A The Twilight Zone Community
CBS (ended 1964)
Oh, look, another British sf/horror anthology series. But it's not Black Mirror. Instead with Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams we get ten hour-long episodes inspired by the works of sf writer Philip K. Dick (1926-1982). Dick is probably best known as the author of the novels that inspired Blade Runner and Total Recall. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep? and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, respectively. And the recent shows and movies adapted from his stories The Man in the High Castle, Paycheck, Minority Report, and The Adjustment Bureau. But he wrote a lot of other stories. Some of which I've read, although I don't believe I've read any of the ten used here.

Dick covered a lot of different themes, from identity to telepathy to alternate universe to a whole lot more. There are dozens of essays and analysis on his works out there, I'll leave it to the interested reader to look them up. I've found his work a bit... esoteric. So it's hardly surprising that the TV show is the same. it comes to us from such TV luminaries as Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Ronald D. Moore (various Star Treks, Battlestar Galactica), as well as others.

And yes, the show originally premiered on Channel Four in Britain back in September of 2017. It only aired for six episodes, and then the last four aired on Amazon Prime January 12, 2018, along with the first six. It was on my radar and I'm not adverse to watching British shows. But I haven't had time until recently to catch up on the series. And I'm not sure that there was much to review until I got to the third episode. Will I continue? Will see how the next few episodes shake out. But at least I won't recycle a three-year-old article and pretend that it's new. Or leave it up if people point it out.

So let's cover the first three episodes, "The Hood Maker", "Impossible Planet", and "The Commuter". "The Hood Maker" reads a bit like Blade Runner. Except instead of androids, we have Teeps, aka telepaths. The episode is set in the relatively near future, and the Teeps were created by some unknown phenomena, which also appears to have wiped out much of humanity's technology. Normals aren't too thrilled with Teeps being part of their life, particularly with a recent Anti-Immunity Bill that lets the police use Teeps to scan likely suspects.

Similar to Blade Runner, we have an apparent Normal, Ross (Richard Madden, Game of Thrones), who is a Clearance Agent. He's partnered with Honor (Holliday Grainger, The Borgias), a Teep, and assigned to find out who the Hood Maker is. The Hood Maker makes hoods (catchy, eh?) which block Teeps. He distributes them freely and this represents a threat to the Teep-using government. And the Teeps, since the hoods let Normals attack Teeps with impunity.

Ross and Honor fall in love, and find out who the Hood Maker is. We discover that Ross is actually a Teep-Resistant, and that he's been sent undercover to use Honor and find out what the Teeps have planned for the Normals. Honor meanwhile is dealing with the Teeps who view her as a sellout, while using their telepathic network---a Teep Internet, as it were--to try and track down the Hood Maker. She also kind of likes the hoods, since they let her shut out the static-like telepathic voices in her head.

At the end, Honor finds out who Ross really is: an undercover agent and Teep bigot until he fell in love with Honor. They rather easily track down the Hood Maker, and the Teeps find the Hood Maker through Honor. I think. They set the place on fire, and Reed lets Honor read his mind to find out the truth. We end with a burning landscape and Honor considering whether to let Ross out of the flaming room or not, while Ross suggests that they flee to the mountain.

"The Hood Maker" uses a lot of visual and plot shortcuts. Part of it is its similar to Blade Runner. There's the retro style that movie had (complete with rickshaws), and it wouldn't be hard to imagine Harrison Ford as Ross. There's also a bit of the mismatched police partners that you see in everything from Lethal Weapon to Minority Report (the TV series). We also get a few glimpses of a post-Teep society, like Teep prostitutes that read back their johns' sexual fantasies.

Generally I liked "The Hood Maker". My primary complaint is that the ending is rather vague, a problem I've found with a lot of Dick's material that I've read. It seems more like a prelude: the Teeps have revolted, the Normals can fight back, Ross may or may not be dead, Honor may or may not have joined the Teep rebellion. Now what?

I don't mind open-endedness. Hey, Twilight Zone was open-ended. But there's a difference between an episode being open-ended, and not answering the questions that it raises. Take "The Howling Man", for instance. We don't find out what the Devil does when he escapes, or what happens to the main character David Ellington, afterward. But at least the episode has explained how the Devil was locked up, how he got free the first time, and why David is obsessed with the "Howling Man". A lot of Zone episodes are like that, and so is the third Electric Dreams episode, which we'll get to.

But here you get introduced to two interesting characters, and an interesting new society, and some interesting conflicts. And just when things get interesting... the episode ends. Too bad, so sad.

"Impossible Planet" has much the same problem. But I get the impression it was intentional. But let's recap. Brian Norton is a bored space guide who runs a tour company. He spends his days narrating stellar phenomena and artificially enhancing the colors via the ship's viewport. His girlfriend is a demanding woman who wants to move to "Primo Prime". An elderly woman, Irma Louise Gordon, hires Brian's ship to take her to Earth and offers "two kilos" (whatever that is, but it's a lot) for Brian and his partner Ed Andrews to take her there. She's accompanied by a human-shaped robot, RB29.

Earth was wiped out centuries ago, so Brian and Ed (mostly Ed) decide to take Irma's money and fake the whole thing. As they travel to the fake unihabitable planet they've chosen to make look through the rigged viewport. Along the way, Irma tells Brian about how her grandparents lived on Earth in the Carolinas, and used to skinny-dip in a nearby waterfall. As it turns out, Brian looks just like the grandfather. RB29 soon figures out that the tour guides are running a scam, but it plays along to keep Irma happy since she's going to die soon.

When the touring ship gets to the fake Earth, Irma insists on going down. Brian helps her and the two of them go out in space suits. Their oxygen is running out, and Ed complains about a headache and increasing temperature. RB29 glares at him, and outside Brian and Irma run out of oxygen. They find themselves at a waterfall and Irma is now her grandmother. She and Brian dive in and kiss. And... that's it.

Call me a curmudgeon, but what the hell? None of this really gets explained. Are Brian and Irma hallucinating? Is the waterfall thing life after death? Is it reincarnation? What happened to Ed? What was happening to Ed? Why was RB29--a robot--so "emotionally" invested in Irma? Did he kill Ed?

The episode mainly plays up the May-September romance between Brian and Irma. The problem is that Brian (Jack Reynor) looks mostly bored. He doesn't love his girlfriend and can't get a transfer to Primo Central. Besides, everyone knows that Arthur Bailey is the Primo. Brian has a nowhere life, as he notes in one speech when he says that he used to dream of exploring the universe but now everything is explored. Irma taps her chest and says that there are still mysteries of the human heart.

So again, we're left with an open-ended episode. What happened to Brian and Irma? What happened to Ed? What happened to RB29? You have some interesting characters and conflicts, but the episode just ends as a tribute to True Wuv.

That brings us to "The Commuter". Which makes the first three episodes worth watching even if you have to wade through the second one's dross. Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall, Wormtail in Harry Potter among many others) is a beaten-down railway worker with a son Sam who has psychotic episodes. One day a woman, Linda (an almost unrecognizable Tuppence Middleton, Sense8 and Sinbad) asks for tickets to Macon Heights, a town that doesn't exist. She mysteriously disappears a couple of times, and Ed eventually rides the train that goes along the route Linda describes. When some other passengers jump off, Ed jumps as well and finds himself in Macon Heights, a perfect little town where everyone is happy and the cafe serves the food that Ed likes.

Ed goes back home and discovers that Sam has disappeared and his wife Mary doesn't remember ever having a son. Ed soon discovers that Macon Heights was a town that was intended to be built but never was. Linda was the daughter of the architect, who killed himself when he lost the bid due to financial irregularities. Now she apparently brings people who need a "perfect life" to Macon Heights, wherever and whatever it is. The waitress at the cafe was raped as a 14-year-old, another passenger (Tom Brooke, Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Fiore on Preacher) beats his children, and so on.

Ed can still remember his original life, and decides that he wants his son back flaws and all. He tracks down Linda in Macon Heights, and she warns that Sam will eventually hurt people and drag down Ed and Mary with him. Despite that, Ed insists and when he returns home, he finds Sam back in his life. Ed gives the first "real" smile of the episode and the episode ends.

That's what I mean about open-ended but answered. We never find out what Macon Heights really is, or how it exists. Or how Linda flits in and out of existence. But the important issue is if Ed gets his son back. He does. That's answered. We don't have to find out how Sam will destroy his parents' lives and his own. We don't need to know what is going on with Linda.

It's a great performance by Timothy Spall, who is everything that the bored Brian isn't in "Impossible Planet". Spall's Ed trudges through life, gets tea bags out of the garbage when the supply runs out, and gives big fake smiles which even Mary says are more frightening than their son is. He has curiosity, investigating the secret of Macan Heights by tracking down the reporter who wrote stories about it years ago. He's not a cop or any kind of authority figure: Ed is just a little man holding a little job that is his entire life, and gets sucked into a much bigger mystery. Like in The Adjustment Bureau, Ed ends up fighting a seemingly unfightable "greater power" for the right to his life.

Middleton as Linda is suitably enigmatic, and nobody else really has much to do in the episode. There's a lot of nice supporting roles, but they're all pretty small. But as they say, there's no small actors, only small parts.

Also, there are no sf elements in "The Commuter". The first two episodes are almost... too science-fictiony.

So about the time I had lost faith in Electric Dreams after the first two episodes, "The Commuter" came along and restored my faith. So I'm looking forward to seeing what the rest of the show is like. It's a bit more futuristic than Black Mirror. As I mentioned, the creative team isn't interested so much in recreating Dick's works as putting a modern spin on them.

But that's just my opinion, I could be wrong. What do you think?
Comments (8)
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Apr 23, 2018
I wonder if people who don't get these shows read the sort of stuff Dick wrote al all? Read at all? ... or do they just know he wrote some stuff some other famous stuff is based upon, because they Wikied it. Because it feels to me that unless it's popcorn, ready served, spelled out for the less cognitively fortunate and has Avengers in it, it's simply out of reach of an average American viewer's IQ and/or attention span. I wonder if, since British stuff is already a problem, they ever even heard of anything done by the French, Russian or Japanese authors of the same genre. No, unless it was made in an American cartoon? Ye, I'm gonna go with ... "fuck no" as a wild guess.
Feb 04, 2018
I tried watching it on Amazon (which has different order for the episodes. The first episode is called "Real Life") and I turned it off after about 30 minutes. Just wasn't interesting at all.
Jan 24, 2018
Hi, when you say 'Oh, look, another British sf/horror anthology series', does that mean you're fed up with them, or you think there are too many around being made by the UK, or you think the're fine and want more? Nice reading your article by the way.
Jan 25, 2018
You can also see my reviews of the two American Black Mirror series, and the Xmas special, if you want my opinion. Admittedly, that won't tell you if I'm fed up with them now. But it's not like I ended my review of "Black Museum" with the equivalent of an "Oh God, I hope they never air this again." :)
Jan 24, 2018
All of the above. :)
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