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 9, “The Commuter,” was written by Jack Thorne based on the short story “The commuter,” and directed by Tom Harper. It stars: Timothy Spall; Rebecca Manley; Anthony Boyle; Rudi Dharmalingam; Tuppence Middleton; Anne Reid; Ann Akin; Hayley Squires; and Tom Brooke.
Summary of the Short Story
The Commuter first appeared on the August-September 1953 issue of Amazing Stories.
A mysterious little fellow approaches the ticket booth at the train station and asks for a commute book to Macon Heights. The ticket clerk, Ed Jacobson, informs him that there is no such stop. When he shows the little fellow the schedule proving it, the little fellow vanishes into thin air. Ed looks in shock at the empty space and informs his boss, Bob Paine, of the occurrence.
When the same little fellow shows up again asking for a commute book, Ed invites him in to see Bob. Bob questions the little fellow (whose name is Ernest Critchet) and finds out that Macon Heights is supposed to be about 30 miles out-of-town. But he knows such place doesn’t exist. He shows the map to Ernest, who once more, vanishes into thin air.
Bob Paine meets with his girlfriend Laura, a journalist, and asks her to go and research the place called “Macon Heights;” to search all records as far back as ten years. He knows he’s heard the name somewhere, but can’t remember where. He decides to take the train out of the city and see if there’s anything where Critchet said Macon Heights is supposed to be.
In between two stops, approximately 30 miles out the city, Bob notices a mass of translucent smoke float over the fields. Then suddenly, the train slows down until it comes to a smooth stop. A few passengers get out and begin to walk towards the smoke, before disappearing in it. The whole scene seems surreal. Bob asks the conductor what stop this is, and the conductor responds that it’s Macon Heights. The train resumes its course.
The next morning he meets with Laura who informs him of the results of her research. It turns out that Macon Heights was one of three new suburban projects planned for construction outside the city about seven years ago. The project, however, lost the bid by only one vote, and so it never materialized. Macon Heights is a place that doesn’t exist, but almost did.
As Bob leaves Laura’s apartment on a cab, he notices that parts of the city look different. But he’s not sure. He decides to visit Macon Heights.
Bob walks around Macon Heights, and from what he can tell, it looks like a regular suburban town, albeit with everything new and shiny. Nothing looks fake about it. It’s as real as anything else he’s seen. Bob realizes that Macon Heights does exist, and its existence means that everything around him must be changing. Including the city. He’s afraid that it might have affected Laura as well.
Bob returns to the city and goes to Laura’s apartment. When he sees that Laura is OK, he breathes a sigh of relief. Both she and their son, Jimmy, are doing alright. “Jimmy?” Bob asks. Who is Jimmy? After Laura scolds him for not remembering their son, Bob apologizes. He does remember him, but for a minute, everything seemed a bit strange.
Summary of the TV episode
The Commuter premiered on October 1st, 2017 as episode 2 on Channel 4. It is episode 9 in the Amazon Video release.
Ed Jacobson is having a regular day at the railway station, when a mysterious woman asks him for a ticket to Macon Heights. Ed has worked there for years and has never heard of that place. It doesn’t exist. When he shows her the timetable to confirm it, the woman vanishes. Ed doesn’t know what to make of it.
Ed returns home to his wife and mentally ill son. His son, Sam, is suffering from psychosis and has uncontrollable violent tendencies. Ed is really worried about his son as his condition has been deteriorating fast. At the same time, Ed is scared of him.
The next day at work, the same woman shows up asking for a ticket to Macon Heights. This time, Ed brings her into the office to see his supervisor, Bob. The same thing happens again, and when Bob shows her proof that Macon Heights doesn’t exist, the woman vanishes.
Ed decides to get on the train and see if there is such a place as Macon heights; perhaps in between stops. After 28 minutes he sees several passengers jumping off the train into an empty field. He jumps after them and follows them to the misty town of Macon Heights.
There, Ed enters a Café and orders tea. The waitress seems to take a liking on him and brings some apple cake she made, free of charge. Ed takes some time to explore the town and finds everyone in it happy and overjoyed. Everything appears perfect, like a true utopia. While watching some children play (reminding him of his son), Ed meets the same woman who first asked for a ticket to Macon Heights. He questions her about the town, but she just tells him to enjoy it.
Ed returns home and finds that all reality has changed. He never had a child with his wife, and instead they live happily together without any problems and still in love with each other. After doing some research, Ed finds out that Macon Heights was a town that almost existed, but its construction fell through due to financial irregularities. After the project’s failure, the project leader committed suicide. And his daughter, Linda, is the mysterious woman Ed has been seeing all over the place.
Ed realizes that Macon Heights is a town of solace; a town for unhappy people with no hope for the future. All its inhabitants fit this category. Macon Heights is their only hope. Ed, however, becomes tired of it and wants his son back. Despite all the hardships, he loved his son, and doesn’t want to live in a worlds without him. He finds Linda and asks her to make everything go back to the way it was. Linda questions whether he really wants that; whether he’s not happier this way. She warns him that if his son comes back, Ed’s life will be harder, much harder. Ed still insists: he wants everything to go back to the way it was.
After some struggle, Linda complies. Ed returns home and finds his son there. He looks happy.
The Commuter is a great story. One of PKD’s best from his early period, in fact. Like many science fiction authors of the time, Dick wrote incessantly to make a living, churning out story after story to feed a market that, at the time, was starving for this sort of fiction. Naturally, not all stories that managed to filter through the pages of journals and magazines are worth our time, but The Commuter successfully stands apart from many of its sub-par contemporaries.
Rather than science fiction, The Commuter resembles more a story of magical realism, comparing to the likes Kafka and Marquez. The Kafkaesque in this story is obvious, albeit heavily subdued and drowned in Dick’s romantic tendencies. The “magical” or the “surreal” invades an otherwise normal existence and forces the characters to deal with the change. But the focus is very much on the character, Bob, who slowly succumbs to the change until he is completely enveloped by it. Through Bob’s internal rationalization of the events (narrated so expertly by Dick), the reader experiences the effects of change just as the character does – dreamlike and in a haze. The resolution has all the makings of a traditional twist ending, but without the cliché shock value. Rather, it feels inevitable, even if one does not necessarily see it coming.
The best part of The Commuter is that it never tries to justify the phenomenon it presents. Whereas a more conventional SF story (Exhibit Piece, for example) would settle for a at least a semi-scientific explanation, PKD leaves his plot deliciously open-ended. Instead we get an extreme close-up into the psyche of an individual going through the reality shift of what Macon Heights represents: the impossibility of preventing, or even detecting, an inevitable change.
And considering all that, The Commuter also does not fail to entertain. The mystery it presents grips the reader right from page one, even after a second or third reading. Bob Paine’s internal wanderings inform without dragging. PKD’s vivid descriptions, gradually increasing in detail as the story goes on, do a great job to emphasize the reality shift that Bob is going through as he investigates Macon Heights. In the end, the reader is left puzzled but satisfied.
The TV adaptation of The Commuter, written by Jack Thorne and directed by Tom Harper, fortunately lives up to its short story counterpart. The plot remains the same in spirit, but the scope of the characters is greatly expanded (not a surprise given the rest of the series). Unlike the short story which can be interpreted as a meditation on change and adaptation, the episode strives for a more emotional impact, while maintaining the dream-like meanderings through a fantastical, perhaps allegorical, plot.
Writer Jack Thorne had a tough job to do here. As is often the case, PKD’s short story relies heavily on character thought and internal monologue, not readily translated to TV format (with voice-over perhaps, but nobody really wants that). So a straightforward adaptation simply wouldn’t work, and that’s where the emotional story succeeds. By giving us something else to hang on to other than the simple mystery of a non-existent town, the episode escapes the curse of the “one-time-wonder” story which is useless after you learn the ending twist. There’s no such thing in The commuter. You come back because of the characters, because you care about them, and because they have something interesting to say about the human condition.
The series so far has had some truly exceptional actors in its repertoire and Timothy Spall (Ed) is no exception. For most of the episode his performance is quiet, subdued. He doesn’t so much act as react to the things that are happening around him, putting on the airs of a man defeated by the indifferent pangs of a cruel fate. Only in the end does he speak. Only the end, when he realizes that he loves his son, when he realizes that he’d rather suffer with him than live without him, his emotions explode on the screen.
Ed’s bout of anger and frustration in the final confrontation with Linda indicates that there is a side to be taken in the moral dilemma represented by Macon Heights. One does not have to resort to retreat and cynicism. And while Ed’s case is specific, one may also draw parallels between Macon Heights and modern consumerism, escapism, hedonism, religion, etc.
Before concluding, I’d also like to draw some attention to the visual aspect of the show.
The color palette of Ed’s surroundings are expertly used to reflect his state. In the beginning of the episode the color grey dominates most scenes, and Ed’s house is shot in a rather shadowy darkness. But as Ed takes that first trip to Macon heights, the colors open up and the cinematography brightens. Vivid blues and greens begin to show. Ed – and the audience along with him – feels like he can breathe freely again. The constrains of a tragic and burdensome life disappear in Macon Heights. There, it’s only utopian cafes, overjoyed couples, and children playing carefree in the school courtyard. In short, it’s a bright, colorful dream world, away from Ed’s everyday dreariness. Once Ed makes the choice to get back his son, the grey returns again.
With only one episode left in Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, it might be safe to say that The Commuter is perhaps the best in the series. It took a great short story and turned it into an even better episode.