Electric Dreams: Pompous Storytelling in 52 Minutes or Less

In order to fill the hole left behind by Black Mirror, Channel 4 (in the UK) has started airing a TV series called “Electric Dreams”. Following the same format as Black Mirror, each episode is a stand-alone story and in the case of Electric Dreams each episode is based on a short story written by Philip K Dick. For those unfamiliar with the name, you may be familiar with films such as Blade Runner, Minority Report, The Adjustment Bureau and TV shows such as The Man in the High Castle which are all based on stories written by him. The purpose of this post is not to critique the work of Philip K Dick as he is undoubtedly a very talented author and an incredibly creative individual. I do however have some issues with these TV adaptions and two episodes in, the likelihood of success for the rest of the series is doubtful.

 

It should be obvious but just in case it wasn’t: there will be spoilers within this post. I can’t say that it will be a great disappointment as anything that can be spoiled was obvious to begin with and where things can’t be spoiled it is because there is nothing to spoil. I’m going to start in the most obvious place: episode 1. The Hoodmaker kickstarts this new series and follows a police detective, agent Ross. Perhaps more recognisable as Robb Stark, Richard Madden does an excellent job as far as I am concerned. In this world, humanity has a clear divide between those who can read minds and those who can’t. What I could only view as a clear parallel to internet privacy (and privacy in all matters technological) the police have started using these telepaths (marked with a birthmark-style discolouration on their skin) in order to better control crime and deal with the rising demonstrations and revolts that seem to be taking place within this city. The public are against a new bill which gives the police the power to use the telepaths during interrogations and to aid in finding criminals due to the fact that the distinction between a criminal and a member of the public seems to be too thin to see. So we follow this agent Ross and his newly allocated telepathic partner as they try to track down someone who has been making hoods which give the wearer the ability to keep their thoughts hidden. Think Magneto’s helmet in X-Men. Ultimately the episode ends with telepaths killing people who stand against their quest to be the ultimate power on Earth. The “twist” (if you can call it that) is that agent Ross has been born with the ability to naturally block telepaths from reading his mind. I can’t say it came as a shock but ultimately his partner has to decide whether to help him escape the room that has just been set on fire or to just let him die. She reads his mind and finds out that he has been racist towards her kind and the episode ends without us knowing whether he was saved or not.

 

My issue with this episode is not the story line itself as I actually did find the concept incredibly interesting. My issue is that they crammed the entire thing into a 52 minute long episode. In that time we are supposed to notice the gradual relationship building up between agent Ross and his partner, something that we don’t really get to see happen over time and instead seem to be somewhat instantaneous. We also don’t get to fully explore the uprising that is taking place out-with the main storyline. All we get are tiny glimpses into an interesting world. Trying to force these stories into hour-long segments is not only ridiculous, it’s impossible. Black Mirror did a much better job in using 90 minutes as the general runtime of their episodes as it allowed for a more in-depth character exploration. This is even more apparent in the second episode.

 

Impossible Planet, the second episode in the series follows inhabitants of a distant planet. We learn early on that Earth was destroyed by a solar flare (I think that’s what it was) and that these planets are basically ran by a franchise of sorts. Long story short, a deaf old woman named Irma and her robot companion RB29 hire two tour guides (slightly above the role of bus tours) to take them to Earth. The two guys, Brian and Ed decide to fake the journey and to take her to a similar sized planet instead. Along the way strange things seem to happen such as Irma telling stories of her grandparents and showing Brian a photo of a man that looks exactly like him standing next to a woman that looks like a younger version of her. These two people are apparatnely Irma’s grandparents. The episode trickles on with the relationship between Irma and Brian growing more peculiar and with RB29 showing anger towards the crew and concern towards Irma. The episode ends with Brian and Irma stepping onto a destructive and poisonous planet (the fake Earth) and ultimately seeming to run out of oxygen and die (while seemingly hallucinating the story that Irma had told about her grandparents swimming naked together).

 

I found this episode to be completely ridiculous. Not only was it facing the exact same issues as the first one (such as lack of time to tell a decent story) but it also leaves the ending far too open. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE a show or film that leaves you thinking. Any of you who bothered reading my Westworld post know that I got completely hooked on the tiny details that led to a larger explanation. I more often than not find it completely unsatisfying when a show or film just throws the explanation in your face without making you work for it. So maybe the story in this episode just went completely over my head and if that is the case then I’m happy to admit that. However, I couldn’t see any real solution or explanation for what happened and any ideas I’ve since come up with just feel like I’m grasping at straws:

  1. A) Maybe these two characters live the same lives over and over again. Perhaps they die and are reborn with the same memories buried deep away in their mind somewhere. Brian died long before Irma and she had to find him and lead them down a path that kills them both in order to be reborn again at the same time but she wants him to remember the same way that she remembers.
  2. B) What I think is perhaps a darker theory but also a better and more realistic one is that Brian had already come to terms with the fact that him and his girlfriend wanted different things. His life is grim, he clings onto this hope of advancing through his job even though he realises that he’s going nowhere. You see at the start how little effort and enjoyment goes into his work as a tour guide which I think adds evidence to this fact. When given this opportunity to earn more money, he slowly begins to envy this old woman who has spent the little bit of time she has left just hoping to get one glimpse at the planet her family came from. She knows she’ll be at peace when she sees it and yet he can’t come even close to such a feeling. I think that when Irma shows him the photograph the man doesn’t actually look that much like him but his mind, so desperate to find something to cling to, makes him see himself in that photograph. Irma (either intentionally or not) manipulates Brian into putting everything he has left into her ending and her story. Brian knows all too well that going out onto the planet is suicidal and yet he does it anyway because to provide this woman with this one last wish gives his life some sort of meaning that he just wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Neither of these is a particularly strong case and another explanation would be that there really is no real explanation. Perhaps this is just a love story that shows you that millions of miles of empty space and dying homeworlds isn’t enough to get between true love. That is why I’m not a fan of this episode. There just isn’t enough evidence to go on in order to have a truly interesting storyline. It’s one thing to leave the story a little open to interpretation or to have storylines hidden within other storylines but to have no real storyline and to just leave the creation of the story up to the audience is just lazy.
So I ultimately think that this series is going to fail. It’s been given good ratings so far because people want it to be good and it should have been good. You have a great cast acting out stories by a great author but the lack of time in which to tell the stories is ultimately going to be the downfall of the series. If you’re going to try and make a dark and gritty TV show that makes people shudder but also makes them think then you need more than 52 minutes to be able to do that. These stories take place in worlds very different from our own so you are having to set up literally every part of these world’s from scratch without the entire episode feeling like a setup. Either that or you need an episode that is mostly setup and character development followed by another episode that explores the story. Imagine how much better either of these episodes could have been if there was another whole episode left to explore the story.  I think it is about time that we realise that throwing a big-named cast into a show should not be a guaranteed way to make it a success. Black Mirror did it for their latest season and ultimately that combined with the Hollywoody feel just made the episodes feel less intense and gripping (for the most part). In the first couple of seasons you had a few recognisable faces but ultimately none of the people were likely to sway your decision to watch the show. I’ll put my hand up and admit that when I saw Richard Madden and Bryan Cranston in some of the trailers, it made me want to watch the show. It puts us in this mindset that surely these actors wouldn’t sell out for a TV show with poor writing, right? We then enter into the show with this expectation and ultimately the whole thing can be a bit of a let-down. I’d rather have an amazing storyline with slightly rougher acting than having amazing actors relaying a shit storyline.

 

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