Is it possible for a piece of pop culture to be an imitation when it’s already being imitated?
That’s the tricky hypothetical facing Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, the latest original series from Amazon’s streaming service. Electric Dreams is an episodic sci-fi anthology that deploys a wide range of recognizable faces, both British and American, to bring each of its self-contained worlds to light. (An international coproduction, Electric Dreams aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 last fall before making its stateside premiere last Friday.) In this respect, Electric Dreams is to Black Mirror what Amazon’s Lord of the Rings project is to Game of Thrones: an attempt to capture the spirit of another outlet’s phenomenon by following its playbook to the letter.
But Electric Dreams has something that predates Charlie Brooker’s semi-dystopian tech drama by several decades: the work of the iconic genre writer for which it’s named. Electric Dreams isn’t Amazon’s first series working from Dick’s expansive archives; that would be alternate history The Man in the High Castle, now entering its third season. In both stature and influence, Philip K. Dick belongs to an extremely rarefied class of science-fiction authors. Along with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, he’s responsible for many of the tropes and images we associate with the field, an impact compounded by the countless adaptations of his writing. When those themes are updated and adjusted for the 2010s, as they are in Electric Dreams, a strange recursive loop begins to take shape: Much of what Electric Dreams appears indebted to is already indebted to Dick himself. The series may not always feel fresh, either in concept or execution, but it’s often difficult to discern whether the reason for that impression is the show itself or the inevitable consequence of time catching up with and moving past Dick’s vision.
Electric Dreams employs an impressive roster of writers, directors, and actors to put their own spin on Dick’s oeuvre, some taking more interpretive license than others. The concept was developed by TV veterans Ronald D. Moore, of Outlander and modern sci-fi classic Battlestar Galactica, and Michael Dinner; Bryan Cranston, who stars in the episode “Human Is,” also serves as an executive producer, as does Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett. Dee Rees, whose sophomore feature, Mudbound, is currently an awards-season outside favorite, wrote and directed “K.A.O.,” and the season’s complete cast includes Steve Buscemi, Geraldine Chaplin, Richard Madden, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Jason Mitchell, Janelle Monáe, and Maura Tierney. With Amazon’s deep pockets comes not just top-caliber IP, but the star power to match.
The majority of the stories Electric Dreams draws from were written in the 1950s, in the earlier portion of Dick’s multidecade career. Some concepts—interdimensional travel, post-apocalypse—transcend the ephemeral efforts of commentary and prediction to get at deeper human truths; some—mostly Cold War parables—require significant refurbishing to get those truths across. “The Commuter” and “Impossible Planet” are the best of Electric Dreams’ more literal installments. In the former, a railway worker played by Timothy Spall follows the namesake, mysterious commuter to a utopian community that was planned but never built, now existing in a sort of liminal zone outside of conventional time and space. Writer Jack Thorne (Skins, The Black Panthers) adds a subplot about Spall’s developmentally disabled son, recasting the town as a way for the railway worker to opt out of his complicated, painful life in the real world if he so chooses. Closer to fantasy than science fiction to begin with, “The Commuter” doesn’t feel connected to any particular time or social issue. Instead, Thorne makes Dick’s miniature world his own, giving it hypothetical emotional weight and focusing on personal conflict over collective strife.
“Impossible Planet” is similarly narrow in scope, a chamber piece with just four characters: two jaded space tour guides (Benedict Wong and Jack Reynor), an old woman who pays them a fortune to take her to an Earth that no longer exists (Chaplin), and her helpful robot aide. The episode is a far-future space tale, equally free of dated references and inaccurate predictions. (Whatever the future holds, we can be sure it involves large corporations, bored employees, and flagrant disrespect for the elderly.) Writer-director David Farr (Hanna, The Night Manager) gives some context for the sympathy Reynor feels toward the woman he’s scamming and slightly tweaks the ending, but otherwise lets the sadness of a home lost to environmental apocalypse and a woman’s naive longing for something she can never have speak for itself.
Other inspirations, however, require a heavier lift. Standard body-swap alien invasion story “The Father Thing” proves a cautionary tale as to why some narratives require a remake that’s more than cosmetic, combining the worst of both stale cliché and strained contemporary parallels; in a year filled with ample competition, you’ll never cringe harder at the use of the word “resist.” Rees’s “K.A.O.” also struggles in its ambitions, overlaying a story already extrapolated from anxieties about lynching and xenophobia—“K.A.O.” stands for “Kill All Others”—with an overtly Trumpian plotline about national electoral politics. It is in the nature of an allegorical medium like science fiction to be heavy-handed, but these episodes’ modern-day additions to Dick’s ideas only serve to make their message more unsubtle and easily dated.
Just because it’s difficult to revamp a master, however, doesn’t mean the attempt isn’t worthwhile. “Real Life,” the season’s best episode, is also one of its most radical reimaginings. “Exhibit Piece,” the original Dick story the hour is modeled after, uses time travel to explore the idea of escaping into an alternate, theoretically idealized life. Here, the technology in question is virtual reality—a device that is much more present, and therefore much more immediately worrisome, in 2018 than warping the laws of physics, which remains in the province of fiction. The hero, too, has changed: In “Real Life,” he is a she, a lesbian cop (Paquin) traumatized by an on-the-job incident and looking for an escape. She finds an unorthodox one by slipping into the perspective of a tech billionaire (Howard) haunted by the memory of his dead wife. Electric Dreams does a lot of this diversification, making Dick’s narratives more representative in a way that aligns perfectly with the liberal values espoused in them.
In “Exhibit Piece,” the time traveler discovers he is doomed no matter which life he chooses; in “Real Life,” it’s Paquin’s choice that dooms her, and the tragic psychology behind it. By using different means to arrive at a similarly melancholy place, the episode, written by Moore himself, becomes the finest of these Electric Dreams, both as adaptation and as a stand-alone work of fiction. Like all the best speculations, its invention and its insight go hand in hand. Moore uses a simple premise to achieve a surprisingly nuanced portrait of trauma and self-loathing, pushing past the typical trajectories of a “lost in a virtual fantasy” cautionary tale.
Electric Dreams’ ambitions are as lofty as they are contradictory, at least on their face: to be evergreen but prescient, to leverage its classic sci-fi credentials without being weighed down by them—and thanks to its format, to start from scratch in the attempt each time. When the show misses its mark, it’s understandable. When it strikes, however, Electric Dreams does equal justice both to its 1950s roots and modern-day context.