After the relative success of their first Philip K. Dick adaptation, The Man in the High Castle, Amazon purchased the US rights to a Channel 4 anthology series based on his short stories. The series only share one executive producer, but it’s the one that can guarantee the approval of the Philip K. Dick estate—Isa Dick Hackett, his daughter. Each one of the ten episodes is a stand alone story based on, at least in part, a different Philip K. Dick short story, and each episode has a different writing and directing team. And each episode will be reviewed by the same Ms En Scene writing team—Kat Overland, who has seen one single episode of Black Mirror the anthology series you already thought of when reading this intro (but she read a lot of Philip K. Dick), and Jazmine Joyner, who reviewed every single episode of Black Mirror’s most recent season.
There will be spoilers!
Electric Dreams 1.1: “Real Life”
Jeffrey Reiner (director), Ronald D. Moore (writer), Paul M. Sommers (cinematographer), Debra Beth Weinfeld (editor)
Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre, Sam Witwer, Jacob Vargas, Lara Pulver (cast)
Based on the short story “Exhibit Piece”
“Real Life” is the first episode Amazon lists, though it ran fifth during the initial Channel Four UK run. Anna Paquin plays Sarah, a cop haunted by the specter of a massacre, whose scientist wife Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) brings home a new piece of tech to beta test—the Vacation, a machine that essentially creates an immersive, believable lucid dream. Katie convinces her to try it as a way to destress, and Sarah finds herself waking up as George (Terrence Howard), in the middle of an incredibly realistic shootout sometime in the past (because the cars here don’t fly). The thing is, George also has a dream machine, and the more often Sarah and George take a Vacation, the harder it is to tell just which one of them is the dreamer and which is the dream.
What do you think about the future presented here?
JJ: I think the future depicted in this episode is very cliché in a way, with the flying car driving super cops; but at the same time, they themselves make fun of that aspect of it. This future seems like it could very well come to fruition. With the advancements in VR and other immersive technologies on the rise I can see a device like the one used in “Real Life” for a “vacation” become a real part of everyday life. Not everyone can afford to go away, so why not just slip on a headset and become someone else for a while? In a way, we do that now with the escapism of streaming television.
KO: I liked how it had a mix of plausible technology and some clichés, and the story drew on that setting as kind of a meta-narrative. I agree with Jazmine, too, that the concept of immersive VR is just current enough that it added to that plausibility. Beyond the visual trappings, however, I felt like I didn’t get a really great idea about anything happening in the future.
How is diversity represented within the narrative?
KO: I think this episode might overstate how diverse the latter episodes might be, but it’s got a very fascinating mix of perspectives in it—our protagonists are a white lesbian woman and a straight black man, but they are also, maybe, the same protagonist. I thought it was fascinating that the techno-babble explanation for the “vacation world” was that it was made up of the user’s own subconscious, but that just leads to the question: why would a white lesbian in the future come up with Terrence Howard as her dream avatar? At the beginning of his first scene, I thought maybe it was a sort of cop show cliché, but it turned out to not be that at all, instead veering into something thematically much different. However, it really didn’t try to address the race issues at all.
JJ: I agree with a lot that Kat had to say and I also had the question as to why a white lesbian from the future would want to wake up as a black man in the past? Maybe that had something to do with her wanting to punish herself, which was kinda the theme of the episode? And if that is so, then I kinda side-eye the negative connotations that puts onto Howard’s character, which add to an overarching theme within Electric Dreams to put people of color in roles that are negative. But more on that later.
KO: Yeah, after watching a few more episodes I keep coming back to how this one really set the bar high by featuring more than one person of color, and featuring them in protagonist roles.
How effective was this episode’s plot?
KO: I’ll admit that I was hoping for a more uplifting ending, but I really liked the plot for being unafraid to get less ambiguous as the episode went on, rather than more. But god, the ending was so rough, and I’ll always be rooting for happy lesbians.
JJ: It was a great opener for the show. I too was hoping for a happy ending, but I liked how the paranoia of the show was very in tune with Philip K. Dick’s writing. The plot was mind-bending in a good way, but it did leave me wanting more in the way of character development and world-building.
What did you think of the episode’s worldbuilding and setting?
JJ: Like I said before, I would have loved more world-building and a bit more background on the future world Anna Paquin was from. I think the vagueness helped with the “Which World is Real” part but not knowing enough makes it difficult to get your footing when the story is hopping back and forth like it does.
KO: I definitely think leaving the world as a vague outline made each world easier to buy as the “real” one, but it also made both seem slightly unmoored, too. That might be a feature, but I wish the episode gave us more hints about the politics of the worlds if they were going to do such a drastic identity swap.
How does each episode relate to Philip K. Dick’s thoughts about the future. Are they true to their source material?
KO: While I think this really nailed the tone of reading many a Philip K. Dick short story—choppy, a little disorienting, somewhat slight, but intriguing—it departed quite heavily from the source. The main holdover from Dick’s short story “Exhibit Piece” is the shifting times—from the “future” to the “past”—and the ambiguity presented when both lives feel real. But the story focuses on a historian obsessed with accuracy in his exhibit on the twentieth century, idolizing the freedoms of the past to the point that he might be fantasizing it as an escape. The theme of guilt in this episode is a wholly original addition.