Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams explores the darkest corners of the human psyche in its first four episodes
To state that Electric Dreams is one big cluster of human emotions, feelings, and ideas is putting it lightly–to say the least. The first four episodes of this sci-fi anthology series elucidate an understanding of the complexity of our deepest thoughts and desires. Based on the short stories of Philip K. Dick and brought to life on screen by Outlander EP, Ron Moore–we are taken on a whirlwind journey in the first half of Electric Dreams. Now, it is to be noted that the episode order differs between the U.K. release and the U.S. release on Amazon Video– here we will be following Amazon’s order.
The first episode “Real Life”, starring Anna Paquin (True Blood) and Terrence Howard (Empire), grapples with the idea of happiness vs. self-punishment–and literally taking a vacation from our minds. In the 10-episode anthology series, it stood out as the strongest and most impactful story–far-reaching and emotional in its message.
The second episode, “Autofac”, starring Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures), was an intense exploration of what the end of the world looks like. The survivors in this world found themselves tied to the inner workings of a factory that dictated their entire lives–the core of which relied on automation and drones. Considering Electric Dreams was released on Amazon Video–the irony doesn’t fail us here.
“Human Is”, the third episode on Amazon, starred Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones). The story of “Human Is” was emotionally jarring and was a rather depressing insight into the desire to be loved. Cranston plays an emotionless, heartless husband who turns a blind eye to his wife’s needs and wants. However, a mission leads him to be infected by an alien–resulting in an intense personality change upon his return. The story brings front and center the idea of companionship and love–and the sacrifices we make to have it in our lives.
The fourth episode in the series, “Crazy Diamond”, starring Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), dabbled in a futuristic world where expiration dates are minutes long and pig/human breeds are a thing. This episode was indeed crazy in its premise and plot. It highlighted the fear we all possess of aging and also shed light on environmental collapse through depicting coastal erosion. Buscemi’s character longs to leave this world behind–but the awakening of this world around him gives him quite the different ending.
What a jarring first four episodes, right? Now, let’s meet our roundtable and get to discussing all that went down!
J.D. (@JDGravesWriter)– teacher, writer, and Editor for EconoClash Review
Neoshia (@HistoryDiva25)– Attorney by day, fiction enthusiast by night
Shemal (@shemjay93)– Sri Lankan, Passionate geek, Movie buff, TV addict, live tweeter
A.A. Rubin (@TheSurrealAri)– writer of literary fiction, sf/f, and comics; English teacher; reviews for @moviepreshow
Courtney (@CourtneyPerdue1)– Writer, voice actor, avid shower singer
1. ‘Real Life’ explored a myriad of ideas including self-punishment, embracing happiness, and taking a ‘vacation’ from one’s reality. What were your thoughts on these ideas?
J.D. (@JDGravesWriter): Very relatable. These are all things that people do every day. America especially has this work ethic built into our greater society, that inspires people to work hard, pursue happiness, and be independent The reality of this is only a handful of people achieve these goals. I could use a vacation right now, anyone else?
Neoshia (@HistoryDiva25): Can vengeance ever truly bring happiness? At the outset of “Real Life,” we see Sarah (Anna Paquin!) engaging in escapism to evade real-life problems. I loved the Sarah/George transition and their collective revenge fantasy. By the end, Sarah/George couldn’t decipher truth from reality, beyond knowing that one of them was way too happy to be real. I appreciate how George agreed to let go of Sarah—effectively killing the true human being and providing a nice twist on an old tale about reality—because she was the one who was too happy to be real. Another twist: I’m not particularly used to seeing a narrative where an LGBTQ character is portrayed as the happ(ier) one.
Shemal (@shemjay93): Taking a ‘vacation’ from one’s reality even through a simulation is like taking a break from what you do on a daily basis. It can be your job, it can be a hobby or it could be nothing at all. The fact that you let yourself immerse in another reality is a whole new experience. It can be awesome and dangerous at the same time. Pros and cons include embracing happiness and self-punishment respectively like you mentioned.
A.A. Rubin (@TheSurrealAri): While “Real Life” does explore these ideas, the exploration was done in a particularly un-Dickian way. The short story upon which this episode is based, “Exhibit Piece,” also tackles them, but more ambiguously. The episode, with its focus on VR, reminded me a bit too much of “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” (The basis for Total Recall), and the ending was more concrete than I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong, it was good sci-fi, but to me, it didn’t ring true to the source material. It was almost as if the producers wanted to introduce certain themes in Dick’s works while easing new viewers into the show’s idiom without that encounter with the abyss that characterizes PKDs better stories.
Courtney (@CourtneyPerdue1): I was completely engaged to the point that even I was confused on what was the real world and what wasn’t. It’s interesting because we all know life is hard. S*** happens, but we’ve got to face it or we’ll go crazy. I do think Katie did Sarah a disservice by giving her a prototype device when she was fully aware that Sarah’s mind, the thing that would create her escapism, was not clear. She was holding on to a lot of emotional and physical baggage from the attack. Real Life does a fantastic job of showing that running away from your problems instead of facing them head-on will only complicate matters even more.
2. ‘Autofac’ was an abrupt reminder that our reliance on automation, drones, and technology may have a frightening downside. What did you feel about the premise of this plot in regards to the future?
J.D: The future is now. Automation is here already. I went into a giant corporate box store the other day. There were rows of empty registers and one employee standing next to the line of people queueing up for the self-checkout. The employee’s job was to make sure no one cut in line. A drone rescued two people in Australia recently.
Neoshia: I’m a “real” girl! I definitely got an Ex Machina vibe from “Autofac.” I love how “Autofac” engaged the concept that we increasingly make technology to help us live (busier? fuller? better?) lives, but it also has its terrifying side. Consider Alice’s speech to Emily upon her realization that she’s actually AI: “Everything is replaceable; you’re not unique in life. You’re just broken.” Yikes! Technology is incredibly useful, but the lines are continuously blurred and often disregard ethical considerations (i.e. what are the consequences, and is this really a good idea?). When AI becomes sentient?? All bets are off, and we may never know if we are even real! “Autofac” is probably my favorite episode thematically.
Shemal: Good question! I personally feel that automation and drones are very important topics to touch on considering the fact that we as humans rely on them so much nowadays as it has made life easier. Regarding the future; it’s highly unpredictable. But ‘Autofac’ does give us a clear indication of what outcome(s) we can expect from androids and drones, how we can share or steal intelligence, how we as humans can fight back and how we can easily manipulate or be manipulated.
A.A. Rubin: “Autofac” was timely and apt, I loved the choice to change the delivery buses of the original story to Amazon-style drones (ironic, considering the show is on Prime). The resolution, where there is something left of the CEO even in her replicant (to use old PKD term) is such an effective critique of the whole factory model because it shows how relying on automation stunts humanity’s creative potential. The solution can only come from a person with the creativity and intelligence needed to create the system in the first place. This type of person would never thrive in a world run by the Autofac. There needs to be something of the past to destroy the present monster and affect a new world order.
Courtney: The premise of the episode is amazing. Overall I’m a little indifferent. After watching the episode, and maybe it was just me, it seemed as though humanity, doing what humanity does best, destroyed themselves in this war independently of the Autofac. I actually found myself feeling a little sorry for the Autofac. Yes, the experiment to recreate humanity is a bit frightening, albeit the only way to “preserve” humanity, at the end of the day the Autofac just wanted to fulfill its purpose, a purpose is given to it by the humans who went and destroyed themselves leaving the Autofac confused, alone, and useless. That’s got to be the ultimate torture for The Autofac, living to serve with nothing to serve.
3. Bryan Cranston’s ‘Human Is’ was an interesting story of a miserable wife and a heartless husband turned sweetheart after an alien infection. What are your thoughts about this particular story discussing loneliness and the need for companionship and love?
J.D: Some of the deepest loneliness is felt by people in committed relationships. Of course it doesn’t help when one of the partners has the bedside manner of a cyclone fence. The level of unhappy in this episode is quite palpable. So it’s no wonder his wife escapes into the underground to participate in what can only be described as a tickle party on free ticket day at the Museum of Sex. (It’s a real place) When Cranston comes back and appears to have genuine feelings for his wife, she reciprocates. At the trial, he makes the ultimate sacrifice a being can make. One life for another. She defends his humanity. And for a second I wanted to believe it too.
Neoshia: “Human Is” is a wonderful exposition on why love is important. When we meet Silas, he comes off as a self-absorbed, jackass, especially when General Olin pays a compliment to Vera’s (equal) contributions to Silas’ good work. After one encounter, we see Vera crying/hyperventilating alone in her room. Silas is not very nice to her at all, and he clearly doesn’t respect her as his equal. To be fair, I was as confused as Vera when a loving Silas returned to her. Vera knowingly vouched for a sworn enemy to the human race—because he loved her. My only question is: when exactly did she figure out Silas wasn’t himself? When he said he wanted to go home? Or when he showed interest in her?
Shemal: WOW! ‘Human Is’ was amazing! It was an episode where you constantly question yourself about Cranston’s behavior. Is he who he was? Has something/someone taken over or did he fight back? Does he have a new purpose or goal? Has he improved his social intellect? In life you’re sometimes alone, you’re sometimes not. You’re sometimes in love, you’re sometimes not. Even when you’re with someone, you are sometimes alone or you feel lonely. Love and companionship are a must in life; and so is mutual understanding.
A.A. Rubin: The episode asks the question, “What does it mean to be human?” Two different answers are presented: Is humanity exclusive to a specific species or is it a set of values? In the episode, the expectation is that individuals give themselves up to the collective, in this case, the state. Vera, instead, chooses individualism, even in the form of an alien. Cranston’s character is Rexorian, but is he, in fact, more human than Silas, the host whose body he inhabits? The viewer is forced to grapple with the same question as the episode ends. Does her loneliness cause her to betray humanity to an invasive alien species, or is she saving it through her understanding that the capacity to love makes us human?
Courtney: No one wants to live a life where they’re seen as less than who they believe themselves to be. That’s where all of these themes intersect in this episode. This episode told the honest truth about these emotions. Vera didn’t care that the new Silas wasn’t her husband. She just knew how he made her feel. Could he turn around and decide to help his species destroy her planet? Yes, he absolutely could, but in that moment it didn’t really matter. She just wanted to feel wanted, loved, cared about, just anything other than ignored and he offered her that. I can’t blame her for not wanting to let that go after what she’s been through.
4. Coastal erosion, governmental control, and the impending doom of aging and death are the central themes surrounding ‘Crazy Diamond’. What did you think of all these themes in relation to the story’s central characters—Sally, Ed, and Jill?
J.D: Metaphors for relationships…all of them? This is the bonkers craziest episode in the whole bunch. The advice giving Pig Lady aside, these characters all have surfaces that are as real as the expiring food in their fridge. One wants to sail away, One wants to break the law by growing plants, One wants some more time to enjoy it all. Overall this episode had the feel of that Black Hole Sun music video from the nineties. The characters were all products of the environment and vice versa.
Neoshia: For some reason, “Crazy Diamond” just didn’t do it for me—even though I think the themes are super important and real. It just seems like they put way too many themes that didn’t necessarily jive very well into one hour-long episode. What I did appreciate was Jill’s struggle as an aging (not really old) woman who is “failing” and due to be recalled and replaced with a new model. Ed was super clueless about everything that was happening around him, such as Jill’s goals and Sally’s awakening (another bright note of this episode). I guess I did like the resolution where Ed was left alone and running from his crumbling house—all by himself.
Shemal: If I had to pick one adjective to describe this one, well it’s right there in the title itself: “CRAZY” but crazy-good! I thought the lives of Ed, Sally & Jill are greatly affected but love, greed, and fear. Considering the themes you mentioned, they drive the central characters actually but it ultimately leads to deceit. The ending was unusually satisfying.
A.A. Rubin: Given the times, the environmental angle is going to get a lot of play, but it is complementary to the impending doom of aging and death. Though Ed, Sally, and Jill all, to some extent, temporarily overcome their feelings of impending doom, ultimately, they are all doomed, as is everyone and everything by the impending environmental destruction represented by the coastal erosion. And, isn’t that the human condition–the existential question that everyone from Odin to Camus struggles to answer? How do we give our lives meaning when faced with the knowledge of our own mortality. What is worth fighting for in a world where we’re all doomed? That is the question at the heart of this episode.
Courtney: Jill did what any good human would do when faced with the threat of death and corrupt creators, she fought to survive. In a world that felt so devoid of compassion and a true sense of free will, due to such a controlling government, it was refreshing to see Jill and Sally take back some control at the end. Ed took Sally for granted, but Jill will most definitely be able to show Sally how to regain her sense of self. Ed deserved the lonely existence he was left with, with everything falling apart around him, just like his life, because he couldn’t see past his own sense of self-importance.
5. The first four episodes of Electric Dreams were a cocktail of unique, engaging, and frightening stories. Which one of the four was your favorite and why?
J.D: Hands down it has to be Crazy Diamond. The thing moves with enough unique quirkiness to keep me from surfing cute cat videos. (I DO NOT SURF CUTE CAT VIDEOS) (Honest!) The reveal of all the moving parts of the story is cool and it plays into PKD’s sci-fi/noir ethos. The femme fatale, the weird science, and environmental doom. The shot of the record at the end is bizarre, but if you look into PKD’s life, he was an avid record collector and even divorced his first wife after his collection was physically threatened.
Neoshia: “Human Is” is my favorite episode of this batch. The cast (Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, and Liam Cunningham) is brilliant, and I am enough of a romantic sci-fi nerd that I find this story absolutely beautiful. An alien enemy whom Vera is supposed to hate shows her more affection in a couple days than Silas ever did. The final scene between Silas and Vera, where they’re emotionally bare before each other with their secret in the open, was a lovely touch! I just love that final shot of their embrace with noses touching. “Human Is” is a nice allegory for the concepts that 1) romance occurs on a spectrum (again, LGBTQ themes), and 2) love is really all that matters.
Shemal: Now that’s a tough question. A really really really tough question! *sweats* Every episode was incredible and unique in its’ own way. If I had to pick one it would be ‘Real Life’ because it dealt with a mixture of emotion, love, pain, and suffering in a beautiful manner.
A.A. Rubin: “Autofac” is a near-perfect adaptation of the original PKD short story which addresses themes that are even more relevant now than when the original was published. It had the perfect twist ending–one that surprises the reader, but that makes perfect sense in the context of the story. It achieves the unity of effect that Edgar Allan Poe described, in the way the Twilight Zone perfected while exemplifying the reaction a reader typically has when reading PKD’s short fiction. Not only is it the best PKD adaptation since the 1990 Total Recall film, it is the best comment on consumerism I’ve seen since Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I really cannot oversell how much I loved this episode.
Courtney: Autofac was my favorite of the first four by far. I was sad when it ended because the ride was over and I wasn’t ready to leave these characters behind. There felt like there was so much more to explore in this beautifully written and expertly realized episode. I could honestly see this concept being reimagined into a mini-series that expands what was presented in the episode and dives deeper into the war on humanity, the lives of these “human” colonies, and the final battle with the Autofac (Just something for everyone over at Amazon to consider….*cough cough*).
6. Often times, sci-fi shows like Electric Dreams depict a reality that appears far-fetched but isn’t. Of these four episodes, which one do you feel was the most relatable/likely to occur in the near future?
J.D: This is a good question as elements of each episode are starting to happen now. So I pick the one in the middle.
Neoshia: “Real Life” is probably the one that’s far-fetched but most likely to occur in the near future. I think we are moving closer and closer towards making sustainable virtual realities happen. This reminds me a bit of The X-Files episode “First Person Shooter.” We can slap on some technology, enter an entirely different reality to lead a life or play a game that we choose, and still face the same (or worse) dangers/problems. Increasingly, I think the lines between reality and virtual-reality are blurred, especially with the advent of social media, video messaging, etc., which make us more comfortable with the idea that contact doesn’t have to be in person to be real.
A.A. Rubin: Ray Bradbury said, “There are worse crimes than burning books; One of them is not reading them.” The brilliance of these episodes lies in their reflection of our own world. People, today, get lost in computer fantasies; we’re increasingly dependent on automation and computers to provide our daily necessities and for information that once was common knowledge; the threat of nuclear annihilation, once again, is prevalent; in today’s political climate, extreme loyalty to the collective climate is fast becoming the expectation, and virtually no one treats the opposition with humanity; and we’re constantly striving to push the limits of science, often at the expense of the environment and our individuality. Which version of the future is the most likely? We are living them all, already.
Courtney: With the current popularity of VR, and its rapid advancements, Real Life seems the most likely to occur in my opinion. Through VR we’re already finding ways to put ourselves into different realities for gaming, music concerts, and video conferences. After watching Real Life, I’d like to say I won’t be as keen to put on a headset and dive into a virtual reality, but Star Wars just released a new VR experience. It’s a tough choice. Do I risk losing my sanity to become a Stormtrooper or do I miss out on the experience?…I’m 100% becoming a Stormtrooper.
7. In the first four episodes, we saw a multitude of talented actors (i.e.- Bryan Cranston) from television shows past. Which of the characters they played was your favorite and why?
J.D: Terrance Howard from Human is…was very good at delivering a solid performance. You really felt for the character and I know that it wasn’t until that last scene with him that I began to question the nature of his reality. But Steve Buscemi wins in my book. Reason? Washing ashore, vinyl LP in hand…roll credits.
Neoshia: I liked Bryan Cranston (Silas), Essie Davis (Vera), and Liam Cunningham (General Olin) in “Human Is.” I thought Cranston and Davis handled the material well, and I’ve never seen either of them in a bad role! Also, I’m a big fan of Cunningham’s Ser Davos of Game of Thrones, and I would probably follow his leadership anywhere! I loved Anna Paquin (Sarah) in “Real Life” because I definitely got “Rogue is 20 years older…and tired” vibes from her! Additionally, I was happy to see Sidse Babett-Knudsen (Jill) in “Crazy Diamond.” I have only ever seen her in Westworld, but Jill was the opposite of Theresa—and she got a much better ending! And Janelle Monae (Alice) is always a treat!!!
Shemal: The cast is one of many aspects I love about Electric Dreams. In the first four episodes, we saw some great names: Bryan Cranston, Janelle Monae, Steve Buscemi, Terrence Howard, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Anna Paquin & Juno Temple. I’m gonna go with two choices here: Cranston and Monae. They were simply the best in my eyes.
A.A. Rubin: Steve Buscemi is perfect as Ed in “Crazy Diamond.” His kind of weirdness is perfect for a PKD story. Given the plethora of PKD adaptations, I’m mildly surprised he hasn’t been in one previously. While I ‘m partial to episodes that more authentically follow the source material, and “Crazy Diamond” takes as many liberties with the plot as any episode in the series, but Buscemi captures the essence of the original in his portrayal of Ed. There is something a bit off about the character, yet his problems and the way he deals with them evoke pity from the audience. I enjoyed his performance greatly, even though I had Ghost World flashbacks in the final scene when he hugs the vinyl record.
Courtney: Janelle Monae as Alice is my favorite. She embodied the character perfectly. She delivered that robotic feel while still giving some semblance of humanity. Her character is an anchor for the world presented in Autofac and, based on her performance, it was hard to pin down if she would continue to help the “humans” or default back to the Autofac. In a lot of shows, actors tend to lean too far to one side, giving away the surprise or making it feel completely unearned/unbelievable. That isn’t the case here. Honestly, I was rooting for her to make it out alive. Here’s to hoping there’s an Alexis out there in another colony that may get a revisit in season 2!
Final Verdict: The first four episodes of Electric Dreams are intense–very intense.
As we continue to discuss and explore every episode of Electric Dreams, we unravel another layer of understanding in what it means to be human. Philip K. Dick’s stories may have been written decades ago, but encompass very real and logical ideas of thought today. Electric Dreams has brought life to his ideas of the future and made it possible to connect these stories to our modern day lives. The first four episodes do a superb job of exploring love, loneliness, scary technological advances, and happiness–just to name a few.
What does it mean to be human? Are we deserving of the happiness we are given and the life we have? Do we have the freedom to live our lives? Will technology be the end of us? These are extremely relevant questions that Electric Dreams dives into with the first four episodes and leaves us pondering and analyzing our lives. And if episodes like “Autofac” and “Real Life” are any indication to the future–we are in for one hell of a ride.