Dark science fiction anthology shows are all the rage now. But what happens when a new sci-fi anthology show is being compared to another which arguably wouldn’t exist without it? It’s a paradox worthy of a Philip K. Dick story, but comparing the new Amazon series, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams to Black Mirror is both slightly unfair and totally paradoxical. Without Dick’s incisive and prescient writing, the genre of sci-fi which Black Mirror subsists on wouldn’t even exist.
Michael Dinner, the executive producer of Amazon’s new anthology series adapting ten of Dick’s short stories, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, called the author “the American daddy” of genre material in an interview with Inverse. This only reinforces the paradox. Dick died in 1982, and a lot of his groundbreaking ideas have become established science fiction tropes — or real-life technological advances, which explains why there’s a renewed appetite for thoughtful, sometimes spooky sci-fi stories. So, while it might not be fair to compare Electric Dreams to Black Mirror, it’s also hard not to make the comparison, especially when even a casual fan of PKD can see his influence in a Black Mirror episode.
So, do Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, old stories which have been brought to life in the modern era in a 10-episode series by Channel 4 and Amazon, differentiate themselves from anthology sci-fi’s current torchbearer, Black Mirror?
Yes, for better and worse.
Because Electric Dreams is an anthology series, overarching reviews are somewhat lacking. There are great episodes, like “The Commuter,” a melancholy yet ultimately loving tale starring an exceptional Timothy Spall, and there are weak episodes, like “Real Life” with Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard, which feels disconnected despite literally being about a connection between two people. Is Electric Dreams worth watching? Some episodes absolutely are, while others deserve a more tepid endorsement. Is Electric Dreams better than Black Mirror? Depends on which Black Mirror you’re talking about.
“These stories somehow seem “bigger” than Black Mirror,” Dinner told Inverse. “I think they’re less cold, in more places more emotional.”
Dinner, who admits that he hasn’t really watched Black Mirror since its first season back when it was on Channel 4, is half right. Compared to Black Mirror’s original run, the first two seasons and Christmas specials that aired before Netflix snagged the series, Electric Dreams is less-technology based and more interested in using sketches of strange worlds as a way to tell smaller, personal emotional stories.
“So much sci-fi I find cold, and sometimes genre material makes the mistake of putting the science fiction in the foreground instead of making it part of the canvas. You could argue that Dick was a science fiction writer, a genre writer, but I think he was a humanist,” Dinner explained.
Because they’re based on short stories, many of which first appeared in pulp magazines, some of the episodes have an unfinished feel to them. Scenarios aren’t all that tightly developed and plot developments are under-explained. That’s not always a bad thing. In “The Commuter,” the logistics of a magical town that doesn’t exist aren’t as important as what this strange occurrence does to a family. At other times, all the inventiveness amounts to little more than a low-stakes, narrative shrug. That wasn’t a problem for early Black Mirror, as episodes tended to have more intricate setups, and the haunting insights into human nature were to be viewed through that lens.
When Black Mirror crossed the pond for a third and fourth season on Netflix, it got sloppier, and it’s these later season episodes that Electric Dreams resembles — and frequently surpasses. The Amazon show might not have bested “San Junipero,” but the standouts easily surpass the underwhelming Black Mirror episodes that fill space between the top tier episodes. Black Mirror’s strength is when it’s laser-focused on using a very specific premise to tell a story about human nature. When it gets broader or softer, like in the episodes “Arkangel” or “Playtest,” the show doesn’t have much interesting to say. Electric Dreams is, on the whole, focused on emotions first and foremost. Its triumphs are hushed, but they come naturally.
Black Mirror might be the most obvious comparison, but Electric Dreams — and all of Philip K. Dick’s work, also has to compete against all of science fiction. Many of the ideas that Dick helped pioneer have become established tropes. Dick wrote The Father-thing, a story about aliens who take over people’s bodies, in 1954, one year before Jack Finney wrote The Body Snatchers.
Dinner, who wrote the episode based on The Father-thing, told Inverse that in order to keep the story fresh for a modern audience, he “leaned into it.”
“The theme of replacement, and the fear or terror of replacement, is the spine of a lot of science fiction work,” he said. “ I tried to make it reflect my growing up and my kids growing up, and not worrying about that it is a common theme.”
As for the rest of those common themes?
“The world became much more complicated,” Dinner explained. “At the same time, the political and technological universe we find ourselves in seems kind of Dickian. He threw a lot of ideas against the wall, and in adapting it, it’s extracting what works and is important for you.”
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams isn’t just competing against Black Mirror, but against time, and an audience who has seen pop culture and reality go in strange, uncomfortable directions. Dick was prescient in a lot of his writings, but he really endures is on a human level. Electric Dreams doesn’t tell all of those stories perfectly, but then again, the people making it are only human. At its best, though, the show isn’t a grand statement so much as it’s a quieter, rewarding experience. These days, that can be a wakeup call.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is now streaming on Amazon.