The first (and so far only) series of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams consisted of 10 episodes aired between September 2017 to March 2018 on Channel 4, before a wider release on Amazon on January 2018. Each episode of the series was adapted from a classic Philip K. Dick short story, to various degrees of alteration. Episodes like Autofac or The Father Thing remained relatively faithful to the source material, while others like Crazy Diamond and Kill All Others differed drastically. For the last 11 weeks or so I reviewed every episode in the series along with the corresponding short stories they were based on, comparing and contrasting where appropriate, and at the same time doing my best to treat them as independent pieces of storytelling.
While everything I had to say about each episode is in those reviews, I felt it appropriate to write a few concluding remarks on the series as a whole; and overall impression or approximate attempt to sum up this series.
Of course, writing an overall impression of an anthology series can be a slippery slope. The episodes are standalone and independent. There are no shared characters, overarching story arcs, or even stylistic similarities between each chapter. Every week had something unique and different to offer. At a time when almost every show on TV is serialized long-form storytelling, Electric Dreams made for an interesting alternative, almost a breath of fresh air.
The benefit of this form of television is also its major downside. You don’t really know what to expect from week to week, and while that presents plenty of opportunities for diverse stories and ideas, it also allows for a varying quality of those stories. An anthology series can afford a few mess-ups once in a while as long as there’s enough good episodes to keep the show afloat. Only a strong central voice or show-runner may enforce some sort of standard (The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror are notable examples – though not the only ones) and still that does not be a guarantee for good television.
Either way, I don’t think Electric Dreams had that strong central voice to keep it from falling apart. That was perhaps its biggest flaw. Ronald D. Moore and Michael Dinner were credited as “developers” of the show (whatever that means) but their influence, if any, on the individual episodes failed to leave a unifying mark on the series. Instead, the quality of each production depended very much on its weekly cast and crew, producing a mixed bag of a series, a hit-or-miss show with, sadly, more misses than hits.
At its high points, the show gave us some truly unique and memorable episodes like Crazy Diamond and The Commuter. These were SF television at its best, curating to a market starved for this kind of show. They not only captured the spirit of PKD’s early short stories with great success, but also translated their cautionary nature into contemporary relevance with all the extraordinary production values that modern television affords. Every episode of Electric Dreams is a marvel to look at, accompanied by great design and incredible star-power in the lead.
On the other end of the spectrum, unfortunately, the bulk of the series struck me as rather unimpressive, verging on the edge of dullness. These include episodes like The Father Thing, Real Life, and Autofac, which despite the positive review I gave it at the time, it seems less impactful now, eight weeks later (I still stand by my review, by the way, since it’s not meant to reflect on the longevity of the story but rather a more immediate reaction, as all reviews do).
So what do I think went wrong? With all the amazing talent and stellar production values that went into it, why did the show fail to stand out?
One could blame the source material, of course. After all, Dick’s fiction is somewhat dated by 21st century standards, not only because of its age but also because of its countless imitators over the years that have turned the author’s ideas into overused tropes. Moreover, the series focused on Dick’s early fiction – stories that were not necessarily his best. On the contrary, they were some of his worst as it was the time when the author was still honing his craft and had not yet separated himself from the mass-produced “standardized” science fiction of the magazine market (that’s an unfair assessment but for now I’ll go with it).
Stories like The Father-thing and Exhibit Piece, for example, do not make great TV material in my opinion: one because it’s overdone and the other because it works best as written fiction. Others like Autofac, The Hanging Stranger, or Foster, You’re Dead worked better, but not without some radical changes in their plot and premise.
This brings me to the next point: adaptation. Hardly any of the episodes stayed faithful to the short story it adapted. Some episodes kept PKD’s style and ideas in spirit despite the changes, while others simply used the stories as a jumping off point to go into wildly different directions and tell their own story. In my reviews I defended most of these changes because more than often they made sense; but at the cost of total mutation. At the cost of turning the final product into something completely different from its inspiration. So much so, that in many cases the words “Philip K. Dick” in the title felt like a gratuitous excuse to give the series a green light that it might have otherwise not have. As though the writers were not really interested in telling Dick’s stories, but something else. Something entirely different.
This resulted in a show that was stuck between two worlds: that of classic science fiction represented by Philip K. Dick, and that of modern anthologies like Black Mirror (which Electric Dreams tried too hard to mimic). It aimed to bring together two irreconcilable styles of storytelling instead of sticking with one side, or trying something entirely different and unique. In the end, it did not hold up to the status of its inspiration.