Review: In ‘Electric Dreams,’ the Future Seems Outdated

Posted January 11, 2018 5:55 p.m. EST

Beginning in the 1950s, writer Philip K. Dick laid down themes for decades of science fiction (and nonscience fiction). As technology perfects virtual experiences, what does “real” mean? Is an original necessarily more authentic than its simulacrum?

So it’s the most Philip K. Dick thing imaginable to find that “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” based on his short stories, pales before some of the author’s recent imitators. But here we are.

I can’t blame the weaknesses of “Electric Dreams,” whose first season arrives on Amazon on Friday, on the source material: The episodes’ writers had great leeway to stray from the originals. (The same happened with Amazon’s Dick adaptation “The Man in the High Castle.”)

Nor is a lack of star power at fault. The credits of the 10 self-contained episodes include Greg Kinnear, Anna Paquin, Bryan Cranston (one of 14 — 14! — executive producers) and Janelle Monáe (the actress-singer who recorded “The ArchAndroid” plays an archandroid).

But this license and talent, plus the lavish scale of production, add up to little that feels freshly imagined or newly provocative.

Sci-fi is having a bit of a moment: A new “Twilight Zone” is coming, “Westworld” is returning, “The X-Files” lives again, and next month Netflix launches “Altered Carbon,” a cyberpunk thriller in which downloaded consciousnesses are swapped into new bodies the way you might upgrade your phone.

Most notably, “Black Mirror” has created various realities, united by Charlie Brooker’s jaundiced view of social media and virtual intelligence, that are more chilling for how closely they resemble our own.

The alt-worlds in “Electric Dreams” — each episode has a different writer and director — range from the quasi-present to millenniums hence. But mostly, they play with familiar ideas in conventional high-tech settings: They’re futures that seem oddly dated.

The season opener, “Real Life,” written by executive producer Ronald D. Moore (“Battlestar Galactica”), has a quintessential Dick theme: A businessman (Terrence Howard) and a policewoman (Paquin) share a consciousness while leading separate lives — or are they separate? — in two different planes of reality. Which one is real, and which virtual? We’ve seen numerous versions of that ontological shell game, and this one has no new moves.

“Human Is,” with Cranston as a sour military commander who is replaced by a more personable alien body-snatcher, moves double-time to an unsurprising conclusion. “Crazy Diamond,” starring Steve Buscemi, is a nigh-incomprehensible clearance sale of dystopian premises — human-animal chimeras, extreme climate change, consumerism as a tool of oppression.

Elsewhere, the series veers into bludgeoning social criticism, as in “Safe and Sound,” a cautionary tale about the political abuse of paranoia. “Kill All Others” covers the same subject in what amounts to a dark-comic retread of the Cold War “Twilight Zone” tale “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.”

The advantage of a streaming anthology, though, is that you can simply skip to the good stuff. “Impossible Planet,” about an elderly woman booking a space cruise to visit a dead Earth, is moving if a smidge sentimental. In the noir “The Hood Maker,” a detective (Richard Madden, “Game of Thrones”) partners with a telepath (Holliday Grainger) in an alt-reality where psychics serve the function of computers. (You do need to make your peace with dialogue like, “You can read my mind — but you can’t read my heart.”)

But the jewel of “Electric Dreams” is “The Commuter” (not to be confused with the Liam Neeson movie). A British train employee, Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall), put-upon at work and raising a mentally troubled son at home, comes upon an odd phenomenon: Passengers at his station are buying rail tickets to a destination that doesn’t exist.

Ed’s investigation leads him to, yes, one more parallel reality. But it also raises a universal question: At what price would you escape your pain? Spall’s performance is quietly wrenching, the execution lyrical. In a series that doesn’t meet its potential, “The Commuter” is the best of alternatives.

Broadcast Notes:

“Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams”

Available for streaming on Amazon on Friday.