With Electric Dreams returning for three more episodes on Monday 26th February 2018 at 10pm, we catch up with Channel 4’s sci-fi anthology series so far.
In 2016, Channel 4 lost Black Mirror to Netflix. Now, it’s teaming up with Amazon to steal back its dystopian sci-fi crown. Its weapon? An anthology series of standalone episodes based on short stories by Philip K Dick. It’s a fantastic idea, not only because Blade Runner 2049 has just delivered on its hype, but because the author’s ideas remain wonderfully relevant and still surprising, even decades after his death. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror has the upper-hand, in theory, for topicality, but fortunately for Dick, society in 2017 is as keen on surveillance, war and inequality as ever.
The series starts off strong with The Hood Maker, an ambitious opener set in a familiar, retro-styled future, one where a new race of people have evolved: Teeps, who can read the minds and feelings of everyone around them. Naturally, the police have started to recruit them, on condition that they never do the same to a badge, and so Honor (Holliday Grainger) and Agent Ross (Richard Madden) team up to track down the eponymous Hood Maker, whose masks will prove increasingly important in the future.
Madden slots into the scenery comfortably as the guarded veteran agent, who wears a hat with the same poise as he regards his new partner. Grainger, though, steals the show as the wonderfully sincere, disturbingly intimidating telepath – one standout sequence sees her interrogate a suspect with a relentless, piercing gaze, capturing the queasy balance between trust and security that underpins the tale’s themes.
It also sets the tone for what is a surprisingly understated string of tales: where Black Mirror has become a shocking, unnerving and violent affair, Electric Dreams takes a deliberately low-key approach to sci-fi. It’s one that pays off with some excellent character work.
That’s particularly notable in the cute Impossible Planet, an unexpectedly tender work that sees two disenchanted space tourist employees agree to take an old woman on a trip back to the Earth, a planet whose existence has long since been proven to be a myth. But she’s rich, as well as confused, so they take her money, resulting in a bittersweet two-hander between Jack Reynor and Geraldine Chaplin – with convincing support from Benedict Wong. Written by David Farr, it’s the kind of storytelling that prizes nuance over spectacle, internal beats over plot twists.
The cast continues to get more impressive with every episode, with Crazy Diamond bringing in none other than Steve Buscemi for Crazy Diamond. Playing everyman Ed Morris, he finds himself wooed by a synthetic woman with an illegal plan – a seductive Sidse Babett Knudsen – much to the suspicion of his wife (Julia Davis). What follows sends his pleasant domestic life into disarray, and takes him down unexpected paths of compromise, which Buscemi plays with just the balance of wry genre humour and downbeat pathos.
From romantic drama and cop mystery to noir thriller, the sheer variety of tones is exactly what has made anthology series so popular in modern TV – led by the exemplary Inside No. 9, bite-sized stories are an effective antidote to the long-running serial dramas that have become standard on US TV. Dick’s material can make the format rather challenging, though, as even the top writing talent the series has assembled (including Jack Thorne and Ron D. Moore) find themselves struggling to get the right balance between emotion and exposition: there’s so much to explain to make Dick’s material work, that the 45-minute runtimes can lead to occasionally underwhelming climaxes, or a wish for longer episodes.
But for every mild misstep, there’s a quietly poignant through-line, as the overall theme of reality versus perception emerges. The Commuter sees Timothy Spall on typically moving form, as he plays Ed, a train station employee who finds a bunch of passengers commuting daily to a town that doesn’t exist. Curious, he stumbles across a world that seems to give him an escape from his sad existence.
Real Life, meanwhile, boasts two wonderfully complex turns from Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard, as a policewoman opts in to a new “vacation” experience that takes her inside the head of a games designer in the past. They find themselves lost in each other’s lives, unable to distinguish between their own memories and the recollections of the mind they’re occupying – a blurred sense of place and time that leads to some fantastic visuals, not to mention the immortal words “you’re not really a lesbian super cop in the future with a flying car”.
Such big ideas rely on the kind of world-building that Dick’s work is famous for, and from Life on Mars writer Matthew Graham to The Crown director Julian Harrold and The Truth About Emanuel helmer Francesca Gregorini, the crew have an impeccable sense of how to craft a universe that’s immediately believable and immersive – no mean feat, given the programme’s relatively low budget (given away by the disappointingly cheap opening credits).
That central concern reaches a climax with Human Is, a gentle drama starring Liam Cunningham, Essie Davis and Bryan Cranston, which sees a solider return from battle with aliens as a different man – transformed from an abusive, cruel husband to a kinder, happier figure. What makes us human? Is it the ability to recognise when someone isn’t behaving like themselves? Or is it the ability to ignore our underlying concerns and accept the apparent reality we’re offered?
The result is a confident and impressively understated answer to Black Mirror, albeit one that sometimes feels less bold, memorable and gripping. Underneath the uneven surface, though, lies a provocative reminder of the seeds of dystopia that are already being sown in modern society. From the person occupying the White House to the UK’s Snooper’s Charter, Electric Dreams is a collection of cautionary tales that feels grimly pertinent to our reality – and offers a welcome chance to escape away from it.
Electric Dreams is available to stream and download offline for free on All 4.
Where can I watch Electric Dreams on pay-per-view VOD?