Wednesday, January 31, 2018

'Electric Dreams' Episodes, Ranked

Philip K. Dick was a prolific science fiction writer, and many of his novels and short stories have been adapted into movies, though mostly in a loose manner.  Some of these are Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, Next, Paycheck, and The Adjustment Bureau.  Meanwhile, his novel The Man in the High Castle (I haven’t seen this yet) has been recently adapted into a TV series.  In addition, films like Inception, Source Code, The Truman Show, The Matrix, and 12 Monkeys had also supposedly been influenced by his works.    He is probably the most adapted science fiction author of all time.

Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, or just Electric Dreams for short, is basically an attempt to utilize some of Philip K. Dick’s short stories to produce an addicting, provocative, jaw-dropping science fiction anthology TV series like Black Mirror.  The term “Electric Dreams”, by the way, is obviously taken from the title of the Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which served as the basis for the classic science fiction film Blade Runner.

Does it succeed?  Well, like Dimension 404, Electric Dreams doesn’t take the “modern Twilight Zone” crown from Black Mirror.  As a whole, it doesn’t reach the same heights.  And, generally, it’s a bit more sentimental and doesn’t rely too much in delivering a strong plot twist.  This isn’t necessarily a negative thing, but this does lessen the show’s edge.

Overall, I don’t think Electric Dreams has any terrible episodes.  Every installment looks good and is well-acted, and even when its narrative fails to be utterly rewarding, there are always interesting and entertaining things to be found in it.  However, those in the bottom of the barrel – though not lacking of redeeming qualities, as I’ve said – are quite forgettable and underwhelming in the end.  On the other hand, thankfully, those in the cream of the crop are quite striking and worthwhile.

With that in mind, here are my rankings of the ten episodes, from least to best (by the way, I will be using the series’ original episode sequence instead of its Amazon Video arrangement):

Episode 10: “The Father Thing”
Synopsis: 11-year-old Charlie (Jack Gore) is very close with his father (Greg Kinnear), as they bond through camping and baseball.  One night, they witness glowing orbs falling from the sky, which are reported in the radio news as meteorites.  But later, after seeing a strange, disturbing scene, Charlie believes that someone – something – has replaced his father.

Again, this is not necessarily a terrible episode.  But it doesn’t have anything to make it remarkable.  It’s exactly the hackneyed Invasion of the Body Snatchers-type story that it is at first glance.  There are no surprises.  It’s unfortunate that this is the last episode because, for being the worst one, it brings the series to a whimpery end.  It’s probably why this episode is sandwiched by better episodes in the Amazon Video listing.

Episode 6: “Human Is”
Synopsis:  The year is 2520.  Earth is now called “Terra”, and humans are in war with energy beings called Rexorians.  After a deadly mission to acquire essential resources, decorated military commander Silas Herrick (Bryan Cranston) returns home a radically changed man for the better.  Formerly abusive to his wife, mission director Vera Herrick (Essie Davis), he becomes more loving, kind, and thoughtful to her.  But just as their toxic marriage is beginning to heal, a military trial threatens to destroy it.

It’s sappy and predictable.  However, in a certain perspective, it can get heartwarming.  Plus, Bryan Cranston’s ranged performance is incredible.

Episode 4: “Crazy Diamond”
Synopsis: Ed Morris (Steve Buscemi) is a scientist that works on a company that creates synthetic humanoids.  In order to put emotion, intelligence, and consciousness into them, they need to be injected with “quantum consciousness” – essentially the humanoids’ “souls” – which also dictates how long their lives will be.  He is approached by an expiring humanoid named Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen), and recruits him for a heist – promising a yield of great rewards and escape.

I like how weird this episode – or, rather, its world – is.  It has a couple of fascinating elements.  But, all in all, it fails to perfectly sustain my interest.

Episode 2: “The Impossible Planet”
Synopsis: Brian Norton (Jack Reynor) and Ed Andrews (Benedict Wong) are tourist guides for a space sightseeing company.  One day, a 342-year-old woman named Irma Louise Gordon (Geraldine Chaplin), accompanied by her robot assistant RB29 (Malik Ibheis), commissions them to take her to Earth, as she wishes to personally set foot on the planet that her grandparents had lived in and vividly recounted to her.  With the hefty sum she’s offering them, Norton and Andrews are unable to refuse.  The problem, however, is that Earth has been already destroyed many years ago.  Thus, the two proceed to conduct an elaborate con.

This is a story that can get heartfelt and intriguing for some.  It did for me, at times.  But, overall, it didn’t quite make sense to me.  The ending is absurdly romantic and undeservingly vague.  I think there’s only one sensible explanation for it – SPOILERS: Brian and Irma die, but before they do, they hallucinate the last scene or it’s simply a flashback to Irma’s grandparents when they were younger and still living on Earth – but if that is so, it feels dumb and pretentious.

Episode 8: “Autofac”
Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic future, civilization has been wiped out by a nuclear war.  However, a corporation called Autofac is still being run by automated, AI-controlled machines, manufacturing and delivering consumer products to non-existing customers.  As a result, worthless packages litter the surface and fumes from the factories pollute the air, making the situation terribly inconvenient for a small community of human survivors.  However, a young woman named Emily (Juno Temple) has developed a plan to infiltrate Autofac and shut it down once and for all.

Among all episodes, this is the one that has the kind of “gotcha” plot twists that The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror are known for.  It’s a startling, somewhat amazing plot twist – er, plot twists.  Unfortunately, I don’t think the story leading toward it (them) is adequately strong to pair with it.  Still enjoyable though.

Episode 3: “The Commuter”
Synopsis: Life is tough for railway worker Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall).  When a young woman named Linda (Tuppence Middleton) asked for a ticket to “Macon Heights” – a destination that Ed doesn’t know about and even doubts exists – his curiosity gets the better of him and he himself seeks the place out.  Soon, he finds this mysterious Macon Heights – a picturesque, enchanting, and cheerful village that can seemingly wipe away any problem.

The premise is a bit of a cliché.  But it’s a very noteworthy episode due to the powerful, toothy performance of Timothy Spall and its powerful, piercing message.

Episode 5: “Real Life”
Synopsis: Sarah (Anna Paquin) is a cop in the future who is suffering from PTSD.  To relax, she immerses into a virtual reality in which she lives the life of George.  Meanwhile, George (Terrence Howard) is the genius CEO of a 21st century tech company who is dealing with severe emotional trauma after his wife was murdered in a horrible, public manner.  To relax, he immerses into a virtual reality where he lives the life of Sarah.  Thus, it becomes difficult for Sarah/George to determine which between the two realities is the true one.

This episode is one heck of a mindf**k.  The premise is very intriguing, and the storytelling succeeds in challenging your inferences.  Answers seem to be obvious, but it manages to plant doubts on your mind that shakes your confidence on their certainty.  As an effect of this, it gets pretty absorbing and cerebral.   Moreover, this episode has the extremely gorgeous Lara Pulver, Sherlock’s Irene Adler, in it.  I really missed her.

Episode 9: “Safe and Sound”
Synopsis: In the near future, the United States is a dystopia divided between technologically savvy “safe cities” and the “bubbles”, Midwestern communities that scorn Orwellian technologies, as people from the latter are marginalized and treated with suspicion by the paranoid people of the former.  An activist named Irene Lee (Maura Tierney), along with her daughter Foster (Annalise Baso), moves to the big city to conduct a year of negotiating on behalf of the “bubbles.” While Irene is so busy with her political crusade, Foster has a tough time adjusting in her new school and social environment.

Among all episodes, “Safe and Sound” has the darkest and most impactful ending.  And it has a narrative that satisfyingly earns such ending.  It has a couple of insights to offer, but above anything else, it illustrates how emotionally vulnerable people can be systematically manipulated to serve as a propaganda tool or do destructive deeds or worse.

Episode 1: “The Hood Maker”
Synopsis: In a grimy, run-down future, a minority of humans have developed telepathic powers.  Referred to as “Tweeps”, they are mistrusted and persecuted by non-telepathic humans or “Normals.”  When telepathy-proof masks begin rapidly popping out across the city, a Tweep named Honor (Holliday Grainger) assists Agent Ross (Richard Madden) to find their mysterious maker, who goes by the name of “Hood Maker.”

As the first episode of the series, this effectively hooked me.  I expected that the next nine episodes would be greater (unfortunately, that wouldn’t exactly be the case).  It’s a very riveting procedural-type story with some decent amount of social commentary and romance sprinkled on top.  But, most importantly, it blew me away for having the most original take on telepathy in recent memory.

Episode 7: “Kill All Others”
Synopsis: In the near future (another futuristic Electric Dreams setting), North America is a single nation called “MexUsCan” (obviously taken from Mexico, USA, and Canada), the presidential election only has a single candidate, video advertising pops out everywhere (even inside one’s home), surveillance is rampant, and almost everything is automated.  In this Orwellian world, Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez) works as a Q.A. worker, which he thinks is an unnecessary job anyway.  One day, during a televised speech by the unopposed Candidate (Vera Farmiga), he hears her fleetingly mention “kill all others” while the words flash on the screen.  Philbert is shook, but most seem to not notice this.

This is simply a brilliant episode.  It has a lot to unpack.  But, at its core, it compellingly explores how a surveillance-heavy, authoritarian state would use consumerism and media manipulation to either brainwash or promote apathy among the citizens.  In addition, by relating with Philbert’s plight, it shows the frustration and difficulty that a discerning, thinking individual feels when others are blind to the truth even though the truth is hiding in plain sight.  And the episode manages to emphatically hit home with its messages because the kind of future it paints is, well, very close to home – it’s a believable trajectory of where our world is going, considering its current state.

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