Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams – Episode 6 Review

electric dreams amazon prime video
Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams – Channel 4/Amazon

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 6, “Safe and Sound,” was written by Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell based on the short story Foster, You’re Dead,” and was directed by Alan Taylor. It stars Annalise Basso; Maura Tierney; Connor Paolo; Alice Lee; Algee Smith; and Martin Donovan.

Spoilers ahead.

Summary of the Short Story: Foster, You’re Dead

Mike Foster is not having a great time at school. The teacher scolds him for his poor knife-sharpening and digging skills, though Mike is not too worried about that. What’s the use of knives when his family doesn’t even have a bomb shelter? Mike’s father, Bob Foster, is an “Anti-P” and has willingly refused to contribute to the NATS (some sort of collective defense fund). When an attack happens, the Fosters will be defenseless.

On the way home from school, Mike runs across the General Electronics store and stops to look at the new bomb-shelter model, the “1972 Bomb-Proofed Radiation-Sealed Subsurface Shelter.” It costs 20,000 dollars! He wants to give a try but the salesmen refuse to let him. However, they urge him to come back with his father, and to tell him about the affordable payment plans available.

Mike desperately wants a shelter but his father is not convinced that there’s going to be a war. Bob Foster believes that it’s all a scheme to scare consumers into buying as many of these as possible. When Mike returns home, he talks to his father about the new model, though Bob seems unmoved as usual. Every model is the same, he says, just an incentive to get you to keep buying them. Bob doesn’t want to give into the fear.

Bob’s wife, Mike’s father, also insist on getting one. The “Anti-P” label is a mark of shame for the family, and she can’t stand it any more. Bob confesses that even if he wanted to get one, he doesn’t think he can afford it. He recalls of a time when the government took it upon itself to protect its citizens and they didn’t have to buy anything. Now it’s every town – every person – for themselves.

After talking to his son for a while, Bob gives into the pressure and finally decides to buy the shelter using one of those affordable payment plans. Mike is overjoyed. After it’s installed, the Fosters new shelter model becomes the envy of the neighborhood, and Mike can’t help but feel proud.

The next day the news-machines announce a new Soviet weapon able to penetrate the bomb shelters. Bob is furious. He just bought the thing and it’s already obsolete. There’s an upgrade available, but it’s not going to be cheap. Since he’s no longer an “Anti-P,” Bob agrees to buy whatever is necessary – even if he knows it’s all a ploy.

Meanwhile Mike spends all his free time inside the shelter. He’s become inseparable with it.  One December day, Mike finds that the shelter has disappeared from his front yard. His father had to return it because he could not afford the payments or the new upgrades. Bob promises to get one later, when he can afford it.

Mike is speechless. He runs away to the General Electronics store and hides inside the returned shelter. When the salesmen find him there, they have a hard time dragging him out. When Mike runs away, one of the salesmen asks of the possibility to give the Foster family a discount. The other salesman says they can’t. If they did that for the Fosters, they’d have to do it for everybody, and soon they’d be out of business.

Mike wanders the street alone, looking at the public shelters.

Summary of TV episode: Safe and Sound

Foster and Irene Lee have a one-year permit to visit the Eastern US. The Eastern regions of the United States live under constant high-tech surveillance as a result of their paranoid obsession with security, while the ones who have rejected this technology live in the “bubble” communities. Irene Lee is a representative from one such bubble community. Foster is her daughter.

Foster Lee

Foster has to go to the local school where she immediately finds herself shunned for not owning a “Dex.” The Dex is not only for tracking and security. It provides many additional services that make life a lot easier. Foster wants a Dex, but Irene refuses to get her one. It goes against everything the bubble communities stand for.

At school, another student, Kaveh, helps Foster get a Dex without the knowledge of her mother. He expects sex in return, but Foster refuses. Kaveh walks away angry and disappointed, felling cheated. When the Dex arrives, Foster is able to set it up and learn the controls through the help of a friendly customer service representative, Ethan. Though she doesn’t know him, Foster appears quite taken with Ethan.

The next day, fearing retaliation from Kaveh for refusing to sleep with him, Foster tells Kaveh that she’s changed her mind. Kaveh ignores her and walks away. Foster runs to the bathroom upset, when Ethan’s voice calls her on the “hear-gel.” She tells him everything. Ethan promises to use his security connections to see if he can find any dirt on Kaveh as a favor to Foster. She appears relieved and grateful.

Irene Lee

Later, Ethan calls back and informs Foster that he’s found something fishy about Kaveh. Every day for the last two weeks, Kaveh has turned off his Dex at exactly the same time. And so have done 13 other kids at different schools. Ethan wants Foster to follow Kaveh and see where he goes when he turns off the Dex.

The next day Foster follows Kaveh and sees him entering a door. Ethan is in constant communication with her now. She waits by the door for Kaveh to return, but instead of him, another student, Milena, comes out of the door. Ethan urges Foster to follow her. Foster doesn’t understand why but Ethan insists and grows more assertive. She complies.

Milena is quite friendly, though Foster can’t help but act paranoid. Ethan is constantly talking in her ear. After a short conversation, Ethan tells Foster that Milena’s father is linked to terrorist groups and that she is in danger. Foster locks herself in the bathroom and doesn’t come out until her mother arrives. Irene is quite angry when she finds out that her daughter got a Dex without her permission, as it will undermine her negotiating position with the Eastern government. She takes it from Foster and throws it away. Foster still has the hear-gel on her.

The “Dex”

The next day the school is on a terrorist alert. Because she no longer has her Dex, she’s not allowed into the “safe room.” Ethan’s voice comes up and tells Foster to get out of the building where the signal is better. Foster complies though she begins to grow more paranoid. Her father suffered from schizophrenia and she’s worried she might have the same problem. She even wonders if Ethan is real.

Ethan manages to convince her that no only he’s real, but that there’s going to be a terrorist attack soon and they need to act. Irene has brainwashed her daughter to carry out the attack, and Foster will have no choice in the matter. She can stop it only by making sure she gets caught. Ethan guides her through the process.

The next day Foster walks into the school carrying a homemade bomb and is arrested. Irene Lee takes all the blame. This incident gives the government an excuse to enact even more invasive policies of surveillance. Foster remains convinced that she was brainwashed by her mother and had no personal responsibility in the act, though she has not quite shaken the feeling of paranoia.

In the end of the episode it is revealed that Ethan was not a simple customer service representative but a government agent following a plan. Both Foster and Irene were framed.

Review/Analysis

There are quite a few stories out there about Cold War paranoia, ranging from the cautionary tale On the Beach, to the utterly ridiculous and satirical Dr. Strangelove. What sets Foster, You’re Dead apart is its unique younger perspective.  PKD’s story explores the devastating effects of the Cold War on Mike Foster, a young child who doesn’t quite see the world as the adults in the story, although someone who would appeal significantly to SF readers of the 50s (at the time, the genre’s readerships consisted mainly of young boys).

While the Golden Age of SF frequently features protagonists that are scientists, doctors, generals, politicians, and other men in charge, PKD’s fiction deals mostly with the down to earth, easily accessible everyday citizens. His protagonists are sometimes men in charge, but very often they are children, cops, shopkeepers, and factory workers. Thus, PKD is able to explore the psychology of the ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, giving more power to the allegory (if there ever was one). This quality endeared him not only to his readers, but other SF giants such as Stanislaw Lem, who famously dismissed most other American SF writers.

Foster, You’re Dead is a prime example PKD’s unique vision. Little Mike views the Cold War only as a child could. He becomes attached to the bomb shelter as a he would to a toy or a best friend, in a world where real friendship seems impossible. Through his eyes PKD presents a world that’s both paranoid and normal, both safe and insane, both ordinary and extraordinary. And just like Bob Foster’s shifting ideals, or the prose shifting seamlessly back-and-forth between past and present, so can the reader lose track of the dystopia and shift in and out of Mike’s childlike perspective.

Though it is easy to get caught up in Mike’s personal drama, the story allows the reader an objective view of the surrounding world. The world presented here is truly horrifying. Apocalypse has become the status-quo. The inhabitants of PKD’s fictional US in 1971 have given into a lifestyle of passive acceptance and regard nuclear war as an inevitability. The question is no longer “How do we prevent Nuclear Armageddon?” but “How do we deal with one?” It reminds me of The Twilight Zone episode “Third from the Sun,” (based on a short story by Richard Matheson) in which nuclear war is trivialized.  When the lead character in that episode, Sturca, questions the sanity of the upcoming war, another asks him “What are you, a defeatist, Sturca?”

The same attitude prevails in Foster, You’re Dead, though because it’s all from Mike’s simplified perspective, we get no explicit sanity check. It’s up to us, or rather PKD’s readers in the 50s, to question the sanity of events. As a result, the final scene of the story – Mike wandering through the streets of the city – doesn’t offer quite the closure one expects from a typical PKD story. It’s uncharacteristically open-ended. Some readers may find it a fitting end to Mike’s journey, while others may conclude that the story did not address all the issues it raised.

The Electric Dreams adaptation, titled Safe and Sound, deviates from the original story in quite a few ways. The father-and-son duo turns into a mother-and-daughter team, while the imagined threat is no longer nuclear annihilation but tech-surveillance. And the paranoia becomes quite literal, taking the form of mental illness.

Now, the series so far has had some episodes of truly great quality and some episodes of … questionable quality, but none who were outright as dull as Safe and Sound. Allow me to explain.

I use the word ‘dull’ out of necessity because I believe it’s the perfect – and only – word to exactly describe my feelings for this episode. The episode is neither boring nor fascinating; neither idiotic nor profound; neither memorable nor forgettable. It’s not bad, and it’s not good. It’s just… a dull episode of television.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair. Safe and Sound does an admirable job at portraying the experience and pressure a teenager feels in an uneven class structure. Foster and her mom are shunned the moment they enter the Eastern US and become political/social inferiors. Foster, as most teenagers, just wants to fit in. It may appear trivial in the grant scheme of things (it is, in fact), but to a teenager inclusion matters more than anything else, and the episode captures that.

However, unlike the short story where Mike’s perspective maintains the focus of the plot, in the episode, Foster’s plight is merely a means to an end – the end being a government conspiracy. As such, Foster’s personal journey never quite materializes.

The episode’s first few scenes are the most flawed. Any pretense of subtlety is thrown out the window for the sake of instant exposition, relying on over-the-top imagery and exaggerated clichés. For example: As soon as Foster comes to school she’s immediately singled out by what looks like the equivalent of a Gestapo force. We see two girls playing a game where a bunny fucks a chicken; we see a student getting a hand-job in the hallway and spending virtually no effort on discretion; and we see a bully, after having beaten the proverbial “nerd,” approaching Foster with his hand literally on his crotch (seriously?). Later on we find out that it is quite “normal” in this community to expect sex in return for even the most minor of favors. And that’s considered “having fun.”

The episode picks up shortly after Foster gets her Dex for the first time, and the tiresome clichés end.  I have to admit that the ‘mystery’ plot of following potential terrorists around the school intrigued me for a while. How Foster (or her mother) could be so shortsighted and not see the obvious trap remains baffling, though mildly entertaining. I suspect the writers wanted to make Foster identifiable with a younger audience so they gave her attributes that were too stereotypical of her age. She’s just an innocent and confused teenager, right?

On a similar point, Irene Lee’s character also seems more like a caricature than a fully fleshed person. Does the elected official of the “free” Western United States need to look like the stereotypical conspiracy-theory hippie straight out of the X-Files? One that calls other teenagers “sheep” (because how dare they fall into trends)?  It seems to me that the Western States would have better luck in the negotiations if they sent someone who wouldn’t provoke the East so easily. Or is the episode suggesting that everyone who refuses to wear the Dex fits into that type of personality?

Either way, it’s immaterial because both Foster and Irene lose all agency midway through the episode. Perhaps that was the point. After all, the episode explores the loss of freedom through technology and the willingness of the masses to trade liberty for comfort.

The problem is that the message of the episode and the drama of its characters feel uncoupled. Irene is essentially a nonentity, while Foster falls face-down into the trap laid for her by the government. The satisfaction of change, through character action, is lacking. The story opens at an already established status-quo and ends more or less the same way. The characters are almost coincidental.

 

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