Ranking the episodes of Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams, adapted from Philip K Dick’s short stories, was an anthology series offering a new take on a different science fiction concept each week. Tonight saw its sixth episode, concluding the series’ 2017 run – a further four episodes are scheduled for early next year. As with any anthology series, Electric Dreams had its highs and lows; here, then, is a ranking of each of the series’ six offerings so far.

6) Impossible Planet

Finding itself in the unfortunate last place position, it’s worth taking a moment to comment on what Impossible Planet did right. For much of the piece, Impossible Planet offers a nuanced consideration of the dichotomy between reality and illusion, brought to life with expert performances from Jack Reynor, Benedict Wong, and Geraldine Chaplin, all in a haunting neon world.

However, its chief and, ultimately, damning flaw was in the ending – a rushed, confused conclusion, leaving it largely unclear as to what exactly was going on. Granted, that’s a bit of a gauche critique to make; demanding that science fiction overexplains everything often leads to a certain lowest common denominator style. But in this case, you can’t help but feel that it undercuts the entire piece – leaving it not just unsatisfying, but thematically incoherent.

5) Crazy Diamond

A science fiction heist starring Steve Buscemi of Spy Kids fame alongside Westworld’s Sidse Babett Knudsen. A bold and bright aesthetic, with the timeless ideas of artificial consciousness and identity (if anything can be called a running theme in Electric Dreams, it’s surely this – though it might perhaps be more accurate to say that’s a prevalent theme in Dick’s writing). A taught thriller.

Except that, when divorced from the performances and the visuals, the script itself was nothing particularly special in and of itself. Strong moments were scattered throughout, but in the end, when taken together it was all more than a little bit forgettable.

4) Human Is

The story of a cruel man who returns from battle a changed individual, Human Is feels like a story that should and would explore the human condition. Up to a point, it does – though it’s perhaps a mistake to understand this story as being about Bryan Cranston’s Silas. Rather, it’s about Essie Crane’s Vera, his wife – the story of a woman trapped in an emotionless marriage, and what she’s willing to do when things change for the better.

In some ways, it’s difficult to hold any particularly strong feelings about Human Is. It’s a perfectly fine and entertaining hour of television; entertaining, if not exactly compelling. Really, what it needed was more time – were it slower, able to function as a more deliberate character study, this piece may have proved more successful.

3) The Hood Maker

In many ways, it made sense to open the anthology with The Hood Maker – it’s the most classically science fiction, its aesthetic taken straight from Blade Runner. It’s not that it’s generic, exactly, but it certainly typifies the genre; lifting a lot of the familiar hallmarks of science fiction, The Hood Maker executes them with ruthless precision and quality. Simple but effective is an apt description.

If anything about it doesn’t work, it’s the final twist; predicated on the reveal that the story was conveyed to the audience by an unreliable narrator, it was never clear that there was cause to doubt the narrative as presented. It’s a shame this didn’t quite work – The Hood Maker was a strong offering from Electric Dreams, with an engaging performance from Holliday Grainger in particular, but it certainly could have been better.

2) Real Life

Switching back and forward between Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard, Real Life broached questions of identity, creating a juxtaposition between truth and fiction. Its central conceit was the question of which life was real – which was the escapist fantasy, and which the harsh reality. Real Life was a compelling and engaging piece, with Paquin and Howard both offering fantastic performances as the same person, wracked with doubt and indecision.

Where this episode falls down is its ending; in many respects, it was perhaps the least interesting ending that Real Life could have had. If the tension came from ambiguity, the question of which life was real, surely it’s a mistake to then emphatically reveal which was which? The story shifts, no longer a question of consciousness and challenging the world around you, but rather a more droll comment on guilt. In attempting to offer a definitive conclusion, Real Life dulls its impact considerably.

1) The Commuter

It’s this, then, that was Electric Dreams’ best episode – a quiet, intimate story from Jack Thorne with a poignant performance from Timothy Spall at its heart. The Commuter is entirely unlike the other instalments in the anthology; far less overt in its science fiction elements, it’s a more grounded story that uses sci-fi ideas to delve deeper into human emotions.

Again, it’s a story about escapism; its thematic concerns have a lot of crossover with other instalments in the series, but The Commuter realises these ideas in a bleakly powerful way. Dreamlike sequences give way to crashing emotions in what is surely Electric Dreams’ most memorable and impactful episode, a moving piece of drama in its own right.

Hopefully, when Electric Dreams returns early next year, it gives us more episodes like The Commuter, and fewer in the vein of Impossible Planet.

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