Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: a Renaiss...

Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: a Renaissance for Dystopian Television? 

Delving full throttle into dystopian realities, this 10-part television adaptation of short stories by Phillip K. Dick has revitalised science fiction for the small screen. Embellished with an all-star cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Steve Buscemi and Richard Maddeley (Rob Stark, GoT), the sci-fi based work already shows great promise, with its first episodes airing in the U.K. last month (Channel 4), and premiering on Space Canada in November. Electric Dreams serves as an anthology of Dick’s short stories, adapted for television and delivered in stand-alone episodes.

Dick’s imagination has proven itself spectacular, dreaming up strange yet fascinating worlds, times and realities. The first episode, entitled “The Hood Maker” – set in an imagined time, reminiscent of a warped 1970s-esque era – begins on the cusp of a class war between humans and ‘Teeps’, telepathic mutants who are met with disdain from the public of ‘Normals’. Freedom of thought has come under threat, following the issue of an Anti-Immunity Bill which provides Teeps with permission to invade the thoughts of ‘Normals.’ Interestingly, this alternative reality contains no technology, and yet the episode retains a distinctly futuristic feel, even as it juggle with the very timely issues of race, class and state surveillance. Indeed, Dick is no stranger to creating alternative futures, sitting on a resumé which boasts Blade Runner, Total Recall and Minority Report.

Perhaps these premises sound familiar? British broadcaster Channel 4 suffered a heavy blow in losing Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror to Netflix last year, and Electric Dreams does feel a lot like Channel 4’s compensation to the viewer. The similarities with Brooker’s Black Mirror are difficult to deny: both shows offer up stand-alone parables, each unrelated, with a sinister take home message, against the backdrop of a dystopian reality. Even the trailers appear relatively similar. But to compare the two would leave Electric Dreams falling short.

Bryan Cranston stars in the first of the stand alone episodes. (Source: Channel 4)

Black Mirror has arguably achieved cult status and is, for some, one of the most fascinating social commentaries of a generation. The appeal of Electric Dreams then is that it works much harder at the dystopian genre: in Black Mirror, Brooker usually selects and distorts one aspect of our known reality with which to weave his cautionary tale, such as being able to view your entire memory collection at will. Often, in recent episodes I have found myself searching for the particular aspect of technology which the episode will go on to manipulate. However, the realities in Electric Dreams are more developed as a whole – characters are not always explicitly or implicitly acknowledged as human, and it does not always rely on the props of technology to denote that we have moved forwards in time. Its “futurism” can take place in a time that we recognise as the past.

It is for this reason that the two must not be compared – whilst Black Mirror is undeniably exceptional, its focus is based on the message that is sent out. There appears much less rhyme or reason to Dick’s Electric Dreams; you are encouraged to enjoy the stories, the genre, and the world you have entered into much more freely.

George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” is an English dystopian novel published in 1949. (Source: Scarlett Rugers)

But to what do we owe the recent resurgence of dystopianism in today’s art and literature? Indeed, what all of these thought-up versions of distorted reality have in common is that they play upon the closeted fears of the future that we hold today. There is something intensely cathartic about watching the results of these futures unfold from within the safety of our own homes – technology, war, abandoning Earth, living in fear under an autocratic government: these eventualities are well within the grasp and comprehension of today’s society. Electric Dreams, as in Black Mirror, operates in universes which strike a balance between the familiar and unfamiliar; they are close enough to our own realities that we can engage emotively and perceptively, yet far enough removed from our own world that on finishing an episode, we can reassure ourselves we are safe within our own time. For now.

The appeal is irresistible. Would 1984 have been so deeply influential amongst its contemporaries had it not been for the fear of totalitarian authority so rife at the time? Orwell provided us with a dark warning, illustrating the dangers of absolute political authority in his novel, having witnessed its effects in Russia and Spain years previously. The world of dystopian fiction today has gained such traction because, despite the alien world we are transported to, we can relate to the fears and apprehensions about our future that we see played out on our screens. They keep us at a safe enough distance to allow viewing to be pleasurable, whilst igniting within us a gnawing curiosity which is so difficult to dispel as we ask ourselves – are we really that far away from this reality?

Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams premieres on Space Canada November 12th.