Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
As I’ve said a few times in these recaps, I don’t think audiences realize how difficult anthologies are to write. You have to build an entire world in an episode. You have to take the audience on a complete journey to a definitive endpoint. You have to build to a resonant theme to justify the episode’s very existence. And you have to do this in half the runtime of your standard movie. But because of these very difficulties, the fundamentals of sound writing matter more than ever, whether it be dramatic clarity, character psychology, or just plain causality within plotting. Which brings us to the seventh episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, “Father Thing,” which I’m sad to report fails at most of all of this.
On the surface, “Father Thing” seems headed for a somewhat Disney-esque father-son story, but then takes a quick turn toward the pulp and pomp of an Amblin-lite adventure wherein a young boy named Charlie (Jack Gore) thinks his dad (Greg Kinnear!) might be an alien. It’s a story you’ve seen before, and there’s sadly not much more to it. No new idea, just the slow exercises in conflict as we get a picture of a world slowly being taken over Invasion of the Body Snatcher–style. But there’s a reason these stories exist, for they are a perfect way to exacerbate and play into kids’ fears about being powerless and effectively “losing” their parents. Again, they’re pulpy, but our ultimate enjoyment of them is based on the execution of that pulp.
I keep thinking about one of Charlie’s lines from early on. As he tried to explain the alien moment, he confides, “I’m not sure what I saw.” The problem is the episode relies on this tactic repeatedly. We’re never sure what we’re seeing or, more important, what it means for us as an audience. The story constantly teases vague bits of information in the form of scares or visions, all en route to half-confirming what we suspect they mean.
I say it all the time, but mystery is not about being vague. Mystery is about introducing a central driving question, then doling out concrete pieces of information that shed light on the potential answer to that central question. This allows our understanding of the mystery to evolve, just as the conflict changes, too. But that fact doesn’t stop some people from thinking mystery is just about hinting at and foreshadowing things. It’s always, “Hey, this will be important later! AREN’T YOU CURIOUS THO?!” That isn’t real conflict; it’s the texture of conflict. And so, the audience just waits.
When you really look at “Father Thing,” there’s nothing different between the end of the episode and when Charlie first sees the alien taking over his dad in the garage. Most of the drama comes from our inherent belief that there will be some resolution or twist to this story, something that proves what we’re seeing is not actually what we’re seeing. But no such insight ever arrives.
This is an episode with only one card to play — “What if your dad was replaced by an alien?” — and it plays that card for as long as possible, including an opening teaser with a desperately unnecessary “three days earlier” title card. A few scenes later, it suddenly adopts a different tone, capturing the Amblin-esque adventure it probably should have been from the beginning, before periodically returning to the parent stuff at random. It’s all wheel-spinning and plot-blocking, the dual hallmarks of an episode desperate to make it to 47 minutes — so, what should be a pulpy romp feels like a slog.
But again, it comes down to the mission of anthology storytelling: How and when you get to your core conceit? I always think about the classic Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” in which our characters are all trapped in a giant cylinder and they’re trying to figure what the heck is going on and how to get out. They fret and fight and are all so desperately terrified that they’re trapped in hell. But we’re with them every step of the way because their input and ideas shape our own understanding. Even though the final reveal is almost nonsensical — they’re just toys in a donation bin — the idea behind it is so intensely visceral. This Toy Story–like reveal freaks you out to your core because we watch the most gut-wrenching existential dread come from simple objects that we always assumed were disposable. That’s not to say that every anthology needs this kind of brilliant twist, just a poetic gesture that rams home what the story is really about.
And I have no idea what “Father Thing” is really about, just the fears it wants to exacerbate. It ends with a spectacularly tone-deaf equation, where Charlie issues a call to arms to hunt down all the other aliens out there with “#Resist” hashtag. Look, drawing a parallel from this story to Trumpism is downright baffling and maybe even offensive when it comes to the real problems that the country is facing. But if we’re gonna suddenly turn this into a story about how our dads have been replaced by Fox News watching pod-people, then hell, isn’t that what it should’ve been about the whole time? Instead, “Father Thing” steps into the idea like it’s accidental, the kind of troubling notion that suggests they didn’t think about the decision much at all. This, along with all the misguided choices of the episode, results in a story that feels as alien as the aliens it portrays.