Beneath the red sands of Mars, a crisis is averted in an underground station. The male technician raises his visor to see his attractive female colleague. Impressed with his heroism, she strips. Soon they’re making love and then… she wakes up. She’s in a Rekall simulation booth and he is her co-worker. Before we have time to get to know either character, an android bursts through the door and shoots them both dead. This is Total Recall: 2070.
A little known Canadian TV series from 1999 that made its way to US screens via Showtime, Total Recall: 2070 is a lost classic of ‘90s paranoia-rama that looks like CSI: Blade Runner Edition. Two decades later, it also shines a harsh neon light on the fears of a generation who teetered at the precipice of a new millennium. It also predicted Westworld almost 20 years before HBO explored the thin line between human and artificial intelligence.
So, with Paul Verhoven's film getting a new 4K release this month, what better time to take a deep dive into Total Recall: 2070?
In the late ‘90s, Total Recall: 2070 creator Art Monterastelli had just finished working on the police drama High Incident and was making waves in Hollywood, where his talents had attracted the attention of the show’s creator, Steven Spielberg.
“Spielberg and several other top people were happy enough with the job I was doing that they let me, a writer/producer, direct what turned out to be the final episode,” Monterastelli tells Inverse, reflecting on his big break.
“I was not a particularly big fan of Total Recall.”
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Paul Verhoeven had already teamed up a decade earlier for 1990s Total Recall, but Monterastelli wanted to take the story in a different direction; one closer to the source material.
“I was not a particularly big fan of Total Recall,” he says. “I was, however, a huge fan of Philip K. Dick and the darker, psychological thrillers he wrote, the best of which, in my opinion, was Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? [aka] Blade Runner.”
Where Schwarzenegger’s outing focused on gut-wrenching violence, high octane action, and witty one-liners, the TV series paid closer attention to the original book. The result is a slow burn dystopian noir crime drama able to explore more of Dick’s ideas.
Michael Easton stars as Detective David Hume, a senior member of the Citizen’s Protection Bureau. He's a dour, gravel-voiced anti-hero with great hair who looks fantastic in a black trenchcoat. Along with Karl Pruner as Ian Farve (the requisite is-he-or-isn’t-he-an-Android), Hume solves crimes and regularly come to blows with James Calley from the Assessor’s Office, an investigative branch that focuses solely on a powerful corporate body known as The Consortium. (The Consortium consists of several different companies but the only ones you need to know about are 1) Uber Braun: android builders, and 2) Rekall: shillers of virtual “braincations.”)
The city that Hume and Farve police is a dystopia of late stage capitalism. Everything has a dollar sign attached to it — that or an animated billboard. According to Monterastelli, the production team built "a spectacular world inside a massive old air force base outside of Toronto."
“Cronenberg was generous enough to recommend several of the production people.”
At one end of this building, Total Recall 2070 was being made, at the other end, David Cronenberg was making his premillennial virtual reality nightmare, EXistenz. "Cronenberg was generous enough to recommend several of the production people we ended up using," Monterastelli says.
Perhaps thanks to Cronenberg, the special effects are peerless for a show of this budget. The blending together of CGI and models that seamlessly transitioned into the set was ambitious for the time.
“It would have been impossible to replicate the huge, over-the-top, and incredibly expensive action sequences of the Total Recall movie,” Monterastelli says, but he was able to negotiate a “generous” deal with production companies that helped earn 2070 it’s greatest accolade.
Total Recall 2070 was nominated for an Emmy for its VFX (it’s only nomination). The series was also nominated for nine Gemini Awards (basically the Canadian Emmys) and won three for photography, sound editing, and overall sound in a drama.
Absent is the amusing satire of Verhoven. This is a more somber affair, closer in tone to Ridley Scott. The large corporations of the future all have their own private security firms whose primary role seems to be protecting the interests of the shareholders rather than the public at large.
The show, although based on the writings of Philip K. Dick from the ‘60s and ‘70s, is an insight into the fears of ‘90s society on the verge of a new millennium. Anyone who remembers that time will feel a familiar sense of discomfort when watching episodes like “Baby Lottery,” where the concept of assessing genetic disorders in the womb reflects the ‘90s concerns over designer babies. Many disabled rights activists were against what they saw as a form of eugenics. This idea still pervades today.
The second half of the season opens with a cult leader’s death. This is very much a Scientology reference — cult-like religion was another pre-2000s concern that persists today. In another episode, Rekall users are being oven-baked alive in their homes, hinting at the modern phenomenon of screen-addiction long before the narcotic draw of social media became ubiquitous.
“The HBO series Westworld ended up touching on one of our biggest concepts.”
Hume isn’t a tank mowing down bad guys like Schwarzenegger. Much like a Philip K. Dick protagonist, he’s not immune to the forces around him that toy with his life. His victories often feel hollow in the face of impenetrable corruption. Total Recall 2070 is more a damning indictment of the excesses of capitalism and the monopolies who, through acquisition, own more and more of our lives. After a heated exchange with his wife in Episode 17, “The Bones Beneath My Skin,” Hume says, "There's people out there who can manipulate everything we see, everything we hear."
The series is also about Hume learning to accept artificial life. In the finale, after a showdown that ends badly, Hume says to Calley, "This is what we do right? We don’t understand something so we destroy it."
It begins with a total distrust, even hatred, after his original partner is killed by an android. It ends with a solitary tear rolling down his cheek for the android partner (spoilers!) he’s come to regard as his friend.
Had the show continued into a second season, the main storyline would have focused on establishing the humanity of the androids.
"The HBO series Westworld ended up touching on one of our biggest concepts,” Monterastelli says, “that ultimately, some androids were more human than the human beings in the show."
Instead, Total Recall 2070 exists as a single-season time capsule, while Monterastelli is hard at work on a new series called Sacrifice, which he describes as “a thriller set in the world of the music business.” But if you’ve always longed for a Blade Runner-esque series that takes a deep dive into Philip K. Dick’s universe and still has relevance today, then rejoice that this show exists in all its ‘90s glory.