Anthology series and the science-fiction genre should go hand-in-hand, but “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” doesn’t make the most of its sky-high potential. Despite featuring a fitting number of stars for the space-exploring stories on hand, the 10 standalone episodes inspired by Philip K. Dick’s writings do little to evoke the prolific sci-fi author’s next-level dreams.
The best of the six entries screened in advance is, oddly enough, labeled the first episode on the screener site but falls to Episode 9 via Amazon. That’s a shame, since viewers would have to make it through the worst of the lot — Episode 7, “The Father Thing” — let alone eight more middling hourlong entries before they reach it. “The Commuter” stars Timothy Spall as an employee at a train station who discovers a hidden city between the stops.
Without spoiling the narrative hooks of the episode, Jack Thorne’s (Hulu’s “National Treasure” and “Wonder”) adaptation pushes viewers to think about how they form their own realities. Is ignorance actually bliss? Is it more comforting to live in a world where everything appears to be OK, even if that requires ignoring very real problems? What do you lose if you make that choice? What do you gain if you don’t?
There’s a lot to unpack in these questions, and the episode explores them with depth, detail, and emotional authenticity. Spall is, as always, a treat to watch. His take on Ed, a blue-collar worker with family problems that teeter between average and serious, aptly fluctuates between pleasure-seeking denial and a raw, frightened acknowledgement of his reality. He’s present in every second of the episode, and his character’s through line is mysterious enough to intrigue but grounded enough to be immensely satisfying.
Episode 7, “The Father Thing,” is such a polar opposite experience it makes you question if you started a different show. Starring Greg Kinnear and Mireille Enos but predominantly a kids’ story, the episode is based off Dick’s 1954 short story of the same title about a young boy who discovers his father has been replaced by an alien. The idea was adapted most famously in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and its many subsequent versions, but the episode does little to distinguish itself from those stories of paranoia. If anything, it tries to hide from the comparison, initially telling a cutesy father-son story that lurchingly shifts between opaque story points in order to make you think something more is coming: another twist, a larger message, or a jolt of black humor.
Nothing does. Instead, it throws around questionable baseball allegories and turns Kinnear’s father figure into the wrong kind of pod person — he’s hollow and boring, whether he’s the real deal or an alien replacement. There’s nothing to think about when it’s over, which is the worst sin imaginable for a sci-fi story that’s been used to express so many fears for so many decades.
With the exception of Dee Rees’ season finale, “Kill All Others” — which features a strong turn from Mel Rodriguez and tells a compelling story of a false-front democracy — the rest of the episodes skew closer to predictable familiarity than dreamy originality. Most of the acting varies between “very good” and “superb,” but that’s a given when you see who’s involved.
“Impossible Planet” (Episode 8) is almost totally stolen by Benedict Wong, though its glacial pace actually helps distract from an inevitable ending. “Real Life” (Episode 1) has similar benefits and detriments, as it basically goes gangbusters when Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard remain torn between belief and happiness, but limps into a conclusion that does little for their endearing commitment. Meanwhile, “Crazy Diamond” flips things a bit, as Steve Buscemi’s story builds a simple but intriguing world that starts down a traditional track before pulling a twist in the final moments.
That turn doesn’t quite elevate the story beyond effectively told mundanity, and even though it’s a decent episode, its flaws illustrate what makes the series suffer overall. Some of these stories — including “The Father Thing” — are so old, they’ve become cliches. They’re built on twists that audiences have seen before, either by reading Dick’s actual words or seeing other artists interpret them.
The best episodes ask you to engage with the ideas more than they faithfully recreate his narrative, but there aren’t enough of them. (“The Commuter” and “Kill All Others” are the only two standouts.) It’s one thing to update the technology to incorporate things like social media and the internet in general, but it’s quite another to progress his concepts to the 21st century, too.
Philip K. Dick is a legend for a reason: His writing was both timeless and ahead-of-its-time, meaning there are beautiful ways to extend his thoughts into fresh, modern stories. “Blade Runner,” “A Scanner Darkly,” and “Minority Report”, all did this, and “Blade Runner 2049” did, too.
It would be unfair to expect every hour of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” to be on the same level as Denis Villeneuve’s blockbuster art flick. No matter how much money Amazon threw at the show (and it seems like a lot, given the excellent production value), its creators couldn’t be expected to match the scope and scale of this year’s best sci-fi film. But what “2049” did both for the original film and for Dick’s original words is exactly what’s missing in this series: It continues his conversation in a meaningful way. It acknowledges the advancement of time, technology, and human beings’ relationship with both, while most of “Electric Dreams” is too content with what Dick already dreamt up.
“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” Season 1 is streaming now on Amazon Prime.