Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: spoiler-free review

Here’s our verdict on two episodes of Amazon and Channel 4’s sci-fi anthology series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams...

At a swanky event in London, a gaggle of journalists was plied with booze and nibbles, before sitting down to watch two episodes of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. This sci-fi anthology series from Amazon and Channel 4, which arrives on screens later this month, adapts short stories from the literary master behind Blade Runner, Minority Report, Total Recall, A Scanner Darkly and The Man In The High Castle.

Expectations were high as the snacks depleted and we were ushered to the screening room. Then, Channel 4’s Head of Drama introduced a special video message from Bryan Cranston, who stars in one episode of the series and served as an executive producer for the series. With this, the hype levels went off the charts. Video-Cranston threatened to send Walter White after us if we didn’t write five-star reviews. Everyone laughed at that, but he looked pretty serious about it.

Once the threats from fictional characters were done with, the first episode played. This was The Hood Maker – based on the Dick short story of the same name – which takes place in a world where the government is working with ‘Teeps’ (humans with telepathic abilities) to read civilians’ minds. Richard Madden stars as Agent Ross, a government employee who’s keeping an eye on some anti-mind-reading riots when the episode starts. Holliday Grainger dominates the screen as Honor, a Teep on the side of the government, who is quickly partnered up with Ross.

Writer Matthew Graham (Life On Mars, Ashes To Ashes) has expanded Dick’s very short story into a gripping hour of telly – a film noir set in a grimy future London, which constantly feels on the verge of bubbling over.

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Madden does fine work as the Deckard-esque gruff investigator, but Grainger steals the show and impresses immensely as Honor. Graham’s savvy script and Julian Jarrold’s tight direction set the stage for an intense exploration of emotions, and Grainger delivers the goods – when Honor delves into minds of protestors, she runs the whole emotional gamut incredibly quickly. It’s a stunning piece of work from Grainger.

To say much about what plays out from here would probably spoil the fun for you, but suffice it to say that the population of Great Britain isn’t exactly chuffed about the government leafing through their brains. This feels like a very topical yarn, despite the fact that Dick’s version was originally published in 1955. That’s a testament to Dick’s skills as writer, and it feels very exciting to see his lesser-known stories writ large like this.

Next up we saw Crazy Diamond, an adaptation of Dick’s 1954 short story Sales Pitch. This one wobbles a bit at the start, struggling to set up a very high concept world – with eroding coastlines, decaying food supplies, and a sci-fi facility specialising in ‘quantum consciousness’ – without resorting to an overload of expositional dialogue. You’ve got to admire that approach, but it does leave you scratching your chin a bit as you try to work out what’s actually going on. Thankfully, an engaging tale unfolds here, whether you fully understand the world or not.

Steve Buscemi stars in Crazy Diamond as Ed Morris, a fairly normal chap who works in the aforementioned facility and has access to powerful technologies. Julia Davis plays his wife, who isn’t too fussed by the eroding world around them. And Sidse Babett puts in a wickedly engaging performance as a femme fatale figure, who urges Ed to screw over his employers with an elaborate heist. Joanna Scanlan has a fun role, too, but I won’t spoil the specifics of it here.

It’s another highly watchable hour of entertainment, with a bumbling Buscemi easily earning your affections while Babett surges to the forefront with a scintillating and sinister turn. Again, you won’t want to know much more about the plot of this one, because it’s best to experience its surprises first-hand.

Although Electric Dreams is an anthology series, and none of the episodes’ plots will explicitly link up, there are some interesting recurrent themes and motifs. Both The Hood Maker and Crazy Diamond compare ‘normals’ to strange new members of society, without asking the viewer to pick sides in any way. Both are also set in quite retro futures, where record players sit on shelves alongside high-tech sci-fi stuff. There’s a sense that Dick’s 1950s vision of the future has remained intact, despite the significant changes made in the adaptation process.

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And, interestingly, both episodes focus on high-up members of important institutions, rather than ordinary people on the ground. This seems to be the biggest difference between Electric Dreams and Black Mirror, the latter of which tends to focus more on how sci-fi technology would affect normal people. This perspective should help Electric Dreams feel unique, and, judging by these two episodes, there will be no shortage of moralistic quandaries in the series.

These two episodes do share a flaw, though. It’s tough to make a satisfying story on this sort of scale fit into an hour of TV time. And, in both The Hood Maker and Crazy Diamond, the endings seem to suffer the most. Like a lot of modern Doctor Who instalments, these episodes build up rather nicely, enact some enjoyable action, and then have to rush out an ending in one final scene. Both endings are intriguing in their own ways, but they don’t feel like the pay-off these stories deserved. Both worlds are highly interesting, and it feels like there is a lot left to explore in them when the credits roll. However, of course, you could argue that ‘leave them wanting more’ is a good thing rather than a flaw.

Overall, judging by these two episodes, Electric Dreams is a highly exciting prospect. The show’s endings may not be wholly satisfying so far, but these are engaging personal stories set in entrancing sci-fi worlds. The visuals and performances are uniformly excellent, and Dick’s wondrous concepts provide fascinating centrepieces to focus on. Bring on the other eight episodes!

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams starts on Sunday the 17th of September at 9pm on Channel 4 in the UK.