When Channel 4 announced their new sci-fi anthology series Electric Dreams, many viewers were immediately reminded of something else – the broadcaster’s other sci-fi anthology series Black Mirror, which began on Channel 4 before being snapped up by Netflix for its third and fourth seasons.
Of course, Electric Dreams had a very different pedigree to Charlie Brooker’s dystopian drama: it’s based on several short stories by iconic sci-fi author Philip K Dick, and has behind-the-screen talent including Battlestar Galactica’s Ronald D. Moore, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s Jack Thorne and Mudbound’s Dee Rees in charge of individual episodes.
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However, given the similar structure of the two series, it was still hard not to see it as an attempt by Channel 4 to recapture some of the Black Mirror fan base.
So did they manage it? Well, not exactly. By the fourth episode (Crazy Diamond, starring Steve Buscemi) viewing figures slipped below one million for the first time, and remained low even for starry later episodes starring Anna Paquin and Bryan Cranston (the latter also working as executive producer for the series).
When the series returned after a break for four more episodes in January it was moved from its 9pm Sunday evening slot (where sci-fi Humans and Black Mirror had originally aired) to 10pm on Mondays, and the final instalments were aired with relatively little fanfare.
From a critical perspective, it’s not too hard to see why some episodes fell flat with viewers. For every functional story (like tonight’s Kill All Others) or genuinely intriguing emotional journey (like Thorne’s The Commuter), there were misses like Crazy Diamond or Impossible Planet, both of which went off on bizarre tangents far removed from the original story.
In Crazy Diamond, for example, I assumed that the tale of a man seduced by a robot woman who had a degenerative disease in her body, which could only be fixed by him stealing her a sort of new AI mind all while his house fell into a cliff was all material from Dick’s short story. However, in fact the original – featuring a robot salesperson who won't leave someone’s house – is far simpler. Why had a creepy sci-fi fable become so diluted?
In Impossible Planet, both print and screen versions follow two men who con an old woman into thinking they’re taking her to Earth, a planet now long lost to myth. But again, that simple concept is so warped and convoluted in the television version that all the power of the original story is lost.
So will there be a series two of Electric Dreams?
Channel 4 representatives were unable to confirm or deny any future episodes, but despite the issues with the series outlined above there may yet be some hope.
In the USA, Electric Dreams has been streaming on Amazon Prime Video and has attracted a more positive reaction than when it was airing in the UK.
How exactly that translates to success is another question – Amazon, like Netflix, does not release viewing figures – but it could be that Electric Dreams finds itself saved thanks to its reception in the States.
Humans, Channel 4’s other recent foray into sci-fi programming, was a co-production with US network AMC, and secured a third series in the UK despite falling ratings thanks partly to its success in the US.
Whether Channel 4 will want to keep co-producing the series with Sony and Amazon is another matter, of course, but there may yet be more Electric Dreams in the years to come.
Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams airs on Channel 4 on Mondays at 10pm