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TV Review: Electric Dreams (Season 1, Episode 9)

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Electric Dreams’ penultimate episode is one which achieves great things with its world-building, but suffers from its oversimplified themes.

PKD’s original short story, Foster, You’re Dead is an anti-consumerist story set in the context of the Cold War. In ‘Safe and Sound’ however, the writers have taken the same core theme but built an entirely new and high-tech world around it.

Annalise Basso in Electric Dreams (2017)

Teenager Foster (Annalise Basso) and her politician mother (Maura Tierney) move from one of their fringe, non-compliant ‘Bubbles’ into a high-security, high-tech city. Foster’s mother is here to fight infringements on the rights of the Bubble colonies, and the East Coast propaganda that claims the Bubbles have been sending terrorists across to kill them; no one has ever seen an attack, except on the news.

‘Safe and Sound’ is an episode that would have worked fantastically as the pilot to a longer series in itself, thanks to the complexity and detail put into the world-building, a perfect balance of familiar and unfamiliar territory that is perfect for science fiction storytelling.

This latest instalment also deals with some timely and loaded subject matters – terrorism, fake news, radicalisation, the oppressive nature of state-sponsored surveillance technology, and a media with its own monopoly on truth.  

Its problem is it attempts too many heavy-weight themes into what is only a 45-minute segment of television. In trying to do too much, ‘Safe and Sound’ loses all nuance and fails to do justice to any of the big subjects it explores.

The episode’s initial ideas are pertinent and manageable in the allotted time: when does ‘security’ cross over into oppression and loss of privacy? Is comfort worth giving up freedom? Yet instead of honing in on these far more concise themes, the story devolves into Foster being groomed as a weapon of the state.

That’s not to say that an anthology series cannot handle big ideas. Like much of PKD’s work, the Electric Dreams episodes that have worked best have been the ones to tackle broad philosophical questions about the nature of humanity and consciousness.

It’s the bloating of ‘Safe and Sound’ with too many threads that unspools the entire story. The result is that complex themes become mere thriller fodder, and though it may well for an entertaining watch, by the time the credits roll it all feels very shallow. 

The writers trying to sell the audience on the idea that a teenager girl can be so easily convinced her mother was a terrorist and had been brainwashing her daughter to be a suicide bomber, ultimately fails because it gives so little credit to Foster’s agency.

Hence the need to add the backstory about her father’s own insanity and subsequent suicide, confusing her and making her question whether the voice in her ear is real or whether she is experiencing the same symptoms her father did. It’s a cheap swipe at a mental-illness angle, but it does succeed in keeping up the plot’s pace and the questioning of what’s real.

Yet even then, the episode closes with unnecessary flashbacks explaining how it all ‘really’ happened, that the audience simply doesn’t need. It would have been far better leaving in the element of ambiguity, rather than removing what few questions and little depth viewers would otherwise have been left with, in favour of heavy-handed preachiness about the dangers of technology.  

Science fiction is designed to bring its readers or viewers closer to the ‘truth’, to reality, to ourselves as a species and as individuals. ‘Safe and Sound’ loses sight of its truths when it tries to do too much, to dazzle with buzz-word themes and commentary whilst never delving deep enough into any one.

The latest of Electric Dreams is well-acted and directed, with great world-building and great potential, but sadly the themes it addresses are treated without nuance nor the complexity they deserve.

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




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