Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams ep 3: The Commuter

In contrast to last week’s hazy flight of fancy about reincarnated space grandparents, this week’s Electric Dream has the most prosaic, ordinary setting and prosaic, ordinary hero it can: the peerless Timothy Spall gives a beautifully-judged, achingly-sad performance as a quiet, unassuming railway worker struggling to deal with his deeply troubled son, when he suddenly discovers that there’s a perfect town and a perfect life, not on any maps, but exactly 28 minutes down the railway line, where he no longer has to.

Sweet, poignant and as clear as Impossible Planet was vague, The Commuter is a modern little morality play about the importance of love and family above all things, and it’s impeccably, movingly done, but we’re now three weeks in to the series, and my fundamental problem with it is the same as it was after episode 1: the anthology format itself. With different characters and concepts every week, it’s like watching 2017’s answer to Tales of the Unexpected. Or an adult version of Dramarama. Which, in theory, is a great idea, but tv and I have moved on a lot since then, and, in practice, since every Electric Dream ends in 50 minutes and I know I’ll never see the protagonists again, it’s all beginning to feel somewhat anti-climactic. I just want a season-long story (ideally following on from episode 1) and a will they/ won’t they shipper arc I can lose myself in for months, if I’m honest. Which is my issue, rather than Electric Dreams’s; the series is an incredibly impressive undertaking and I might well keep watching for the cast and ideas alone, but whether I’ll keep writing about it is another matter – I’m not sure I have much left to say.

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Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams ep 2: Impossible Planet

After last week’s intelligent but accessible and grounded start to the series, Electric Dreams’ second episode is an altogether hazier, woozier affair with some excellent acting, gorgeous use of colour and no real point.

“Impossible Planet” has an incredibly old lady (Geraldine Chaplin) and her slightly sinister robot factotum (robotum?) turning up at a space tourism agency at 5pm on a Friday – first mistake, lady – and insisting they take her to Earth. Since weekends still exist but Earth does not, they initially refuse but a briefcase full of cash and yet another failed transfer application (I’m guessing the soul-destroying horror of competency-based recruitment processes didn’t die out with the planet, then) combine to persuade them otherwise, so off we all go on a space trip to a vaguely similar-looking giant rock, during which cynical pilot Benedict Wong falls out with the robotum; younger, kinder sidekick Jack Reynor breaks up with his girlfriend and flashes back to when he was the old lady’s grandfather/husband; and the story chooses depth of feeling and a vague sense of profound but indeterminate meaning over any form of narrative sense. It’s all very sensitively and emotionally done, but the gaps in logic are insurmountable; the story, such as it is, turns into a cross between a fever dream and a high-brow episode of Doctor Who, leaving me scratching my head when, had it worked, I should really have been wiping my eyes.

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams ep 1: The Hood Maker

Set in a future which looks, as sci-fi futures tend to look, like a particularly grim, off-key vision of the past, The Hood Maker sensibly wastes little time on exposition, opting instead to focus on establishing its characters from the start and letting us see their world through their eyes while filling in any gaps for ourselves.

So Holliday Grainger is Honor, a telepath or “teep”, working for some sort of law enforcement agency, paired up with Richard Madden’s ostensibly reluctant Agent Ross to investigate mounting, violent unrest and stop the mysterious Hood Maker making things worse. The Hood Maker himself is a symptom rather than the cause of the pressure building up in the city, though: the teeps are second-class citizens, openly despised and exploited in imaginatively horrific and disturbing ways, while the “normal” majority rage against what they see and fear as the impending loss of their own power and control to a minority of people other than them. (If it sounds familiar, then it’s meant to.)

Ross seems different, however, as sci-fi heroes tend to seem, and he and Honor quickly – too quickly? – form a bond over runny egg sandwiches and dank, dirty crime scenes. Or do they?

If the romance is a touch speedy, and a couple of the story beats (the purpose of the Hood is blindingly obvious the second we see it, for all it seems to take Honor ages to work it out) a bit predictable, it’s still engaging and involving to watch. Madden and Grainger have so much chemistry, I would have been deeply disappointed if there hadn’t been any romance, and in fairness, these stories were written so long ago and Philip K Dick has been so influential, we’re bound to find themes and ideas we recognise. This episode’s aesthetic, for instance, is a mix of Blade Runner’s grimy, seedy neon and Indiana Jones’s dusty 40s chic; the former only to be expected given that it’s based on a PKD story too, and the latter because there are few things cooler than a tall, handsome man who can rock a fedora. The similarity with Spielberg’s cornball adventures ends there, however; a couple of flashes of humour aside, this story is much bleaker, darker and more ambiguous than your Raiders or your Temple of Doom. Which makes it very well-made, very engaging, somewhat old-fashioned but also entirely current since authoritarianism, oppression, slavery and prejudice are, sadly, timeless.

With all that said then, my problem with The Hood Maker may be an unavoidable side-effect of the anthology format itself rather than this story. I liked it so much I’m not actually ready to be done with it. Could we not spend more time with these characters in this world, rather than moving onto new people in a new story just yet? Come on, Channel 4 – any chance of a Hood Maker spin-off? Please?

Public Service Announcement 36 of 2017: Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams

Not, as far as I can tell, anything to do with one of my favourite songs of all time, new anthology drama series Electric Dreams is instead based on various self-contained short stories by seminal sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick and looks like the most ambitious thing channel 4 has done in a long time.

A (very expensive-looking) collaboration with Amazon Prime and Sony Pictures, the series involves a vast, impressive array of talent both behind the camera and in front of it, with writers like Battlestar Galactica’s Ron D Moore and Life on Mars’ Matthew Graham, big-time directors like Tom Harper and Jeffrey Reiner, and a cast of recognisable faces including Bryan Cranston, Liam Cunningham, Anna Paquin, Steve Buscemi and Timothy Spall, amongst others, popping in for various turns. In short, for sci-fi fans – including me – this is Big. News. Unfortunately, channel 4 seems to be adopting the US network model of mid-season hiatus by only showing the first six episodes this year (Sundays, 9pm) and saving the last four for 2018, but hey ho. The first instalment “The Hood Maker” starring Richard “Robb Stark” Madden and Holliday “also appearing in Strike over on BBC1 at exactly the same time” Grainger kicks off tonight (Sunday) at 9pm, so I’ll review this one and see how we go from there.