Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams
Episode 10 The Father Thing
Written by Michael Dinner, based upon the short story ‘The Father-Thing’
Directed by Michael Dinner
Starring Brian Bolland, Shannon Brown, Dominic Capone, Mireille Enos, Greg Kinnear
Plot: Charles Walton’s family is under attack… His father has been replaced by an alien duplicate as part of a vanguard for an alien invasion.
The Short Story: As with Foster, You’re Dead (adapted for Electric Dreams under the title Safe and Sound), The Father-Thing deals with a child’s point-of-view. It tackles a theme popular in the 1950s—the replacement of people close to you with duplicates. This, often expressed as a reaction to the Communist witch-hunt of the time (a frequent topic for Dick’s short stories), features as a central theme in movie like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (four film adaptations based on Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers) and the 1938 John W. Campbell novella Who Goes There? (adapted as The Thing From Another World, 1951, and John Carpenter’s The Thing, 1981, and the source for the 2011 prequel version of The Thing). What Dick does in this short story is to ignore the world-shattering event of an alien invasion through stealth in which humans are gradually replaced, instead focusing on the personal story as it impacts upon one family, and (even closer) one child.
Charles Walton is part of a typical 1950s family, of two parents—June, a housewife and mother, and Ted, an office drone. Sent to fetch his father for dinner, Charles hesitates as he is unsure which of the two identical men he has seen in the garage he should bring back. The problem is averted when Ted comes to the dinner table himself, just the one of him… Charles is deeply affected by this, however, as it was ‘the other one’ that has come in and made itself part of the family.
Of course, it is the eight year old who can tell something isn’t right, and naturally he’s not believed. Charles flees from the figure he has begun to think of as ‘the father-thing’, attempting to hide in his room. When the thing that looks like Ted pursues him, Charles escapes to the garage, where—hidden inside a burn barrel— he finds ‘the remains of his father, his real father. Bits the father-thing had no use for. Bits it had discarded.’
This is chilling stuff, as close to horror or Ray Bradbury as Dick probably ever came in his writing. Of course, the question arises in the readers mind as to whether young Charles Walton is a reliable narrator—should we take his impression that his father has been replaced by an invading alien at face value? Or is it an expression of some form of mental illness? Often in Dick not everything is as it seems on the surface, but most modern readers who know the author’s work are probably safe in assuming that this 1954 story (published in the December issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction) will take a straight-forward approach to its themes.
Dick had a very personal inspiration for this story. Writing in 1976, he noted: ‘I always had the impression, when I was very small, that my father was two people, one good, one bad. The good father goes away and the bad father replaces him. I guess many kids have this feeling. What if it were so? This story is another instance of a normal feeling, which is in fact incorrect, somehow becoming correct … with the added misery that one cannot communicate it to others. Fortunately, there are other kids to tell it to. Kids understand: they are wiser than adults… hmmm, I almost said, “Wiser than humans”.’
Charles turns to an older kid, 14-year-old bully Tony Peretti. They return to the garage, and the snakeskin-like remains convince Peretti that Waltons’ tale of seeing two Teds, and that one had replaced the other, must be true. Observing his parents through the window, both boys see Mrs. Walton leave to call neighbours in search of Charles, while the father-thing seemingly wilts, no longer having to keep up appearances as ‘Ted’ as if somebody had turned off its power.
Together, Charles and Peretti recruit a third boy, Bobby Daniels, to help them locate the external power source that seems to motivate the father-thing. They eventually located a small metallic insect-like creature burrowing under a concrete slab. As the boys struggle against the creature’s apparent psychic force field, they are stopped from destroying it with their BB gun by the intervention of the father-thing, who drags Charles inside the garage.
When Peretti turns his BB gun on the father-thing, Charles manages to escape, hiding in the bamboo field nearby where he discovers a cocoon-like fungoid creature, almost human-shaped: a mother-thing! As in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pods containing the alien replacements for other individuals are hidden awaiting their maturation. This one is beginning to resemble June Walton, Charles’ mother. Of course, the next thing he discovers is his own nascent replacement, the Charles-thing.
Both the father-thing and its progeny go into convulsions, a result of Peretti and Daniels pouring kerosene into the tunnel inhabited by the metallic insect controller. The firey death of the bug also kills the creatures it controlled. As they prepare to burn the fungoid-like bodies, it seems likely that a wider invasion is yet to be thwarted.
One of Dick’s most anthologised stories, The Father-thing approaches a standard tale with a creepy and atmospheric edge. It plays upon teenage paranoia, the fear that as you don’t relate to your parents (the generation gap, as it was termed in the 1950s and 1960s), then maybe they aren’t actually related to you at all. Perhaps they’re not even human. It’s an old trope put to good use by Dick in a period before it was all but worn out by repetition.
The story puts together a patchwork group of heroes: an eight year old, the six years older Peretti, and the young black kid, Daniels, who’s about nine. They know one another through neighbourhood interactions and school, but they’re not friends. Charles even thinks that the bully Peretti may have beaten him up at one point, as he had most kids in school.
The paranoia of alien invasion is clearly what Dick intended, but there is a real syndrome called ‘prosopagnosia’ in which people can fail to recognise the faces of those they know, even relatives. Kids don’t recognise their own parents, while parents can fail to recognise their own children. The neurological disorder, commonly called ‘face blindness’, was properly diagnosed and named in 1947 (although there are records of earlier examples), but it didn’t really become widely known until the late-1980s into the 1990s, long after Dick’s time.
Of course, Dick’s two most prominent themes are embedded in The Father-thing. The question of what is ‘human’ is apparent in the new life-form that replaces Charles’ father—if a ‘thing’ looks, sounds, and acts like the human ‘Ted’, is it just as human? Secondly, there is the question of what is ‘reality’. Is an alien invasion underway? Was Ted the first to be impersonated, or just the latest in a long line of thousands. There is also, in a sense, a reading in which the children have created their own counterfeit reality—maybe the whole thing is nothing but a childhood game, filtered through the imagination of Charles Walton, while Ted and June are simply long-suffering parents with a wildly imaginative kid to cater for…
The Television Episode: This final episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is a fairly straightforward adaptation of the source story with a heavy dose of Stranger Things injected into it. As the ‘body snatchers’ theme is so old and worn out through repetition, this instalment—for all its much-needed fidelity to the original story—might come across to those not well versed in Dick as derivative and old hat. That’s a problem inherent in the source material that the show all but ignores.
The episode is cast well, building up a good father-son relationship between Greg Kinnear’s ‘Father’ and Charlie, ably played by Jack Gore. They are connected through a love of baseball; they talk about it on a camping trip and Jack is trying out for the school team. Unusually in these kind of family-based dramas, the role of the mother (well played by the often under-rated Mireille Enos) is sidelined. An attempt to add adult drama themes into the story—the parents are on the verge of separating—falls flat, and feels like an addition made to the story simply to bring it up to length. There is little made of the idea that the new father-thing might be a more caring better family man than the original (an idea explored earlier in the series in Human Is). This soapy element is possibly another Spielberg echo, lifted this time from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).
What’s lacking, perhaps, is the ambiguity of Dick’s story, the possibility that as we’re seeing things through Charlie’s eyes, perhaps he’s mistaken about what’s going on, or imagining things. Instead, we get a straightforward body-snatchers-alien-invasion tale, albeit fronted by Mr. Nice Greg Kinnear. The invasion is simply represented through a series of meteor shower like events.
It’s derivative, not helped by the fact that much of the show looks like it has taken a leaf straight out of the Stranger Things playbook (itself derivative of 1980s Spielberg). The kids tool around on their bikes with a degree of autonomy modern children generally don’t have. Their investigation into what’s going on verges on the tone of a caper movie, very different from the paranoia that opens and closes the episode. This uncertainty in tone doesn’t help an instalment that has very little to add to the original source story. Oh, and once again there’s a throwaway PKD reference when one of the school teachers (Terry Kinney) is revealed to be one ‘Phil Dick’. #RESIST
Verdict: Oddly, unlike the best of the series (Autofac), The Father Thing is faithful to the source story but fails to build it into something worthwhile.
Brian J. Robb
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