Popular culture caught up to Philip K. Dick. The audacious imaginings of the legendary science fiction author bled into thousands of ideologically descendant books, films, and movies, even as some technologies he dreamed up became reality. That catching-up poses a significant challenge for Electric Dreams, Amazon Prime’s new anthology TV series based on his short stories.
Published in relative obscurity, Dick’s oeuvre earned much of its entertainment power with its ability to shock. It wasn’t that the elements in his stories were all new. Rather, it was the way he built them out that surprised readers. Some might have read about telepaths before the 1955 publication of “The Hood Maker,” but by focusing on paranoid political power struggle, Dick made both mind-readers and regular humans seem more dangerous than before. The shock came from the execution, not the premise.
That signature feeling feeling of queasy, slow-burning tumult comes through in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, which original aired in the UK last September, but is making its American premiere on Amazon Prime this Friday, January 12. The breadth of interpretations across the show’s 10 episodes is the real draw for Electric Dreams. One episode will be set in something meant to recognizably stand in for the real world while others are trippy explorations into realities that could never exist.
Unfortunately, Electric Dreams’ episodes don’t just vary in aesthetics; they vary wildly in quality, too. A good third of them feel entirely too mundane, safe, and predictable. The worst installments drearily trout out overly familiar speculative fiction plot beats and approaches, seeming to expect rote enthusiasm from audiences who’ve seen these tropes already. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style alien incursion in “The Father Thing” is basically a paint-by-number exercise with tones from Stranger Things splashed all over it. “Impossible Planet”’s sad tale of a final intergalactic sightseeing trip teases at tensions that it never capitalizes on.
When Electric Dreams fires on all cylinders, it energizes these short story adaptations by drilling down into the minutiae of how science fiction concepts would alter our everyday existences in real life. The series’ common theme is how scientific and technological advancement shears the soul away from our bodies. “The Hood Maker,” named after a story with the same title, offers up a chillingly invasive example of telepathy in action, along with a dire extrapolation of its sociopolitical consequences. Somehow, the most thematically heavy-handed episode of the season—”K.A.O.,” directed by Dee Rees (Mudbound)— wound up being my favorite. Adapted from “The Hanging Stranger,” its pace goes from comfortably routine to frantically agitated as the main character’s friction with his assembly-line existence barrels towards a tragic ending exposed for millions to see.
Acting performances in Electric Dreams bounce along the same continuum of quality as the conceptual execution. Among the high points, Steve Buscemi does a delightfully smarmy turn as a thrill-deficient genetics scientist living through the eco-apocalypse in an episode based on Dick’s “Sales Pitch,” and Anna Paquin’s PTSD-laden cop strikes the right mournful notes in the cyberpunk mindfuck melodrama of “Real Life.”
Electric Dreams’ most important task is to show both new viewers and conversant fans why Dick’s oeuvre matters, which is hard in a world where we’re eerily close to some of his fictional realities. Computers can predict what we want and talk back at us now. We can know almost instantaneously what’s happening around the world. But one lesson you learn from living in the future is that shock isn’t all that sudden when it’s incrementally normalized. One day, you’re playing a Star Wars VR experience; then, after decades of fitful implementation, the steady evolution of that same technology might make it so no one ever leaves the house anymore. The increasingly powerful storms that we joke and fret about now may mutate into wide-scale meteorological volatility that wipes neighborhoods off the map.
We’re so busy trying to ground ourselves amid constant change that it can be hard to pull out and see society’s sweeping shifts. In the ‘50s and beyond, Dick’s science fiction writing mapped out the darker corners of where hi-speed techno-fetishes could take us. For all its unevenness, Electric Dreams adapts his work to show us where we are, relative to his prognostications. If you feel weirded out while watching, that just means the show is doing its job.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams has its American premiere on Amazon on January 12.