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TV Review: Electric Dreams (Season 1, Episode 3)


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It’s been clear that until now, Electric Dreams had been struggling to find its voice, fighting to get out from under Black Mirror’s shadow. As a result, the first two instalments relied heavily on the visual style that makes Philip K Dick’s adaptations so recognisably unique and appealing, thus losing some of the essence of what can make science fiction great.

The setting for ‘The Commuter’ was the most banal and perhaps unexpected of locations: Woking station. Ed Jacobson, portrayed superbly by Timothy Spall, seems trapped, with a dead-end job as a station worker on one hand, and an unhappy home life on the other. In particular, he struggles with his son Sam, who appears to be falling to increasingly violent, psychotic episodes.

It’s in the midst of this that Ed is approached by a mysterious young woman, played by Tuppence Middleton, who requests a ticket to the non-existent town of Macon Heights. Eventually, ceding to curiosity, Ed takes the train and discovers this utopian town in which all ills evaporate, his included; for when he returns home, his son’s existence has been erased.

This is some of Spall’s best work, and as an unlikely, most ordinary lead, he gives a moving and difficult performance that lends Electric Dreams its strongest story yet. This is science fiction at its most dutiful; it explores a truth that is too grim to be discussed under normal circumstances, yet impacts so many: some of the relationships we hold closest aren’t always good for us, so wouldn’t it just be easier to sacrifice them entirely?

It’s an episode that leads with intrigue surrounding Macon Heights, slowly shifting our utopian perception to reveal that this town is merely a refuge for the broken, both victims and perpetrators. It’s a patch for pain, rather than a healing solution, but for those seeking immediate relief it presents them with some version of happiness. The town could easily be a metaphor for a drug, a religious faith or a dream.

Macon Heights offers the perfect amount of unsettling strangeness, so that the audience can unravel its reality alongside Ed, involving the viewer in a way neither ‘The Hoodmaker’ nor ‘The Impossible Planet’ quite achieved. And despite the lack of ‘typical’ science fiction aspects, the episode serves some beautifully surreal scenes, such as the town’s inhabitants blindly throwing themselves out of the train like lemmings, or the houses that are revealed to be mere toy fronts.

The performances are all wonderfully powerful, from Spall’s obvious talent to Middleton’s alienesque role of angel or demon, and even Hayley Squires’ outstanding portrayal of a joyful waitress covering a heart-wrenching tale. This is greatly enabled through some fantastic dialogue, which gracefully avoids the genre’s common pitfalls. There will be no lengthy, forced exposition, or any uncomfortably artificial, disproportionate speeches.

‘The Commuter’s denouement may have been foreseeable, but the journey is so beautifully constructed that it fully satisfies the message. The ending’s morality never serves as a crutch for the story, but rather is its perfect culmination.

Outstanding performances, perfectly balanced dialogue, an engaging narrative, a setting that keeps an otherwise metaphysical story grounded, and a difficult question that challenges its audience. What more could one possibly want from great science fiction?

Electric Dreams airs on Sundays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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