Sci-fi master’s dark world explored
A new series brings to the screen stories from the writer of Blade Runner, Minority Report and The Man In The High Castle, writes Michael Idato.
As a science fiction anthology series, shot on two continents, with different writers, directors and actors each week, Electric Dreams might sound like a tough pitch for television were it not based on the works of one of the genre’s great masters, Philip K Dick.
His name may not be recognisable, but some of his stories – he wrote around 120 during his prolific career – have already been adapted for the big and small screen, with notable titles such as Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report, A Scanner Darkly and The Man In The High Castle. For a guy the average cinemagoer probably hasn’t heard of, Philip K Dick isn’t doing too badly in the box-office stakes.
‘‘It’s an interesting question why so much of his material has been successfully adapted into sort of iconic pieces of cinema,’’ Electric Dreams producer Michael Dinner says. ‘‘There is an external quality to a lot of his writing, it always kind of plays a little bit like a movie in your head, at least I find as I read it.’’
Unlike some writers who internalise the narrative in the mind of the protagonist, Dinner says, Dick has a style which naturally lends itself to visual expression.
‘‘Some writers are inside of a character’s mind, and it’s very much about their emotions and their internal psychology. Dick is more external, how the world is impacting the character and how the character reacts to that.’’
Development on the new series – fully titled Philip K. Dick’s
Electric Dreams – began almost six years ago, when Dick’s estate, Electric Shepherd, approached Dinner with a view to developing a project. ‘‘They said, ‘why don’t you read the stories and pick one’ and I called them up and said, ‘how about all of them?’’’ Dinner says.
As a child, Dinner says, he had a particular fascination with the science fiction and horror-lite anthology series The Twilight
Zone. ‘‘Even though my parents didn’t encourage me to do so, I’d sneak around and watch it. I thought, it would be great to do this great anthology from one of the great American genre writers.’’
From there Dinner connected with Ron Moore, as both had a relationship with the Sony studio, where Moore was producing Outlander. A genre veteran, Moore’s most notable science fiction credits are two of the many iterations of Star Trek, The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine.
Dick’s recurring themes are dystopian futures, fragility of identity (or worse, false identity crafted by third parties) and alternate universes – but Moore is cautious about using those themes as a window into Dick’s mind.
‘‘That’s very hard. He was a very complex, very complicated man and I don’t even know that his writing really illuminates him completely,’’ Moore says. ‘‘He’s left an enormous legacy in terms of his output but I couldn’t begin to tell you very much about who the man was, just based on his material.’’
Dick did have a ‘‘remarkable creative instinct,’’ Moore says. ‘‘A lot of it was dealing with his own demons and his own subconscious and experimentation in various ways and screwed up things in his own life. He expressed it through his work, but I’m not sure it’s the kind of work that then leads to an easy definition of the man.’’
Dinner adds that Dick’s obsessions were universal: ‘‘Who are we? Where are we going? How did we get here? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be an individual faced with the bulls... you’re faced with in the modern world? What’s the nature of reality? And that’s all filtered through his point of view,’’ he says.
The biggest challenge of the series is that, as each episode restarts with a new setting, characters and narrative, each of the 10 episodes effectively becomes a 60-minute movie. And they come with a stunning pedigree of cast, including Bryan Cranston (who also co-produces), Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Steve Buscemi and Greg Kinnear.
‘‘Some take place today, some 30 years into the future and one takes place 1000 years in the future on a spaceship,’’ Dinner says. ‘‘It presented a lot of challenges because we’re starting from scratch with every one. That’s also part of the fun of it.’’
The series was also filmed on two continents, in Britain and the US. ‘‘We made it complicated [that way] and I don’t know that we’d ever do that again,’’ Dinner says. ‘‘Two film cultures, different points of view, taking this material, filtering it through different directors’ and writers’ eyes. It’s all been both difficult and really, really great.’’
Dick’s works are in some ways antithetic to the more optimistic world of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, where Moore worked for many years, though even Star Trek dabbles with darkness, notably in its ‘‘mirror universe’’ stories and in Deep Space Nine‘ s Federation-at-war narrative. The audience’s appetite for light and dark is to some extent informed by their sense of the world in which they live, and Moore believes it is our natural instinct to look to a place contradictory to our own. ‘‘I think that wherever you are, your fantasies, and your entertainment tends to be about where you’re not,’’ Moore says.
The original Star Trek series, he notes, was born in the mid1960s, a time of social conflict.
‘‘The Vietnam War is at its height, the civil rights movement is on the march and society is tearing itself apart in a lot of ways,’’ Moore says. ‘‘What Roddenberry did was say, ‘you know what, it’s all going to be OK, we’re going to survive, we’re going to conquer war and poverty. The future is bright’.’’
In the 1980s, in stark contrast, during the US Reagan administration, when the country was in a more optimistic mood, Moore says, the audience’s appetite turned to movies like Rambo and Blade Runner. ‘‘[At such times] we sort of have the luxury of thinking those darker thoughts,’’ he says.
And 2017? ‘‘I don’t know where the hell we are,’’ Moore says.
‘‘I’m not sure if this is a good time, [or] a bad time,’’ he adds. ‘‘It’s a deeply confusing time, so I don’t know what we’re looking for in entertainment.‘‘
Two jaded space tourism employees take up an elderly woman’s request for a trip back to Earth in The Impossible Planet, in the Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams series.