TV anthologies are firmly in hot rotation again with the popularity of Black Mirror and the continuing American Horror Story franchise, so it makes sense for creators to look back at some of the greatest short story writers of the last century as inspiration for new anthologies.
One of the seminal voices of speculative sci-fi fiction is Philip K. Dick, who wrote hundreds of short stories about how tech might intersect with humanity, and many other topics. Some of his lesser known fictions are now at the heart of Amazon Prime's celeb-packed anthology series, Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams, which drops all ten episodes today.
One of the series executive producers is Ronald D. Moore, a Star Trek alum who rebooted Battlestar Galactica on SYFY to great acclaim. He also wrote the episode "Real Life," a futuristic meditation on guilt, happiness and self-flagellation starring Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard. Moore spoke with SYFY WIRE exclusively about the original text, the episode's very specific look and what's at the heart of the story.
Philip K. Dick's stories are still incredibly relevant. What's exciting about taking his stories and exposing them to another generation in a different medium?
Ronald D. Moore: The thing that Dick returned to again and again in his work that was eternal relevant are what does it mean to be human and what is the nature of reality. And I don't think those ideas are ever gonna go out of fashion 'cause they just still consume us all the time. What is the nature of reality? Can we believe what we're seeing? What if reality was different? How do we define being human? What does it mean to be human and what is at the human heart, and is there a soul, or is that all there is? Can an artificial being be intelligent, is intelligent the definition of humanit,y or is it something deeper?
These things are pretty broad ideas and we can just go at them millions and millions of ways in Dick's work. He could always find those themes running through it so the stories do feel kind of evergreen when you go at them.
Did you know the story you wanted to adapt from the start?
It was kind of an ongoing process. I think I was drawn towards another short story at the very beginning, and then I saw that was more limiting and didn't quite land in the same way. Stories would bubble to the surface because he wrote over a hundred and something of these things. We would look through them in groups. You would skim through them and then read some more in-depth. I read this one at a point where I was really getting into the possibilities of virtual reality and that technology. It struck a chord with me that this was an opportunity to delve into something I was already interested in. I kind of laid out a marker saying, "Okay, that's the one I want to do. Let's set that aside."
What story did you choose and why?
It started with just the notion of what's real. The original story, which is called "Museum Exhibit," is about a caretaker. It's in the future and he's caretaking an exhibit of suburban America in the 1950s. He goes into the exhibit itself to take care of it and kind of finds himself there for real and starts to believe he really belongs there. But when he comes back out again, he's not sure which world is real. I was really struck by that because, again, it tapped into things about virtual space.
I started from there and I got this idea of wouldn't it be interesting if he thought he was two different people? One who's a woman and one who's a man. And then I started going, 'Well what if they both think that they're legitimate and the game here is for the audience to not know which one is real but question the nature of reality?'
Was that your entry point narratively?
Yes. It all spiraled from there. But it was, all right, let's make each of these legitimate. And also make each of them slightly heightened so that you could argue the point either way. Each of them felt like a grounded universe, and yet there were elements in each that also felt somewhat like in video games. So that you could sort of argue both sides all the way to the end. And the trick was to structurally set it up to keep the audience guessing and to make them think they finally got the answer, and then actually pull the rug towards the end.
As a storyteller, did you ever lean into one reality, or the other in order to hit your thesis more strongly?
Yeah, there were early versions of the story around that we never answer the question and we went out in an ambiguous way. Ultimately, I kind of felt like that was unsatisfying. It felt like the audience has been playing this guessing game all the way through the show. And it just felt like a cheat at the end to not give them an answer. So then it became a question of which one is real, and why that one? What are we saying? The ones you pick, what are they both struggling through emotionally? And at the end what are we saying and why are we taking this journey at all?
I started thinking about what the Anna character was going through, her whole backstory with the police thing, and starting to realize it was her. That she was the one that would ultimately, in the end, was gonna foreclose the other reality. She's gonna foreclose the real world and stay in a fantasy. Why would she do that? And then it kind of became obvious. It's guilt. It's misplaced guilt and she hasn't sinned and she hasn't done anything wrong, but there's a part of us that feels a need to punish ourselves even in the absence of something we've done wrong. I thought that was an interesting take, and a slightly different one than what I usually play in traditional storytelling. I thought that was a cool way to go.
You got a little bit of an opportunity to do your riff on the Blade Runner aesthetic with Anna Paquin's reality. You've created some incredible visual landscapes in the sci-fi sphere, but here you got to touch a little on what's so seminal to Philip K. Dick. What was that like for you?
I definitely had a lot to say about it. There was a specific idea about her future that felt like this is a tip of the hat to Blade Runner. The cop and the flying car and the skyscrapers with neon ads ... I didn't want to replicate it exactly, I didn't want it to feel as dystopian as Blade Runner was. But I wanted, as soon as you saw it, to recognize it as a Philip K. Dick world. And that's part of the argument to make that a video game.
You can argue that that world doesn't exist because look, it's obviously an homage to Blade Runner. It's like they say it in the script, "It's a lesbian and a flying car in the future." It's a sci-fi cliché. So it was doing a couple of things at once. A trick towards Philip K Dick and Blade Runner and also sort of subverting it by saying maybe that's the reason it's not real.
Lastly, was there a favorite scene as the writer that was exactly what you were hoping for, or better than what you hoped?
I think probably the scene where Terrence's character breaks down. With the shock of the loss of his wife, and realizing what that all meant to him. It just had an emotional punch to it that I was hoping for but you're never quite sure you're gonna get. It just really came together.