Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is an anthology sci-fi series developed by Ronald D. Moore and Michael Dinner for Channel 4 and Amazon Prime Video. Each episode of the series is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick (PKD), the legendary sci-fi writer.
Over the course of several weeks, I will review all episodes of Electric Dreams and the short stories they’re derived from.
Episode 1, “Real Life,” was written by Ronald D. Moore based on the short story “Exhibit Piece,” and directed by Jeffrey Reiner. It stars Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre, Lara Pulver, Sam Witwer, Guy Burnet, and Jacob Vargas.
Summary of the Short Story, Exhibit Pieces
George Miller, inhabitant of the 22nd century, works as a historian specializing in the 20th century. He is utterly engrossed with the subject of his work. He talks and dresses like someone from the 20th century, believing it to be the height of human civilization (and as it turns out, George has an obvious disdain for his own century). His bosses scold him for it, but his loyalty and attention lie only with his work and nothing else. His detailed and regularly updated Exhibit of the 20th century during the American Eisenhower administration. His proudest achievement.
At one moment he hears a sound coming from the center of the exhibit. He goes in to investigate, thinking it’s a careless wandering visitor, or even worse, one of his bosses, which could put him into serious trouble. He makes his way into the center of the exhibit, and eventually inside a model 20th century house. The house is complete, furnished to the most minute detail with replicas of 20th century appliances. George wonders around for a bit, until he hears a voice coming from the kitchen.
A woman – apparently his wife – reminds him not to be late for work, and two teenage boys – apparently his children – ask permission to go camping. It’s all confusing to George, though somehow oddly familiar. And so real. Not at all like a manufactured exhibit. He even seems to remember what his life is like with this new family of his. George tells his ‘wife’ he will skip work that day and instead asks her the name of a psychiatrist they’d once met at a PTA meeting: Dr. Grunberg.
At Dr. Grunberg’s office, an agitated George Miller relates to the doctor his confusion regarding how the exhibit could possibly come to life. He keeps referring to the doctor (and everything else) as parts of the exhibit, a ‘dream.’ He says: “People in dreams are always secure until the dreamer wakes up.” Dr. Grunberg tries to assure George that the 20th century is real, and attributes his ‘hallucinations’ to work related stress. For people who are under so much tension, the doctor says, it would be nice to live in a “world of tomorrow,” where robots and rocket ships do all the work.
George leaves the doctor’s office, returns home, and then traces his steps back to the point where he entered the exhibit. Sure as daylight, he’s back in the 22nd century, standing on the border between the two worlds. He believes the exhibit to be a “time gate” leading back to the 20th century. Thus, both worlds are real to him.
At the edge of the exhibit, George meets with his bosses who confront him and order him to get out of there. They believe George’s experiences are nothing more than psychotic delusions. Fantasies of a man obsessed with the past. George, however, believes in the world inside his exhibit, and would much rather spent the rest of his life there. Even when the director threatens to destroy the exhibit, George doesn’t care. According to George, all that will accomplish is close the time gate permanently – and he has no intention of coming back anyhow.
When George returns to his perfect 20th century house, he sits comfortably in the living room. He grabs a newspaper and looks at the headline: “RUSSIA REVEALS COBALT BOMB; TOTAL WORLD DESTRUCTION AHEAD”
Summary of the TV episode, Real Life.
Real Life premiered on October 15th, 2017 as episode 5 of the series on Channel 4. It is episode 1 in the Amazon Video release.
In a futuristic world, Sarah is a troubled police officer suffering a form of PTSD after many of her colleagues died in a terrorist attack. She’s obsessed with finding the people responsible for the attack, and feels overwhelmed with the guilt of her inaction.
When at home, Sarah hopes to find solace inside a cutting edge, hyper-realistic, brand new and untested Virtual Reality ‘vacation’ world. She’s initially hesitant, but her wife, Katie, talks her into it. Katie explains that the vacation works like a dream, where everything feels real and the dreamer doesn’t know he/she is in a dream.
Inside the VR, Sarah wakes up in what looks like a dark abandoned alleyway. Here she’s not Sarah but George, a man living in the early part of the 21st century (2010s). Before George has any time to get his bearings straight, he and his friend, Chris, barely escape alive from the hands of Collins, a maniacal crime lord. Chris drives George home.
Paula, a physicians and George’s friend, examines George and determines he has a concussion, recommending rest and relaxation. It turns out George is the owner of a multi-billion dollar tech company whose latest product includes an experimental and highly advanced VR headset. Having nothing better to do, George puts it on. The scene cuts back to Sarah waking up from her VR experience.
Sarah’s partner informs her that the police has found the terrorists. They were picked up by an FBI surveillance scan. Sarah and her partner follow the lead and head out to intercept the terrorists at their hiding place, although Sarah appears somewhat skeptical. “It’s too easy,” she comments. When the duo get to the hiding place, Sarah realizes it looks awfully similar to the alleyway in her VR. Eventually she engages the terrorists, getting injured in the process. She passes out and wakes up as George again.
George has suffered some significant memory loss as his concussion is more serious than Paula had originally thought. Things are starting to come back to him though. He’s painfully reminded of his wife’s death, and is in trouble with the law for undertaking a personal vigilante mission against his wife’s killer. These memories cause him great discomfort. According to Paula, the VR headset is inhibiting George’s recovery. She recommends that he stops using it for it might cause him irreparable brain damage. He agrees, but the moment Paula leaves, George puts on the headset. He’s back as Sarah.
Sarah wakes up in a hospital bed. Her wife and her partner are there. Good news: the terrorists have been apprehended. When home, Sarah narrates her VR experiences to Katie and confesses that she’s no longer sure about the reality of her world. Her life’s too perfect, she says, and she’s done nothing to deserve it. Isn’t it more likely that this world is the fantasy? The world where she get’s everything she wants, the hot wife, the flying car, the criminal apprehended?
Still, Katie insists that this is the real world, and Sarah is letting her sense of guilt take over. The VR program generates a scenario based on the subject’s deepest desires. Deep down, Sarah want’s to punish herself, and the program is giving her just that. Katie tells her to not use the program anymore, and tomorrow they’ll go and wipe all traces of it off her brain. When Katie falls asleep, Sarah activates the program anyway.
Back in the 21st century, George faces the exact same dilemma as Sarah does. He now has her memories, but doesn’t know which world is real. At one moment he is convinced his world is the fake one, but Paula tries to tell him otherwise. She tries to rationalize with him, bringing up the same argument that Sarah did. Which world is more likely to be real: the one where George is suffering for his sins, or the perfect Utopia with flying cars and a hot lesbian wife? Instead of escaping into a fantasy, they could work their problem together, suffer together. In tears, George drops the VR headset on the ground and steps on it.
We cut to a hospital bed in the future, where Katie screams at a bed-ridden Sarah, trying to wake her up. The doctor declares her neuronal pathways have shut down. She’ll never wake up. Sarah’s partner is also there. He asks why would Sarah do this to herself? Katie responds: “She wanted to be punished for her sins. Real and Imagined.”
As is evident from the plot summaries, the short story and TV episode have almost nothing in common. Almost…. Certain key elements and motifs are present in both. But ultimately the TV version and the short story have diametrically different goals, different styles, different characters, and different mindsets.
From one perspective, PKD’s Exhibit Piece is a thinly veiled propaganda story. The future government is cartoonishly dictatorial, while the 1950s was a time of progress and prosperity (with capital P). The height of civilization. People were free in the fifties! They were allowed to have children, beautiful wives, cushy jobs, and even a better sense of loyalty and work ethic. At least, that’s what the protagonist believes. George Miller’s religious-like reverence for the 50s (PKD’s own time) sticks out like a sore thumb, impossible to ignore. He’s enamored not only with broader aspects of history and civilization, but also with the mundane and everyday objects of the 50s. PKD takes the time to describe what the exhibit looks like. The furniture inside George’s house, the appliances, even the bed-sheets. In contrast, the 22nd century hardly gets any attention.
Admittedly, I’m not familiar with PKD’s personal politics, but it is worth noting that he wrote Exhibit Piece at the height of the Red Scare, when the memory of the HUAC hearings and the Hollywood blacklist loomed quite fresh in the people’s minds (incidentally, Exhibit Piece was published only a couple of months after Joseph Welch’s “Have you no decency” comment). The future in PKD’s story does resemble a caricature of communism. At least, a caricature as 50s America would perceive it; not that it lacked some truth, but things are rarely that black and white. Exhibit Piece is very much a story of its time, and some readers will find it dated. It can’t be helped.
A more charitable interpretation could see the story as subjective, unreliable, even misleading since we strictly follow the events only from George Miller’s POV. Rarely do other characters in the future voice their opinions except to dismiss George’s anachronisms. George doesn’t like his own time, so he derides it. Presented as it is, out of proper context, the 22nd century may not be as bad as what we see on the page. Of course, that’s a hard pill to swallow. It’s indeed hard to imagine under what context could we possibly justify George Miller’s future in an objective way, but we may at least give it the benefit of the doubt.
The TV episode, written by Ronald D. Moore (a Star Trek veteran), purges all political elements out of the story. It’s a much more straightforward “what’s real and what’s not real” kind of plot – similar to the likes of Shutter Island, Total Recall, etc. The elusive nature of reality is its prime conceit. The same goes for PKD’s story, even though the political aspects stands out so much. Both, TV episode and short story, deal with the blending of the real and the imagined, and the inability of the main character to distinguish between the two. With a key difference, however. Whereas the short story gives us an ambiguous ending, the episode Real Life ends with a clear-cut answer. Sarah’s world is the real one. No need to wonder any further.
And that’s where the episode suffers.
The final revelation that Sarah’s future world is the real world is disappointing, to say the least. As the episode progresses and we alternate between Sarah’s and George’s story, the less confident we become in our opinion of which world is real. The editing here is spot-on. The episode’s structure promotes our ambiguity towards the two realities. It expends effort to blur the lines. And succeeds wonderfully at that, true to the spirit of the original PKD story. But then, when the episode finally reveals the answer and breaks the neutrality between the two worlds, all that work and investment come crumbling down in that simple revelation. Why built up the ambiguity and then tear it down in the most anticlimactic of manners? It was like waiting for a twist that never happens.
Excluding the ending, Real Life doesn’t fair that badly, even if several of its choices are questionable. PKD’s story is quite single-minded in its characterizations and the few characters it presents us can be narrowed down to tropes. Real Life dives deeper into the psychology of Sarah and George. They’re inherently more interesting; even if the explanation of Sarah’s guilt is rather rushed and inadequate. Moreover, the episode divides its attention equally between the future and the present, and though most of the time our future characters are indoors, we get glimpses of futuristic designs. And they look nice – nothing that Blade Runner didn’t already give us – but still nice.
Some of the dialogue, especially in the future scenes, is cringe-worthy. The meta commentary seemed a bit out-of-place. Don’t they have science-fiction in the future? Also, do you really need a bad guy that wants to ’nuke City Hall.” Seriously? Anna Paquin’s flat and unemotional approach to her role doesn’t help the matter either. It was as though in most scenes she’s just reading a line that’s held up behind the camera. We know she feels guilty only because we’re told she does. Otherwise it’d be impossible to tell. Terrence Howard (who plays George), on the other hand, does a terrific job. Not only he sells the drama of a man confused with reality, but he’s also convincing in his sense guilt and sadness regarding his dead wife.
The first episode of Electric Dreams starts the series with some interesting ideas, albeit lacking in execution. It is, after all, adapting a PKD story that was not necessarily ripe for adaptation. It was an excellent choice to remove the politics of the original story, but what we got wasn’t a whole lot better.