HIGHLIGHT OF THE WEEK
Sunday Electric Dreams 9pm, Channel 4
GENERALLY speaking, films and TV shows based on books are never really like the books. Certain authors’ most passionate fans refuse even to see the adaptations, so as not to sully the visions in their minds, or wince at how the those who adapted it, grasping after literal representation, fail to translate the writing itself – including the spaces between the lines. Equally, of course, in some cases, the movies are miles better than the books ever dreamed of being.
Authors themselves, mind you, are often pragmatic about anyone with a budget seeking to option their work. If you’re trying to make a living from writing, anybody offering to pay you is always welcome. And it’s worth always bearing in mind the words of the famous anonymous writer who was once asked if they worried a movie version had ruined their book. To paraphrase: “Hasn’t changed a damn thing about it. My book is still sitting on the shelf over there.” With Philip K Dick, whose stories are ostensibly the basis for Channel 4’s new sci-fi anthology, Electric Dreams, there is a fittingly weird spin on this dynamic: the less like his writing the screen versions are, the closer they fit
his worldview. A man of sometimes fragile physical and mental health, who pushed that fragility with an amphetamine habit, Dick’s brilliant sci-fi is paranoid, sometimes schizophrenic. Beyond the social critique the stories often offer, he deals in existential, metaphysical, or just plain cracked ideas of reality being formed of different, interlocking, overlapping, or conflicting realities: unseen levels, layers and motives. You thought it was one thing, but it was another.
The differences between the two best movie adaptations of his books are profound: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner is all about the hard, sharp, grubby detail of its world. By contrast, Richard Linklater’s A Scanner Darkly creates a softer, disassociated stoner dreaminess. Yet, unalike as they are, and as unlike Dick’s writing as they are, both are brilliant, both unexpectedly moving, and in both you glimpse the shadowy author, slipping between layers.
In terms of unseen motives, it’s hard not to suspect the existence of Electric Dreams has less to do with veneration of Philip K Dick, and more with Channel 4 wanting a series of hip, spacey, showy sci-fi parables to plug the hole left when Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror moved to Netflix. Much cash has been spent on sets and actors (always-welcome faces like Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston and Timothy Spall feature in future weeks).
But in trying to stick to Dick while also trying to do something else, the first episode, The Hood Maker, feels hampered. Set in a retro-future, it’s a tale of the social unease stirred by the emergence of a new telepathic strain of humanity, and the unrest when the State begins using them as surveillance tools, probing the minds of “normals”.
Written by Life On Mars’s Matthew Graham, it wanders from Dick’s original, but only to try to become, in look and plot, a cash-in Blade Runner remake. As similarities pile up, deliberately and clunkily, the idea is to remind you so much of Scott’s movie that a final twist away from the Blade Runner narrative will register as a surprise, tragic, shock. Its success is debatable, although Holliday Grainger is excellent as the central telepath.
Yet, again, the author’s spirit still peeks through, as an odd, melancholy mood begins to settle. And things might improve. It’s an anthology, after all: new writers, new directors, new faces every week. Worth surveillance. And, you know, the books are still on the shelf.
Monday Letters From Baghdad 9pm, BBC Four
OIL is the trouble of course. Detestable stuff …” A television debut for this evocative, entirely fascinating and artfully constructed documentary on the extraordinary life of Gertrude Bell (1868-1926). An adventurer, archaeologist, author and general Englishwoman abroad, Bell was a contemporary of TE Lawrence (the “Of Arabia” fellow), and in at the construction of modern Iraq – but she understood more about the spirit and tensions of the Middle East than most of the men around her, or who have followed. Split between archive footage (including Bell’s own photos) and reconstructions, the film is constructed around extracts from some of her hundreds of elegant, no-nonsense letters, briskly narrated by an unseen Tilda Swinton. Elsewhere, the likes of Rachael Stirling and Helen Ryan contribute to dramatised sections. All this, and some excellent camels. It’s complemented by a repeat of Rory Stewart’s 2010 documentary The Legacy Of Lawrence Of Arabia (10.30pm).
Tuesday Doctor Foster 9pm, BBC One
PHEW. After last week’s night ramble – when Gemma Foster, on wine, went roaming around back gardens, scared the erotic bejesus out of a teenage boy while asking him for more wine, then got further out of her head down a club and tried to have sex in the toilets – things settle down. Nah. Only kidding. Tonight is off the rails, but the loudest screaming you hear will be yourself shouting, “Make it stop.” Sadly, caught wide-eyed in the middle, Gemma’s vulnerable young son, Tom, is careening off the rails, too. The only thing wrong with Doctor Foster is that, sometimes, it still seems to think it has serious points to make about life and relationships. It doesn’t, and this is the only thing keeping it from becoming a wild twisted thing in the poison tradition of The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil and Bouquet Of Barbed Wire. If they ditched the po-faces, this could be almost as good as a movie based on the life of Tracy Barlow.
Wednesday Famalam 10pm, BBC Two
IT’S comedy pilots season at the BBC at the moment. There have been a lot of these one-offs over the past few weeks, but an encouragingly high proportion have looked like they might be worth revisiting for a full series. This new sketch show is another case in point. The top line is that it’s an all-black troupe – Vivienne Acheampong, Samson Kayo, Gbemisola Ikumelo, John MacMillan, Roxanne Sternberg – and some of the skits are particularly pointed, playing on the casting tropes of sci-fi movies and British TV dramas (Midsomer Murders and Poldark both get a slap). Elsewhere, there are enthusiastic parodies of Nigeria’s low-budget “Nollywood” movies, represented here by the excellent “Shola Settles The Score.” In other places, though, there’s just some general good nonsense, like a detective with a Snapchat addiction. Like every sketch show ever made, it’s hit and miss, and some gags can go on a bit too long after they’ve made their point. But there are enough ideas and energy and daftness zinging around to carry it through.
Thursday The Good Place Netflix
THE first season of this bright, smart and progressively stranger sitcom became one of the most chattered-about shows in the US last year, and Netflix has now picked up both the first and second series for a UK debut. Created by Parks And Recreation’s Michael Schur, it focuses on Eleanor (Kristen Bell), who wakes to discover she’s died, and, as reward for all her selfless good deeds while alive, has been sent to spend eternity in the candycoloured Utopia known as “The Good Place”. Thing is, Eleanor soon realises there’s been a mistake: they’ve mixed her up with somebody else. In fact, she was a terrible person, and now must try and hide her identity and become genuinely good, in order to avoid being dispatched to “The Bad Place”. Anchored by the great Ted Danson as her heavenly mentor, Michael, it’s good fun, but what pushes it up a notch is how the series begins changing into something else, with faint elements of fantasy-mystery recalling things like The Prisoner, The Truman Show and even the recent Westworld.
Friday Sisters In Country: Dolly, Linda & Emmylou 9pm, BBC Four
IT’S a repeat, but those voices are worth hearing again and again. In 1987, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt joined forces to record Trio, an album that went against the prevailing polished-up, synthesiser-heavy trends of mainstream country, to instead deliver a cool, clear jolt of old-time mountain music, drawing more on bluegrass and gospel roots. With new contributions from all three singers, this 2016 film explores how they came out of very different styles: Tennessee girl Parton steeped in the oldest Nashville traditions; folkie Harris emerging out of 1960s Greenwich Village and then learning a more modern, radical LA version with her mentor Gram Parsons; Ronstadt pursuing a Californian pop take on classic country that made her the biggest female star in the mid-1970s USA. When they got together, though, the harmonies ran together like water in an Appalachian stream. KT Tunstall narrates. It’s followed by Country Queens At The BBC (9.55pm), running from Tammy Wynette and Bobbie Gentry to Taylor Swift.
Saturday Black Lake – 9pm, BBC Four Later…With Jools Holland – 9pm, BBC Two
IT’S maybe time to give up the ghost with the Swedish series Black Lake, an attempt at a crime-horror hybrid that’s not really doing much of either. After last week’s double bill, thanks to a likeable lead performance and a lot of location atmosphere from the isolated ski-lodge setting, it seemed intriguing enough. But as it crawls through the clichés toward the halfway point tonight, it’s becoming clear that this is the material of a 90-minute teen-slasher movie (or a 20-minute Scooby Doo episode) being drawn painfully out to eight bloody hours, just because we’re all supposed to prefer “box sets” these days. On BBC Two, Jools Holland’s Later is making a rare Saturday-night appearance, in order to celebrate its 25th year on the air. In the studio for the boogie woogie birthday party tonight are big beasts including Van Morrison, Paul Weller and Foo Fighters, joined by familiar faces like KT Tunstall, Dizzee Rascal and Gregory Porter, among others.