It seems a bit to soon to write-off Channel 4’s new anthology show based on the writings of Phil Dick, everyone’s favourite speed-addicted master of sardonic pseudo-mystical SF.
The show’s titles are gorgeous, based on the old Gollancz SF Masterworks and Harpercollins book covers. The cast includes Benedict Wong, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Timothy Spall and Lara Pulver. The prospect of Bryan Cranston (starring and producing) in a teleplay of ‘Human Is‘ seems to be a Philip K Dick fan’s dream come true, the script being based on one a candidate for the PKD short story most beloved by his devotees. (I should know, I’m one of them). Cranston is captivating in anything, so I can’t wait to see him star in the story of an abusive and cold husband who returns home one day from surveying an alien world, a changed man. (How should his long-suffering wife deal with her husband being taken over by an alien entity, which is nice to her?)
The opening story, ‘The Hood Maker’ was a Poundland Bladerunner about a Man in Black with a psychic sidekick, who bordered on being an Ethereal Pixie Dream Girl. It felt flat, a bit too SyFy and not enough like Phil’s SF, which could veer towards the gloomy and portentous but more often than not is surreal, saturated in understatement, heartbreaking but witty at the same time.
Dick was paranoid but he knew he was paranoid, so he put it into his work. Tonally, this first installment of the PKD-inspired anthology seemed to be trying too hard to be ‘Black Mirror‘, Channel 4’s current SF anthology hit: mordant, mopey and arch. Philip K Dick has his gloomy moments, to put it mildly, but his work is also bizarre and there’s a sort of masochist joy to be had immersing yourself in his worldview. ‘Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams’ should feel more like an updated version of the first season of ‘Twin Peaks’, or ‘Fight Club’.
Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ has been, if you’ll excuse the pun, a fillip for intelligent SF on TV. Yet in its recent seasons Brooker seems to have got tired of the wild parkour leaps of imagination he took early on (the pig incident…) and fallen into – an occasionally genuinely depressing – formula. Some episodes of ‘Black Mirror’ now seem more like log lines from the brilliant Twitter parody account, which also ran out of ideas in 2015.
Back when he reviewed television for the Guardian, one of Charlie Brooker’s funniest columns responded to the then-trending trope in TV drama documentaries of using CGI to simulate increasingly unlikely real world disasters (if… terrorists attack New York with smallpox… if… terrorists blow up a train in a fuel crisis as a plane crashes… BBC2 did a drama shock doc ‘if…. women get all the jobs’, forgetting that the ‘Two Ronnies’ beat them to it by over 20 years).
Brooker suggested that a more thought-provoking approach for television to take with CGI and drama documentaries would be to realistically simulate utterly implausible scenarios (‘If… They Don’t Ban Ringtones’. ‘If… It Starts Raining Hammers’, ‘If… Dogs Learn to Play the Guitar’). Arguably, the ‘Sharkanado’ franchise has picked this ball up since and run with it.
Philip K Dick’s work seems contemporary because he was writing about fake media events, fake news and fake realities, from the 1960s.
(“in Disneyland there are fake birds worked by electric motors which emit caws and shrieks as you pass by them. Suppose some night all of us sneaked into the park with real birds and substituted them for the artificial ones. Imagine the horror the Disneyland officials would feet when they discovered the cruel hoax. Real birds! And perhaps someday even real hippos and lions. Consternation.”)
I’d like to suggest that if Channel 4 really wants to push the ‘Black Mirror’ tone of ‘Electric Dreams’, it asks for Charlie Brooker’s ball back and puts a Philip K Dick spin on it…
1. Cosmic Trigger Warning
Earth receives confirmation of the existence of a highly advanced extraterrestrial civilisation in the form of a 280-character complaint about the Voyager space probe’s heteronormativity.
2. Day of the Shouting Grass
After he plants a variety of mouthy alien grass which won’t leave things alone, down on his luck sex robot repairman Putney Swope discovers that a spate of bad online reviews of his business were authored by his own lawn.
3. Moscow Face Lift
A future war is fought by AIs pushing beauty tips on social media at the enemy’s civilian population. This causes a craze for unemployed young women to contour their “fake-up” in such a manner that their faces resemble the result of a mandrill fucking a marionette.
4. Micro-aggressions Inc.
Disillusioned salesman of virtual reality false dawns, Sidney Fonebone, is recruited by a shadowy agency. It promotes sales of iPhones by running a network of operatives who make mildly disparaging remarks to people in public places, lowering their self-esteem, immediately before the targets see an advert for one of the phones. Since the job comes with a dental plan, Sidney takes it.
5. Chin Up, Angry Birds
A rogue scientist releases a gene which causes all birds to become stupid and fly into one another. The human race, ashamed at its folly, adopts a bird each when nice lady scientist Mirna Crnčević invents nanobots which plant a skullcam and two-way communication device into the planet’s entire avian population. Forgetting about the internet apart from to say to their adopted bird “left a bit, right a bit” and “watch out for your mate”, as they view their symbiotic soulmate traverse the open skies, humanity collectively acquires a new sense of perspective. Soon all wars, disease, world hunger and poverty are things of the past, as humans and birds together glide into a new golden age of peace, tranquility and hyper-accelerated technological innovation. Which, as Mirna comes to realise, was the rogue scientist’s plan all along.