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 8, “Impossible Planet,” was written and directed by David Farr, based on the short story “The Impossible Planet.” It stars: Jack Reynor; Benedict Wong; Geraldine Chaplin; Georgina Campbell; and Malik Ibheis.
Summary of the Short Story
The Impossible Planet first appeared on the October 1953 issue of Imagination magazine.
A stubborn and deaf old lady by the name of Irma Vincent Smith approaches the ship’s captain, Andrews, and asks if he could take her to Earth. Both Andrews and his assistant Norton think the old lady’s crazy. Earth is just a myth. Numerous studies and searches have shown that no such place exists. Yet Irma, and her robot servant, insist. She’s willing to pay a large sum of money – one kilo positive – for the trip. Andrews and Norton reluctantly agree.
Andrews pulls all known data for this mythical “Earth.” The most reliable sources place it as the third planet of nine-planet solar system with a single moon. Andrews searches the database for all nearby systems that fit the description and sets course for the closest one: Emphor III.
When they arrive at Emphor III, they find it bare and desolate, stripped of most of what used to be its oceans. Multiple wars and extensive mining have rendered the planet nearly uninhabitable. Only a minor trading colony still lives on it.
Irma is immensely disappointed. She knows it’s not supposed to be this way. She asks Andrews if this is truly earth, and the captain irritably confirms it. Irma asks to see the water. Andrews orders Norton to drive her around wherever she wants until she is satisfied with the visit, and then return to the ship.
When Norton returns to the ship, he is alone, without Irma or her robot servant. When Andrews asks what happened, Norton tells her that the old lady sunk herself in a heap of salt, and so did the robot after her. Norton couldn’t make it in time to save her. Neither of the two men can explain why she did this to herself, but Norton feels remorse and no longer wants to share her money.
On the way to the ship Andrews finds a strange coin on the mud. He examines the coin before departure and finds a strange script engraved on it: “E PLURIBUS UNUM.” He has no idea what it means.
Summary of the TV episode
Impossible Planet premiered on September 24, 2017 as episode 2 on Channel 4. It is episode 8 in the Amazon Video release.
Andrews and Norton are in the space tourism business, flying around their spaceship, the “Dreamweaver,” to show various astronomical phenomena to any paying customer. Only they don’t really mind “augmenting” the view bit to please their customers.
One day a 350-year-old deaf woman named Irma and her robot helper show up on the ship with a request for a trip. Irma wants to go on a tour to Earth. Andrews tries to explain to her that Earth has gone extinct for a few centuries now and they might not even know where it is, but Irma insists. Both Andrews and Norton decide to ignore her until the old lady offers to pay them 5-years worth of their salary for the privilege of a tour. This changes their mind, although Norton only accepts because he needs to money to please his girlfriend. Nevertheless, they decide to keep this trip off the books.
Not sure of where Earth might be, Andrews searches the database for the nearest planet that fits the descriptions – Emphor III – and sets the ship in that direction.
The trip takes just over 3 days and Norton has the chance to get well acquainted with Irma. She tells him about her grandparents who came from earth, and how they used to swim naked in the Elk river, in a place called “Carolina.”
Over the course of the trip, Norton and Irma get closer together. He begins to feel guilty that Emphor III might not be the “real” Earth. He also begins to question his love for his girlfriend. When Irma shows him a picture of her grandfather, Norton realizes he looks exactly like the man in the picture. Irma confesses that she dreamt about him.
They arrive at Earth on schedule, but it looks nothing like Irma imagined it. They inform her that a disastrous electromagnetic event years ago altered Earth significantly. Andrews uses the computer augments to make it look bluer for the benefit of Irma. She’s in awe of the view. She asks to go down on the planet.
Andrews refuses but Norton agrees to grant her request. The landing damages the ship, though it manages to get down safely. Using the only two available spacesuits, Norton and Irma go out into the planet’s surface. Despite Andrews’ plea to come back, Norton and Irma continue to roam the surface until their suits run out of oxygen.
They take off their helmets, and suddenly Earth no longer appears toxic and desolate, but green and lively. Norton and Irma, now looking like her young grandmother, swim naked in the Elk river.
One of the earliest stories published by the author, The Impossible Planet represents the foundation of the kind of writer PKD becomes later in his career. In this story, when humankind has evolved beyond the constrains of a single planet and has conquered the Galaxy, a frail old lady decides to throw all that away for the benefit of recapturing a long-forgotten memory. This sort of antithetical romanticism is omnipresent throughout Dick’s writing, with examples such as Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep, and The man in the high Castle.
The most notable element of The Impossible Planet is Earth’s status as a myth. No-one believes it really exists. Researchers have tried to find it but have been unable to. In the end, everybody gave up and resolved to reject the theory that humans came from one single planet.
The reader’s first impulse might be to question the plausibility of this scenario. I find it a bit strange that humanity could have so easily and so quickly forgotten its planet of origin. It’s only been a few hundred years since humans ventured into space (presumably). After spending eons stranded on one rock, how likely is it for us to forget everything in just a few centuries? Did wars and industrial decimation caused so much damage as to make everybody amnesiac? I don’t think so.
However, the plausibility of the story may not be what matters. Whether or not we believe in humanity’s collective memory loss, and whether or not Captain Andrews and his crew really believe in the existence of Earth, it’s in Irma’s faith and unwavering resolve that the strength of this story lies in.
As Andrews points out when looking over the data, Irma “probably knows every legend” about Earth. She knows that nobody believes in it and knows that nobody has been able to find it. Yet, she clings to the distant memory of her grandfather who may or may not have come from Earth. In the end, despite all evidence to the contrary, she gives up her life in peace, believing she’s achieved her goal. Irma’s journey represents the antithesis of both hope and futility, precisely what makes the human spirit unique.
With The Impossible Planet PKD delivers a concise story, filled with rich background and characterization, and never once feeling the need to up the stakes with unnecessary action or shallow reveals. The ending twist, though somewhat derivative from the perspective of a modern audience, is absolutely earned – if it is even a twist. The author relies on the audience recognizing the “mysterious” script, but that does not unequivocally imply that Emphor III is Earth. Not at all. It could have very well been a random coin transported to Emphor III at some point in the distant past; during the war, perhaps. But the fact that Irma believes is enough.
The TV adaptation of The Impossible Planet, written and directed by David Farr, is interested in a lot more than just Irma’s journey. The inherent futility of her search for Earth (here not a myth, but nonetheless forgotten) encompasses nearly everyone. In this universe nothing is a mystery anymore, scientific or otherwise, and people have succumbed to a form rational hedonism. In a sense, human life has lost its former charm. Captain Andrews has become cynical, Norton has become submissive to the whim of others, and the tourists aboard the Dreamweaver are nothing but “rats in a sewer,” as Andrews calls them. The universe has grown so dull that even its most amazing wonders need to be enhanced to please the tourists.
So, what do you do when there’s nothing left to do? Where do you go when you’ve been everywhere? The answer is inwardly; at least that’s what the episode suggests.
I have nothing but praise for Geraldine Chaplin’s performance in the episode. Right from the beginning, she exudes a sense of otherworldly mystery so fitting her character. Just like her short story counterpart, she inspires a sense of optimism that is otherwise lacking in the rest of the characters.
Unfortunately, Chaplin can only do so much to offset dubious writing. For one thing, the episode makes no use of Irma’s 350 years of life and the unique perspective that it would grant her. On the whole, she’s treated like any other dying elderly we may encounter in our world, telling a story we’ve seen a million times. If the episode had stuck to the conciseness and focus of PKD’s original short story, this would not be such a problem. But instead, it makes a point to explore Irma’s character in detail, giving her the majority of screen time, with little more than abstract generalizations as dialogue.
This is the problem. The episode is dead-set at convincing us that it wants to explore deeper issues such as mortality or the complexity of human spirit, but instead, all it has to offer is an unsolvable riddle. A plot that not only fails to carry the metaphor very far, but that is frankly uninteresting.
Furthermore, the episode provides no justification for its vicious treatment of Andrews. After the first few scenes, he’s deprived of all agency and is simply dragged along the whims of Norton and Irma. In the end they leave him stranded on a desolate planet with a damaged ship leaking radiation, and a robot that possibly wants to kill him. And for what? So that the two oxygen-deprived lovebirds can go skinny dipping on a river-pond? It seems unnecessarily cruel.
The episode certainly has its merits. For all their uninspired dialogue, Chaplin and Raynor (who played Norton) have a ton of chemistry on-screen. And the shots of the Dreamweaver striding through space were astounding, to say the least. However, in the things that matter the most – plot, character, themes, or good SF – Impossible Planet simply doesn’t deliver.