Benedict Wong is the best thing about Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a science-fiction anthology, streaming now on Amazon. There are ten episodes, different casts, different creative teams, all deriving from a different short story written by the feverish futurist. Comparisons spring to mind, but the source material for Electric Dreams doesn’t just predate Black Mirror. All the short stories adapted in this season hail from the early-mid 1950s, before Rod Serling created The Twilight Zone, when Dick was a twentysomething striver chugging out pulp fantasies.
No one would pick out any of the Electric Dreams stories as all-time classics. (A cynic wonders if they’re the only PKD material left unclaimed after decades of sold-off film rights.) And so it’s a good thing that the creators have taken a loose adaptive approach, modernizing, diversifying, and painting in emotional tones Dick didn’t consider or care for. Dee Rees (Mudbound) crafted an episode called “K.A.O.” that updates a conformity-era political fable for the postmodern media age. (It stars Vera Farmiga as a cheerfully fascist political candidate. Her inspiring slogan: “Yes, Us Can!” Her inspiring message: “Kill All Others.”) There are virtual realities and space adventures, directly or indirectly conceived by Dick, all rendered with special effects unimagined when the author himself died in 1982. A few of the episodes have female protagonists that were male in the original stories. The cast is impressive: Bryan Cranston as a crusty space-captain type, Janelle Monáe as an eerie robo-person type, wonderful Mel Rodriguez as the last sane man on Earth. In one episode, Anna Paquin goes to sleep and wakes up as Terrence Howard: Mondays, amiright?
Electric Dreams started running on Channel 4 in Britain last year. There’s a reason why you haven’t heard any exciting buzz from Brit Twitter. The episodes run the gamut from “kinda fine” to “you figured out the twist in minute three.” Being mindful of the Poniewozik Directive for TV critics reviewing anthologies, there’s only one episode I’d recommend, and only one person I really want to praise.
You probably recognize Benedict Wong from The Martian or Dr. Strange. (He was also Kublai Khan on Marco Polo, a show I can’t pretend I watched.) In the Electric Dreams episode “The Impossible Planet,” the English actor plays Andrews, local manager of a space adventure tourism agency called Astral Dreams. The adventures are real: We’re in the far future, a distant age when Earth is just a planet in the solar system 2483B65.
But these Astral Dreams are an illusion, the far-future equivalent of the brick from the old outhouse some savvy kid markets as an artifact broken off the Berlin Wall. “Impossible Planet” begins with a tour group marveling at the sight of a supernova. There’s actually too much cloud density to see the cosmic event, but the viewscreen windows come equipped with Instagram-ish filters, a “Viz-Augment” that makes disappointing supernovas look as cool as the ones in the movies.
I’m not sure if the Viz-Augment was invented by Dick or by the episode’s writer-director David Farr (who scripted The Night Manager.) Crucially, it feels like Philip K. Dick. An actual supernova needs better lighting: This is his unique mix of far-out imagination and brutal cynicism, his paradoxical prediction that humanity will evolve infinitely but never escape itself. And Wong’s Andrews is a perfect Philip K. Dick character. When we meet him, he’s sitting at a desk covered in junk, watching weird future porn on a pre-iMac computer screen. There’s a bit of Ray Winstone in Wong’s screen presence here, larcenous and lovable. “Fancy a beer or three?” he asks his young partner Brian (Jack Reynor), tone of voice suggesting three’s a low estimate. A few young people pass by outside the office – they’re on some kind of space station, in the kind of future where everyone wears whatever Lady Gaga used to wear on red carpets. Andrews waves to the passersby and they wave back, but because there’s a window, they can’t hear what he’s saying. “Rats in a sewer, my friends!” he grins. “Rats in a sewer!”
An old woman appears. Her name’s Irma Louise Gordon (Geraldine Chaplin), and she’s 300-plus years old and quite deaf. Her only companion is an impassive robot (Malik Ibheis) who speaks for his mistress. She’s come a long way; she wants to see Earth. Earth, Andrews tries to explain, is long dead, a planet gone extinct. But the robot explains, further, that Irma has a lot of money to pay for a private tour. (The precise amount is “two kilo positive.”) Sensing an easy mark, Andrews searches the galactic Google Maps for a planet that resembles the long-lost Earth. He proudly shows Brian a planet that could almost be Earth, a planet that looks blue. “It’s gray,” says Brian. “It’s bluey-gray!” says Andrews.
The younger man isn’t sure about this and seems uncertain about lying to this old woman. “We’re con artists,” he worries.
Andrews’ response is one for the ages: “What other kind is there?”
It’s a perfectly pitched performance, leering yet desperate. Andrews is both the highest- and lowest-status person onboard the ship: The chief practitioner of the central con, he’s also helplessly carried along by events far beyond his control. I could watch a whole series of such seriocomic adventures, this genially corrupt spaceman chasing a buck between Friday happy hours, that weird kind of workaholic who never does a good job but still lives in the office.
But “Impossible Planet” gets an attack of the cutes, reduces Andrews to fourth banana. The old woman strikes up a friendship with Brian, fills his head with stories of lost wonder on the dead planet. And he’s having strange dreams, or sudden bursts of memory, and there’s a strange picture of Irma’s grandfather…
Wong’s performance — and too few other moments in Electric Dreams — unlock reveal an important layer of Philip K. Dick’s literature: The man was funny. Even the best Hollywood adaptations of his work miss the humor, or obscure it behind sumptuous dream-pop visuals. This was the predominant vibe of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, which has influenced most ensuing PKD adaptations (as it has influenced most things). Brian’s flashbacks in “Impossible Planet,” and the whole emo-romantic tone of the episode, were mostly absent from the original story. But they do resemble the unicorn Scott invented for Blade Runner, a dream sequence that practically invented modern cinema’s fascination with what-is-real conundra.
Scott himself was a producer of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a dreary thriller carved from a scathing satire. Loop as it is, the 1990 Total Recall catches more of Dick’s caustic humor. The farce is so wild, though, goofy and gory. (Cut to Arnold Schwarzenegger holding two bloody sundered arms, yelling “SEE YOU AT DAH PAHTY, REEC-TAH!”) It feels like there’s an undiscovered country here, like we need a creative mind that captures Dick’s hallucinogenic dry wit. Most of the writers hired for Electric Dreams have drama backgrounds, but imagine a theoretical second season episode from Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, or the brains behind Bojack Horseman. Think what the Broad City ladies could do with the roiling hallucinations of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch!
As it is, this Amazons series offers got a smattering of space futures and digital nightmares. The Rees episode is probably the most “timely,” although no dystopian political satires feel insane enough anymore. An episode called “The Commuter” is the most melancholy, with a sensitive performance by Timothy Spall that could bring a tear to anyone’s eye. But what stuck with me was Wong’s gleeful corruption, the light Ragnarok touch he brings to way-too-heavy-handed material. At one point he muses, “Look at the sorry state of man.” He’s staring out the window of his travel agency; but you imagine that he’s looking in a mirror, and he doesn’t mind what he sees.