The author Philip K. Dick sounded alarm bells about alternate realms and the dehumanizing effects of technological advancement decades before anyone carried smartphones — a.k.a., their own personal black mirrors — in their back pockets. So when the buzzy Black Mirror packed up its cautionary futuristic tales and moved them from England’s Channel 4 exclusively to Netflix, the British network naturally looked to the writer whose work inspired the films Blade Runner and Minority Report, as well as the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, to fill the gap left by the departed Charlie Brooker show.
The result is Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, a Channel 4, Amazon, and Sony co-production that’s already begun airing on British television and debuts worldwide on Amazon this Friday. Each of its ten episodes is based on one of Dick’s mid-1950s short stories, but uses them, often quite loosely, as a jumping-off point to explore contemporary or futuristic situations in which people find good reason to question the nature of their realities. It boasts strong actors and a creative generosity that enables different directors and writers, including TV veterans Michael Dinner and Ronald D. Moore, both executive producers, and Mudbound’s Dee Rees, to steer the ships of their respective adaptations. While, overall, it is not as consistently compelling as Black Mirror, Electric Dreams is a worthy addition to a genre — the anthology series — that is in the midst of a renaissance.
The Twilight Zone, while technically not the first anthology series, set the bar for this type of scripted television at, coincidentally, roughly the same time that Philip K. Dick was publishing many of his short stories. Every episode of Rod Serling’s disturbing drama focused on new characters and told a fresh story each week, but all of them subscribed to a similar sci-fi-meets-horror sensibility that was frightening, thought-provoking, and often both at the same time. Many of the anthologies that followed – The Outer Limits, Night Gallery (also hosted by Serling), and later, Amazing Stories and even Tales From the Crypt – were clearly placing their soles in the footprints left by The Twilight Zone.
In the early and mid-2000s, the episodic anthology series did not disappear completely — the second unsuccessful attempt to reboot The Twilight Zone briefly aired during this period. But the landscape was much more dominated by highly serialized dramas like The Sopranos, 24, Lost, and Breaking Bad, which more or less required viewers to watch every episode and season in chronological order.
When Black Mirror showed up on Channel 4 in 2011, the same year that FX’s American Horror Story first made the case for short-form storytelling in the form of one-season-and-done limited series that are now popular all over TV, it tapped into a latent desire to once again make our next stop the twilight zone, or at least some place like it. Ever since, a number of series, some scary and some not, have stepped into the episodic anthology arena, including High Maintenance and Room 104 on HBO, The Guest Book on TBS, and Lore on Amazon. Both Amazing Stories and, yes, once again, The Twilight Zone — to be made under the supervision of Jordan Peele for CBS All Access — have gotten reboot green lights. For now, though, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams stands as the most obvious attempt to take the Black Mirror ball and run in its own direction with it.
There are certain things that Electric Dreams does more effectively than the most recent run of Black Mirror, and one of them is show some restraint. Too many of the season four episodes that dropped a couple of weeks ago on Netflix succumb to Black Mirror’s worst impulses toward gratuitous violence and high concepts that get too high on their own supply. The episodes in Electric Dreams are far more understated and, while they have their share of plot twists, lean more heavily toward subtle mystery than moments of shock or nastiness.
The downside of that restraint is that some stories hold back so much that they turn into sleep aids. That’s a problem for “The Hood Maker,” which stars Richard Madden (Robb Stark from Game of Thrones) and Holliday Grainger as a cop and his partner, who happens to be a “teep,” one of the many telepathic citizens considered dangerous by those who lack their abilities. While watching that episode and others — including “Impossible Planet,” about a forced trip to a drastically altered Earth, and “Crazy Diamond,” which stars Steve Buscemi as a man possibly being manipulated by a female synth (Sidse Babett Knudsen) — it’s also too easy to get mired in the confusing layers of exposition required to establish their settings and premises. One wonders if having to revamp Dick’s existing, inventive work is a more difficult task than simply starting from scratch, as Brooker and his collaborators do on Black Mirror.
Like Black Mirror, the production design in Electric Dreams smartly evokes various visions of the future while still looking enough like the present to be recognizable. A lot of the casting is inspired, too, including the decision to put Janelle Monáe — who in her work as a recording artist has long maintained an android alter ego named Cindi Mayweather — in the part of an actual corporate robot in “Autofac.” In “Human Is,” Bryan Cranston, another executive producer of the series, also slides seamlessly into the skin of a husband whose demeanor changes from chilly to warm after he survives an attack during a military mission to another planet. It’s the kind of personality switch we’re used to seeing from Cranston thanks to his years as Walter White on Breaking Bad, but one that still keeps us guessing.
That episode, elegantly directed by Francesca Gregorini, and two other really absorbing ones – “The Commuter,” starring Timothy Spall as a train station employee who discovers a super-secret stop that allows him to escape from a challenging home life, and “K.A.O.,” written and directed by Rees — are the best of the season and the ones to watch first. Like the others, they deal with themes of alienation and the disconcerting notion that the real world has more layers hidden in its corners and beneath its surfaces. But they generate suspense, curiosity, anxiety, and a sense of grief with greater precision than the rest of Electric Dreams.
“K.A.O.,” inspired by Dick’s “The Hanging Stranger,” is the most outright political story of the ten, as it follows an employee at a largely automated auto factory (Mel Rodriguez) who starts to lose his mind when he becomes the only person deeply concerned that a presidential candidate (Vera Farmiga, dressed and hair styled like she just fell out of The Hunger Games) suggests that citizens should “Kill All Others.” At no point are references to Donald Trump or any other problematic world leaders made. But they don’t have to be. The subtext is pretty front and center.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is streaming at an extreme moment of unrest and uncertainty, in the U.S. and elsewhere, and perhaps that’s part of the appeal in it, as well as Black Mirror. At their best, both anthologies perform a service that Dick’s fiction and the original Twilight Zone, which arrived as post World War II/Cold War anxieties were rising, did as well: They provide much-needed escapism by showing us societies gone cockeyed or dystopian, and implying that what we’re seeing is just far enough away to qualify as fantasy. But they also force us to ask ourselves a tough question that seems more relevant than ever: How close are we to living like this already?