Philip K. Dick’s writing has been translated to the screen numerous times, with most of the results being brilliant in their own ways: Blade Runner remains one of the best-loved sci-fi films of all time; Minority Report stands out as one of the best Tom Cruise movies; Total Recall, the first one, has cult classic status; and The Man In The High Castle has really captured imaginations over the last couple of years.
Now, Amazon and Channel 4 are teaming up to offer fans an unprecedented number of Dick-adapted stories all at once. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is an anthology series, arriving this autumn, which gives short stories from the iconic author a Black Mirror sort of treatment. (Or a Twilight Zone sort of treatment, if you want to go back a bit further.)
Each episode of the ten-part first season will adapt a different story, giving it plentiful budget and an hour of screen time in which to develop its themes. With any luck, the result will be ten disparate hours of telly, each with an intriguing sci-fi yarn to spin.
As you can probably tell already, we’re pretty excited for this one. Here are a few reasons why…
The creative team
When Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams was first announced, there were a few reasons we got hyped instead of worried. The title itself suggests a fan-fuelled level of nerdy devotion, and the immediate comparisons to Black Mirror made us remember how well this sort of thing can work. And, on top of that, Amazon and Channel 4 have assembled an excellent creative team.
Ronald D. Moore is one of the executive producers. He previously worked on Star Trek across The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and developed/exec produced/wrote for Battlestar Galactica. Plus, recently, he made a whole new set of fans with Outlander. There’s no denying his abilities, and geek credentials.
The other exec producer on Electric Dreams is a bona fide member of TV’s royal family: Bryan Cranston, who surged to new heights with his incredible performance in Breaking Bad. He also produced and directed a number of episodes of the meth-filled drama, building on his behind-the-scenes experience that dates right the way back to Malcolm In The Middle (Cranston directed seven episodes of the wonderful sitcom, back in the 1990s). More recently, Cranston exec produced and directed Sneaky Pete, also for Amazon.
Michael Dinner – of Justified, Sneaky Pete, Powers and many more – is also on board as an exec producer.
Moore and Dinner scripted a couple of episodes themselves, and worked with Cranston to bring in an impressive team of writers to pen the rest of them: Travis Beacham, Kalen Egan, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Tony Grisoni, Jessica Mecklenburg, Dee Rees, Travis Sentell and Harry Potter And The Cursed Child’s Jack Thorne have all contributed.
With this talented team, and a stamp of approval shared by Cranston, Moore and Dinner, this show could be something really special.
The anthology set-up
Let’s take a moment here to dwell on the fact that this is an anthology series: each short story adapted in Electric Dreams will have an hour in which to set out its stall and attempt to enthral, which should help the show avoid some familiar TV pitfalls.
There will be no need for filler episodes or superfluous subplots here: just ten tight episodes, each with its own world to build and narrative to execute. This feels like the perfect format for Dick’s short stories, in which he shows an expert flair for establishing weird new worlds in just a sentence or two.
There are nine different directors listed on the show – Michael Dinner, David Farr, Francesca Gregorini, Tom Harper, Peter Horton, Julian Jarrold, Marc Munden, Dee Rees and Jeffrey Reiner – which could well mean that each episode has its own visual style to match its unique story.
With any luck, this show will be a collection of thought-provoking ideas, packaged in fun ways by a bunch of talented folks. Some of Dick’s stories will need expanding to fill the hour, and some will need the opposite treatment, which should provide some interesting challenges for the team.
Electric Dreams season 1 will feature these ten stories, all of which sound highly intriguing….
The Commuter, which follows a railway station manager investigating the mystery of a town that’s not on any map.
The Impossible Planet, in which a dying woman – in a far-flung future – expresses a desire to see Earth before shuffling off her mortal coil. Plus she has a robot servant.
Crazy Diamond, which THR describes thusly: “the ultimate comic film noir nightmare, the episode follows Buscemi’s character as he gets wrapped up in an illegal plan with an attractive but synthetic woman.”
Father Thing, in which a boy’s dad is replaced by a replicated version. (You can probably recall Be Right Back, the episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror that used a similar premise.)
Real Life, which features “a policewoman living in the future who shares headspace with […] a brilliant game designer, as each pursue violent killers”, according to Variety.
The Hood Maker, which is set in a world where wearing hoods – to avoid psychic surveillance – is strictly prohibited.
Kill All Others, in which a man is hanged from a lamppost after a politician makes a violence-encouraging statement.
Autofac, set in a post-apocalyptic-war landscape where self-replicating machines support mankind. Things take a turn when the humans decide they’re ready to rebuild their society.
Safe And Sound, in which a socially anxious child – according to Channel 4’s description – is “exposed for the first time to urban society’s emphasis on security and terrorist prevention, it isn’t long before her school days are consumed by fear and paranoia.”
And finally, there’s Human Is, which sees a grumpy scientist returning from an off-world assignment with what seems to be a new-and-improved personality. Of course, as you’d expect from all of these stories, there’s more than meets the eye going on. We look forward to seeing how each of these fascinating premises unravel.
Just from pulling together those synopses, it’s obvious that a lot of these stories possess themes that still have the power to unsettle us in the modern day. Mankind’s over-reliance on machines, the mysteries of the galaxy around us, and the uncanny valley between robotics and real life are still universal themes that everyone can understand.
Some of the episode topics seem particularly pertinent to modern day goings on, as well. We live in a world where, not that long ago, one American presidential candidate made a snide remark about how ‘Second Amendment people’ might want to target his rival.
We also live in a world with more surveillance than ever, where you’ll be asked to remove your hood if you absentmindedly keep it up on the way into Morrisons. Also, robots are getting more and more lifelike. And the tabloid press continues to breed fear about terrorism and the so-called threats of immigration.
It’s a testament to Dick’s imagination that he had some of these ideas over 50 years ago, and they’ve only become more relevant as time has marched on. As Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation has shown, dystopias never go out of fashion. Electric Dreams could highlight political debates for a whole new audience.
Take a minute to think about the scope of this thing. Judging by the story summaries we collected earlier, this is a very brave show with properly lofty ambitions. Each week, Electric Dreams will serve up a new version of reality, with its own distortions and troubles.
That’s no small feat, and with Channel 4’s reputation for nurturing creativity (they did actually bring us Black Mirror, after all, before Netflix bought it) combining with Amazon’s deep pockets (plus their enthusiasm for Mr Dick, proven by The Man In The High Castle), it seems safe to assume that they won’t slouch on the budget here.
If they stick the landing on all those cool concepts, this could be a series that rivals the movies for its visual excellence. Shows like Game Of Thrones have proved that this is possible, but normally they start small and build to the bigger CGI moments over multiple seasons. Electric Dreams is jumping in at the deep end, though, with countless massive concepts in season 1. Here’s hoping Moore, Dinner and Cranston can pull it off.
You may have already heard, but it’s worth shouting about some more: the cast of Electric Dreams is phenomenal, stuffed with big names from screens both big and small. For starters, Cranston himself will play the central scientist in Human Is.
Joining Cranston in that episode will be The Babadook’s Essie Davis, Game Of Thrones’ Liam Cunningham (aka The Onion Knight) and Grabbers’ Ruth Bradley. You could honestly make a Hollywood movie with that talent, and here they are shooting a sci-fi anthology show. Amazing times.
The other nine episodes are brimming with big names, too: Timothy Spall stars in The Commuter; Steve Buscemi shares Crazy Diamond with Julia Davis; Jack Reynor and Benedict Wong are in The Impossible Planet; Greg Kinnear and Mireille Enos are in Father Thing; Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard are in Real Life; Richard Madden and Holiday Grainger are in The Hood Maker; Bates Motel’s Vera Farmiga graces Kill All Others; Autofac has Jannelle Monae and Juno Temple; and Safe & Sound has Maura Tierney alongside Annalise Basso.
The anthology structure seems to have really paid off here. Since they don’t have to commit too much time to it, stars seem to be flocking to Electric Dreams, and the producers have bunched them into some interesting groups. We’re particularly excited to see Steve Buscemi bouncing off Gwen from Gavin & Stacey.
The future potential
So, Electric Dreams is a show that has ideas in abundance and a whole bunch of stars, plus the support of Amazon and Channel 4, and the leadership of Dinner, Moore and Cranston. Also, another thing it has it potential: if this show takes off, it could run for a good long while.
Ten stories have been chosen for the first season of Electric Dreams, and – as we mentioned earlier – they all have us intrigued. But, in all honesty, ten hours of telly will barely scratch the surface of Dick’s work.
The late, great sci-fi visionary penned around 120 short stories, and although it’s unclear as of yet how many Moore, Dinner and Cranston have the rights to, it seems a safe bet that they’ve got enough to make Electric Dreams a recurrent feature in the schedules – as long as the demand is there.
Fingers remain crossed that the show lives up to our excitement, becomes a massive smash hit, and ushers in many more seasons of short-form sci-fi. Heck, if androids can dream, why can’t we?