’re having trouble grasping the odd tone. We’re too transfixed by the reality of the character’s psychology. Which is all well and good, but in the end, the most important question of all these episodes is the same …
What is it saying?
And luckily, “Crazy Diamond” has a lot on its mind when it comes to the things that we search for in the face of aging and death. Whether it’s assurances from insurance, a desperate fix, or a dream of adventure, this is a story that’s ultimately about the pure ecstasy of being alive. The ways we’ll cling to the ground when we’re certain we just lost it all. Sure, we might call Ed a coward. But in the end, he’s only a dreamer because he knows the simple joys of, you know, not dying. It’s a feeling crystallized in the final image, as Ed somehow survives the whole ordeal and washes up on the beach, face-to-face with his favorite record. He can only laugh at his dumb luck, happy and thankful for one more breath, even as his entire world lies in ruins. And in that moment, I was reminded of a certain song. No, not the Syd Barrett tune “Octopus” that serves as a constant refrain, but the Pink Floyd epic that likely gives this episode its title. Forgive me for rearranging the lyrics, but it’s pertinent:
“Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun / Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky / Threatened by shadows at night, and exposed in the light. / Well, you wore out your welcome with random precision, / Come on you target for faraway laughter. / Come on you stranger, you legend, you martyr, and shine! / Shine on you crazy diamond.”