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.
Episode 3, “Human Is,” was written by Jessica Mecklenburg based on the short story “Human Is,” and was directed by Francesca Gregorini. It stars Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Liam Cunningham, Ruth Bradley, William Gaminara, Khalid Abdalla, and Ronan Vibert.
Summary of the Short Story
“Human Is” first appeared in the Winter 1955 issue of Startling Stories magazine.
Jill Herrick is unhappily married to Lester, a toxicologist for Terra’s (Earth’s) military. Lester is engrossed in his research and has no care for anything else. He dislikes children, pets, metaphors, and even romance. And he certainly shows no qualms about neglecting or mistreating his wife.
One day, Lester is assigned a trip to Rexor IV, a dying planet many light years away from Terra. During his absence, Jill confesses to her brother, Frank, that she plans to leave Lester. She’s had enough of him.
Lester returns from his trip a different man. He’s relaxed, mellow, and polite. His entire demeanor and attitude towards his wife has changed for the better, so much that Jill begins to suspect something’s not right with her husband. Jill confides her concerns to her brother Frank who shares her suspicions. Frank then places Lester under arrest.
The Federal Clearance Agents in charge of the interrogation claim that Lester is not who he says he is. Instead, he’s an inhabitant of Rexor IV who has hijacked Lester’s body. It’s not the first time this has happened, the agents say. The living conditions on Rexor IV are so despicable that many Rexorians try to sneak into Terra. Normally, the military is able to shoot them down before they make it, but somehow Lester slipped through. And since he’s now on Earth, civil laws apply, and the agents need to prove he’s a Rexorian in a court of law before they ‘vibro-ray’ the alien’s mind out of Lester.
Frank asks Jill to testify in court. She’s the only one who can prove beyond any doubt whether or not the man who came back from Rexor IV is truly her husband. Thus, her testimony is crucial. When she asks what will happen after the trial, Frank assures her that once the alien mind is expelled from Lester’s body, Lester’s true personality will come back. She’ll get her real husband back.
To Frank’s surprise, Jill does not testify against Lester in court. She maintains that the man sitting in front of her is indeed her husband and not an alien. Despite Frank’s protests, the court finds Lester innocent.
While having a quiet walk, Lester thanks Jill for her help. She stops him and asks Lester what his “real name is.” With a gentle smile, Lester replies “I’m afraid you would not be able to pronounce it.” She resolves to keep calling him Lester as he throws his arm around her, wishing to make her happy.
Summary of the TV episode
“Human is” premiered October 19th, 2017 as episode 6 on Channel 4. It is episode 3 in the Amazon Video release.
Silas Herrick is a decorated military Colonel and Level 1 citizen in the unified State of Terra (i.e. Earth). Earth is dying. Its surface has been rendered uninhabitable and its oxygen supply limited, forcing Terrans to retreat deep within their insulated metallic forts carved into the cliffsides.
The episode opens with Col. Herrick receiving a medal for his courageous conduct on Rexor IV, where the Earth’s forces engage in perpetual fighting with the Rexorians for the right to mine ‘Hydran’ – a substance required to clean the Earth’s air supply. Col. Herrick’s wife, Vera Herrick, is also present at the ceremony. She receives a great deal of praise for her role as a mission director, something that vexes Silas.
In private, Silas and Vera don’t get along. Silas is the very picture of anger, malice, and insecure masculinity. He never misses an opportunity to verbally and psychologically abuse his wife, and appears to have zero romantic interest in her. Vera feels trapped in her marriage, and despite her efforts, she can’t even start a dialogue with her husband. Her only moments of escape involve masked sex-parties with the lower echelons of Terran society.
Before long, Silas goes on another mission to Rexor IV. Earth desperately needs more Hydran, and Silas must acquire it using any means necessary. Unfortunately, the Colonel and his team encounter more resistance than expected from the Rexorians on Rexor IV. Though they’ve managed to load the Hydran on the ship, it seems unlikely that any of them will manage to return home. Seeing no other course of action, the Terran command – who has been watching the battle from a live video feed – sets the ship on autopilot and detonates a nuclear warhead on Rexor’s surface. It is unclear whether the ship or any of the passengers survived the blast.
Vera struggles to cope with the presumed death of her husband. She realizes that so much of her life revolved around him, and now that he’s gone, she feels “untethered.” Her friend and colleague, Yaro Petersen, encourages her to move on and focus on her job.
A few days later, sensors detect Silas’s ship enter the Earth’s atmosphere. The Colonel and another soldier are aboard, injured but alive. During the Colonel’s recovery, Vera notices some startling changes in his personality. Silas is hardly the same. He displays none of the overt aggressiveness he was so known for, and shows a renewed interest in his wife. Silas wants to spend more and more time with Vera. She finds this change pleasant, though suspicious, and reluctantly confides so Yaro.
The Colonel recovers quickly but is placed under arrest before he has a chance to return to work. The charges: He’s not really Col. Herrick but a metamorph from Rexor IV, disguised as the Colonel. Footage from the ship shows two Rexorians infiltrate the ship before its departure. However, because Silas is a Level 1 citizen and refuses to confess, he must undergo a trial to be proven guilty. Vera’s testimony will prove crucial in convicting him.
Several witnesses share their testimonies accusing Silas of being a metamorph, without offering any substantial evidence. When it’s Vera’s turn, she surprises everybody by stating that her husband is NOT a metamorph. This throws the prosecution off. Determined to win their case, the prosecution calls Yaro to the stand. Yaro accuses Vera of treason and collaboration with the enemy, claiming she must have known her husband was a metamorph from the beginning. Silas can’t stand the thought of his wife going down with him, and offers a full confession, provided all charges on Vera are dropped. The Judge accepts this proposition.
As Silas is about to be taken away, Vera speaks up. How can Silas be a metamorph, she asks the court, when he is willing to sacrifice his own life for hers. Metamorphs are supposed to be selfish and immoral. Silas’ actions are anything but. That makes him human. The Judge agrees with Vera’s argument, and pronounces the Colonel not guilty.
Back at home, Vera asks Silas to tell her his real name. After a short pause, he says that she would not be able to pronounce it. “The sounds can’t be formed.” She resolves to keep calling him Silas, if that’s OK with him. They hold hands and join foreheads together as the picture fades to black.
“Human Is” operates on a smaller scale than the previous two stories covered so far (Exhibit Piece and Autofac). In a sense, it is more straightforward, and the text itself is considerably shorter. We have the usual ‘aliens taking human bodies’ plot but with the unique twist: the takeover of Lester Herrick’s body is not sinister, as these stories usually are, but rather a force for good (coincidentally, The Body Snatchers had appeared less than a year before “Human Is”). The alien takeover makes Lester a much better person than he was initially. More than that, it imbues him with a humanity that was previously lacking – or at least, that was PKD’s intention.
In the beginning of the story Lester’s attitude is not only obnoxious and inconsiderate towards the people around him, but his behavior seem outright robotic. He dislikes metaphors, dismisses any subjective opinion or imagination, and shows complete lack of human passions. He acts more or less like an automaton. We may even interpret his rudeness as nothing more than a side-effect of his obsession with inhuman precision (He scolds little Gus for mis-characterizing a tiger – it’s not necessarily mean-spirited).
After returning from his trip to Rexor IV, it appears as though Lester gains a new appreciation for the things around him. He begins to play with his nephew, Gus; he enjoys dinner with wife; and most shockingly, he loses interest for his research in toxicology. He’s not only kinder but also a more versatile human being. Of course, if we were to examine the post-trip Lester in isolation, we probably would find him rather unremarkable – just a regular, kind-hearted husband enjoying his time with his wife and nephew. It is the stark contrast with the pre-trip Lester that makes him stand out.
In regards to the story PKD has stated:
“To me, this story states my early conclusions as to what is human. I have not really changed my view since I wrote this story, back in the Fifties. It’s not what you look like, or what planet you were born on. It’s how kind you are. The quality of kindness, to me, distinguishes us from rocks and sticks and metal, and will forever, whatever shape we take, wherever we to, whatever we become.”
The author’s intentions are obvious once you consider Lester’s transformation after the trip. The contrast does work on a superficial level. I don’t think, however, that PKD’s vision of what is ‘human’ stands to analytical scrutiny. It seems rather absurd to reduce the whole sum of human qualities to the mere act of kindness – especially with the added dimension of an alien species in the mix. It’s a romantic ideal that doesn’t quite work as a metaphor. I am reminded of a line from Roadside Picnic (a novel written by the Strugatsky Brothers), when one of the character points out the fallacy in trying to apply “human psychology” to aliens. So to say that an alien being is ‘more human’ simply because they are kinder is a gross oversimplification, one that doesn’t lead anywhere. At least, I don’t know what to make of it.
The TV adaptation suffers from similar shortcomings, although the magnificent performances of Bryan Cranston and Essie Davis amplify the power of the drama. I was glad to see the episode do away with the robotic attitude in Silas (who was Lester in the short story), and instead present him as a well-rounded and realistic individual, an ambitious military colonel who leads the war against the Rexorians. His viciousness and thirst for power perfectly mirror the dictatorial state he represents (a state with a rigid class structure, uneven distribution of resources, and mandatory procreation rules). It makes perfect sense, therefore, that someone who has no qualms about wiping out an entire species would also be a complete prick to his wife. And her response to it, i.e. participating in underground orgies, also makes perfect sense.
When Silas returns, it takes us a while to realize his change. The episode brings it on slowly allowing the drama to simmer, and for a moment even letting us believe that all this could be due to some PTSD brought on by the Colonel’s recent scrape with death. His change in personality is not beyond the realm of possibility.
The episode also decides to give the Colonel’s wife, Vera, a more prominent role than her short story counterpart (Jill). In many ways she serves as the audience’s only anchor to the world of Terra. She’s not entirely out-of-place, but the same time she doesn’t quite belong in that world. As already mentioned, the Terran state seems to bear the qualities of a military dictatorship. The environment is post-apocalyptic (the opening shot alone is harrowing). The oxygen of the planet has somehow vanished, and all humans have been forced indoors. These conditions have triggered a vicious instinct for survival in the Earth’s inhabitants, and have fostered an environment where nothing matters but one’s own success. Personal relationships mean nothing in this world. Yaro, for instance, betrays her best friend of 10 years in a heartbeat for the sole purpose of demonstrating her allegiance to the state. Of all our characters, Vera is the only one who seems to care about something. More than one thing, actually. She cares about her friendships, about her marriage, and even the Rexorians. By being closer to us, the audience, rather than the her peers, Vera enables us an easier access to the world of Terra, and thus an easier point of understanding.
This poignant characterization of Silas and Vera is the reason why the first 30 or so minutes of the episode are wonderful. The quiet back-and-forth between the two protagonists carries the weight of the drama, and it works fantastically. So it is a shame that the last 15 minutes of the episode – the final act – falls apart. I am, of course, talking about the trial scene.
The final act of the episode does not work for many reason, one of which being the same as in the short story – i.e. the simplicity of it. But even ignoring PKD’s facile vision of ‘kindness-equals-humanity,’ I find the scene implausible within the logic of the plot. It makes no sense that this powerful militarist/totalitarian state, fully convinced of Silas’s guilt, would allow him to get away so easily. Vera’s final argument should not have worked, unless the writers want to lose credibility in the world they created. It feels like a lazy excuse just to get Silas free for the final scene between him and his wife. Or it could be some stubborn insistence on the writers’ behalf to stick to the source material and let it play exactly the same, not understanding that what works on the page does not necessarily work on the screen.
Ultimately, there’s no reason why the episode needs Silas and Vera to walk out free at the end of that trial. The final scene between husband and wife would work equally well in a jail cell as it does in their apartment. Thematically it makes no difference. What does make a difference is the terrible pacing and patchy dramatic tension that the tiresome and drawn-out trial scene ends up offering. I know it’s pointless to dabble in so-called ‘script doctoring,’ but I can’t help pointing out how much better that scene would have been if it ended with Vera’s testimony. Oh well.
Episode 3 of Electric Dreams was in some respect much better than the first two, but failed to drive its story to a profound conclusion. Perhaps because it stayed faithful to the source material when it did not need to. It is worth watching just for the powerful performance of the two main actors, though the viewer should be wary that the ending may disappoint.