What are the best episodes of Electric Dreams? We rank Season One.
Philip K. Dick gave us some of the most astounding science-fiction stories, many of which have continued to endure decades after he wrote them. A number of his novels and short stories have been successfully adapted to film, including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. Now, a series based on his short stories, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, brings even more of his short stories to life.
Interestingly, most of the stories adapted for the show were written during a brief period of Dick’s life and thus, a number of themes and concepts overlap. This is not the kind of show you would binge-watch in a day; stagger your viewings of the episodes and you can enjoy the show much more.
Here is our definitive, and spoiler free, ranking of the episodes of season one of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams.
10 – Crazy Diamond
Based on Dick’s short story ‘Sales Pitch’, the episode follows Ed Morris (Steve Buscemi), an average man living an average life in a future where crops no longer grow organically. Morris’ fairly dull life is interrupted when he meets a synthetic woman, Jill (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who is running out of time. Morris agrees to help her increase her life-span but there is more at stake here than he realises. Is he trusting the right person?
The set design and production values in this episode are impeccable. So much detail and not a single item out of place. It looked like a lot of thought had been put into the world-building.
Unfortunately, that is where my praise for the episode ends. The plot was a hotch-potch of several ideas, none of which worked coherently. It also had little to do with the original story, and, at times, veered dangerously close to being a re-tread of themes from Blade Runner. Despite solid performances from the cast, they could not hide the thin script and poor storytelling here.
9 – The Hood Maker
Honor (Holliday Grainger) is a telepath enlisted to help Agent Ross (Richard Madden) track down the Hood Maker, a criminal who is creating hoods that block out telepaths. Ross is initially against his pairing with a telepath but the two eventually build a working rapport with each other. But, as they close in on the Hood Maker, Honor begins to realise that something might be amiss with her partner.
The best way to build a world unlike our own is often to throw the audience in at the deep end. This episode gets it right. One does not always need every ounce of information about the world of the episode; you can learn as the story progresses. You know what would make it easier, though? A bit of light!
Honestly, the scenes are so dark here that it is sometimes difficult to see what is happening. That is not the best way to start of a new series.
I also found the story a bit lacking. It was hard to distinguish the good guys from the bad, and though that wouldn’t generally be an issue, the telepaths are coded as good, downtrodden folk. Everyone else around them seems to be bad. But why? There seem to be downtrodden folk on all sides, telepath or otherwise.
Plus, this episode had some very weird definitions of consent when it came to telepaths reading people’s minds. It made for uncomfortable viewing.
8 – Impossible Planet
Norton (Jack Reynor) and Andrews (Benedict Wong) run a space tourism agency in a future where Earth has been decimated. Business isn’t doing so well, so they try and con their clients in the hope of making enough money to start better lives.
Their newest client, Irma (Geraldine Chaplin), may just be their ticket to paradise. Irma, debilitatingly elderly, insists on being taken to Earth and is willing to pay any sum necessary. She is aided in her request by her wily robot RB29. Norton and Andrews plan to con her out of her money but their guilt soon becomes unbearable. It doesn’t help that Norton feels strangely connected to Irma.
This episode is beautiful. The effects are good and it is easy to get swept up in the story. However, the ending makes little sense and comes out of nowhere. It does feel a bit like the writers were trying a bit too hard to do something ‘different’. It does not work and one cannot help but feel let down. Also, the ending was not faithful to the original story, so fans of Dick’s work will find themselves disappointed.
7 – The Father Thing
Charlie (Jack Gore) is a regular child. He loves his mum (Mireille Enos) but wishes she wouldn’t tell him to pick his clothes off the floor. He adores his dad (Greg Kinnear) who he goes camping with. And, he loves baseball. All is good with his life.
On a trip with his dad, he sees a stunning meteor shower. Thinking nothing of the sight, he returns to his normal life and school and baseball. Or so he thinks. People soon start disappearing. Others around him begin to act strange. Something is not right with the world. And, one day, something seems off about Charlie’s dad.
I almost feel bad about putting this episode so low on the list. It is an all-round good episode. Excellent acting from child actor Jack Gore, who has to carry the episode. Greg Kinnear is brilliantly charming and scary as the dad and then the Father Thing.
The problem is that this episode doesn’t feel like anything new. It is basically a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Stranger Things and every possession film you have ever seen. Considering there is a similar possession episode earlier in the season, this episode seems even less unique or interesting.
However, it does eschew the generally dark tone of the season to end on a more hopeful note, so I have to give it that.
6 – Kill All Others
Philbert Noyce (Mel Rodriguez) chafes at the conformity of an overly-computerised society. The lackadaisical attitude of those around him does not help. Philbert’s wife is barely interested in him, preferring to spend her time with a holographic advertisement. His boss at work would rather Philbert bought a self-driving car instead of taking the train and punishes Philbert by giving him a harder task to complete.
Meanwhile, the presidential election is in full swing but the system is such that there is only one candidate (Vera Farmiga) to vote for. When the candidate then starts making inflammatory statements to “kill all others” in her speeches without anyone batting at eyelid, Philbert begins to wonder what exactly is going on in the world. And, then, signs saying ‘kill all others’ appear with dummies strung up from them. But are they dummies? And who precisely is an ‘other’?
This episode is based on Dick’s story ‘The Hanging Stranger’ and could easily have been lost in the milieu of stories were it not for Dee Rees’ tight direction and for Rodriguez’ excellent acting.
We know how stories like this will end but that does not stop this episode from being incredibly tense. Why? Because Philbert could be any one of us. A working man who questions things but also wants to fit in. He realises he has to be careful about what he says and does; we all know that feeling. In today’s highly-charged political atmosphere, particularly in America, this episode says a great deal about conformity and watching your back.
Not to mention the ‘kill all others’ message which seems subliminal at first. The people follow the candidate like sheep… another political parallel we can hardly ignore.
This is a relevant episode for our times.
5 – The Commuter
Train station worker Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall) is a man living a boring, monotonous existence. He does the same job every day, comes home to his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) and his troubled and violent son Sam (Anthony Boyle).
On a seemingly regular day, a young woman, Linda (Tuppence Middleton), insists on purchasing a ticket to a stop that doesn’t exist. Ed decides to investigate and finds himself in a reality unlike his own. He can stay here and be happy, but there will be consequences.
The episode starts off so bleak that anyone watching desperately wants Ed to follow his dreams. His wife thinks little of him. His son, Sam, is constantly in trouble, often for committing violent acts. Ed doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. Or so he thinks.
I was all set to dislike this episode but I changed my mind near the end. This is the kind of alternate reality story one would expect from Black Mirror but it works so well because of Spall’s heartfelt performance.
Spall’s Ed Jacobson is such an average Joe, so desperate for a change to his life, that when he finds the mysterious stop, his happiness is palpable through the screen. But, as they say, be careful what you wish for. And Ed learns soon enough what he can and cannot live without.
I love the whimsy of this episode. It is set in contemporary times and immediately becomes more relatable. The colour contrasts are used perfectly here – dull colours to portray Ed’s life, brighter hues for the town where he escapes to.
This is a surprising little gem in the season and so heart-warming.
4 – Autofac
A great war has destroyed the world. The surviving humans are clustered together, living in squalor and pollution, unable to escape to greener pastures because of Autofac, an automated factory that has taken over the world, producing worthless consumer products for people who cannot use them.
Emily (Juno Temple), Conrad (David Lyons) and a group of other rebels hatch a plan to bring down the Autofac – they trick the system into sending one of their robot liaisons, Alice (Janelle Monáe). Emily plans to reprogram Alice and from there on in, they will gain access to the Autofac’s primary systems. But, is that all there is to Emily’s agenda?
I was unsure about this episode, at first. It seemed to be a typical dystopian love story. Emily is in a relationship with the rebels’ librarian Avishal (Nick Eversman) and a lot of screen time is spent building this up.
I also found it hard to tell who the leader of the rebels was. Emily seemed to be the brains and a kind of ‘chosen one’ but Conrad did all the talking. The episode should have made it clearer from the start but this doesn’t interrupt the viewing experience much.
I am not sure Juno Temple was the best choice for the lead character here. I would have swapped the actors for Emily and Alice. Janelle Monáe was amazing as the robot Alice, but she would have really sold it as the hyperactive, slightly frazzled but determined Emily.
The plot here is very unlike the original short story so, fans of the story, beware. But, surprisingly, diverting from the source material made the episode that much better. By making the Autofac an all-powerful industry churning out goods without updating its programming to suit the needs of the people, it made the threat to the rebels more real.
And the ending was brilliant! I love twists and the one we got in this episode was so unexpected. Made the entire episode so much better.
3 – Real Life
Police Officer Sarah (Anna Paquin) has yet to recover from the loss of her team during a shootout. Though she is physically fit to return to duty, her mind keeps returning to the incident. Her wife, Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) encourages her to take a virtual vacation where she can be someone else and live their life.
Sarah takes on the life of George (Terrence Howard), a computer programmer grieving the loss of his wife, whose murderer was never caught. There are eerie similarities between Sarah and George’s lives and soon, Sarah begins to question which of their lives is the real one.
There is so much pathos in this episode. Think Total Recall except with more heart and less action. Anna Paquin is amazing; grief for Sarah’s losses pouring out of her in every scene. Terrence Howard is equally astounding, a broken man barely keeping it together.
Adapted from Dick’s ‘Exhibit Piece’ story, the episode actually has kept very little of the original plot, but the heart of the story is there – a person lost in time and grief. Unlike the short story’s ambiguous ending, we get a clear idea of what is happening here at the end of the episode. This makes the denouement that much more depressing and leaves us with some interesting thoughts about human nature.
2 – Safe and Sound
Irene Lee (Maura Tierney) is a politician, moving from the politically-charged ‘bubble states’ on the east side to the west. Along with Irene is her daughter, Foster (Annalise Basso), who will be starting at a west side school. Irene does not like the west’s way of monitoring its citizens using the Dex, a computerised system that all citizens need to wear to be able to access anything and everything.
However, Foster is desperate to fit in and one of her classmates helps her buy a Dex using Irene’s credits. Foster’s Dex comes with a hear-gel which allows her to communicate with a customer service rep.
Unable to make friends at school, Foster forms a close bond with the customer service rep until he starts seeing terrorists everywhere and asks Foster to help bring them down.
Based on the short story ‘Foster You’re Dead’, this is undoubtedly the most politically relevant story of the season. It may be a bit on-the-nose with talk of brainwashing, terrorist cells existing in only some areas and the east-west divide, but it is coherent and well thought out.
Annalise Basso does an amazing job. She gets the right mix of paranoia and desperation to keep the audience focussed on Foster’s dilemma and the story.
I like that there is a fully-formed world here. We do not need any explanations because the details have been planned in advance. Viewers can just go along with the story, which is simple enough to draw you in.
I particularly love the ending. It is a twist that we see coming but it is well-executed. Probably one of the best endings of the season.
1 – Human Is
Vera (Essie Davis) controls missions for the Terran army in the year 2520. The leader of the army is her husband Silas (Bryan Cranston). Terran life is hard; the atmosphere is poisoned and humans are forced to live inside where air can be controlled. Unfortunately, the planet’s air reserves are running out.
Life is even harder for Vera. Silas may be a great leader but he is a terrible husband. Vera spends her lonely days at work and her nights at seedy dens where she can enjoy some kind of companionship.
General Olin (Liam Cunningham) has a plan to extract a compound from the planet Rexor IV, which will help increase oxygen reserves on Terra. Vera is dead-set against the plan but Silas agrees to do it.
The Rexor mission goes south but Silas returns, injured but alive. He is needy now, more affectionate and compassionate. Vera finds herself drawn to her husband once more. What could have provoked this sudden change in Silas’ heart?
I was genuinely surprised while watching this episode. The story, though solid, is not the point here; it is the characters. Here we have a human-interest story wrapped up in sci-fi garb. But, what really sells it are the performances of Essie Davis and Bryan Cranston.
Davis wears the pained expression of a lovelorn woman throughout the episode, coming to life only when she visits the dens and near the end when she finds comfort in her rejuvenated husband.
Cranston plays the harsh, detached Silas with such conviction, that the loving Silas who returns really does seem like a new man. In the span of one episode, Cranston plays two characters who are such polar opposites, you forget it is the same actor. Amazing work.
The final scenes may not be faithful to the source material, but you know what, it does not matter because it works so well. Davis pours her heart and soul out in the final scene. I was riveted and moved watching her. This episode is a masterclass in acting and the best of the season.
Electric Dreams isn’t quite the answer to Black Mirror that it was hoping to be. Despite its extensive and well-known cast, I found its lack of diversity bothersome. Almost every episode has a white protagonist, almost all of whom are male.
There were, at times, unnecessary changes made to the source material. At other points, writers had chosen to remain so close to the source material that the stories felt stuck in the past. The only episode that showed innovation, in my opinion, was Real Life, but it had to move away from Dick’s story to do so.
The concept of Electric Dreams is excellent and we are clearly in the age of anthologies, but more thought needs to go into these stories and how they are presented to modern audiences. Having said that, this was a reasonably good start to the show and I look forward to seeing which stories they adapt next.
For more anthology shows, take a look at Digital Fox’s ranking of Black Mirror Season 4 episodes.
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