Amazon's Philip K. Dick adaptations: Some dreamy, some drag

Bryan Cranston in <em>Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams</em>. (Photo: Amazon Prime)
Bryan Cranston in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. (Photo: Amazon Prime)

Philip K. Dick (1928-82) spent most of his writing life ignored or little-known, churning out novels and short stories with speed and on speed. Not a great prose stylist, he was a great imaginator, with an ability to describe the American mood recast in science-fiction trappings. As the wonderful novelist and science-fiction critic Thomas M. Disch has written, Dick “understood that science fiction is not about predicting the future but examining the present.” All of this should make Dick’s work ripe for visual adaptation, and Frank Spotnitz did a good job of bringing Dick’s best-known work, The Man in the High Castle, to Amazon Prime a couple of years ago. Now Amazon Prime has a new series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, which adapts 10 Dick short stories. It is uneven in the extreme.

Electric Dreams has a slew of producers, including Bryan Cranston, Ronald D. Moore (Battlestar Galactica, Outlander), Michael Dinner (Justified, Chicago Hope), and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett. They’ve chosen Dick stories with a wide variety of moods and settings. The weakest entries are similar in structure to episodes of The Twilight Zone in which show creator Rod Serling taught his audience little moral lessons. One of the flimsier Dreams is the one that stars Cranston, “Human Is.” He plays a commanding officer in a future army, returning from a battle with aliens who have the nasty habit of taking over the body and identity of their victims. The drama here is summed up by the story title: Is Cranston’s character human now, or not? You’d have to have never seen a TV show to be stumped by this one.

I’ll just cut to what I think are the two best Dreams. In “The Commuter” (not the current Liam Neeson feature film), Timothy Spall plays Ed, the lumpy ticket-seller in a train station in the English countryside. He’s worked there for many years but suddenly becomes aware of a train stop that he’s never previously known existed. Taking the train and getting off at the stop, he encounters an alternate universe that makes him rethink his more familiar one. It’s a lovely story that’s less electric, more dreamy. The other excellent entry is “Impossible Planet,” set in a future where a woman played by Geraldine Chaplin who is hundreds of years old has one final wish — to visit Earth, here a planet that hasn’t existed for a long time. She’s taken advantage of by two dishonest, interstellar “tour guides” who promise the “ultimate tourist experience.” They charge her an outrageous sum to go to a planet they convince her is Earth. The story subtly shifts its emphasis to one of the tour guides, played by Jack Reynor, who starts feeling bad for deceiving the old lady and who himself is unhappily engaged to a woman he’s decided he’s not in love with. The story neatly entwines the concerns of both the old lady and the young man in a moving way — it ends up being a tale about romance, ageism, and commitment.

Both of these stories tap into the richest vein in Philip K. Dick’s body of work — his belief in a complex humanism; a conviction that, no matter how badly the world treats people (or how badly they treat one another), there is something indomitable about us that perseveres, sometimes tragically, sometimes nobly. With this series and Netflix’s Black Mirror, the sci-fi anthology series is now back as a revitalized genre.

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is streaming now on Amazon Prime.

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