Arts episodic review

The subconscious of the Cold War era – revived

Philip K. Dick’s short stories given new life in new TV series

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George (Terrence Howard), Sarah's 21st century alter-ego.
Channel 4

I’m a huge fan of Philip K. Dick’s works, from his more famous works (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” adapted as the film Blade Runner, “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale,” adapted twice as films under the title of Total Recall, “Minority Report,” which has a film under the same title, and “The Man in High Castle,” which has a television show under the same name), to his brilliant, but far less appreciated works, like “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” “Psi-man Heal My Child,” and “Second Variety.” Imagine my excitement, then, when I heard that there is a new television show based on these lesser-known short-stories! Each episode is a different adaptation of a self-contained short-story, so you can watch/read these in any order, Black Mirror-style.

This will be a weekly segment, going in-depth with each episode; comparing the original text to the televised story, analysing themes and reviewing each episode as they stand alone. So at this point, I should say that if you love thoughtful sci-fi, pick up a collection of PKD, pull up Amazon Video, and absorb this author’s mastery of the genre.

The first episode (in the Amazon ordering) was “Real Life”, based on the short story “Exhibit Piece”.

Overall, the episode was a pretty good intro to the style and generally unsettling feel that is PKD’s stories. The music was reminiscent of Blade Runner: 2049’s modernization of Vangelis’ iconic, future-noire feel; it really supported the distorted and mysterious mood. Aside from some clunky dialogue, which attempted to close up some of the loose ends that are quite uniquely featured in PKD’s works, the story kept moving, giving concise information when necessary, showing everything that you needed to know, and making the viewer invested in the world by the five-minute mark.

While not particularly true of its print counterpart, the modernizations provided an interesting, fresh interpretation of the 54-year-old story. The devil, here, was in the details. PKD was a master of subtlety and careful, concise details. Few words were spent on unnecessary, redundant, or overly-explanatory dia- or mono-logues. This paradigm is difficult to make into an interesting television show, but the director did a good job capturing the minimalism of the book, all things considered, even if it meant an awkward monologue, occasional throwaway lines, and some clichés.

Personally, I really enjoyed both the book and the episode, so I highly encourage you to go watch the episode and/or read the book before continuing reading because:


As a refresher, the episode takes place in the not-too-distant future. Our protagonist is lesbian super-cop Sarah, a survivor of a recent ambush from the mob. As a form of escape, she is offered a new form of VR which builds the “game” from the subconscious.

Cut to the 21st century, now following a freshly-concussed multi-billionaire software designer and vigilante, George. In vague flashes we find out that his wife, who is suspiciously similar to Sarah’s wife, was brutally and publically murdered when he didn’t give in to kidnapper’s demands.

The remainder of the episode is a coupling of periodic switches between worlds with eerie similarities between the two. Unsettlingly, these worlds not just imitate each other but foretell events, making the line between what is real and what is a simulation.

Eventually, Sarah is pressured in both worlds to choose what is real and what is not, resulting in a rather permanent choice.

The book, however, has quite a different tone and setting. The story is about George Miller, a 22nd century historian studying — and recreating — the 20th century, whose exhibit mysteriously comes to life. However, he finds himself oddly accustomed to the archaic ways. He finally chooses this alternate reality over his own. He escapes the threats of destruction of his exhibit from his boss in the 22nd century only to find that his adopted 20th century world in danger of nuclear annihilation.

Evidently, the book and episode are quite different in their plots, but the pair are almost in unison thematically. Although the mechanism is different in each case the idea is the same: When presented with two worlds, each chose the trials of the their fantasy world over what appeared to be a perfect life in their real lives.