Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
“We’re con artists?”
“What other type is there?
This exchange is at the heart of “Impossible Planet,” an episode of Electric Dreams set in a distant future where two low-level tour guides pilot a spaceship for gawking passengers, eager to take in the wonders of space. The service is called Astral Dreams and it derives most of its wows with simple visual tricks that colorize the views around them. (Basically, the windows are on-the-fly Instagram filters.) So, like all tourist industries, it’s mostly a con: the pretty sheen you put over what’s really there.
The two guides are friendly but at deeper odds with their jobs: Norton (Jack Reynor) is dutiful yet uninspired, working to earn a giant promotion so he can move his girlfriend to a more happening location. Meanwhile, Andrew (Benedict Wong!) wants to relax and skate by doing as little work as possible. They’re both thrown for a loop when an old woman named Irma shows up (the great Geraldine Chaplin) with her robot attendant and demands they take her to Earth. There’s a little problem, you see: Earth was destroyed by a solar flare nearly 600 years ago. But when she offers them nearly five years’ salary a piece, it’s simply an offer they can’t refuse (though, Norton will certainly try). And so the real con is born: Take her to a look-alike planet and tell her it’s Earth.
It’s a heartbreaking notion. And as the story unfolds, Irma warmly reveals the story of her life. Well, not her life, actually, but the strangely romantic details of her grandmother who once lived on Earth. A gorgeous place called Carolina, where she and her husband lived out their days in idyllic splendor, even skinny dipping in a nearby pond. This was all before they went off to the frontier of the stars. So it’s Irma’s dying wish to go to Earth, to see the place that was only inscribed in her grandmother’s memory.
As Norton and Irma’s relationship grows, their dynamic begins to play out Norton’s internal guilt for betraying her. As the con continues, we fret simply because we know what everyone wants. Meaning the episode is able to wrench the simplest of dramas from the conflict between four characters. (The three humans, plus the robot who does not like them messing with Irma.) But more important, Irma’s devotion to her ideal past unlocks the dormant feelings with Norton himself. It connects him to what he really wants, not just in flashes of imagery that plague his mind, but the fact that he too dreams not of something bigger in this universe, but something deeper — something connected to the past and an intrinsic humanity.
And so, he doesn’t tell her the truth. Instead, he pushes the con as far as it will go. Not out of fear of letting down an old woman, but a strange belief in her devotion. She takes this kindness to heart, and when she feels it, she reveals a picture of her grandfather. It turns out that her grandfather looks just like Norton. Feeling this depth he cannot even describe, Norton can’t help but go all the way down the rabbit hole with her. They arrive at the fake Earth, a planet that is barren, caustic, and no longer blue. Despite Andrew’s protests, Irma and Norton decide to take their space suits into the wasteland. They keep pressing further, further, further until they lose oxygen. And then, at the moment of certain death … Irma takes off her helmet. She’s younger now. Suddenly, the two of them find themselves in the picturesque scenery of Carolina. (Goofy note: It looks nothing like the Carolinas, that’s Southern California if I’ve ever seen it, but perhaps this is what “Carolina” looks like in a few hundred years.) They go skinny dipping, happy to share in their love, one seemingly rekindled after centuries of waiting. Fade to white.
So, did this happen? Was it a feverish dream? A story of a couple displaced by time and space? Two people repeating history? I know sci-fi fans love to fret and argue over the logic of ambiguous endings, postulating about what really happened. Which is why it’s so funny to me that Philip K. Dick often gets credited as being a great “hard sci-fi” author, when really he was as emotional and as ethereal as they come. (Though in his original “Impossible Planet” short story, it ends with Irma going off with her robot attendant and a gotcha moment of “Oh, it was Earth along.”) So while you can argue this ending is just a pretty sheen over what’s really there, the larger point of this ending is clear. Not because it plays into the bullcrap platitude that “true love conquers all” but because Irma and Norton believe in this notion against all hope and reason. And the episode that surrounds them is asking you to believe the exact same thing. Which just means that, yes, the episode itself is just another con. As my opening quote intones, there’s no other kind of artist out there.
Because in the end, we all just want our dreams to be woven.