Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams Season 1 available January 12 on Amazon Prime.
Science fiction has been so damn good recently, we’ve nearly forgotten it can be done badly. Consider: For every groan-worthy Syfy original or childish Luc Besson space opera, there’s been an Ex Machina, an Arrival, a Sense8, a rebooted Westworld. These aren’t great future stories; they’re great stories that happen to take place in an alternate future. It’s an important distinction.
That’s why it’s so upsetting that Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, a British/American sci-fi anthology series based on the short stories of its namesake, plays like the old-school, pimply-faced nerd sci-fi I used to read in Omni. I’d hoped we’d outgrown this stilted dialogue and ham-fisted moralizing, but everything old is new again.
To be fair, one of the episodes I watched for this review was decent. “The Commuter” benefits from having Timothy Spall as its bedrock; his performance as railway employee Ed Jacobson, a man with a chance to undo some of his life choices, is classic Twilight Zone stuff. There’s a depth to Spall’s line readings that indicates Spall actually did the reading, for all the good it did. (It’s been a while since I’ve read Dick, but it’s obvious that these adaptations are only superficially based on his writings.)
It’s downhill from there. “Kill All Others,” directed by Mudbound’s Dee Rees, is heavy-handed sociopolitical satire that isn’t particularly incisive or funny. (It will, however, make you reconsider your wearable fitness device, if only for a moment.) And “Real Life,” a shaggy-dog time travel story that wastes Terrence Howard and Anna Paquin in underwritten roles, is practically a sci-fi Mad Lib: virtual reality, flying cars, a dead wife that needs avenging. Paquin’s character, in particular, is pure nerd candy, a scripting fail that the script tries to ameliorate by having her address it: “I’m a lesbian supercop from the future! I actually have a flying car! Isn’t that what they used to call ‘science fiction’?” Yes, sadly, it is.
The shame of it is that there’s a correct way to adapt Dick’s work that doesn’t blunt his strengths (the guy could write the hell out of an authoritarian regime) or magnify his weaknesses (he and nearly all of his contemporaries were grossly sexist). The time you spend watching Electric Dreams could be spent watching Denis Villenueve’s Blade Runner 2049, the second film based on Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Villeneuve, like Ridley Scott before him, knew how to sneak up on this stuff. He tiptoed through the clichés, the minefield of unexploded nerd bombs, and found the human story buried there. He climbed into the flying car and just soared.