Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, available now on Amazon Prime, is not an answer to Black Mirror. In fact, when Anonymous Content first approached showrunner Michael Dinner with the "crazy notion" of making a show out of Dick's short story collection, he wasn't even aware of the like-minded anthology series that would be his biggest competition. (He became aware later when dealing with Channel 4 in the U.K.)
"We were never really worried about them," Dinner told SYFY WIRE. "We didn't chase after them. We just said, 'Let's do an anthology show.'"
The approach was different – not a traditional writers' room, but an invitation to a select group of writers to "play in our sandbox," to write and direct (or be paired up with a director) an episode based on a story they loved. If they didn't have one immediately in mind, Kalen Egan from Electric Shepherd, the production wing of the Dick estate – "I call him the Crypt Keeper, like Tales From the Crypt," Dinner said – would help curate.
"It was like casting," Dinner said. "We cast the story to the writer, what might be in their wheelhouse. Kalen would say, 'How about I send them these five stories?' And if those didn't click, he would send another five, until they found one that spoke to them." There was a little bit of a tussle over some of the favorites – both Ronald D. Moore and Dinner wanted to adapt "The Hanging Stranger" (which became the episode "Kill All Others"). "We were wrestling over it, and I tried to be magnanimous, and I said, 'Why don't you do it?'" Dinner recalled. "So he fiddled with it, and then decided not to do it, but by that time, I had already moved on to 'Father Thing.' So we asked Dee Rees to do that one."
For this first batch, the team developed a dozen scripts, 10 of which were made into episodes. Some of them are faithful adaptations (or mostly faithful), and some are not at all recognizable from the original form, save for an extraction of a character or philosophical notion or an observation. "The Hanging Stranger," for instance, was about an alien invasion, and Rees' take has no aliens – but both rest on a central idea.
"Here's what we told the writers," Dinner said. "We said, 'Make this your own. Personalize it. Don't get lost in the spectacle. Feel free to strip away the genre aspect. Make it work as a human story.' We had an innate sense that it would all hang together because it's all Philip K. Dick, just filtered through our writers and directors, and all the stories deal with the great genre themes: What does it mean to be human, what does it mean to be faced with authoritarianism, what is the nature of reality. Where are we as humans, where are we headed, and where are we going to end up? Together, it's like a collection of movies, or an impressionistic novel."
Here's a look at the stories they chose and how they made them — spoilers ahead.
"The Hood Maker"
Based on the story "The Hood Maker"
This episode keeps the central premise, a world in which telepaths – called 'teeps' – are used as a government surveillance technique, and a mysterious figure is making hoods which block their reading abilities. But the adaptation changes the perspective, turning it into a different side of the original story by focusing on the partnership between a teep and a cop, and makes the teep, now named Honor, not the enemy but a much more sympathetic character.
"In the development of the script, they weren't partners, and there wasn't a real love affair," Dinner said. "But then we kind of leaned into that because we thought it would be interesting and Matthew Graham really embraced that." As with "Kill All Others," it also becomes a story about outcasts in society.
Based on the story "The Impossible Planet"
The original story was only eleven pages, but in David Farr's hands, "Impossible Planet" became nearly an hour — and a love story.
"There was something in the original story that David thought was extremely moving, and he took the ball and ran with it," Dinner said. "This guy, who is not the greatest human being in the universe, somehow finds his humanity through this old woman."
And that's how we get a completely different ending — in the original story, they land on the planet, Irma goes out and disappears; in the episode, Norton joins Irma, and Norton has a vision or a memory or something of Earth, with a younger Irma and some happy naked times before they die.
Based on the story "The Commuter"
This was the first script that Dinner received from any of the writers, and when he received it from Jack Thorne, he sat on the floor of his bathroom to read it from beginning to end. "My wife came in, and I was sobbing," he recalled, because he thought the Brigadoon story was just "so beautiful." It also works as a companion piece to "The Father Thing," but from the father's point of view.
"Jack brought his own family history into this one," Dinner said. "What the story is about, there is a character who has a son who is a mess, is prone to violence, and he gets a look into the future about what will happen, and it will end up badly for his son and the people who come into contact with him. If you have the chance to live a happy life, to opt out from the obligations to a son who has terrible problems, and will bring terrible problems to the world, would you? It's a really powerful piece. And really human, and timeless, in a lot of ways."
Based on the story "Sales Pitch"
This is perhaps one of the episodes that reads least like the story it's based on. "It's an odd take," Dinner said. "It's as if you're looking at it with one eye open and your head tilted."
In the original story, which was more about consumer pressures, a man and his wife are pestered by a robot who wants to sell itself and won't take no for an answer. Dick later thought that he should have written a different ending in which the man and the robot form a partnership and become friends. Perhaps that's where writer Tony Grisoni started — at the alternate ending — since the synthetic humanoid becomes a femme fatale and runs off with someone at the end.
Because Grisoni is a frequent collaborator with Terry Gilliam, Dinner thought Gilliam might be able to take this one on, but when he couldn't, Marc Munden stepped up.
"It’s a good collaboration," Dinner said. "It's so stylized, this weird, pulpy, film noir, futuristic, odd piece."
Based on the story "Exhibit Piece"
When Ronald D. Moore moved on from "The Hanging Stranger," he turned to a story about shifting realities. "Exhibit Piece" involved a future historian of the 20th century who gets caught up in events happening in that time period – is he imagining the past, or the future? Is it time travel, or has he gone insane?
Moore turned the transitional element into a virtual reality device (versus a 'time gate') and made some major changes to the characters (Terrence Howard, for his part, told Dinner that he had a great time because he got to play "a lesbian cop in the future"). "Ron was interested in a world where there were two different worlds existing, and you question, 'Which is the real world? Which is the not-real world? Who is the avatar? Who is the human? And does it really matter?'" Dinner explained.
Based on the story "Human Is"
A companion piece to "The Father Thing" and a flip side to "The Commuter," "Human Is" is also about replacement, but with a husband instead of a father. The key differences from the original are that the wife now has a higher position in society and the courtroom scene is more complex. Instead of just testifying that her husband is an alien being, she fails to convince the court; she comes under suspicion, and the alien (the 'Rexorian') offers to admit what he is, if they'll let her go free — at which point she's able to point out that someone sacrificing themselves for love is a human thing to do.
"Her original husband was an abusive piece of work, so her choice is not just personal," Dinner pointed out. "This is also about the human race, and improving it."
"Kill All Others"
Based on the story "The Hanging Stranger"
In the original story, a man notices a body swinging from a lamp-post and wonders why no one else seems to be bothered by this. He later learns, to his despair, that aliens have taken over the town and their way of testing to see if they missed anyone is by who gets upset by the hanging body of a stranger. (When he tries to escape to the next town, he becomes their hanging stranger.) Dee Rees took the concept of the lone voice of opposition becoming a target and made it political.
"Every day, this one becomes more and more relevant," Dinner said. "This became more focused on what we do to each other, or what the government does, which makes it more chilling. That is the world in which we are living now, and yet she wrote it before the election."
Based on the story "Autofac"
After an apocalyptic war, not much is left of humanity — and yet self-replicating robot-operated factories, or autofacs, continue to deliver goods to various scattered populations, even if the supplies are no longer needed. Dinner was a little worried about Amazon's reaction to that idea.
"We started developing it before Amazon was involved, and we were like, 'Oh geez, even the name of the company starts with an A,' but they read it, understood it, and didn't shy away from it," Dinner said. The core of Dick's story remains intact here, with the notion that companies need to create their own consumers to justify their reason for existence, "which is to churn out stuff."
"Safe and Sound"
Based on the story "Foster, You're Dead"
Crypt Keeper Kalen Egan co-wrote this cautionary tale with Travis Sentell, taking the germ of the original story about a kid who wants to have what all of his friends' families have (in the original story's case, a bomb shelter), despite his own family not quite believing that level of safety or security was necessary.
In this, Maura Tierney plays a mother railing against devices that offer connection at the price of losing personal freedoms – a familiar argument to anyone debating buying an Amazon Echo, for instance. "I don't think Dick was so much predicting what would happen as much as touching on the same obsessions about what we are going to become," Dinner said. "I think he was terrified we were losing our humanness, and it is something to be concerned about."
If "The Father Thing" is an Invasion of Body Snatchers story, then "Safe and Sound" is a Carrie story, Dinner said. At its heart, it's about a girl who desperately wants to fit in and a mother who has a belief system which makes the girl vulnerable to becoming a pawn "in a greater evil," Dinner said. "It's chilling, and it's heartbreaking."
"The Father Thing"
Based on the story "The Father-Thing"
When Dinner lost out on "The Hanging Stranger" battle, he moved on to a replacement story in the vein of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (Side note: Dick wrote his version first). Dinner, the father of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old, wanted to adapt a story his kids could watch and considers the episode a valentine to them.
"The heart of it is, what if you woke up as a child and realized that one of the two people you loved most in the world is a monster?" he said. "In a way, it's a horror movie. An extremely emotional, extremely Freudian horror movie."