Channel 4’s Philip K Dick sci-fi anthology Electric Dreams continues with Real Life, adapted by Outlander and Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D Moore from the short story Exhibit Piece.
At the heart of the story is the question: when you get too deep into virtual reality, how do you know which experience is “virtual” – and which world is “real”?
“Right from the start, I was attracted to the underlying theme of losing one’s self in another reality,” Moore writes in the introduction for the Electric Dreams short story collection. “I realized that I could take the core idea of this short and expand it out into a bigger exploration of both VR and the nature of reality itself.”
We should say upfront that this article contains SPOILERS for both the TV show and Philip K Dick’s short story. But if you’re wondering what happened in the original plot, read on.
Does the TV show follow the same plot as Philip K Dick’s original story?
Very little of the original story remains in the show, but you can see how the central idea of this Philip K Dick story inspired Moore’s new narrative.
In Exhibit Piece, we meet pompous George Miller. He lives in an authoritarian, technologically advanced future, but his mind is in the past. Miller works at the History Agency as an “academician” and studies the 2oth century, building exhibits including a perfect replica of a typical American 20th century bungalow in a Californian suburb.
After an argument with his superiors about his non-conformism, Miller hears someone in his exhibit and creeps into the house. But things get weird. He discovers the house is lived in by a 20th century housewife and her two sons, who seem to think he is their father.
Miller knows something is wrong, but he begins to remember his life in this town: his job in San Francisco, his boys Ted and Don, the Yankees, eating hot cakes on a Friday. Extremely confused by his new reality, he tracks down a psychiatrist and tries to explain his situation: “Good God, Grunberg. You realise this may be nothing but an exhibit? You and everybody else – maybe you’re not real. Just pieces of the exhibit.”
Grunberg, of course, thinks Miller is having some kind of breakdown, especially when he starts going on about rocket ships and robots and the future. But Miller comes to a realisation: “I’m beginning to get it. I’ve been putting up a false question. Trying to decide which world is real. They’re both real, of course.”
Retracing his steps, Miller finds the weak spot between the two worlds. His superiors on the “other side” order him to step back through into their world, but he’s not having it: he’d much rather be in his 20th century American world. And when they decide to demolish the exhibit to destroy his world, he tells them it won’t work because he has really gone back in time: “Your demolition can’t reach me. But seal me off, if you want.”
Victorious, George Miller goes home to his bungalow to read the paper and enjoy a beer. But it seems he has made a big miscalculation. When he unfolds the newspaper, the headline is: “RUSSIA REVEALS COBALT BOMB – TOTAL WORLD DESTRUCTION AHEAD”.
Can the demolition reach him after all – and if so, does that mean this world isn’t “real”?
How is Channel 4’s Electric Dreams adaptation different from the original?
Moore’s episode follows the central idea, but with some major changes.
The equivalent of George Miller is Sarah, a troubled police officer played by Anna Paquin. She lives in a futuristic world with her wife Katie (Rachelle Lefevre) but is falling apart after witnessing the massacre of her colleagues. Katie sees how much she is struggling and decides to gift her a virtual reality “vacation” to give her a break from her painful memories, but things soon take a dark turn.
In Sarah’s VR vacation she becomes George (Terrence Howard), the billionaire owner and founder of a successful technology company. But it soon becomes unclear – to Sarah, George AND all of us watching at home – which world is real and which world is VR.
George is suffering from the death of his wife Katie (also Rachelle Lefevre!) and experiences amnesia. There are other weird parallels between their worlds: they’re both on the hunt for the same criminal.
George uses his prototype VR headset to escape into Sarah’s world, where he can see (and have sex with) his dead wife Katie again (in a woman’s body, of course).
In turn, Sarah uses her VR “vacation” device to experience life as George, embracing all the pain she feels she deserves because of her survivor’s guilt. But which world is real?
Persuaded by his doctor Paula (Lara Pulver) that he’s been living a fantasy life as Sarah and needs to face reality, George crushes his VR device and severs the connection for good.
But it seems he may be the “virtual” version after all: in the real world, Sarah dies as Katie stands by, powerless to bring back the woman she loves.
Electric Dreams returns in two weeks on Sunday 29th October with Bryan Cranston’s episode Human Is