Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
Episode 7 Kill All Others
Available at Amazon from 12 January 2018
Written by Dee Rees, based upon the short story ‘The Hanging Stranger’
Directed by Dee Rees
Starring Mel Rodriguez, Vera Farmiga, Daniel Craig Baker, Sarah Baker
Plot: TV store owner Ed Loyce discovers a human body hanging from a lamppost outside his shop… but he’s the only one who seems remotely bothered by it.
The Short Story: The first few paragraphs of The Hanging Stranger are a classic Philip K. Dick rug pull: a seemingly ordinary man heads towards his seemingly ordinary job, only to come across something utterly extraordinary—the ‘hanging man’ of the title. That’s quite a shocker, but it is not enough. Dick goes one step further into his regular paranoia when Ed Loyce is depicted as the only person in the town seemingly concerned with this new addition to the landscape.
Published in Science Fiction Adventure magazine in December 1953, The Hanging Stranger had been written in the summer of that year and it was the only one of Dick’s stories ever to appear in that magazine.
Loyce points out the body hanging from the lamppost to his coworkers, who all seem nonplused by it, pushing Loyce towards hysteria. Fearing for his own sanity, Loyce investigates the out-of-place street ornament more closely. The man is wearing a torn, distressed suit and is a stranger to Loyce. The questions pile up in his mind: who is he? How did he end up here? Why isn’t anyone taking any notice of him?
While his staff continue to calmly sell television sets and the other shop workers go about their business, Ed Loyce goes a little mad, eventually attracting the attention of a couple of cops. Taking him downtown, the cops tell Loyce that as he was working in his basement that morning, he’d missed the ‘explanation’ and that the body was supposed to be there. They insist on taking Loyce into the station for ‘a short process’.
Loyce suddenly throws himself from the car into the traffic, running from his captors he realizes they couldn’t be cops: Pikeville’s a small town, and he knows all the cops. These guys were strangers. Serious paranoia kicks in now for Loyce as he goes on the run from ‘them’, without even knowing who ‘them’ might be…
He discovers a ‘cone of darkness’ hanging above City Hall, accompanied by a ‘buzzing … like a great swarm of bees’. He perceives creatures of some sort, exiting the ‘vortex’ cloud and onto the roof of City Hall. Giant winged insects of some kind are arriving en masse in Pikeville from a ‘break in the shell of the universe’. The aliens are making their way to Earth from ‘another realm of being’. Furthermore, these insect creatures disguise themselves as men through some form of mimicry.
After an altercation with a man on a bus whom he believes to be an insect agent, Loyce realizes that whatever has happened to the population of his town, he was somehow excluded by virtue of being down below in his basement all morning. Perhaps there are others around like him who escaped the control of the invading insect hordes?
In classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers mode, Dick has Loyce return home to a scene with his wife, Joyce, where he lays out his outre tale of invasion and replication, sounding completely paranoid in the process. Rounding up his wife and twin children, Loyce intends leaving town through a long abandoned back road. When his young son Jim reveals himself to be one of the insects, a battle ensues. Loyce escapes on his own, and goes on the run once more…
Arriving the next morning in the neighbouring town of Oak Grove, Ed Loyce is able to tell his remarkable story to the authorities. He outlines a theory that this incident is only the latest in a long war between men and the invading insects, dating back to ancient times, perhaps even chronicled in the Bible. The only thing he doesn’t understand is the hanging man—what was that all about? ‘Bait,’ explains the Police Commissioner of Oak Grove to Ed Loyce. A trap, to draw out the unconverted, and Ed Loyce has fallen straight into it. Later, as the Oak Grove bank vice-president emerges from a day toiling in the vaults, he notices a strange figure hanging from a telephone pole just outside the police station…
The Hanging Man is a clever tale of paranoia clearly influenced (again) by the mid-1950s political situation in terms of the fears of Communist infiltration and the disruption to life cause by the reaction to the ‘Red Menace’. The hanging man of the title recalls the lynchings of the KKK (still happening in 1950s’ America), while the pursuit of an unaffected hero figure by those taken over by the invaders (whether from another country, outer space, or another dimension) is a classic of literature and film.
It is also about the acceptance of such atrocity by those who regard the victim as being the ‘other’, whether of a different race or religion, or even just from one town over—it needn’t concern us, as they are not one of us, goes the argument. Ed Loyce stands out as he doesn’t accept this; he is outraged by the crime that appears to have been accepted by those around him. Dick satirises such complacency here in simple and clear terms.
There’s a touch of the Lovecraftian to the ‘creatures from another dimension’ aspect of the tale, but little is done to flesh them or their motives out in any way (an area that any television adaption could surely expand upon). There is some confusion between the physical replacement of certain people by the insects, the ‘mimicry’ aspect (you have to wonder if Guillermo del Toro’s Mimic was in any way influenced by this Dick short story?), and the mental control or suppression of the rest of the population. When his son turns on him in insect form, Loyce notices his wife and other son stand totally still, either unwilling or unable to intervene. It appears they have not been physically replaced, but have been somehow mentally suppressed.
Perhaps the true horror here is how little has actually changed in the world and in the lives of the inhabitants of Pikeville after the invasion—they seem content to continue on with life much as before, performing their economic and social duties without question. As with many of Dick’s earliest short stories, the question of motivation for the invading entities, whether from Raxor IV (Human Is) or another dimension, is never really tackled—just what is it these insect life forms want?
The Television Episode: This is another episode of Electric Dreams where the simple and effective idea that Dick presents in the source short story is altered and stretched almost beyond recognition. The alien invasion angle has been ignored in favour of a rather tired political allegory that nonetheless resonates in Trump’s America. Instead of Ed Loyce we have Phil (Mel Rodriquez) and his wife Sarah (Sarah Baker), a pair who seem happy with the life they have. Phil is one of the few human workers retained at an almost all-robot run factory, although the tasks he perform seem both mundane and unnecessary.
The political background here is one where America has expanded into a mega-nation, taking in Canada and Mexico in the process (whatever happened to that wall?) to form MexUSCan—leading to the naff political slogan Yes-US-Can. It appears to be a prosperous one-party state in which the Candidate (Vera Farmiga) for the highest office is selected from 52 initial entrants. Farmiga’s Candidate and the media people surrounding her appear to be refugees from The Hunger Games in terms of their outlandish styling in hair and dress, supposedly to highlight class difference between the ‘elites’ and the ‘working class’ represented by Phil.
Happy-go-lucky Phil begins to question his world when he (and seemingly he alone) perceives the words ‘Kill All Others’ hidden within both the speech and visuals accompanying a broadcast featuring the Candidate. Most people either didn’t see the subversive message or are happy to ignore it, but Phil’s agitation brings him to the notice of the authorities. As a result he is brought in for testing, but is released with a monitor to keep an eye on his health.
He continues to see the message ‘Kill All Others’ on billboards, sometimes accompanied by the figure of a hanging man (gotta force in some reference to the source story somewhere). Refusing to get in line, Phil finally mounts one of the billboards and attempts to bring down the real human figure hanging there. His monitor, however, is also injecting drugs into his system, and this allows the police to bring him down. Watching the incident live on TV, his co-workers are shocked and surprised, then nonchalantly turn the channel to the sport and continue playing pool.
Kill All Others is fine as far as it goes, but it is a radically different story from the Dick original which only manages to pay the merest of lip service to the points made in the original. The gut punch of Ed Loyce becoming the ‘hanging stranger’ in the next town over is completely lost, as is the aliens-from-another-dimension angle. The only effective thing is the sense of paranoia that is gradually ramped up as Phil becomes every more aware that his thinking is different from those around him—is he an ‘other’ or are they? Even this aspect is not as impactful as it might have been. In significant ways, almost each of the episodes of Electric Dreams have been disappointments when taken in conjunction with the stories that supposedly influenced them, although as examples of standard American television science fiction they just about pass muster while falling short of Black Mirror style social and political commentary.
Verdict: While well put together, Kill All Others fails to adequately capture the chilling paranoia evident in Philip K. Dick’s source story.
Brian J. Robb
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