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 7, “The Father Thing,” was written by Michael Dinner based on the short story “The Father-thing,” and was directed by Michael Dinner. It stars Greg Kinnear; Mireille Enos; Jack Gore; Shannon Brown; Alana Arenas; Terry Kinney; and Andrew Rothenburg.
Summary of the Short Story
The Father-thing first appeared in the December 1954 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Charlie is perplexed. He’s just seen his father in the garage talking to what appears to be a doppelgänger, and can’t make heads or tails of the situation. When Ted, Charlie’s father, shows up for dinner, Charlie knows it’s not him. It’s the doppelgänger; the “father-thing.”
Terrified and confused, Charlie runs out of the kitchen and locks himself in his room. The father-thing tries to follow him, but Charlie escapes through the window and makes his way into the garage. There, inside a garbage can, Charlie sees a discarded human skin, which he recognizes it as his father. The father-thing apparently stole Ted’s insides, leaving the skin as an empty shell. More panicked than ever, Charlie runs away from the house.
Charlie meets with Peretti, an older boy who has in the past bullied him, and tells him everything he just saw in the garage. Peretti doesn’t believe the whole story, but agrees to follow Charlie into the garage. Once there, Charlie shows Peretti the abandoned skin, confirming his story. They both agree that the father-thing must be stopped. They spy at the father-thing through the window, and after some careful observation they deduce that something must be remotely controlling it from the outside. They resolve to find whatever that is.
With the help of Bobby Daniels, an African-American friend of Charlie’s, the boys search the surrounding area for whatever might be controlling the father-thing. Soon they discover a bug-looking alien, a metallic millipede of sorts, under a rock. They try to shoot it with Peretti’s BB gun, but the bug digs a hole into the dirt and escapes. The father-thing shows up and chases Daniels and Peretti away. It tries to catch Charlie, but the boy runs away again and hides behind a tangle of bamboos.
While the father-thing is looking for him, Charlie discovers two more doppelgänger growing inside two pulpy cocoons: one that looks like him and one that looks like his mother; i.e. a “mother-thing” and a “Charlie-thing.” It seems that the aliens are planning to replace them too.
The father-thing finds him and grabs Charlie by the writs. It tells him that the Charlie-thing is almost mature, and all that’s left to do is for it to feed on Charlie. However, before the Charlie-thing could do anything, both it and the father-thing fell on ground convulsing in agony. After a few seconds, they were both dead.
Charlie is relieved, but also confused about what happened. Then, Peretti and Daniels show up. Apparently they found the bug-alien and burnt it with kerosene. That must have also killed the alien-things. Just to make sure, however, they decided to burn what’s left of the larvae before they call it a night.
Summary of the TV episode
The Father Thing premiered on February 26, 2018 as episode 7 on Channel 4. It is also episode 7 in the Amazon Video release.
Charlie gets along well with his father. They love to talk about baseball, especially about Charlie making the all-star team. Unfortunately, Charlie’s father is thinking of leaving Charlie’s mom, but can’t bring himself to tell Charlie.
After a series of meteor showers falling all over the Midwest, Charlie begins to notice strange behavior in certain people around him. At first he makes nothing of it, but soon afterwards he notices something happening to his father in the garage…. Something involving his father and a doppelgänger. When the father show’s up for dinner, he seems like a different person. He doesn’t seem like his father at all. Charlie runs away from the dinner table.
Charlie meets with his friend, Dylan, and tells him everything he saw in the garage. Dylan’s brother, Henry, is also there. Though somewhat skeptical, they seem to believe Charlie’s story, but before they can do anything Charlie’s father shows up. He picks Charlie and drives him home.
Charlie is terrified. He spends all night on the internet and finds out that other people are experiencing the same problem as he. Many people in the neighborhood even. He resolves to stay away from his father and the next day he asks for his mom to drive him to school. He tries to tell her about the father-problem, but she doesn’t believe him.
At school, one of Charlie’s teacher, Mr. Dick, commits suicide because his wife has turned into “something else.” Only Charlie understands. He returns home and goes to the garage one more time. There, inside a trash can, he finds the discarded skin of his father. He confronts the alien, who admits the truth and doesn’t seem to preoccupied that Charlie knows. He thinks it’s irrelevant since the kid will join his species eventually.
Charlie decides to take the alien on. He first goes to the police but gets nothing out of them. It appears as though they have been taken over by the aliens too. Having no other choice, he recruits Danny and his brother Henry. They set a trap for Charlie’s father in the garage, but it fails. The father chases Charlie into the forest where they stumble on a bunch developing alien embryo in cocoon-like sacks. As the father tries to take over Charlie’s body, Henry comes driving a car and runs the father over. A bug emerges out of the father’s mouth, but as it tries to escape, Danny crashes it with his foot.
With the father-alien dead, Charlie, Danny, and Henry burn the rest of the alien embryo before returning home. Charlie records a message urging everybody to fight, and posts it on the internet with the hashtag “#resist”.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: PKD’s The Father-Thing is essentially Invasion of the of the Body Snatchers presented on a much smaller scale. The threat is not global, but local. So local, that it only manages to affect one person.
Interestingly enough, The Father-Thing was published a year before Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers (which inspired a few successful film adaptations), though many years after John W. Campbell’s Who Goes There, another well-known story of similar subject matter (the basis for The Thing).
In fact, many stories like The Father-Thing and The Body Snatchers emerged in the 50s and early 60s. It was the Cold War; the height of McCarthyism. The time was ripe for paranoia and the belief that an enemy spy could be hiding anywhere and take any form. Anybody could be a traitor, a defector, and the fiction of the time reflected that mentality. Now, I’m not sure whether PKD intended the story as a metaphor for Cold War paranoia, and if yes, whether he meant it as an endorsement, or a criticism (he’s done both), but he was certainly responding to something in the zeitgeist of his era.
Nevertheless, The Father-Thing doesn’t have the broad scope of it’s predecessors and successors. The alien “invaders” are stopped in their tracks before they can spread past Charlie’s father. The focus is narrow and contained, a fact reflected by the prose which remains relentlessly minimalist throughout the story. The events of the plot are narrated in real time from beginning to end, keeping with the fast pace of Charlie’s experiences. Little time is wasted on description and psychological musings. It’s as though PKD simply drops a camera at the moment of action and describes what he sees. The access to Charlie’s thoughts is superficial, and so is any background information that we get.
This approach works quite well insofar as it delivers a satisfying piece of SF-Horror, but I’m not sure the story has any other merits besides its surface-level entertainment value. As a “body-snatchers” type of story, its by no means the best. It’s actually quite confusing thematically and in terms of simple plotting. For one thing, PKD trivializes the alien’s defeat by having the kids “figure out everything” after only a few seconds of observation. How do they know the father-thing is controlled from somewhere in the back yard? Why not from miles underground, or miles up in space? Their journey is hardly a struggle. The whole thing seems like a short-sighed way to hash out a quick resolution.
Where The Father-Thing displays a great deal of potential is in its portrayal of family dynamics in 50s, perhaps drawing from the author’s personal experiences. There’s is an interesting ambiguity regarding the relationship between Charlie and his father before the alien invasion. Did they get along? Or was their rapport questionable? While Charlie immediately recognizes that his father has been replaced, at times the story seems to suggest that he did not necessarily like his father before. That possibly they did not get along. This prospect adds an additional layer to the terror Charlie experiences, suggesting there’s something wrong with the structure of the average suburban family.
Or does it? That’s the issue with this story. While there’s something there and PKD is clearly attempting to make a comment on something he perceives as problematic, I’m not quite sure what it is. I’m not sure the plot explores it sufficiently. Perhaps that’s due to my own shortcomings, not having grown in the American suburbs that make up Charlie’s environment.
The episode adaptation of The Father-Thing stays relatively faithful to the source material. For one thing, the plot remains simple and straightforward. Compared with some other episodes, there are no twists and turns, no hard-to-grasp, mind-bending science fiction concepts.
The difference between the episode and the short story has to do with scale. Writer Michael Dinner opted for a more expansive story, possibly hoping to up the stakes of the conflict. We know a bit more about the Cotrell family dynamic, and we know a bit more about Charlie. We know he likes baseball, he loves his father, and he knows that his father is thinking of leaving his mother. Moreover, the alien invasion is not limited to one person or family, but to the whole Midwest (as far as we know). We see the aliens literally coming in from space and slowly take over person after person, city after city. It’s remarkable how much the episode manages to reveal in only 45 minutes while never feeling rushed or incomplete.
Unfortunately, all this additional information the episode gives us adds nearly nothing of substance to the original story. If anything, it takes away the ambiguity PKD left in the original father-son relationship, replacing it with a one-dimensional romanticized caricature of the “perfect” father. There’s really nothing to ponder here. Everything seemed perfect until those damned aliens showed up. And
even if Charlie knew his father was about to leave the family, he appears to have made piece with it. The episode might have been more interesting if it dealt with this dent in the Cotrell family, but it doesn’t. By the end of the episode nothing matters except that Charlie and his friends defeat the aliens and start the “#resistance.”
More than anything, the episode The Father Thing is an attempt to replicate poorly a story that’s been told a myriad of times. There’s no good reason for it to exist. I’d much rather they spend the effort on a better PKD story. In the end, I doubt this episode had much of a chance to do a better job than Invasion of the Body Snatches or The Thing or the other like-minded stories did.