This Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams review contains spoilers.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams Season 1 Episode 4
Forty-four novels, one hundred and twenty-one short stories, six published volumes of correspondence… nobody could ever say Philip K. Dick lacked for ideas. The same goes for this week’s Electric Dreams, which is, to use a technical term, chocka. There’s environmental collapse, a dystopian level of state control, widespread infertility, implanted consciousnesses, maritime-themed sci-fi architecture, Julia Davis, a gang of piratic teddy boys, Syd Barrett, and a race of chimeric pig-people.
And that’s before the plot even kicks in. “Crazy Diamond” has packed its hour of screen-time to the rafters. The result is this series’ most visually memorable, tonally unusual episode yet. If sci-fi’s all about transporting us to new and metaphorical worlds, then this does the job and then some. The final image alone, of Steve Buscemi supine in the waves, smiling a faraway smile and tenderly rubbing a Syd Barrett LP, is one that’ll stay with you.
As will Joanna Scanlan’s cameo as a 60/40 pig-human hybrid named Su. A chipper security guard who teeters around on her trotters, Su provides a glimpse into a world where factory-made chimeras, many of which are indistinguishable from “normals,” are treated as second-class citizens. The brief friendship Su forms with Davis’ character plays a part in awakening Sally, who goes from questioning Su’s right to align herself with ‘normals’ to telling her conspiratorially that “us girls have to stick together.”
Us girls do stick together by the end of the hour, when Sally turns the tables on husband Ed (Steve Buscemi) and sails into the sunset with another chimera – Jill (Sidse Babett-Knudsen), the factory-produced woman whose entrance into Ed and Sally’s life topples their carefully established equilibrium.
Ed and Sally live on a sterile coastal estate that’s literally crumbling beneath their feet, where they’re surveilled by a sinisterly cheery and invasive refuse collector (Abraham Popoola). It’s into that world that insurance saleswoman Jill arrives, an orange flame against a sea of blue-green, and separately, gives both partners the same sales pitch.
Even before Jill’s impact is felt, there are signs that Sally, like Ed, dreams of a different life. He hides away on the boat he’s restoring and talks of escaping to adventure on the high seas, while Sally sprouts illicit plants, contraband in this weirdly controlled life where fresh food rots within days of delivery and gardening is considered a threat to the local economy. Nurturing a tray of seedlings is Sally’s first transgression of the rules. Pushing Ed off the side of his boat and running away to find out what ‘normal’ really means, is her last.
“Crazy Diamond“ lays its themes on thickly before getting involved in its fifties-style noir thriller plot. It’s about atrophy and the inevitability of death. We watch several things wither and decay in the first ten minutes—Jill’s face in a dream, half a dozen eggs and a handful of potatoes.
Jill is “failing” and due to be recalled. Like Roy Batty though, she wants more life, and that’s where scientist Ed comes in. One of the quantum consciousnesses Ed farms at the half-mystically, half-industrially named “spirit mill” would restore her spark, if she were able to steal one, while nine more sold on the black market would set her and Ed up for life. A heist and a joint escape is planned. Jill takes a mould of Ed’s hand for the access scanner and he teaches her what to sing to unlock the lab (John Dowland’s sixteenth century lute song “Flow, My Tears,” which also provided the title for a 1974 Philip K. Dick novel. Like PKD, Ed is obviously a fan of Dowland’s – his boat is named the “John D”).
The heist works but Jill is betrayed by her fence, a madly charismatic golden-toothed villain named Noah (Michael Socha), leader of a pack of zoot-suited and bolo tie-wearing baddies. Jill gets her new consciousness, and it turns out that Ed’s boss, the Spirit Mill director (Lucian Msamati) was behind the whole thing. Everyone but Ed and Jill is killed in a dramatic and bloody shoot-out.
The noir-inspired thriller plot, which namechecks Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity as well as borrowing from it, seems less important than the episode’s unusual and fascinating atmosphere. That’s thanks to director Marc Munden, cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and composer Cristobal Tapia de Veer, all of whose work informed Channel 4’s Utopia with the same unnerving sense. In fact, with its acid greens and dreamlike, twitchy soundtrack, “Crazy Diamond“ feels so like Utopia, it’s clear who was responsible for the former show’s distinctive atmosphere.
The performances are deliberately mannered and bewitching. Babett-Knudsen, fresh from another investigation of fabricated consciousnesses and factory-produced people in HBO’s Westworld, has all the glamour and danger of a classic femme fatale as Jill, while Buscemi is wonderfully confused and conflicted as Ed.
From a short story about the desperate lengths to which one man goes to silence the invasive presence of advertising in modern life, writer Tony Grisoni (Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Red Riding) has spun a mad tale, pulling in influences and ideas from far and wide. The result is crammed, comic, tragic and chaotic, and, like the Syd Barrett song of which Ed is such a fan, it’s an endlessly interpretable and unforgettable world in itself. Shine on.