The Twilight Zone was a cultural phenomenon, and ever since TV producers have been stealing the formula and making bad TV with it. Though, to be honest, I don’t get the feeling that Amazon’s Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is trying to be The Twilight Zone. It’s more ripping off Black Mirror, another British-made sci-fi-centric anthology show about “topical” social trends and gadgets that was itself ripped off The Twilight Zone. Unfortunately, neither Black Mirror nor Electric Dreams are insightful enough (nor are their twists surprising enough) to match up to the original.
Electric Dreams’ hook is that the ten episodes are all adaptations of Phillip K. Dick short stories, most originally published in the 1950’s in magazines like Amazing Stories and Imagination. This description is highly misleading, though, and it only becomes truthful if you surround “adaptation” with about 15 quotation marks, thusly:
These are not faithful is what I’m saying. At least if the various descriptions of the original stories are anything to go by (they published an Electric Dreams anthology of the original stories, but I lacked the time to read them all before going to press). Some episodes are more or less faithful, others simply threw out the story entirely in favor of something new, and yet others added new material to expand the story to fill an hour-long TV episode. (Many of the names are changed to boot, making it difficult to tell which was which on casual viewing.) It doesn’t matter which method any given story might have used, because nearly none of the episodes are worth watching.
“Real Life” (based on “Exhibit Piece”): Episode 1 is about a machine that lets you dream an entirely different life, so you can get a vacation from your own. A lesbian supercop from the near future plugs into the machine and dreams she’s a billionaire black man genius inventor in the present who’s pulling a Bruce Wayne and he also jacks into a different dream machine (which he invented) and dreams he’s the lesbian supercop who’s also dreaming she’s him. Despite the oddity of the description, it’s still pretty much by-the-numbers sci-fi: the future is Blade Runner, without the Replicants, the present is the present, but with the SQID’s from Strange Days, and neither of the two knows who’s real or not: “OH NO, AM I REAL OR IS HE REAL OR AM I HE DREAMING I’M ME? AAAAAAAAGH!” This is one of the best of the series, but the plot has been done before and better, and twist ending is obvious and derivative of pretty much any Dick-inspired cyberpunk tale. This ep was strong at first, but quickly faded.
“Autofac”: Kinda a reverse Terminator: After nuclear war blows the world all to hell, the Automated Factory keeps delivering sneakers and other stuff that nobody needs or wants anymore and is pumping out pollution and using up all the resources building all these things that nobody needs or wants anymore. Its delivery drones are friendly, but its security drones are Terminator lethal, and nobody knows how to shut it down. It’s got a triple cross ending, and a twist that I didn’t see coming, but the twist makes everything in the episode not matter any more. Starts strong, ends with a whiff.
“Human Is”: Earth is screwed, they’ve got 6 months of breathable air left, and they’re raiding other solar systems for a rare mineral to help them filter it. A right bastard of a colonel flies off to save the human race, and comes back (after a near-death experience) a kind and caring man. “OH NO” the dictatorship cries, “HE’S BEEN TAKEN OVER BY THE ALIENS WE LATER FOUND OUT SNEAKED ONBOARD!” “HE CAN’T BE,” the wife says, “HE’S SO GOOD AT DINNER AND OTHER STUFF. SEXY STUFF.” And there’s a twist. Starts strong, dips here and there, goes full-on HBO (but with pasties) at one point, and has an okay ending. Not super. (Also see “The Father Thing” and “K.O.A.”, below, for retreads of these elements and themes. They couldn’t even make ONE SEASON without becoming self-derivative.)
“Crazy Diamond” (“Sales Pitch”): This episode is OFF THE RAILS. It has nothing to do with the original story, and what they replaced it with is utter nonsense. A company builds sorta-humans but with pig DNA, only most of them don’t look like pigs, they look like regular people, but they don’t come alive until you inject a “Quantum Consciousness” into them, only they die after a few years, only you can inject another “Quantum Consciousness” into them and they don’t die but have the same mind even though the consciousness has died, and… it’s a mess. (Also, all the food they buy wilts that same day but the ground is only an inch deep before you hit metal so you can’t grow anything yourself and the shoreline is crumbling for no reason and people fall into the sea with their houses and drown on a regular basis.) Brutal, ugly, cynical, it’s awful people being awful to each other, the kind of story that’s pretending to be a deep and thinky Aesop’s Fable for the 21st century, only it’s boring and sucks and has no coherent moral.
“The Hood Maker”: In the crumbling, dirty future of someplace (maybe Earth), the “teeps” (telepaths) and “normals” (psychopaths) hate each other and are on the verge of holding a widely-popular race war both sides are eagerly planning and preparing for, when one Teep reaches out across the racial divide and joins the normie police force to hunt down normie terrorists and learns a heartwarming lesson that normies are all bastards who should be burnt alive. (Which actually might count as a twist ending nowadays.) Some genuinely clever and insightful bits—if you have access to telepaths, police will use them promiscuously and this gets a bit ugly; the teeps talk to each other mentally, so there’s an information grapevine any teep can tap into for info; a normie figured out how to make a hood teeps can’t teep through, which scares them but also offers them some peace and quiet from ALL THESE PEOPLE MENTALLY SHOUTING SO LOUDLY—but these clever bits are put into a miserable and stuttering story that ultimately goes nowhere and is depressing and hopeless. SO much potential, wasted. Worth watching for the good worldbuilding bits, but only for those.
“Safe and Sound” (“Foster, You’re Dead!”): Prepare to be preached to. The country—America, of course—is divided into two zones, the wealthy “everyone’s life is constantly recorded” half, who is terrified of the terrorism they blame on the poor “keep your hands off my guns” free-thinking half. A 16-year-old girl from the free zone, the daughter of a diplomat, gets shipped into Wealthy Zone High School Hell (where they rich boys rape anyone not wearing a recording device, because they won’t get recorded and rich people, am I right? (But they would be recorded by their own recording device and NONE OF THE EPISODES THOUGHT ANYTHING THROUGH. IT’S ALL “FIRST DRAFT = SHOOTING DRAFT” AROUND HERE AND IT’S LAZY AND OBNOXIOUS.)) The daughter is maybe going nuts, but maybe she isn’t and maybe she’s catching actual terrorists when she does the things the voice emanating from the sunlight and tree bark and ants tells her to, and SURPRISE, it all goes to pieces and a cynical and grim “twist” is trotted out at the end. Yay for fun fiction!
“The Father Thing” (The Father-Thing”): I’m not saying it’s aliens, but actually I’m saying it’s aliens. They come down and take people over and leave their skin folded up in the bottom of trash cans like a t-shirt that’s spent a month at the bottom of a pile of laundry and the kid is the only one who knows—other than the guy who jumps off the roof—and he sets fire to a bunch of egg pods in the woods that are growing clones, only the aliens aren’t clones, they’re bugs in people’s heads who take you over, only they don’t take you over, they suck up your body in the form of bright light and make their own body from the light, only they aren’t light they fell from the sky in meteors and also maybe the rain. PICK A LANE, JERKS. THAT’S FOUR DIFFERENT TYPES OF BODY SNATCHERS IN ONE EPISODE AND NONE OF THEM MAKE ANY SENSE TOGETHER. The kid kills some aliens, and sends a defiant message on the Internet that he’s dropping out of 6th grade to hunt aliens full time SO THEY BETTER WATCH OUT. Also, the writer is obsessed with baseball. Oh, and it ends with a #Resist for the 6th grade alien hunters to use, because #Trump amirite?
Look, I didn’t write these, I’m just telling you about them.
“Impossible Planet” (“The Impossible Planet”): A 342-year-old lady wants to go to Earth, only it’s been blowed up, and the guys she hires to fly her there on a spaceship are conning her and taking her to some other planet that’s less blowed up (and one of the guys is dreaming THOSE kinds of dreams about her), and they get there and it’s a poisonous hell planet only they go for a stroll and take off their helmets anyway and instead of dying in agonizing pain as their lungs hemorrhage blood they go 600 years back in time to Earth for no reason and boink and live happily ever after and the other guy dies on the poisonous hell planet. Sorry, SPOILERS.
“The Commuter”: The only decent episode in the entire series, only you had to sit through 8 hours of mostly trash first. It suffers a bit from first-draft syndrome, and is cosmologically internally incoherent but it’s about a dad whose son suffers from psychotic episodes, and he sometimes attacks his mom, and the dad goes to a perfect little town that doesn’t actually exist and he comes home and his wife is HAPPY FOR ONCE, only the price is too high and so he opts for the bleak future because family is everything. Not cynical, not brutal, not hopeless, and the main character is a thoroughly admirable man who turns away from seeming bliss to live a life of hard work and suffering, to serve his family and make them happy. A damn fine tale, and I don’t understand how it made it past the Enshittening Board who turn all modern entertainment into garbage.
Let’s back up for a second. Episode 3: Guy who looks human who might be an alien. Should we kill him or not, because the shapeshifters are here to kill all of us. Ep 7: Dad IS an alien, and the kid can tell who is an alien just by looking in their eyes (no seriously) and it’s time to posse up and hunt and kill all the people who look like people but aren’t people. Now on to…
“K.A.O.” or “Kill All Others” (“The Hanging Stranger”): It’s the future in Mex-US-Can, the mega-nation of unified North America (official motto: “MEX-US-CAN! YES US CAN!” (but also probably “Brawndo has what plants crave!“)) and The Candidate of The Only Political Party is here to invest in our schools, build a better life for everybody, and also Kill All Others. Now, anyone can be an Other, they look like everyone else, so society goes nuts and starts hunting down and beating to death random people, and if you object YOU’RE AN OTHER SMASH HIS FACE WITH A BRICK and also they hang Others from billboards, because YES US CAN! The main character kind of objects to government-sponsored vigilante mob murder of random innocent citizens who’ve committed no actual crime and—What a twist!—things don’t go so well for him thereafter. It’s not a good episode. (And I left out the A.I. solid-light hologram sexy ads who talk to you and are also available for snuggling if people buy enough of the right products. “Does she know she’s an ad?” Who cares when she looks like THAT.) Just watch They Live. It does paranoia better plus it has Keith David and Rowdy Roddy Piper.
In conclusion: “The Father-Thing” is about “people who behave differently are really aliens, so KILL THEM MOTHERS.” “Kill All Others” is “only crazy people tell you to KILL THEM OTHERS so don’t do it!” And “Human Is” is about “hey, sexy shapeshifting alien who might be here to kill all humans, MAKE ME A MOTHER!” You may think that this is wildly inconsistent, and it is. Then again, every episode in the series is wildly consistent within itself, so this is a perfect encapsulation of the series as a whole.
NOTE: Some of you may think this review is a little long. Counterpoint: I suffered through TEN HOURS of this tripe, and now it’s your turn.