The science fiction of Philip K. Dick has long served as fodder for blockbuster cinema scripts since the 1980s, and his compelling, inventive concepts have changed the direction of the sci-fi genre as a whole. He has written 44 books and well over 100 pieces of short fiction, and yet only a comparative handful of them have been mined for big-screen adaptation — and until this year, none for the small screen. Some of his greatest books — such as the formally experimental classic, Valis, which has only been translated into experimental opera, and its counterpart Radio Free Albemuth, which became a periodically comical failure of a low-budget film — have proven exceptionally difficult to interpret.
His short stories have proven more idiomatic, probably because they — usually first published in science fiction periodicals — were necessarily more conventional in construction and themes. Arguably the most well-known Dick short story adaptation is Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, an expensive, flawed blowout that drew Dick’s modest story into a two-and-half-hour Brazil tribute piece (most overtly, a destructive chase through a public housing unit is a direct homage a floor-busting sequence from that film), but without any of the batshit charm.
Now, a TV show that extends Dick’s universe — or rather, as the preview specifies, Spielberg’s reading of Dick’s universe — premiers on NBC on September 21st. Spielberg’s film explores the workings of the Precrime police unit, in which three psychic mutants (“precogs”) are used as tools to predict murders that will occur in the future. It focuses on the plight of a head Precrime officer who the precogs predict kills in the near future. Due to the discovery of an error in the system — there is free will for the future murderers if they are aware of their crimes-to-be — the Precrime unit is shut down. Taking advantage of the abrupt, open-ended feeling of the film’s conclusion, the NBC show takes place 10 years following the events in Dick’s narrative. At the end of Spielberg’s movie, the three precogs are isolated in the countryside following the dissolution of Precrime. In the NBC show, one of them — Dash, a precog who is not a character in the film — escapes to return to the real world, playing amateur detective and exercising his predictive gifts.
Dash (originally “Dashiell,” named for the crime writer) is played by Stark Sands, a Broadway star (American Idiot!) and the soldier folk singer based on Tom Paxton in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. His eerily clean-cut demeanor is more than appropriate for a prescient, borderline-android-mannered mutant. All signs point to the show being a kind of futuristic police procedural, with Dash helping frustrated detective Lara Vega (Meagan Good of Deception and Anchorman 2) curb a rising murder rate. The preview is hyper-earnest, driven by stock blockbuster action-film music, chock full of clips of scenes that couldn’t be more conventional in tone.
This, along with the fact that the Precrime unit set pieces and other technological accoutrement look exactly the same as the stodgy Spielberg film, gives the impression that the pulpy, funhouse tone of Dick’s writing will be lost in translation. Great Dick adaptations are hard to come by – with a few exceptions, including the excellently cast and aesthetically stunning Blade Runner — because so often, character development is undervalued in favor of clinical universe building. Without strong characters, the narratives can quickly fade into anodyne tediousness, no matter how fascinating the concept is on paper. This primetime Minority Report reboot looks like it’s not taking any chances — intent on leading the viewer even further afield from the oddball near-future universe of Dick’s story than Spielberg’s multiplex-ready film.
Another upcoming Dick TV adaptation looks significantly more promising than Minority Report, if equally straight-shooting. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a work from the early ‘60s, is one of the most distinctive dystopian novels of the second half of the 20th century, exploring a detailed alternate reality in which the Allies lost World War II, and the United States is divided between Nazi and Japanese jurisdiction. The first episode premiered as part of a series of original pilots for Amazon in January and was then greenlit for a 10-episode November release. The executive producer is Dick’s most successful adaptor – now, one of Hollywood’s most frustratingly inconsistent auteurs – Ridley Scott, who proposed the concept and helped define the show’s noir-ish look (Carol Reed’s 1954 The Third Man — set in a shadowy, bombed-out Vienna — was a reference point for the show’s ruinous, Nazi-controlled New York).
The executive producer is Dick’s most successful adaptor – now, one of Hollywood’s most frustratingly inconsistent auteurs – Ridley Scott, who proposed the concept and helped define the show’s noir-ish look (Carol Reed’s 1954 The Third Man — set in a shadowy, bombed-out Vienna – was a reference point for the show’s ruinous, Nazi-controlled New York).
With the exception of his LSD-fueled, one-million-word Exegesis, Phillip K. Dick was a fairly concise writer, preferring to leave some narrative threads untied for the benefit of his reader’s imagination. Whether his speculative tales will make good source materials for two 10-plus episode series remains to be seen; it depends at least as much on the richness of the showrunners’ imagination as much as Dick’s original concepts.