There’s something about the anthology series format, particularly when every single episode is discrete in the manner of “The Twilight Zone,” that lends itself nicely to science fiction.
At the start of each new hour of Amazon’s “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” the viewer is put in the position of having to once again figure out the most basic rules of an entirely new world — the cultural, technological, psychological, and sometimes even extraterrestrial norms. We are forced into a profound disorientation where everything, even gravity, is up for grabs. Are driverless cars common in this place, are the people organic or synthetic here, is interplanetary travel an everyday event, are fear and sorrow strong enough to alter reality?
These episodes definitely aren’t comfort TV, where we watch the expected unfold expectedly across a season; each one is meant to be unsettling, provocative, and challenging as we question all that we see.
Like the much better but similar “Black Mirror,” and like TV’s sci-fi royal, “The Twilight Zone,” “Electric Dreams” pushes us to imagine a wide variety of far-out notions of the future. The beginning of each hour is, generally speaking, a bit of a thrill as everything comes out of nowhere and will most likely go somewhere unpredictable. Each of the worlds it builds, all based on Dick stories, looks and behaves somewhat differently, not least of all because the casts and the creative teams are different in every episode.
The result, though, is that the series is wildly uneven, with, among those I watched, some strong and affecting hours as well as some overly long, poorly designed, and thematically scrambled hours. Yes, “Black Mirror” and “The Twilight Zone” have their ups and downs, too, but not quite as extremely as “Electric Dreams.” There are episodes of “Electric Dreams” that are soggy with pretention and vagaries. It was an effort to finish them — something I can’t say about any episodes from the other two shows. While some of Dick’s fiction fares well as longer movies — “Blade Runner,” for instance, or “Minority Report” — I only wanted these episodes to be a bit shorter and more to the point.
One of my favorite “Electric Dreams” episodes was “The Commuter,” in which a train station employee named Ed finds that some travelers are going to a nonexistent town. Meanwhile, his young-adult son is falling into psychosis. The two facts become related for Ed, and they throw him into a psychological crisis that, at times, borders on the psychedelic. The anchor of the episode is actor Timothy Spall, who is eminently watchable as Ed. He’s the epitome of an ordinary man, but the more you look at his face, the more you see just how distinguished and unusual he is. Like the central character in many of these stories, Ed is left having to make a heavy choice. In “Human Is,” with Bryan Cranston, a wife must decide whether to live with her abusive husband or the man he becomes after being changed by an alien life form.
“The Father Thing” with Greg Kinnear is also rewarding, in a “Stranger Things” kind of way. A boy feels that his father has changed somehow — he’s not sure. Is it just that his father and mother are breaking up, and so his dad only feels like a stranger? Or is it possible that he has become an alien? On the other hand, despite the strong presence of Geraldine Chaplin as an elder who wants to charter a spaceship to return to Earth before she dies, the episode “Impossible Planet” was impossibly and unnecessarily long.
There are themes running through “Electric Dreams” that seem timely all over again, including totalitarianism, weaponry, and the power of advertising. And many of the stories double as psychological metaphors, so that, in “The Commuter,” the mysterious location on the train line could be an unmapped town or it could be a place of grief. We are asked to think about individual identity, about paranoia, and about the decisions we make. None of the episodes I saw, though, reached me as intensely as the stories of “Black Mirror,” which is, ultimately, about right now. “Electric Dreams” takes you someplace different; “Black Mirror” takes you there.
PHILIP K. DICK’S ELECTRIC DREAMS
Starring: Timothy Spall, Greg Kinnear, Janelle Monae, Geraldine Chaplin, Jack Reynor, Bryan Cranston, Anna Paquin, Vera Farmiga, Terrence Howard. On: Amazon, season one available Friday.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.