It’s fitting that “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” a handsome new anthology series from Amazon, exists in several realities at once.
It contains homages to classic space operas of the past, as well as bulletins from our jittery and surveillance-obsessed near future. And like much of the American populace at this surreal moment in time, many installments of “Electric Dreams” engage in debates about the nature of truth, and wonder if our robotic companions are ominous threats — unless the consciences that arise from their circuitry contain the seeds of our salvation.
And what is it, exactly, that we’re saving? Dick’s fictional works still resonate decades after his death partly because of the generous spirit at the core of his curiosity. His stories continue to be turned into movies and films (“The Man in the High Castle,” “Blade Runner” and its sequel, to name a few) not just because they contain hardy, freaky premises that can, in the right hands, make for stunning visuals and adventurous storytelling.
Beyond that utility, Dick’s fiction often explores the idea of whether the label “human” should describe a far larger array of beings than the self-sabotaging but sometimes spectacular meat sacks that litter this planet. However weirdly Dick’s visions unfolded in his work — and however they’re explored in the generally thoughtful “Electric Dreams” — the correct label for any entity exhibiting compassion, forethought and altruism doesn’t necessarily need to be “human.” When reading Dick, it’s hard not to arrive at the idea that the goal for all — past and present, metal and mortal — should perhaps involve appending a vowel on the end of that word: “humane.”
And from a less philosophical perspective, one hopes “Electric Dreams” will not end up as a blip on Amazon’s streaming service. Clearly, the studio spent big on this series, which, along with the similarly stylish and paranoid “Black Mirror,” is part of an exciting anthology revival in TV. But it’s difficult not to wish that the “Electric Dreams” creative team had put the episodes in a different order: The two best installments arrive near the end of the run, when sci-fi aficionados may still be on board but casual viewers may have wandered off.
The first installment, “Real Life,” blends cop procedural and virtual-reality ruminations and boasts a fine cast, but it travels somewhat threadbare story pathways and has a problematic ending. The lively second installment, “Autofac,” is much more successful and stars Janelle Monáe as a customer service interface for a faceless and unwittingly genocidal corporation; her survivalist counterpart is played by the delightful Juno Temple. Either woman, and either character, could anchor her own TV series.
The core elements of “Autofac” — which involve robots, corporations and rampant capitalism gone awry — are generally quite familiar, but for the most part, “Electric Dreams” doesn’t attempt to revolutionize the sci-fi anthology format or go to wildly inventive places. It offers an array of meat-and-potatoes space- or tech-oriented scenarios, and “Autofac” is one of its representative successes, in that the energetic execution of a solidly told story and the skills of a very good cast prevail over a slight sense of thematic déjà vu.
Those short on time should skip straight to “The Commuter” and “Impossible Planet,” which are both superb. “The Commuter,” a showcase for the terrific range and empathy of Timothy Spall, has the quietly unsettling atmosphere of a classic “Twilight Zone” scenario. In it, an everyman succumbs to the lures of a fantasy life that winds up being less attractive than it first seems, but the deft script by Jack Thorne mixes in notes of lyricism and hope.
“Impossible Planet,” from “The Night Manager” scribe David Farr, often feels like a lost episode of “Star Trek”; it’s set hundreds of years in the future, but it has a timeless quality. This lovely parable embraces romance, grief and the shifting sands of memory in a story that is both elegantly contained and overflowing with emotion. The main cast members — Geraldine Chaplin, Jack Reynor and Benedict Wong — gel brilliantly, and special credit goes to the designer of the creepy robot on board the episode’s interstellar pleasure craft.
Like a good short story, a successful anthology episode must efficiently accomplish its goals without scrimping too much on world building, depth or characterization. It’s a difficult goal to achieve, but those three installments make it look easy. A few other entrants were satisfying, even if they occasionally seemed to need a narrower range of objectives or a little more room to expand.
“Human Is” gives viewers the prospect of Bryan Cranston as a buttoned-up, brusque space general, and Cranston and Essie Davis, who plays his wife, turn in admirably nuanced performances. “The Hood Maker” concludes a bit abruptly, but it sets up a thoughtful premise that could use even more follow-through, given the chemistry between the future cop played by Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones” and Holliday Grainger’s watchful, wary telepath.
It’s entertaining to see “Westworld” and “Borgen” actor Sidse Babett Knudsen play a redheaded film noir dame in “Crazy Diamond,” which takes place in a suburb that manages to be drab, futuristic and anxiety-provoking all at once. “Kill All Others,” “Safe & Sound ” and “The Father Thing” have twists or endings that are fairly easy to guess, but each offers performances that make it worth a look.
All in all, “Electric Dreams” contains more hits than misses and a couple of real gems. Let’s hope that it is the shape of things to come: a sign that television is going to invest heavily in science-fiction storytelling that is diverting, eye-catching and dramatically pleasing.
Individual episodic credits (my five favorite installments are in bold type):
Director: Jeffrey Reiner
Writer: Ronald D. Moore
Cast: Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Rachelle Lefevre
Director: Peter Horton.
Writer: Travis Beacham
Cast: Juno Temple, Janelle Monáe
Director: Francesca Gregorini
Writer: Jessica Mecklenburg
Cast: Bryan Cranston, Essie Davis, Liam Cunningham
Director: Marc Munden
Writer: Tony Grisoni
Cast: Steve Buscemi, Sidse Babett Knudsen
“The Hood Maker”
Director: Julian Jarrold.
Writer: Matthew Graham
Cast: Richard Madden, Holliday Grainger
“Safe & Sound”
Director: Alan Taylor
Writers: Kalen Egan, Travis Sentell
Cast: Annalise Basso, Maura Tierney
“The Father Thing”
Director, writer: Michael Dinner
Cast: Greg Kinnear, Mireille Enos, Jack Gore
Director, writer: David Farr
Cast: Geraldine Chaplin, Jack Reynor, Benedict Wong
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Jack Thorne
Cast: Timothy Spall, Tuppence Middleton
“Kill All Others”
Writer, director: Dee Rees
Cast: Mel Rodriguez, Vera Farmiga, Sarah Baker