This review contains spoilers for The Father Thing and previous episode, Human Is.
Leaving an almost four-month gap between Electric Dreams’ previous episode and this story was an unwittingly judicious move by Channel 4. Not only would it have felt clumsy to show two alien-possession stories back-to-back, the relative complexity of the first—in which the alien invader turns out to be preferable to the human it imitates—would have emphasised a lack of the same in the second. With a good chunk of air between them, it’s easier to view The Father Thing on its own merits.
Easier, but not easy, because The Father Thing tells a story so familiar in the world of sci-fi that it’s almost folkloric. After a meteoroid shower, select townsfolk in a Chicago suburb start to behave strangely. Young Charlie Cotrell (Jack Gore) sees the truth—they’ve been replaced by aliens—but either comes up against disbelief from the adult world or the disguised invaders themselves. Taking matters into his own hands, Charlie does what any self-respecting modern kid would: starts a hashtag and forms an online resistance movement.
Charlie is technically a modern kid – he plays mobile phone games and video-chats with his schoolfriends, but The Father Thing leans heavily on retro elements. The initially loving relationship between Charlie and his dad Matthew (Greg Kinnear) is quickly established using familiar US father-son conventions. The pair swap twentieth-century baseball stats on an old-fashioned camping trip and bond over the Little League diamond. Charlie’s gang of nerdy friends and the bullying older brother may talk about sexting, but they’re recognisably Spielbergian and Stephen King.
Charlie and Matthew’s clothing – a sensible cardigan for dad, a Marty McFly-style bodywarmer for the son, is a throwback too. Charlie’s bow-tied history teacher (named in homage to Philip K. Dick, as it seems, comedically, are the ‘Dick-head’ alien imposters) dresses as though he’s stepped out of the 1950s. “The farther back you look, the farther forward you are likely to see,” is the vaguely apt Churchill quote on his whiteboard.
During Mr Dick’s lesson on the Viking invasion of the British Isles, the script draws an implicit parallel between historical enemy invaders and these visitors from outer space. A reference to the Battle of Stamford Bridge recalls a time when, as happens here, an invading force was repelled by a small band of resistance. A second reference to the fall of that resistance to the enemy mere weeks later offers a gloomy prediction for Charlie and co.’s ultimate chances.
Since PKD (and The Body Snatchers’ Jack Finney and The Puppet Masters’ Robert Heinlein and It Came From Outer Space’s Ray Bradbury…) released the spores of this kind of story into the air, it’s stayed there, bobbing around on the breeze. It’s been adapted multiple times for multiple media, picking up new historical subtexts with each telling. In the fifties, the human imitators were read as Communists, or an evocation of the paranoid McCarthy era. Later versions were, like zombie movies, seen as critiques of mindless consumerism, or comments on political radicalisation spreading like a virus from person to person.
For all The Father Thing’s nostalgia, what makes this adaptation by Michael Dinner (Justified, Sneaky Pete) modern is its interiority. Dinner uses PKD’s father-replacement domestic horror to tell an emotional story not about alien invaders, but about the experience of divorce for a young child. The insectoid alien that takes over Charlie’s father isn’t a political threat, but a domestic one. Charlie’s fear is the fear of a little boy who no longer recognises or trusts his dad, and who grieves for the person his father used to be and the relationship they used to have. It’s an alien possession story for our emotionally literate, therapy age. Kill your father, it says. Everyone has to.
Admittedly, Charlie has to do it by watching his pal stomp on the silver space bug that peeled his dad like a banana, then incinerating the pod people replicas waiting to replace him and his mother. That’s the sci-fi shell of this story about the trauma of a family break-up.
When we meet Charlie, his fun, fond dad is poised to leave his wife and move out of the family home. His dad hasn’t yet found a way to tell his son that he’s going, though like most kids living with parents whose marriage is in trouble, Charlie already knows. His secure, happy foundations are fractured when his father becomes someone he doesn’t recognise. “We all got daddy issues,” says writer-director Dinner in his Electric Dreams tie-in intro to the PKD story of the same name. What haunts Dinner about this story, he says, is that it asks the question “What would you do if the person you love most in the world turns out to be a monster?”
The metaphor is by no means subtle. The replacement Father Thing spouts the classic divorcing-parent reassurance “your mother and I will always love you” while trying to replace Charlie with a facsimile pod-person. “I will never be like you!” Charlie tells him, like any kid might to a dad who’s let him down. Kinnear’s performance moves convincingly from warmth to ice, lending a real sense of discomfort to the scenes in which Charlie is trapped with the Father Thing in spaces that were once safe and comfortable: the car, around the dinner table. Gore is a precocious talent, shouldering a great deal of responsibility here, and doing it well.
A familiar story told using familiar ingredients, The Father Thing just about holds together but never troubles its audience with anything that could be considered a surprise. Its predictability and conventionality dampens any real chill that could have come from the horror, while its divorce trauma subtext—thanks to Spielberg, among others—is also nothing new.
Capable yet safe adaptations like this one seem to defy the point of sci-fi storytelling. The genre exists to ignite audience imagination with alternative worlds and unlikely possibilities. Plodding over the same ground, however well-told, is no tribute to a writer like PKD at all.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Human Is, here.