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 episode of Black Mirror, (but has 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 1.9: “The Commuter”
Tom Harper (director), Jack Thorne (writer), Ollie Downey (cinematographer), Steven Worsley (editor)
Timothy Spall, Rudi Dharmalingam, Anthony Boyle, Tuppence Middleton, Hayley Squires, Rebecca Manley (cast)
Based on the short story “The Commuter”
What do you think about the future presented here?”
JJ: This episode was weird as hell. But I don’t think a future was presented here?
KO: Yeah, it seems to be another one set in the present.
JJ: A low point of this episode would be how incredibly vague it was. It mistook being vague as being mysterious and never really answered any of the questions it was asking. A high point was Timothy Spall’s performance; he was so great in this episode.
KO: Timothy Spall’s fake smile unsettled me throughout this entire episode, especially after his character’s wife pointed it out. It was unnerving but effective, so I’m not sure if that’s a high or a low point. I guess a low point for me is the lack of characterization for anyone but Timothy Spall’s Ed, and even he seems like a cypher made up entirely of mannerisms. I didn’t really get a sense of who Ed is as a father, a husband, or a person, really. Hiring Spall to look this hangdog is certainly a choice but it can’t be the only thrust of your character, you know?
How is diversity represented within the narrative?
KO: Sam (Anthony Boyle), the son, was depicted as having some kind of mental illness, implied to be degenerative, that caused him to hit his head against the walls and be violent toward his family and others. Sam really only existed as a plot point for Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall) and his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley), not really as his own character with an arc and a purpose. He’s a motivator for Ed, and so is his illness. It’s not great.
How effective was this episode’s plot?
JJ: I don’t know. It was effective in kind of explaining the town and how to get there. But who was the girl and why was she able to manipulate reality? Was she god? If so, why was god in his attic?
KO: I am really on the fence about it. I was interested in how the “real world” shifted with his first visit to Macon Heights, but as it fell into more of a morality play I felt like the concept began to crumble. Linda was both godlike and the daughter of the town’s original developer. I was really hoping that by having his coworker see Linda disappear, we’d finally see a protagonist who tells someone about all the weird shit in his life, and not try to power through it alone, but alas.
What did you think of the episode’s worldbuilding and setting?
JJ: The town was eerie and weird; I enjoyed that part, and I loved the scene when Spall’s character gets off the train and they all walk through the fog to the town. It was gorgeous and gave it this otherworldly feel.
KO: The scene with them all leaving the train and heading toward Macon Heights was my favorite as well, and I loved all the strange bits about the town itself—the buildings that were just facades, the idyllic parks, the color scheme of their clothes—it was great. The rest of the worldbuilding…I don’t know that the scene where a journalist confirms the history of Macon Heights did much to drive the story further; it seemed like it instead tried to make real a story device that would rather stay metaphysical.
How does each episode relate to Philip K. Dick’s thoughts about the future. Are they true to their source material?
KO: The short story starts with two transit employees, Ed Jacobson and Paine (Rudi Dharmalingam), but the narrative focuses on Paine and his wife as they learn about this mysterious town. It’s…unsurprising, giving the racial breakdowns of this show, that the white man would end up the episode’s focus, though Paine was probably conceived as white in the story. This particular Dick story is more about the idea that time can be mutable and that there are different time streams, rather than about a town inhabited by a woman with reality warping powers and her own sense of benevolence. Jacobson, in the episode, learns to accept his life despite his own misfortunes, but Paine of the other story instead returns home from Macon Heights to discover a child he hadn’t had previously. Macon Heights in the story exists in an alternate time where development had been approved, and other things from this timeline slip through. The show depicts Macon Heights as a wishing well made corporeal—people go there to escape their problems, this artificial peace bestowed upon them by the mysterious Linda.
The episode attempts to bring in loftier themes than Dick’s work was tackling, at least directly, while still desiring to stick with the source material. I think this episode falls to the same fate as many of the others—trying to out-clever an already clever story by adding in new relationships or twists. I don’t know how I feel about this one’s adaptation because I think it’s quite ambitious, but it also doesn’t really cover similar territory as the original, nor does it quite succeed.