Do I like Philip K. Dick? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Honestly, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to answer such questions about the subjective experience of artificial beings. But I know for certain that I like Philip K. Dick. Deeply admire, respect, fear, even… there are many words I could use to describe the way I feel about his imagination and vision. And I could say much the same about the film adaptations of Dick’s work, up to and including Blade Runner 2049, which wasn’t as visually overwhelming on the small screen after its release on streaming video but still as emotionally captivating in its narrative, pacing, score, and director Denis Villeneuve’s fidelity to, and expansion of, the original film’s use of color and monumental, future-brutalist architecture to tell a story.
Though he very much wanted to break out of science fiction and achieve the status of a “literary” writer—the distinctions in his day being much harder and faster—Dick’s fiction has provided the ultimate source for the cinematic sci-fi epic for several decades now, and shows little sign of falling out of favor. The commercial and creative question seems to be not whether Dick’s stories still resonate, but whether they translate to television as brilliantly as they do to film. Critical opinion can sharply divide on Amazon’s adaptation of Dick’s alternative history novel The Man in the High Castle (about a world in which the Axis powers triumphed), which might be “ponderous,” “boring,” and—in its second season—“the worst TV show of the year,” or “the second best show Amazon has ever made.”
How much this latter judgment conveys depends upon how highly, on the whole, one rates the quality of programming from that corporate mega-juggernaut threatening to overtake nearly every aspect of consumer culture. To say that I find it ironic that such an entity possesses not only one Philip K. Dick property, but now two, with its latest Dick-inspired anthology show Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, would be to grossly understate the case. The author who imagined an intrusive internet of things and a dystopian world where advertisements appear in our minds might also find this situation somewhat… Dick-ian (Dick-like? Dick-ish?). But such is the world we live in. Putting these ironies aside, let’s revisit the question: do Dick's stories work as well on TV as they do on film?
Find out for yourself. The first season of Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams is now streaming on Amazon (see the trailer above), and you can either purchase it by episode, or binge-stream the whole thing gratis with a 30-day free trial of Amazon Prime. Given that the series, which adapts stories from a collection of the same title, is not the product of one singular vision but a different creative team each time, you may agree with Evan Narcisse at Gizmodo, who writes that the episodes “don’t just vary in aesthetics; they vary widely in quality.” It has a star-studded cast—including Anna Paquin, Janelle Monae, Terrance Howard, Steve Buscemi, and Bryan Cranston (who co-produced)—and some impressive production values.
But Electric Dreams also has a significant challenge set before it: “to show both new viewers and conversant fans why Dick’s oeuvre matters, which is hard in a world where we’re eerily close to some of his fictional realities.” Indeed—as we ponder whether we might be characters in a simulated reality, our thoughts and beliefs manipulated by powerful companies like those in Dick’s unsettling Ubik—watching the show might add yet another layer of bewilderment to the already very strange experience of everyday life these days. But then again, “if you feel weirded out while watching, that just means the show is doing its job.”