Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams wastes the roles it offers women

Contributed by
Jan 25, 2018

If you’re a fan of Philip K. Dick’s works, you probably have more than a few issues with Electric Dreams, the Amazon anthology series very loosely based upon his stories. Loosely based is being too generous, actually. They’re so far removed from Dick's original works that they’re nearing the parodical at this point, all homogeneous in the worst ways as the series does its best to mimic Black Mirror’s success. 

It’s safe to say each episode diverges in significant ways from the original works in nearly every case. So if you’ve read these stories, you’re likely wondering why the word “pizzled” is used in such a strange context in the episode “Autofac.” Or you may be curious as to why the episode “Real Life” has basically nothing to do with the original tale, “Exhibit Piece.” Those are good questions, especially since the works these episodes’ narratives were culled from are way more engaging. 

I was prepared after watching the series to say that, at the very least, its inclusion of multiple female roles was a nice positive. It’s not something I needed, since I was just looking for faithful adaptations of some of PKD’s works. Some of them don’t feature women in lead roles, or even at all, which makes it all the more baffling as to why they were shoehorned into episodes of Electric Dreams for less than compelling reasons, and then utterly wasted. 

Take “Autofac,” for example. Travis Beacham’s adaptation of the original PKD story features Juno Temple as lead protagonist Emily Zabriskie, a survivor of a war that apparently wiped humanity out entirely. She helps lead a group of other survivors in a charge to destroy a monolithic, Amazon-esque factory that operates all on its own, negatively impacting humanity, the environment, and other aspects of life. The effervescent Janelle Monáe stars as Alice, an android through which the Autofac communicates with its “customers” after a support request is submitted. 

Emily, we learn in flashbacks, used to sport a "prim and proper" look back before the nuclear blast, but she’s been transformed into a Boho Beauty™ that at least two male characters inexplicably lust after despite there being plenty of women left over in the community. Aside from being one of the most predictable episodes of the bunch, “Autofac” essentially places a woman in a role as “just one of the guys” (but smarter and prettier!) for most of the episode as she spends a good amount of time trying to prove herself as an intelligent and reliable member of the team, going so far as having to hide a relationship with another member of the community. For some reason. It’s implied that perhaps she had a history with one member of her “crew,” Conrad, as this scene demonstrates after she kisses boyfriend Avi in front of them. 

“So like, he’s uh, what, your boyfriend?” Conrad snarls. 

“My boyfriend,” Emily replies.

“Good, okay,” Conrad stammers in response as Avishai looks on when the group leaves on an important mission. Because the only thing that really matters here is who’s with Emily in the middle of an apocalyptic scenario, or at least that’s what the writer really seemed to want to drive home. It’s supposed to be funny. It’s not. 

Both Monáe and Temple play their respective roles well, despite the fact that neither exists in the context of the original story. But it seems, as the episode spends a lot more time on Emily’s love life and relationships with the men around her, that perhaps she was only written into the story for one reason: to give the guys someone to lust after. And how convenient, in the end, when the Big Twist is revealed, that she happens to be someone super important? 

I’m all for sex scenes. Bring them on! But this? This felt totally benign, unnecessary, with zero chemistry between the actors and zero reason to weave into the story beyond giving the series the prerequisite “adult” factor it so desperately wants. And thus, my experience was soured. Consider the fact, also, that none of this actually happens in the original short story, and you might begin to understand the problem.  

“Real Life” is responsible for some pretty egregious sins as well, none of which are as clunky as its expository dialogue. Anna Paquin and Rachelle Lefevre star as loving wives apparently rocked by Paquin's Sarah witnessing a massacre that claimed the lives of most of the police force she worked on. Katie (Lefevre) suggests that she take a “vacation” to take her mind off of things. 

But not a real vacation. It’s a headset that offers Sarah a chance at living another person’s life. It’s a prototype that’s not out on the market yet, Katie gleefully suggests, knowing her wife is under a massive amount of mental stress. Who wouldn’t be, after seeing their teammates murdered? Sarah is understandably hesitant to put the headset on, but she eventually does, and settles in for what should be a relaxing romp through someone else’s life. 

Except it’s not that simple. She finds herself in the body of a man named George (Terrence Howard) with problems of his own as he grapples with the recent murder of his wife, who looks extremely familiar. But that’s neither here nor there, so as not to spoil the entirety of the episode. The failings once again lie with the female characters, who again don’t even exist in the original story, “Exhibit Piece.” 

Sarah spends a lot of time in the “other world” as George, or, as the episode not-so-subtly pushes, perhaps George is spending a lot of time as Sarah through his own headset. As such, Sarah develops a real appreciation and concern for George’s life and his trials and tribulations, expressing them to Katie, who continually dismisses them as ridiculous and invalid, because the other world can’t be real, right? 

Rather than give the women, who are supposed to be in a loving and mature relationship, a chance to discuss Sarah’s obvious mental distress and the potential for another dimension or a world outside our own, Katie and Sarah get a sex scene later on in the episode. And after that, Katie still berates Sarah for the mere possibility that she could be seeing another life, with the very prototype of a product that she brought home and pushed her wife to explore with. It could be a touching representation of these women’s relationship, but the show again fails its female leads in several ways here. 

Electric Dreams is disappointing not just because of this, but many other of the decisions the writers made. I’ve only highlighted a few of the ways that it wastes its burgeoning potential with the female characters it chose to introduce. It could simply have followed the original stories’ narratives and had potentially been fine, but if you’re going to deal with roles for women like this, then why have them at all? If you’re interested in Electric Dreams or Philip K. Dick, then just stick to reading his catalogue of stories. You'll have a much more entertaining time from there.