Electric Dreams Episode 7 Kill All Others


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.

ScienceFictionAdventuresDecember1953COVER565Loyce 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…

TheHangingStranger565IllustrationHe 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…

cover6Arriving 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.

Kill05The 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.

Kill04Happy-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.

Kill03Kill 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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Electric Dreams Episode 6 Human Is

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams Episode 6 Human Is

29 October 2017

Written by Jessica Mecklenburg

Directed by Francesca Gregorini

Starring Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Liam Cunningham, Ruth Bradley

Plot: An unhappy wife is taken by surprise when her cruel husband returns from a trip a ‘new’ man…

The Short Story: The opening of Human Is shows that in a world where technology caters to all basic needs (food, work) that human relationships are still central. The reader is dropped in to what might be considered a mild version of an abusive relationship. Jill Herrick is looking forward to a visit form her nephew, while workaholic Lester Herrick wants nothing to do with ‘the child’ and refuses to entertain the idea. Having Gus, or any child, around the house would simply get in the way of Lester’s feverish rate of work, and that is something he cannot countenance.

Startling Stories 1955When Gus does arrive, Lester is unimpressed, seeing his childish conduct as somehow counter to ‘a realistic orientation’ to life. When his work takes Lester to a trip of several weeks duration to Rexor IV, Jill is disappointed when he simply laughs at the idea that she might accompany him. Lester leaves Jill and Gus behind, setting out to fulfil a long held professional ambition.

In Lester’s absence, Jill comes to a decision. She tells her brother, Frank, that she intends to leave Lester and will tell him so upon his return from Rexor IV. After five years of marriage, she sees her husband as ‘so inhuman… utterly cold and ruthless. He’ll never change, he’ll always be the same.’

The irony, of course, is that when Lester does return, he’s a different man, perhaps literally. He’s civil and solicitous, happy to be home. Jill has trouble with the change. He’s suddenly interested in food, regarding a meal as an experience, rather than simply an inconvenient refuelling before getting on with more work. He ignores her suggestions that he’s different somehow, even when he fails to take his work seriously, preferring instead to simply enjoy being ‘home’ on such a ‘moist’ world as Terra.

Obviously the clues that all is not well with Lester are painfully obvious to the reader, if not to Jill. She recounts the changes in her husband to Frank, who takes a curious interest in the subject. Playing with Gus and using archaic language (as if learned from a book) aren’t the only changes in this ‘new’ Lester: he’s also ‘mellow … relaxed… tolerant…’ Not at all like himself—he’s even ‘romantic’!

Human Is illoClearance Agent Frank takes Lester in to the department. Clearance Director Douglas explains that Lester’s ‘original psychic contents’ have been removed and stored, only to be replaced by ‘substitute contents’, essentially a whole new consciousness and personality. This happened on Rexor IV, and the Clearance Department are only too aware of the process. Ten previous impostors have been identified and ‘vibro-rayed’. Lester Herrick is the first to make it to Earth; the others were all caught aboard ship, out in deep space.

Under interrogation, ‘Lester’ initially attempts to keep up the pretence. Terran law, rather than military law (as in deep space) applies in this case, and ‘Lester’ cannot just be ‘fried’, as Clearance Director Douglas wishes. After all, the body is human, it is just the mind that has changed. Frank believes he can rely upon his sister to testify to the changes in Lester, so allowing the matter to proceed through court and end with the Rexorian’s termination.

Jill understands what has happened to Lester, and when it is made clear that only the mind will be ‘fried’ and the original contents retrieved from Rexor IV and replaced, meaning she’ll get the ‘old’ Lester back, does she begin to have doubts about giving evidence. At the hearing, Jill stubbornly refuses to acknowledge that any change in Lester has taken place. Jill Herrick far prefers the new version of her husband to the old, and without her testimony there is nothing Clearance can do. Jill returns home to live out her new life with ‘Lester’.

One of Dick’s most famous stories, Human Is was written in 1953 and appeared in the Winter 1955 edition of Startling Stories. Of course, given the 1950s context and the story’s focus on an imposter slipping into American life, it was clearly intended as a comment on the then-rampant McCarthyism and fear of ‘Reds under the bed’ that was haunting America. The Clearance Department is obviously modelled on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) of Congress that would determine whether a witness was ‘friendly’ or ‘hostile’. Only those ‘friendly’ to the committee were deemed to be ‘proper’ Americans—the others suffered sanction.

In reviewing the story in 1976, Dick said that being ‘human’ was not ‘what you look like, or what planet you were born on. It’s how kind you are. For me “Human Is” is my credo. May it be yours.’

It’s a simple story, with a simple sentiment, but for all that it is still a powerful message that humanity comes from conduct and actions, not some in-born quality. An alien being, perhaps slightly out of time, can be more human than an American born into the future setting of Human Is. The alien is a better ‘man’ than Lester Herrick.

Just as contemporary humans get their guidance as to how to behave from media—movies, television, novels, theatre—so, too, did the Rexorians. In the story, Director Douglas cites ‘romance novels’ as one of the alien’s main sources for duplicating human behaviour, and Lester’s newly-found ‘romantic’ nature is one of the main reasons she is happier to keep her ‘new’ husband around in preference to the old version, too caught up in his work to even notice her.


Human 02

The Television Episode: In terms of adaptation, Human Is is clearly the most successful instalment of Electric Dreams yet. The basic premise of the story is carried over to the television version, by Jessica Mecklenburg (Stranger Things), intact with the expected expansion of the universe in which it is set done in a sympathetic style. Where some of the earlier episodes took even the slightest inspiration from the supposed source stories (Crazy Diamond/Sales Pitch, we’re looking at you), this one keeps the focus tight on the core of Dick’s original story and whatever additions there are find their roots in the original tale too. Mecklenburg has said ‘I reimagined Jill and Lester, calling them Vera and Silas, while retaining as much of the nuance and honest emotion of Philip K Dick’s original story as possible’—a welcome fidelity to the source material that has not been evident in all the work of those adapting these tales for the series.

After a shaky start, the television episode establishes a future world of the 26th century in which the replication of a human character is a better narrative fit than in Dick’s original 1950’s view of the future. Earth (or Terra) is at war with Rexor IV over an economic commodity: oxygen. This is yet another world suffering from an environmental catastrophe (the cause of which is never explicitly stated). Humans exist in a drab, airless world in concrete bunkers clinging to the side of a cliff.

Human 06Updating the sexual politics of the Dick original, Mecklenburg upgrades the wife figure to someone who has a career and distinct motivations and desires of her own. The Babadook’s Essie Davies is Vera (changed from the story’s Jill), who holds a position within the organisation that sends her husband, Silas (show producer Bryan Cranston, also changed from the story’s Lester), out on dangerous missions to Rexor IV to secure the much-needed oxygen. This welcome change gives the Jill/Vera character much more agency. The Frank equivalent (or the nearest the show has to offer) is Ruth Bradley’s Yaro, which she curiously plays almost exactly like her humanoid robot character in Channel Four’s Humans (adding an extra ‘What is human?’ kink to this PKD text).

Talking of kink, unlike in the story, Vera seems to have an outlet for the frustrations surrounding her marriage to the cold, work-obsessed Silas. In a gratuitous sequence (in that little comes of it, and it does little to illuminated Vera’s character) she visits a lower levels ‘alternative’ club/brothel called ‘The Maze’. With this outlet for her frustrations, she’s one step advanced on the Jill character in the story who has no alternative to life with Lester.

Human 09Cranston’s Silas begins as the unloving, detached, work-driven figure of Dick’s story, only to return from a mission to Rexor IV changed. Perhaps the change in Cranston’s performance is not as distinct as might be expected, but his actions speak louder, with a fresh attitude to food, his wife, and ‘romance’ in evidence when he returns. The upgrade where we are shown video of the conflict on Rexor is welcome, as is the depiction of the Rexorians as formless, sparkling clouds, perhaps pure consciousness. The revelation that a couple of Rexorians were able to infiltrate Silas’ ship brings suspicion down upon him and the fellow soldier he saved.

A ‘trial’ ensues in which Silas is accused of being a Rexorian duplicate (in this version the aliens are defined as ‘metamorphs’ rather than consciousness inhabiting the original body, although the outcome is essentially the same). His self-sacrifice to spare his wife (who refuses to confirm her suspicions of his changed nature) is used as proof that he is human. The episode follows through with the question of name pronunciation, as in the short story, indicating Vera is staying with the ‘fake’ reformed Silas.

Human 08One thing missing from both versions is any discussion of the motivation of the Rexorians—why are they stealing human identities and trying to get to Earth? The short story suggests Rexor IV is a dead or dying world, so simple survival might be a motive. In the television version, they are the subjects of a war, so might sabotage of the Terra war effort be a factor, in which case, Vera’s denial of Silas’ changed nature is put in a new light? This is, of course, speculation beyond anything either text gives either reader or viewer.

Verdict: The best adaptation of the Philip K. Dick source story yet, Human Is might even be the best episode of Electric Dreams to date.

Brian J. Robb

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Counterfeit Worlds Note: Electric Dreams will return to Channel 4 in 2018 with the final four episode of the 10-episode run. This blog will pick up covering the adaptation process when they air. The series is also due to appear on Amazon in the US during 2018.

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Electric Dreams Episode 5 Real Life

Real Life 01

Electric Dreams Episode 5 Real Life

15 October 2017

Written by Ronald D. Moore, based upon the short story ‘Exhibit Piece’

Directed by Jeremy Reiner

Starring Anna Paquin, Terence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre, Lara Pulver

Plot: George Miller, a researcher in the History Agency, escapes back to the past he is studying… or does he?

The Short Story: Once again, Exhibit Piece opens with a commuter on the way to his day job—is this co-incidental, or does whomever selected these particular stories for adaptation as episodes of Electric Dreams have something about commuting? George Miller works for the History Agency and likes to dress in period-appropriate clothing, in this case a 20th century suit featuring old-fashioned ‘buttons’ which serve to confuse the robot ‘pubtrans’ driver he encounters. His choice of attire even gets him into trouble with his boss, Controller Fleming, who wants Miller to adhere to the Government’s ‘strict rules’ for dress. Eyebrows have been raised at his failure to function as a ‘socio-political unit’ in his own society.

IF Cover Aug 1954Miller is committed to the period he is studying, the Middle Twentieth Century and enjoys adopting not only the dress, but speech patterns and affectations of the period. This, he believes, gives him genuine empathy with the people of that time, beyond a mere intellectual curiosity. His role is to research, maintain, and update museum exhibits relating to life in the long-past 20th century. Unfortunately, he lives in a carefully regulated, hierarchical society that is a stark contrast to what he sees as the individual freedom of the past.

A noise from within his exhibit attracts Miller’s attention. He believes someone has passed the security barrier and climbed into the exhibit itself. A visitor, or an academic rival, perhaps, or even one of his managers looking to find fault with his work. He enters and explores the California ranch-style bungalow that is maintained as a typical example of 20th century-style housing, with a completely dressed accurate interior.

Within he finds a family having breakfast. The woman and two boys are waiting for the husband to return from retrieving the daily newspaper from the front porch. Miller observes the scene for a moment, and is then stunned to find that the others regard him as the husband, also called ‘George Miller’. It’s one of Dick’s classic shifts in reality.

If Contente Aug 1954Miller’s entire perception of reality shifts, as he recalls working for old man Davidson at United Electronic Supply in San Francisco. He’s not only observing these strange people from another time hidden within his historical exhibit, he is becoming part of it. What was previously a 3D projected backdrop has now become an ever more convincing reality for George Miller. That begs the question, which is the ‘true’ reality; the 20th century world that Miller now seems such a natural part of, or the future world he inhabited mere moments ago?

Miller’s growing confusion drives him to see a psychiatrist named Adam Grunberg. His briefcase is missing, causing memories of the History Agency to resurface. Outlining this to the psychiatrist, Miller sounds like a crazy man—he’s essentially attempting to persuade him that this is not reality, but simply an exhibit in some far-future museum. Or is that part the delusion—to George Miller each seems as real as the other.

Miller’s delusion is rationalized as a desire for escape into the ‘world of tomorrow’, complete with robots and rocket ships, whereas from his own point of view he appears instead to have escaped into his own idealized vision of the past. The only way to resolve things appears to be to return to the exact spot where he originally entered the exhibit and see what happens…

IF Illo Aug 1954He discovers the ‘weak spot’ that allows access back to his ‘world of tomorrow’, so concludes both worlds are real. An encounter with Fleming, however, sees Miller makeup his mind to remain in the past, something his boss denounces as ‘psychotic delusions’. For Miller the past is a freer place, where the state has no control over marriage and children, as in the future. Rationalising he has found a ‘time gate’, a bridge to the past, Miller resolves to stay there.

Up to this point, either reality—or both—could be real. Director Carnap, the ultimate authority of the History Agency, resolves to demolish the exhibit, and perhaps Miller is a madman sitting among a plastic replica simply imagining the rest. Or, alternatively, he has found a doorway to the past, a time he feels more au fait with.

Then Dick delivers the kicker. Retiring to his 20th century living room and picking up the day’s paper, Miller discovers the worst news possible: a new Russian ‘cobalt bomb’ augurs the end of the world. Perhaps his knowledge of history wasn’t that accurate or in-depth, or perhaps this headline is simply a mental analogy for the destruction (of the exhibit) to come. As so often, Dick leaves the reader guessing.

No doubt, when writing this Dick was thinking of his History Agency exhibit in terms of a standard museum exhibit, but looked at from the vantage point of the 21st century, it’s perhaps better to imagine this historical recreation as some kind of interactive 3D virtual reality. That’s certainly one of the points that may have made this story attractive for adaptation. The short story is slight, but there are many ways in which it could be expanding to highlight and play-up the confusion between the two worlds, raising questions as to what is real and what is imagination.

Written in October 1953, Exhibit Piece was first published in IF magazine in August 1954. The shifting realities it depicts would become central to much of Dick’s subsequent fiction, as well as his real life following the ‘2-3-74’ experiences during which a ‘pink beam’ of information-rich light resulted in Dick apparently inhabiting two realities—that of 1974 and that of the ancient Roman empire.

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

The Television Episode: Battlestar Galactica and Outlander showrunner Ronald D. Moore adapted Philip K. Dick’s Exhibit Piece for the fifth episode of Electric Dreams, retitled Real Life. As Moore admitted in an interview with The Guardian: ‘Very little remains of this story in the show, but the heart, and perhaps more importantly the brains behind the episode originate in this tale.’ Saying ‘very little’ of the story remains is something of an understatement—apart from the idea of split time zones there is next to nothing of the adventures of George Miller left…

Real Life 08All that has been retained here is the character name and the central conceit of Exhibit Piece of the two worlds, and the open question as to which one is real. On top of that, Moore has layered two stories about Sarah (Anna Paquin), a traumatised cop in the future, and George Miller (Terence Howard), a wealthy company executive dealing with the loss of his wife and his high-tech software. The opening sets up yet another variation on the Blade Runner future (clearly indicating that the only acceptable visualisation of any Philip K. Dick tale relies on the work of Ridley Scott), first indicated by an opening close-up shot of an eye, followed by the usual neon advertising and flying cars.

Things take a segue into Total Recall/We Can Remember It For You Wholesale territory, as Sarah’s wife Kate (Rachelle Lefevre) suggests using an experimental VR technology to take a ‘vacation’ from her life, generated from within her own subconscious. Still recovering from the deaths of her team in a police massacre, Sarah certainly feels in need of an escape. Donning the mini-VR device, she slips into another world.

Here Sarah inhabits the body and the life of George Miller in near-future Chicago (but her past), completely disorientated and caught up in a gang shoot out. Slowly, Miller recalls who he is and what’s happening in his life—and he doesn’t like it one bit. It’s clear what’s coming next: in order to escape his circumstances, Miller dons a more elaborate (being earlier tech) VR headset and slips into another world.

And so we return to Sarah’s Blade Runner-esque future. But which world is real and which is VR? Both characters come to doubt their own reality, becoming aware of the life of the other. To both George and Sarah, the future seems too good to be true.

Philip K Dicks Electric Dreams: Real LifeBoth worlds share certain elements—they both have the same wife in Kate (or had, in the case of Miller); they live in what appears to be the same or very similar apartments; they frequent the same retro-diner; their lives are affected by the same villain… In the way these worlds are depicted, they are equally ‘fake’, equally televisual in that they might actually be pilot episodes of two separate on-going TV shows. There are even echoes of earlier instalment The Commuter (and at one point in dialogue someone even invokes the title of the story that inspired last week’s episode: Sales Pitch).

Unfortunately, when it comes to resolving the story, Moore tosses any ambiguity out the window. Sarah makes a choice, deciding that her life as ‘George’ is more real or more deserved than her role as a ‘lesbian super cop with a flying car’. It’s the wrong choice, as having made the decision her brain shuts down even as her friends watch her ‘unreal’ life on a screen take precedence.

Moore wraps things up with a sermon about being punished for sins, real or imaginary, which completely loses the Twilight Zone-style twist ending that Dick fell back on in 1953. Some may see this as an improvement or updating, but it undercuts what is otherwise a pretty impressive piece of television.

Verdict: Real Life may have been truer to Dick if it had retained some kind of ambiguity about the reality of either world right up to the end…

Brian J. Robb



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Electric Dreams Episode 4 Crazy Diamond

Crazy Diamond 02

Electric Dreams Episode 4 Crazy Diamond

Written by Tony Grisoni, based upon the short story ‘Sales Pitch’

Directed by Marc Munden

Starring Steve Buscemi, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Julia Davis

Plot: A man hounded by sales ads is driven to distraction; he attempts to escape in a flight to Proxima, but discovers there is no way out…

The Short Story: Like The Commuter, Philip K. Dick’s Sales Pitch opens with a weary figure making his way home ‘at the end of a long hard day at the office’. This time it is Ed Morris, an inter-planetary commuter making his way on the Ganymede-Terra line, a journey made all the more difficult due to the influx of ‘space traffic’ from Saturn and Mars. This is clearly a pulp analogue for the regular American commute, and Dick does little to realistically reflect any aspect of space travel and tele-presence clearly isn’t a thing… In almost every aspect, from the cigarette to the worry about arriving home late, so ruining dinner, this future commute is straight out of the 1950s (there’s even a ‘fifty ship smash-up’), simply transposed to interplanetary space; this is either lazy writing or intended satire…

future_science_fiction_195406The third paragraph gets to the subject of the story: ‘The ads. That was what really did it. … The ads, the whole way from Ganymede to Earth. And on Earth, the swarms of sales robots. It was too much. And they were everywhere.’ Here’s the modern relevance, the all-pervasive nature of advertising. Back when he was writing this story in 1953 (it appeared in the June 1954 issue of Future Magazine), the advertising Dick was concerned with was limited to newspapers and billboards, with television just starting to makes its inroads into the home. Now, we have targeted internet-driven personalized adverts, tailored to each of us individually. Sales Pitch, in that respect, is even more relevant today than when it was first written as the situation had got significantly worse.

Morris cannot escape the ads. As his ship gets closer to Earth, the involuntary bombardment gets worse. We’ve seen something like this before, in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report, adapted from another Dick short story, in which Tom Cruise’s on-the-run cop John Anderton encounters a mall lined with interactive insistent adverts. The ads streamed at Ed Morris start out as audio only, but they are soon supplanted by visually-driven ads. As always in advertising, sex is used to sell as ‘a vast, nude girl, blonde hair disarranged, blue eyes half shut, lips parted, head tilted back in sleep-drugged ecstasy’ is used to sell, of all things, a gastro-intestinal treatment. It’s enough to put you off your driving. Of course, that kind of ad recalls those featured in Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie Blade Runner, developed even further in Denis Villeneuve’s belated 2017 sequel.

FutureScienceFictionJune1954TOC565The ads have a physical effect on Morris, exerting ‘pressure on the audio-visual regions of his brain’, so much so that he has to shake his head to clear the after-image. Their all-pervasive nature is driving him to ‘despair’, causing ‘misery and fatigue’. Even when he gets home to Chicago, he encounters a sales robot as he approaches his own front door. This one is pitching a ‘metabolism adjuster’ for the ‘perfect endocrine balance’. He has no option but to simply push past the unwanted obstruction. He’s been so distracted by all the ads, he’s even forgotten the fact that today is his 37th birthday.

Ed Morris has had enough and explains to his wife something has to change; it’s not his far-off job or the long commute, particularly, it’s the ads, following him everywhere constantly trying to sell stuff. He wants to move off-world, to the Proxima system, a place ‘they haven’t got to yet’. His wife, Sally, is worried that such colony worlds are under-developed, that living there is like being back in the 20th century with ‘flush toilets, bathtubs, gasoline driven cars…’ The horror! That’s what Ed wants, though, to live ‘one hundred years behind the times … to do without … a simpler life’.

A knock at the door sees Ed answer to find an out-sized robot the like of which he’s never seen before, keen to sell him somthing called a ‘fasrad’. The word means nothing to Ed, and before he can do anything else, the sale robot is in the house. It proceeds to demonstrate the ‘fasrad’ to Ed and Sally Morris by smashing their coffee table, destroying Sally’s favourite lamp, and blasting a huge hole in the floor, all the while claiming a ‘fasrad’ would be ideal for such situations.

SalesPitchByPhilipK.Dick565Amid the on-going destruction, Morris realises that the robot itself is the ‘fasrad’, a ‘fully automated self-regulating android (domestic)’, just one of a range of such ‘fully automatic’ androids now on the market. The ‘fasrad’ proceeds to fix all the destruction it caused and then waits patiently in the living room for Ed Morris to purchase it. Although Morris refuses to do so, the android insists it will stay around until he realises just how indispensible it is and he makes the purchase. Unbidden, the machine makes various improvements around the house and even completes Ed’s tax return.

Escaping in his ‘commute rocket’ to Ganymede, Ed thinks he’s left the thing behind, until it joins him at Mars. ‘Apparently you don’t understand,’ it tells him. ‘My instructions are to demonstrate myself until you are satisfied. As yet, you are not wholly convinced; further demonstration is necessary.’

Further harassed by the android’s unwanted attentions, something in Ed Morris snaps. He rapidly flies away from the regulation space lanes, adjusting course for the Proxima system, intending to finally break free of the oppression he’s been suffering. In his determination, Morris pays no heed to the fact that his ship is not designed for such travel, ignoring the fasrad’s constant reminders of the danger. As the damage to the ship increases, Morris becomes ever more intent on his destination while the android warns of the danger of death.

Trapped under the exploded control console of his ship, Ed Morris stares at the twin suns of his destination, knowing he will eventually reach them and burn up in their solar atmospheres. Content to die knowing he has escaped, Morris is at peace… until the semi-destroyed remains of the ‘fasrad’ emerges and begins its sales pitch once more, trapped in a never-ending loop. A screaming Ed Morris, too, is trapped with it, at least until the end comes for both of them.

Dick goes for something of a bleak ending to reinforce his point that there is no escaping modern advertising. It was a choice he later came to regret, writing in 1978 that his audience hated Sales Pitch. ‘It is a super-downer story, and relentlessly so,’ he admitted. Given the chance to revise it, Dick suggests he would have the human and robot team up against the universe. He second guesses this revised ending, though: ‘But then I would have been criticised for a false, upbeat ending…’ The original ending probably works better now, in an ever more cynical 21st century than it did in either 1953 or even 1978 when its downbeat conclusion might not have been as acceptable. Now, however, Dick’s bleak ending fits right in to today’s entertainment and reinforces his point that there can be no escape from the technological traps that mankind has created for himself.

Dick’s mistake, perhaps, was in the creation of the ‘fasrad’. While its sales pitch (on its own behalf) is both intrusive and relentless, the ‘fasrad’ itself might actually be a useful all-purpose product, as Sally Morris seems to recognise. Both Dick and his protagonist Ed Morris are so blinded by the intrusive nature of the advertising world that they fail to see the benefits that a ‘fasrad’ might bring the average Joe. Dick was distrustful of machines, but if Morris had simply paid for the ‘fasrad’ then the sale pitch would have ended and he and his wife might have benefitted from the work the device could do. Their lives might have been improved, without the need to relocate to the ‘more primitive’ society of Proxima. Its an interesting conundrum that Dick fails to tackle—Morris’s longing for a simpler life and an escape from consumerism becomes all-consuming and drives him to radical acts that ultimately backfire.

The Radio Show: Of the first few short story titles chosen for television adaptation, Sales Pitch perhaps had more potential for expansion, especially in fleshing out the world in which Ed Morris lives. It might come as no surprise, then, to learn that Sales Pitch has been adapted previously as a radio play.

Back in the 1950s, two of Dick’s stories—The Defenders and Colony—were adapted as instalments of the science fiction radio drama anthology show X Minus One. It wasn’t until 1989, however, that Sales Pitch made it to radio, adapted as part of a series called ‘Sci Fi Radio’ (which also broadcast a version of Dick’s oft-adapted Impostor). Sales Pitch was episode #6 in a run of 26 half-hour episodes broadcast as part of NPR Playhouse between 1989 and 1990.

Sales Pitch was adapted for NPR Playhouse by Brad Shriver and directed by John O. Williams. It’s a rather straightforward but heavy-handed and unsophisticated version of the story, in which the main character spends a lot of time initially talking to himself to convey the action. The dialogue between Morris, the sales robots and androids and his wife Sally is drawn directly from the short story with little elaboration. Looking at it charitably, the NPR adaptation of Sales Pitch is at least relentlessly faithful to Dick’s original, so much so that it harkens back to those 1950s radio shows like Dimension X and X Minus One.

That’s until the ending, which is revised in the way that Dick suggested in 1978, giving the story a more positive or at least ambiguous ending. The ‘fasrad’ sends out a distress signal, and Morris even reconciles himself to being rescued. Whatever happens, he intends to live in the primitive society of Proxima. A voice over at the end ominously suggests, however, that the arrival of a working ‘fasrad’ will irrevocably change the society of Proxima and not in a way Ed Morris would appreciate. It is, arguably, a better ending than either Dick’s original or his proposed revision.

NPR’s Sales Pitch starred Rick Spiegel as Ed Morris, Charlotte Taylor as Sally, and Bryce Armstrong as the ‘fasrad’ and it can be located at various internet ‘old time radio’ sites.

Crazy Diamond 04

The Television Episode: Presented with a short story that has a lot of potential for straight adaptation and narrative expansion, writer Tony Grisoni (Red Riding, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) and director Marc Munden (Utopia) go off on a complete tangent and do something utterly different.

Crazy Diamond 06What connects the Electric Dreams instalment Crazy Diamond to the Dick short story Sales Pitch? Well, in the abstract both concern a dissatisfied middle aged man who longs to flee his life to pastures new, where he can live the life he wants free of current restrictions. That’s about it. Instead, the core of the story is thrown away in a couple of lines when Ed Morris’s wife Sally (Julia Davis) refers to a dream she had that is basically the plot of Sales Pitch… because the rest of the episode simply refuses to have much to do with the central story it is supposedly adapted from.

Instead, we get a drama that riffs on themes, characters and settings from Blade Runner, as if that is the only thing the viewing public at large are familiar with when it comes to the name Philip K. Dick. That may be the case. Additionally, this episode was broadcast on the Sunday immediately following the release of the much-touted sequel Blade Runner 2049. It seems to have been swapped in the running order with the following instalment, apparently much for that reason.

This Ed Morris (Steve Buscemi) exists in a world suffering some kind of environmental collapse, where ‘artificial’ people apparently exist (although we’re not told why, what they’re for, or how they came about), and artificial personalities (or life forces of some sort) known as QCs (quantum consciousness) can be created in the Spirit Mill where Ed works. His wife, Sally, works at a Chimera Farm where the gate security is run by a female chimera named Su who is 40 per cent pig. There seems to be some kind of black market trade in the QCs and the artificial people—known as ‘Jacks’ (male) and ‘Jills’ (female)—apparently require them to extend their limited life spans. Where’s Roy Batty when you need him…?

In this world, Ed Morris is simply struggling to survive and get on with things while harbouring a fantasy of escape (just as in the short story where the character wanted to emigrate off-world to Proxima) via a boat he is tending. His plan is to sail away from the crumbling world and survive on the high seas, alone or with his wife Sally, but certainly free of the attentions of the state bureaucracy that seems to control and monitor everyone’s intake of food and disposal of waste.

That is until he meets Jill (Westworld’s Sidse Babett Knudsen), a glamorous artificial person who pays him the kind of attention his wife doesn’t. He soon begins what might be termed an ‘emotional affair’ with her, only to be drawn into a scheme she has hatched to raid the Spirit Mill lab where he works developing QCs. She’s driven both by personal need (she is ‘failing’) and by the fact that she can sell on any remaining QCs on the black market to a gang led by Michael Socha’s Noah.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsThere are echoes here of the Coen Brothers’ film Fargo (1996) that go beyond even the casting of Steve Buscemi. Everything Ed tries to do, whether aligning himself with Jill or trying to turn her over to his boss, seems to backfire. His schemes and alliances all come to nothing. In the end, Sally and Jill outsmart him, escaping them selves together on his boat, while he is left in the surf with his precious Syd Barret LP. Both this and Fargo play with film noir narrative structures and characters, from the man whose life is disrupted by a femme fatale (Knudsen’s Jill is characterised by the colour red throughout, from her hair and lips to her clothes and jacket), and the cross and double-cross nature of the criminal enterprise (which even reveals Ed’s boss as another tempted by the rewards of crime against the company he’s employed by). Jill’s role as an insurance salesperson and mention of a ‘double indemnity’ policy also points to noir as a touchstone.

This is world where entropy seems to be visibly accelerating; the coastline is crumbling at a speedy rate and fresh food goes off in a matter of days if not hours. There is a hint of a subtext of reproduction here in Jill’s pretence to be undergoing IVF when she first meets Sally. As with the Blade Runner sequel, is the reproduction of real and artificial people a hidden theme in Crazy Diamond, and if so, do Sally and Jill plan to succeed where Sally and Ed previously failed? It’s an interesting angle.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsAll this, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with Philip K. Dick’s story Sales Pitch. Whether the writers or producers thought the incessant intrusive advertising storyline had already been done (maybe Minority Report or Black Mirror had already stolen their thunder), it’d be interesting to hear exactly how Sales Pitch was so changed to become Crazy Diamond (and just what does that new title mean, exactly?).

The episode is entertaining enough if taken on its own separate from the source material. It uses some Dickian notions, just not the ones in Sales Pitch, and they are all too familiar from other adaptations. Something that was great about Crazy Diamond was the score by Utopia’s Cristobal Tapia de Veer, whose style is instantly recognisable.

Trivia: Security at Ed Morris’s workplace requires a song to be sung to a sensor to gain access. The song used is John Dowland’s ‘Flow My Tears,’ which also gave its title to Philip K. Dick’s novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. Additionally, Ed’s boat is named the ‘John D.’.

Verdict: Crazy Diamond is not what you might expect from the source story, but it is enjoyable in its own way, if a million miles away from Sales Pitch.

Brian J. Robb

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Electric Dreams Episode 3 The Commuter


Commuter 2

Electric Dreams Episode 3 The Commuter

Written by Jack Thorne, based upon the short story ‘The Commuter’

Directed by Tom Harper

Starring Timothy Spall, Rebecca Manley, Rudi Dharmalingam, Tuppence Middleton, Anne Reid

Plot: Investigating a place that apparently doesn’t exist, Bob Paine finds his familiar world in flux.

The Short Story: The opening of Philip K. Dick’s The Commuter immediately recalls the opening of The Impossible Planet (adapted as the second episode of Electric Dreams). An ordinary situation—a tired commuter buying a ‘commute book’ (essentially a season ticket)—becomes extraordinary when the ticket seller tells the commuter his destination of Macon Heights simply doesn’t exist (echoing the plight of Earth in the previous story).

Amazing Stories 1953In terms of writing, The Commuter predates both The Impossible Planet and the opening story of the television series, The Hood Maker. It was written in late-1952 and published in Amazing in the August-September issue of 1953. It is one of Dick’s essential tales of shifting realities.

The ‘little fellow’ (as Dick initially refers to the character) is named as Ernest Critchet (echoes of Dickens’ Cratchit), and disputes with the ticket seller—clearly, Macon Heights must exist as it’s where he lives; he goes home there every night. The ticker seller, Ed Jacobson, asks the ‘little fellow’ to identify it on his map. As he comes to the realization that the ticket seller is correct, the tired commuter simply vanishes, leaving the map to fall to the floor and the ticket seller to exclaim ‘Holy Caesar’s Ghost!’ like Spider-Man’s J. Jonah Jameson.

Like the conclusion of The Impossible Planet, the story then shifts perspective, revealing that Jacobson, the ticket seller, is actually relating this tale the following day to someone else, one Bob Paine. He describes the man’s disappearance as if ‘a light went out’. Paine, seemingly his boss, says he’ll deal with it if the guy ever turns up again. Almost immediately, Jacobson is faced once more with someone asking for a ‘commute book’ to Macon Heights. The ‘little fellow’ is back again.

Invited into the ticket office, the putative purchaser becomes irate: ‘Why can’t you sell me a commute book, like you always do…?’ This throws Paine for a moment. The man says he’s been commuting between his work as a bookkeeper at Bradshaw Insurance in the city and Macon Heights every day, twice a day, for the past six months, a 49-minute trip on the B train. Macon Heights, insists Critchet, is a small town of about 5,000 inhabitants and he lives in a small, two-bedroom house there. When Paine repeats Jacobson’s line about not being able to sell him a commute book to somewhere not on the service, the little man vanishes once more, which really freaks out Jacobson.

The story then follows Paine as he visits Laura Nichols, but instead of the romantic assignation she might be expecting, he instructs her to research the town of ‘Macon Heights’ in the local library the next day. In the meantime, he intends to see if he can visit the place himself…

He takes a train, passing through Lewisburg—so far, so normal. There is no sign of any ‘Macon Heights’, even when he reaches the 49-minute mark on the journey. Nothing but fields occupy the area where, according to Critchet, a town exists. He asks the train conductor, who’s never heard of the place and he’s been on that route for eleven years. Reaching Jacksonville, Paine gives up and gets a train back to the city.

Out of the window he notices a smoky grey haze over the landscape of fields, but there’s no fire or smog. The train stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, and to Paine’s consternation a passenger from his car gets off and walks away across the field into the strange atmospheric haze, seemingly floating upwards as he does so. Then he vanishes.

The train moves on before Paine can do more, but he interrogates the conductor (this one a ‘pudding-faced youth’). This train, he is told, always stops there, at Macon Heights. The train schedule reveals the town, located between Lewisburg and Jacksonville. Out of the window, Paine sees the grey haze take on the form of a town, more specifically of Macon Heights.

The next day, Paine catches up with Laura who has uncovered quite a bit of material about the supposed non-existent Macon Heights. The town was one of three suburban developments proposed seven years ago, but due to complaints from city merchants the authorities only approved two, but not Macon Heights. The proposed development was defeated by a single vote.

Paine realizes that the proposed town was an ‘undetermined slice of reality’ that was only now coming into being, seven years later. Wondering how such a thing could happen, Paine speculates that the past could be unstable, that events surrounding Macon Heights had never completely ‘jelled’ (clearly this is Dick working out how his story is going to function).

Paine takes another trip to Macon Heights. He discovers the town has every amenity, from a drug store to a dime store, from a department store to a theatre. Everything looks relatively new, but it’s all real, even down to the supermarket fruit he samples. Having coffee in a diner he discovers the waitress has worked there for only three months, but has lived in the area for a couple of years. There’s nothing strange about the modern town of Macon Heights, except for the fact that to Paine a few days ago it simply didn’t exist.

Paine then realizes that the existence of the town was spreading into and changing the city; he’d noticed Critchet’s ‘Bradshaw Insurance’ during a cab ride the previous day. The question he asks himself is: how much of life in the city is changing? How far does the effect reach? What else might have altered as a result of the sudden existence of Macon Heights? What about his own life in the city, his job, friends, and Laura?

Rushing back home, Paine catches a cab to his house, wondering en route how much of the city he really recognizes. The shops and places that now felt unfamiliar to him—had he simply not noticed them before, or had they not existed before. In a state of confusion, Paine arrives at Laura’s apartment. Everything is familiar, including Laura. Their reunion is interrupted by the cry of a baby from the other room, little Jimmy their son. Paine is thrown, but then reassured: ‘Just for a minute everything seemed strange,’ he says. ‘Strange and unfamiliar. Sort of out of focus.’ The new reality, in which Macon Heights exists, and Paine is married to Laura with a little boy, seamlessly asserts itself.

The Commuter is rather undisciplined, like many of Dick’s earliest short stories, but he does display himself to be in command of shifting realities and in control of the narrative tricks required to pull them off. In the original reality, Laura lives in her own apartment, but in the new reality Paine’s home that contains all his familiar stuff also contains a wife and child. The kicker is that the new reality is so quick to establish itself as ‘normal’ that Paine almost immediately forgets that he was living another life not moments ago. His already forgotten investigation into the mystery of the non-existent Macon Heights has brought him to a new reality that is certainly different from the one he knew—but he has lost any memory of that previous world’s existence.

In a way, Dick is dissecting people’s perceptions of the world they live in. Our reality is always changing, and while we may look at things one way on one day, we may come to look at those same things slightly differently a few days later. You might believe you are living in one world, only to discover that things are not as they once seemed to you. Even worse, such is the insidious nature of such changes, humans take them in their stride and lose all memory of their original view of the world. It doesn’t require actual changes in reality, as in The Commuter, merely changes in perception of that reality.

Dick tackles this head on as Paine’s view of his world subtly alters: ‘Maybe it had always been there. Maybe, and maybe not. Everything was shifting. New things were coming into existence, others going away. The past was altering, and memory was tied to the past. How could he trust his memory? How could he be sure?’

Memory has been shown to be malleable, both in terms of the creation of false memories and in the recollection of things that never happened. A person is sometimes said to be the sum of their memories, and this applies here. Change the memories—Macon Heights was voted into existence—and you fundamentally change the person (Paine now has a wife and child). This reliance on memory as a marker of reality comes to the fore again in the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and in the film Blade Runner, where Rachael’s memories (actually those of Tyrell’s niece) are used to convince her she is really human and not a new model replicant.

There are other issues underlying The Commuter which Dick tackles, one of them being the demoralising process of commuting itself. A result of growing suburbs in the US in the post-war years, workers commuting to and from the city became commonplace, sometimes taking up extra hours of each commuters’ day beyond their commitment to their workplace. In the UK, in and around London in particular, commuting distances have been getting longer as property prices have forced those working in the city to live further away (some commute into London from as far out as Reading, a two-hour each way trip, every day). Critchet is described as ‘exhausted’ and ‘dropping’ as a result of his daily travels. It is a situation that for many has considerably worsened since Dick’s day.

Similarly, there is the question of the changing city. Cities grow and develop, as a result they are constantly in a state of flux, of change. The future, soon-to-be present, overwrites the past. The past is often forgotten. It’s like the police station in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? that never existed before. London has changed immeasurably in recent years, so much so that it no longer has the skyline it had when someone was commuting in and out just 15 years ago. This tendency to rewrite the physical world is even more pronounced in America, where anything over 100 years old is positively ancient and there is little compunction with knocking down and replacing old buildings, no matter how historically important they may have been.

In The Commuter, Dick filters this change in physical reality through the change brought about in a character’s mental reality. The mind remaps to fit the new physical circumstance, and Paine quickly loses all recall of his recent past, only for it to be replaced by the current present. It is a warning about the importance of memory and remembering, but also a meditation on the adaptability of people to new circumstance (whether good or bad).

Commuter 1

The Television Episode: Writer Jack Throne (The Fades) has had to hugely expand and complicate the Philip K. Dick short story that inspired Electric Dreams third instalment. In doing so, he has changed the nature of what is, admittedly, a slight tale. It seems to be the way of these television adaptations to take a core idea from the Dick source short story (often the only idea fully expressed in the story) and to use it as a jumping off point for something more designed to sustain a 48-minute television episode.

For some reason, the names of the protagonists have been swapped over. So in the TV version, we follow Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall)—he is the one who takes the trip to the non-existent Macon Heights and whose life is changed as a result. Bob Paine (played here by Rudi Dharmalingam, the main character in the story) is present, but he fills the sidekick role that was given to Jacobson in the original. Quite why this choice has been made is unclear; it is odd, as it is such an inconsequential change. For example, the change of the length of the commute (from 49 minutes to 28 minutes) makes sense in the relocation of the story from America to the UK, where (in general) commute times tend to be around the 30-minute mark.

Commuter 11A bigger change has been made to the gender and nature of the initial ticket buyer. The exhausted ‘little fellow’ of the story has been transformed in to Tuppence Middleton’s (Sense8) Linda, and she has been given a much larger, more pivotal role to play in the expanded narrative. The Paine stand-in Jacobson has been given a slightly different background in that he is already married with a disturbed teenage son named Sam (Anthony Boyle) who he is finding too much to handle.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsThe basics of the short story are followed in as much as a ticket buyer asking for a non-existent place vanishes, once outside the ticket window and once in the office, right in front of Jacobson and Paine. With Jacobson’s curiosity aroused, he takes a trip on the line in question and witnesses others leaving the train where there is no stop. Instead of waiting for a second trip (as in the story), Jacobson there and then impulsively joins these seemingly reckless passengers, only to find himself trudging across a field to the slowly revealed destination of Macon Heights.

Not only is this strange town dreamlike, it is also almost perfect, in marked contrast to Jacobson’s real world of Woking, where his street is a bit of a dump and the station he works at rather rundown. Here in Macon Heights, everything looks new, well-designed, and open, while the people are friendly, perhaps overly so in the case of Hayley Squires waitress who foists cake on Jacobson unbidden.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsAs in the story, Jacobson’s return to his own workaday world brings with it a change. He is still married, but he and his wife have no children. At this point, Jacobson doesn’t seem to remember the now-missing Sam, or the trauma his mental conditions caused both his parents. In fact, Jacobson himself seems healthier and happier in this altered world.

Investigating Macon Heights (as Paine does in the story, putting girlfriend Laura to work in the library), Jacobson meets journalist Martine Jenkins (Anne Reid), who wrote news stories about the proposed new town development. She seems fully aware of the mystical nature of Macon Heights, but she has never been able to visit herself finding that, for some reason, the ‘door’ would never open for her.

This prompts return visits by Jacobson to Macon Heights, but things begin to change. The colours are perhaps not so bright, the people not so friendly. At the same time, he realises something or someone is missing in his life and recovers his memories of his son through the (perhaps hallucinatory) discovery of some VHS videotapes of his youth. Now, Linda comes to play a larger role. Revealed as the daughter of the architect of Macon Heights, she seems to be some kind of guardian figure for this perfect town, one who believes that everyone’s life is better without trauma or heartbreak.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsIn rediscovering Sam, and all that he meant, Jacobson come to realise that his life is not ‘right’ without him, whatever troubles he may have brought (and, indeed, will bring in the future, as revealed by Linda). At this point, The Commuter turns into something of a meditation on grief, and a discussion of how hardship and suffering are as much a part of life as good times and happiness. Linda’s world (heaven or a simulation?) does away with one, perhaps meaning that the other cannot be experienced or enjoyed to the full.

In the end, Jacobson gives up Macon Heights and gets his life back, complete with troublesome Sam. This is an inversion of the conclusion of Dick’s story, where Paine’s world is altered, perhaps for the better in giving him a wife and son, but he is unaware of the change. In the TV adaptation, Jacobson toys with the change that Macon Heights/Linda brings about in his life, but he ultimately rejects it in favour of the status quo, giving up a potentially ‘better’ life for the one he already knows.

Philip K. Dick's Electric DreamsOn TV The Commuter is nicely put together by director Tom Harper (Misfits, Peaky Blinders). He makes Woking look awful, especially in contrast to the town of Macon Heights (filmed in Dungeness and in the modern development of Buttermarket Square, in Poundbury, Dorset). There is something suitably counterfeit about the world of Macon Heights (and, indeed, of the real world location) that is inherent in the design of the place as much as in the way Harper shoots it. At times the building facades are revealed to be like old Hollywood studio fake frontages, while Linda is able to traverse the space in the oddest of ways (disappearing down into a staircase, for example, instead of going up it). It is a liminal space, neither real nor entirely false. There’s something of the computer game world (Grand Theft Auto style) about the place, too, reinforced by the repeated actions of some of the inhabitants, who seem to be trapped in some kind of ‘happiness loop’ (the engaged couple).

Commuter 3The performances are all fine, with Spall carrying much of the load and some of the key moments simply an interaction between him and Tuppence Middleton as the mysterious Linda. There is something of Jonathan Carroll’s early novel The Land of Laughs (1980) in this, where the daughter of a writer seems connected to a town where her father’s fictional creations apparently live.

As with much of Dick’s fiction (and more than in the short story) the TV episode engages with questions of ‘what is real?’. Jacobson is offered a choice of worlds to inhabit, and rather than take the obvious and, perhaps, ‘easy’ choice of a happier, more content life with his wife but without children, he ultimately choses the messy, difficult life he already knows.

Verdict: More successful than the first two instalments of Electric Dreams, The Commuter on TV turns Dick’s simple trick story into a rumination on life, death, mortality, grief, suffering, happiness and several more topics that are the meat of all good drama, yet something essentially ‘phildickian’ is still missing from this show.

Brian J. Robb

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Electric Dreams Episode 2 Impossible Planet

Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams

Electric Dreams Episode 2 Impossible Planet

Written by David Farr, based upon the short story ‘The Impossible Planet’

Directed by David Farr

Starring Jack Reynor, Benedict Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Georgina Campbell

Plot: An ancient woman wants to return to Earth to die. There’s only one problem—Earth doesn’t exist! 

The Short Story: Although published almost two years earlier than ‘The Hood Maker’, Philip K. Dick’s short story ‘The Impossible Planet’ was written just a few weeks after the story that inspired the first episode in the television series Electric Dreams. Written in February 1953 (around the same time as ‘Adjustment Team’, which inspired the Matt Damon movie The Adjustment Bureau), under the working title ‘Legend’, ‘The Impossible Planet’ was first published in the October 1953 edition of the pulp magazine Imagination.

ImaginationSF-1953octThe opening paragraphs economically paint a picture of both setting and the characters that will populate this story. A ‘tiny old woman’, aided by her personal ‘robant’ (apparently some kind of caretaker robot, a contraction of ‘robot servant’) has arrived at the office of Andrews and Norton. She is Irma Vincent Gordon, a 350-year-old original ‘sustained’ colonist of Riga II who ‘probably arrived in one of the old sub-C ships’. She has a simple request, conveyed through her ‘robant’: she wishes to buy a travel ticket. The only concern Andrews and Norton have is whether she will be physically able to cope with the stresses of space travel. When the ‘robant’ points out she has already come to Fomalhaut IX from Riga, they are satisfied.

It’s what comes next that stumps them—her destination. Irma Vincent Gordon would like a ticket to travel to Earth. Both Andrews and Norton are perplexed. They can’t sell her a ticket to Earth for a very simple reason, one Andrews reveals to the deaf old woman through a series of handwritten notes: ‘can’t sell you a ticket to Earth’; ‘no such place’; ‘myth—legend—never existed’.

In just over a page and a half of text, Dick has established three distinct characters (four, if you count the ‘robant’) and one almighty mystery. Why is ‘Earth’ a non-existent world, and if it is merely a ‘myth’, as Andrews maintains, why does Irma Vincent Gordon believe she can travel there? It’s a great hook for a tale, and Dick quickly engages the reader in the mystery.

Captain Andrews and Norton regard the old lady as little more than a nuisance, simply wasting their time. One thing, however, changes Andrews’ mind: the promise of a ‘kilo positives’. These ‘positives’ appear to be a unit of economic exchange, money in other words, and a thousand of them (a ‘kilo’) seems to be an extraordinary amount. After all, the ‘robant’ points out: ‘she has saved many decades for this’. Mrs Gordon is motivated to pay for passage to Earth, as ‘sustenation treatments’ have recently ceased, and she is dying. She wishes to visit Earth before that happens.

Persuaded by the offer of the huge payment, Andrews changes his tune and is only too happy to take Mrs Gordon wherever she wants to go. Norton is perplexed: how can they take her to a non-existent world? Andrews doesn’t care—apparently the matter of their destination is a little problem they can figure out en route.

The threat of two decades imprisonment and the loss of his ‘articles and card’ (presumably flight credentials) is not enough to dissuade Andrews. Norton is panicked—people have searched for Earth before and even ‘Directorate ships’ failed to locate the mythical world. The ‘legendary birthplace of the human race’ seems to have never existed, and even the information library on Centaurus II can’t help Andrews. Seemingly, the subject is ‘classified as metaparticular’.

The only agreed fact about Earth appears to be that it was the third planet of a nine-planet system, with a single moon. Given that no one, including Irma Vincent Gordon actually knows anything about Earth, largely due to the loss of records during the ‘Centauran-Rigan conflict of 4-B33a’, Andrews reckons he can pass off any old third planet as Earth and score the biggest pay day of his life. After all, who is to say the third planet of the Emphor system isn’t actually Earth, anyway?

At first, Mrs Gordon seems happy with this destination, until she sees the desolation of the planet that Andrew’s ship quickly moves to land on. She begins to have doubts upon viewing the red, raw, polluted landscape of Emphor III. This can’t be Earth, she declares—Earth is green and blue. Earth is alive! This world has the stench of sulphur, and the old woman recognizes something is not right.

Descending onto the planet’s surface, with the help of her ‘robant’, Mrs Gordon demands that Captain Andrews assures her that this bleak world is indeed Earth. Her grandfather came from Earth and regaled her with stories of the lost world when she was young. She has always wanted to see it with her own eyes, but she doubts what she is now seeing. Norton takes her and the ‘robant’ off in a ‘launch’ to look around, particularly at the lapping shores of the sea.

What happens next is related back to Captain Andrews by Norton, who returns to the ship without either the old woman of the ‘robant’. He tells Andrews that she stood on the shore for a while, looking out to sea, until she suddenly ‘crumpled’. The ‘robant’ immediately left the launch and went to her, picking up the fallen bundle that was her body, and them walking with her out into the sea. That was the last Norton saw of either of their passengers.

Andrews is taken aback by this development, but doesn’t really care. They’ve been paid, that’s all that matters. Norton has news for him, though—this is the last trip they’ll be making together. He’s put in for a transfer to another ship, and he doesn’t want his half of the ‘kilo positives’ they were paid for bringing Irma Vincent Gordon to her final resting place.

On the way back to the ship, Andrews spots a small metal disc on the surface. He takes it back to the ship, and as they leave, he cleans it, revealing the inscription: ‘e pluribus unum’. He doesn’t know what it means, and tosses away what the reader knows to be an Earth coin.

Okay, it’s hardly the most Earth-shattering of ‘twists’. In fact, in the wake of so many ‘it was Earth all along’ pulp stories and popular movies like The Planet of the Apes, it’s become a hoary old cliché. There’s no getting around that—the story was written almost 65 years ago, at the height of the pulp sci-fi era. It is both of its type and of its time. However, the story must’ve struck some kind of chord at the time, as it was selected for Philip K. Dick’s first short story collection A Handful of Darkness (published in the UK by Rich and Cowan in 1955) and by Brian Aldiss for his 1974 edited collection entitled Space Odysseys. Aldiss was a Dick fan, but presumably he saw some further value in the story even in the mid-1970s.

The idea of the human home world of Earth as myth also drove both iterations of Battlestar Galactica, and in creating that show Glen A. Larson was modeling the wanderings of the crews of a ragtag group of space ships in their search for Earth after much of the Mormon theology. In Dick’s story, mankind is so spread around the cosmos (we are led to believe) that the location of their origin planet has simply been forgotten. There seems to be a huge galactic empire, one riven by war and pollution, where planets are exploited wholesale for ‘commercial operations’. It may be simple, but Dick folds into his slight tale a warning about our own future on Earth if we are not careful about how we shepherd the planet and its resources.

Expeditions have searched for the legendary world of Earth and failed to find it. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Captain Andrews and Norton—a couple of shysters out for a quick buck, no matter the moral problems with ‘earning’ it—should effortlessly find it first time out. The irony, of course, is that Andrews fails to notice. With the loss of both Mrs Gordon and her ‘robant’, it is suggested that no one else will remember Earth at all, ever again. It is to be hoped that poor 350-year-old Irma Vincent Gordon got whatever she was hoping for from the trip.

Impossible Planet 05

The Television Episode: Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Impossible Planet’ is a slight tale, so David Farr (The Night Manager), writer and director of Electric Dreams’ second instalment, faced a challenge in expanding it out to the television episode Impossible Planet. The core of the story remains, but the conclusion is vastly different from that presented by Dick.

The world that Andrews (Wong) and Norton (Reynor) inhabit has been fleshed out and hugely expanded, as would be expected. They are part of a tourist service running trips to space to see the sights on their rather beat up ship Dream Weaver 9. Just as they close up for the evening, Mrs Gordon (Geraldine Chaplin) and her robot (never referred to as a ‘robant’ here) turn up hoping to book passage to Earth.

EPISODE 103Even by this early stage, however, there have been some major changes. Norton is already a more sympathetic character than Andrews. Where Norton is easy-going, considerate and has a girlfriend, Andrews is gruff, selfish, and watches porn in the office. It’s a short hand way of outlining their essential characters. Norton is already wanting to move on and up in the corporate structure, not so much for his own sake but to fulfill his girlfriend’s (soon to be wife’s) wishes for a ‘better life’. It is Barbara (Georgina Campbell) who drives his desire for a transfer to ‘Primo Central’.

The biggest change comes in relation to Earth. It is not described here as a ‘non-existent’ or ‘mythical’ planet whose location has been lost in time. It has simply been destroyed, lost instead to exploitation and greed—Dick makes much the same point in his conclusion, but his sense of the home world of man as a lost, mythical place is a nice touch that the television adaptation has dropped. That’s a shame.

There are other incidental changes: the fee offered by Mrs Gordon is double that of the short story (for no good reason, really), and her middle name has been changed to ‘Louise’ from ‘Vincent’, again with little purpose. She also seems to have knocked a few years off her age! Her grandfather, who seeds in her a desire to see Earth, has been changed for television to her grandmother.

Impossible Planet 02The biggest addition made to stretch the story out to the 50-minute length of the television episode is a weird timey-wimey love story between Norton and Mrs Gordon, completely absent in the original. Indeed, the music at times recalls some of the romance themes of the Vangelis score for Blade Runner. Norton, it turns out, is the spitting image of Irma’s grandfather—whether he’s a relative or some kind of reincarnation is left vague. He begins to get flashes of a red bicycle and an idyllic day in the country.

At the end, Norton and Irma leave the ship to go onto the planet’s surface. As their oxygen runs out, they seem to suffer a shared death vision, where they take on the roles of Irma’s grandparents in the past, on the real Earth. Or perhaps their consciousness somehow escapes their current time and place… What happens to Andrews and the robot? Like last week’s episode, the show refuses a definitive conclusion to the narrative.

Lacking the ‘it was really Earth all along’ twist (which simply wouldn’t fly today), the television version of Dick’s ‘The Impossible Planet’ almost had an impossible task. Farr has done what he could with the central premise, and the performances are all good (with Wong—who previously appeared in the similar Black Mirror—using his natural accent, just as Richard Madden did in the first episode; must be some kind of policy!). By the end, though, it’s a strangely unsatisfying trip.

Verdict: The final result does seem to lack some essential Philip K. Dick-ness, and it’s weird, wish-fulfilment ending is a bit of a cop out.

Brian J. Robb

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Electric Dreams Episode 1 The Hood Maker


Electric Dreams Episode 1 The Hood Maker

Written by Matthew Graham, based upon the short story ‘The Hood Maker’

Directed by Julian Jarrold

Starring Richard Madden, Holiday Grainger, Noma Dumezweni, Anneika Rose, Richard McCabe

The Short Story: Published in 1955, ‘The Hood Maker’ was—like the majority of Philip K. Dick’s work—incredibly prescient of the world we now live in. It opens with a scene of an old man attacked on the street by a crowd. The reason? He’s wearing a hood that blocks his mind from telepathic probe. One of the crowd cries out: “Nobody’s got a right to hide!” In today’s world where we seem happy to ‘give away’ our privacy to Facebook or Google in return for access, the world of Philip K. Dick’s hood maker is not all that alien.

Imagination June 1955 CoverWritten in 1953 (originally titled ‘Immunity’ and published in the June 1955 edition of Imagination magazine, left), Dick’s short story was originally reacting to the political and social suppression brought about by McCarthyism and the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC) of Congress. He simply projected what he was seeing on the news sometime in the future when hiding your thoughts, maintaining some privacy, was deemed not yet simply illegal, but just socially unacceptable.

As always, the population collude in their own oppression. The hoods are being distributed anonymously, but some recipients simply turn them into the authorities under the fear that mere possession of a hood would make them complicit in some anti-authority activity. Clearance Director Ross asks Peters why some people voluntarily hand in their hoods rather than use them. “They’re afraid to wear them,” replies Peters. “They pass the hoods on to us, to avoid suspicion. An innocent man has no reason to conceal his thoughts. Ninety-nine percent of the population is glad to have its mind scanned. Most people want to prove their loyalty.”

In Dick’s world, the loyalty oaths and wire-taps of his own time have been superseded by the mental access afforded by ‘teeps’, telepathic mutants employed by Clearance to seek out those whose thoughts are impure, disloyal or otherwise contrary to the majority of society. In this world, there is no need for HUAC, as a quick telepathic scan quickly reveals whether someone was now or had ever been a member of the Communist party (or whatever bête noir happens to be in vogue). It effectively does away with the concept of innocent until proven guilty; guilt or otherwise is instantly divined through a telepathic probe.

In a quintessentially 1950s sci-fi touch, the population of telepathic human mutants are the result of the ‘Madagascar Blast of 2004’ that saw thousands of troops dosed with a ‘hard radiation wave’. Their descendants developed new telepathic powers, now harnessed by the government for their own political and social ends.

While there is no mystery of who riled up the crowd to attack the old man wearing the hood (it was a handily placed teep), the question driving the Director of Clearance to distraction is where the hoods are coming from. Each recipient does not know who sent the hood to them—telepathic scans have established that much. The hoods and their use are multiplying, so the quest is on to find the hood maker.

The old man, Walter Franklin, is soon on the run from the Clearance Agents, unsure of what disloyalty he may have committed in his past. He soon falls into the hands of the resistance, who take him to the hood maker, James Cutter. Franklin is given a tour of the facility, in a dilapidated out-of-town industrial area, and finds out that the discovery of the alloy used in the hoods was accidentally made in a government lab in the past. Franklin has been targeted as part of a teep conspiracy, a take over of government by vested interests who want to remove those who might resist before they even have a chance to act. How do you defend yourself against an attack you have no reason to suspect is coming?

Franklin is tasked with stopping the government bill that will make possession and use of a hood illegal as he knows the proposer, Senator Waldo. He and Cutter take a trip to Waldo’s robot protected Colorado estate. Franklin’s Director level pass gets them through the robot guards and into Waldo’s building, where they run into teep Ernest Abbud, the ‘sallow-faced youth’ who first set the mob on Franklin. One shot of his ‘Slem gun’ and Franklin is an ‘oozing mass’ on the floor. Turns out Waldo is a teep who fully understands the implications of his bill, and Cutter, the hood maker, is now at the mercy of one of the most ruthless agents of Clearance.

Or so it appears. Forcing Cutter to remove his hood, Abbud subjects him to a forced mind probe, only to learn a deadly secret. Cutter is quite happy to be mentally probed on this occasion as he has made a devastating discovery about the teeps. They’re not a mutation at all, simply a one-generation aberration, unable to reproduce. There will be no more teeps once the current generation has gone. Upon realizing this, and to stop the message spreading through the teep mental network, Abbud commits suicide. He’s too late: Cutter’s message is out, spread through the teep’s own telephathic communication system. Their reign will be limited, and they have no future…

Dick makes the political point clear—there is always a faction (they don’t need to be the science fictional ‘teeps’) who want power to promote their own beliefs. As Cutter explains to Franklin: “The teeps are no different from the Jacobins, the Roundheads, the Nazis, the Bolsheviks. There is always some group that wants to lead mankind—for it’s own good, of course.” The teeps saw themselves as the next step in human evolution, therefore they are the ‘natural’ leaders of humanity. Instead, they were simply the latest in a long line of merely human special interest groups who saw it as their right to control everyone else.

‘The Hood Maker’ is a clever little tale, well told, even if the characterization of its small cast is somewhat deficient (often a problem with Dick’s earliest short fiction). This was one of Dick’s earliest tales about telepaths and telepathy, subjects that would feature in much of his later work. From the surveillance society to notions of disloyalty and privacy, as well as political corruption, it is the ideas that count. It is the ideas that have brought Hollywood, filmmakers and television showrunners to Dick’s work as idea-rich source material. There are just over 120 short stories and 44 novels to be mined, enough to keep the PKD visual media stocked with concepts for a long time to come…


The Television Episode: In bringing ‘The Hood Maker’ to television, screenwriter Matthew Graham faced a challenge. The material would obviously have to be expanded to fill an entire 50-60 minute episode of television, but exactly how that expansion was realized could make or break the show. The television version of ‘The Hood Maker’ is, as a result of that expansion, a mixed success.

PKD10720170516CR0066a-600x394Richard Madden stars as Clearance Agent Ross (using his natural Scottish accent, for a welcome change), while Holliday Grainger is the teep, Honor, assigned to him as a partner with special skills. This is a world, visually and conceptually, that is reminiscent of Blade Runner. Madden is dressed and acts like a cut-rate Rick Deckard, while the shanty towns, marketplaces, and urban environments (some shot in the Thamesmead estate made famous by Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange—instantly recognizable, despite an attempt to hide it through all the murky cinematography and constant rain) all recall scenes from the first ever Philip K. Dick big screen adaptation. It seems, as ever, that any take on Dick’s work has to somehow pay homage to the foundation text of Blade Runner.

While retaining some of the overall concepts (teeps, surveillance, a divide society) and character names (Agent Ross, Cutter as the hood maker, Franklin as a high up official), the television episode diverges so wildly from the short story that by its conclusion it seems to be making the exact opposite point of Dick’s original by apparently coming down on the side of the rebellious teeps.

Here, the teeps are portrayed as a suppressed population (perhaps significant of immigrants or ethnic minorities), harassed and used by those in authority or power. There is a march against involuntary scanning depicted at the beginning and a reference to the anti-immunity bill in passing, but the political conspiracy suggested by the short story is entirely missing. No origin story is given for the teeps and their abilities (it’s only one line in the short story, but at least it is there and germane to the resolution), and the ultimate secret revealed at the end is Agent Ross’s seemingly naturally evolved immunity to telepathic scanning rather than the teep generation’s inability to reproduce (which, come to think of it, looks forward to Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep’s limited lifespan for the andys, or ‘replicants’ in the movie).

webANXelecdreamhoodmWhile both Madden and Grainger give great performances, there seems to be more of an emphasis on world-building than character (perhaps apt for a PKD short story adaptation). There’s no advanced technology here (sight of a typewriter and a record player, as well as a car straight out of Graham’s Life on Mars, suggest the 1970s, but references to computers and the internet reveals this is in fact a post-technology, perhaps post EMP burst, world). It is inconsistent, though, and seems to detract from the main theme of the short story, that of enforced mental surveillance.

The character of Cutter, built up as a mysterious Man in the High Castle figure, eventually appears simply to provide an info dump before dying at the hands of the teep rebellion. As Honor discovers Agent Ross’s betrayal of her (and her kind), the episode ends on an inconclusive note—as the teep rebellion gathers pace, which side will Honor choose… does she open that door to save Agent Ross, or not?

This television adaptation of ‘The Hood Maker’ appears to come down on the side of the teeps as an oppressed minority, rather than as a threat to be feared, which may be symptomatic of the current approach to drama (and its reflection of the wider contemporary culture and politics), where Dick’s original was firmly embedded in his mid-1950s period of McCarthyism.

Philip-K-Dick_s-Electric-Dreams-S01E01-“The-Hood-Maker”-04-Richard-Madden-hatNaturally, the television versions of these stories will be different from their source materials, but in the case of ‘The Hood Maker’ it almost feels like it has not been expanded enough to do justice to all the concepts and possible story threads. The drama could have been more front-loaded to better cover the purpose of Clearance, the slow emergence of the hoods, and the quest to find the maker. A 90-minute feature length version of Graham’s take on the material might also have provided the possibility of a conclusion (perhaps including the political conspiracy plot and the teeps’ mental link, hinted at as the ‘grapevine’ here but not capitalized on), rather than the unsatisfying open-ended position where the drama simply stops.

Verdict: Overall, the television version of ‘The Hood Maker’ is a little disappointing in comparison with the short story, perhaps with a focus on the wrong elements.

Brian J. Robb

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