It’s impossible to watch Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams without thinking of the enormous dystopian elephant in the room – Black Mirror, the smash-hit sci-fi anthology series about the dangers of technology that was created for Channel 4 in 2011 by Charlie Brooker but snapped up exclusively by streaming service Netflix in 2016 after the broadcaster was outbid for the third series.
“Black Mirror couldn’t be a more Channel 4 show,” now-departed Chief Creative Officer Jay Hunt said at the time.
“We grew it from a dangerous idea to a brand that resonated globally. Of course it’s disappointing that the first broadcast window in the UK is then sold to the highest bidder, ignoring the risk a publicly owned channel like 4 took backing it.”
Given this history, it’s hard not to see Channel 4's new commission – a ten-part anthology series of sci-fi parables based on the short stories of Philip K Dick, featuring high concepts and big stars (some of whom, like Benedict Wong and Tuppence Middleton, have actually appeared in Brooker’s show) – as an attempt to claw back some of that magic (other C4 series like Humans are also in the same vein).
So how does Electric Dreams stand up? Well, perhaps in order to avoid too many direct Black Mirror comparisons early on, the first episode in the series (called the Hood Maker and written by Life on Mars co-creator Matthew Graham) takes place in a world more or less free of technology, a sort of nightmare vision of the 1970s (though actually hinted to be our future) where telepaths exist and are oppressed by the non-telepathic Normals into slavery.
Strike's Holliday Grainger stars as one such mind-reader (or Teep) called Honor, paired with Richard Madden’s somewhat progressive cop Agent Ross to investigate human agitators who resent the Teeps’ ability to peer into the sanctity of their minds, laying out fairly plainly the parallels with modern-day surveillance culture.
In the course of their investigations Honor and Ross discover that a mysterious figure is manufacturing telepath-proof hoods, allowing Normals to dodge any mind-reading probes. And without giving too much away, the rest of the adventure is a diverting if slight take on human rights, trust and prejudice elevated by its winning leads (Grainger in particular is excellent as the tortured Honor, while Madden was born to play a hardboiled investigator) and grungy aesthetic. So far so good.
But of course, this is an anthology series – and unlike The-Netflix-Show-That-Must-Not-Be-Named (which is mainly written or inspired by Brooker) there are very different creative teams in place for each episode of Electric Dreams. This means that the quality and tone can vary a little from episode to episode, with the second instalment press were shown (Tony Grisoni’s Crazy Diamond, which will actually air fifth in the series) proving to be a strong example of this variation.
Put simply, Crazy Diamond is a much less appealing watch than The Hood Maker, with the premise of Dick’s original short story Sales Pitch (a commuter is driven mad by a marketing robot) largely jettisoned for a plot about a man (Steve Buscemi’s Ed) having some sort of midlife crisis when he meets an enticing synthetic woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) who tries to involve him in a heist.
After starting promisingly the whole thing ends up a bit muddled, from its plot (how on Earth does Ed hope to get away with stealing from his job when his own fingerprints are used to get into the building?) and tone (half film noir, half torpid relationship drama) to an infuriating lack of internal sci-fi consistency. Why would a robot with a failing body need a new mind to stop the malfunctions, rather than a new body? And why would a new mind fix all physical problems while resulting in no mental change?
And given that Crazy Diamond takes place in a futuristic, technologically-advanced world complete with GM pig-slaves, rapid coastal erosion that forces pod-like dwellings further inland and food that decays at an accelerated rate to encourage consumption (as you may have noticed, there are a LOT of ideas thrown at this one), unflattering comparisons to Black Mirror are more easily drawn.
If Black Mirror tells simple human stories through tech-specific sci-fi parables, Electric Dreams seems to be giving us sci-fi stories just told from a human perspective – not necessarily a bad thing, but harder to warm to over a ten-episode series (six now, four early next year).
Still, this doesn’t mean the series isn’t worth a watch – as noted, the episodes seem to vary wildly in tone and quality, with only a few common themes and motifs connecting them to each other (the conflict between “normals” and other types of humans is referenced in both stories, while mysterious scars also seem to link at least a couple of the episodes), so it’s hard to judge the entire run based on these two episodes alone.
And there are plenty of creative heavyweights including Outlander/Battlestar Galactica creator Ronald D Moore, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child scribe Jack Thorne and series executive producer Bryan Cranston (who also stars in episode six) involved in the upcoming episodes, and whose sci-fi visions I’m excited to see onscreen, especially given the fertile material (Dick’s short stories) they started out with.
So no, Electric Dreams might not quite hit the highs of Black Mirror – but that’s like complaining when every new cop series isn’t The Wire or Happy Valley. And if we can get more serious sci-fi storytelling into the mainstream, that can only be a good thing – even if it’s not quite the dream ticket we've been hoping for.