Electric Dreams kicks off confidently with this thought-provoking tale of prejudice and political bloodshed.
If you’ve ever come into contact with a work of Phillip K. Dick, either in its original source material or in one of several movies (e.g. Total Recall) and television series (Man in the High Castle), then you’ll know that the man is brilliantly mad. A gushing well of eccentric, extraordinary and intriguing premises, its little wonder that he has been adapted in so many different forms. With such a vast back catalogue of stories, it was nothing short of a tragedy to see so many of them neglected, never to see the light of day on a television or cinema screen. However, now we’ve got Channel 4’s brand new anthology series, Electric Dreams, which set out with a bold mission statement: bring Dick’s works to the small screen over ten hour-long episodes. The format has worked well for similar series Black Mirror, the brainchild of comedian Charlie Brooker, but the advantage here is that all of Dick’s works are already written, so there’s little need for concern over choosing a slightly weaker story for adaptation.
‘The Hood Maker’ is the first in the run, taking on the tale of the Free Union, a dystopian future where the reigning political party employs the use of laboratory-grown telepaths, known colloquially as ‘Teeps’, to root out and eliminate dissenters. Its an intriguing premise, and although the episode’s 52-minute running time only allows us the briefest of glimpses into this world, what we get is meaty and thought-provoking. The storytelling has both the advantage and disadvantage of being truncated, told through whispers and off-handed mentions of people and concepts that, although familiar within this universe, are entirely new to us viewers. Wisely, the high-concept story sticks closely to its two lead characters, Police Agent Ross (Richard Madden) and his telepathic partner Honor (Holliday Grainger), who are both believably-rooted and occasionally-powerful in their performances. The story ostensibly revolves around the search for the manufacturer of bootlegged anti-mind control hoods, which is a tantalising if undercooked idea, but by the closing credits the only real thread that anyone involved is interested in is the sweet, but underdeveloped relationship between Ross and Honor. There are huge similarities to Blade Runner, another Phillip K. Dick tale, throughout, and the episode narrowly avoids becoming a tribute act, but a little more originality could’ve elevated the episode, and a frustratingly-ambiguous ending practically begs you to tune in next time, despite the story being concluded and the next episode being an entirely separate entity. A part of me really wants a full series to further explore these ideas, but another respects ‘The Hood Maker’ for its determination to stand apart.
Although ‘The Hood Maker’ only scratches the surface of world-building, what we do get to see is thought-provoking and rich. Scenes of hooded vandals brutalising civilians in alleyways and distrustful stares across rooms are powerfully-immersive, the brewing tension between ‘Teeps’ and the public both overpoweringly-allegorical and subtle. Visual touches such as the vintage coats worn by officers and the identifying red scars on the ‘Teeps’ are welcome, and help to round off the edges of an otherwise boxed-in world. Anyone who came to the episode hoping to be entertained in a less wholesome way will still be satisfied, but there is a gorgeous depth to the themes of xenophobia and rebellion if you choose to look.
With such a robust and impactful start, Electric Dreams has the potential to really push the boat out and paint a new and beautiful picture each week. It remains to be seen, however, if any of the nine remaining stories can top this heartfelt and meaningful premiere.
Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams airs on Channel 4 on Sundays. The first three episodes are available to watch for free through 4OD.