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Sunday, 17 September 2017

Channel 4's Electric Dreams: Does it fill the Black Mirror void?

Electric Dreams, a joint venture between Channel 4 and Amazon, is one of the terrestrial channel’s flagship shows for the autumn.  An anthology series filling the void of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror which the channel lost to Netflix,  each episode is based on a short story by the seminal science fiction author Philip K. Dick. The talent in front and behind the camera is different for each story, employing a seriously impressive company of TV and film’s big hitters. It couldn't possibly go wrong, could it?

The first episode, “The Hood Maker”, originally published in 1955, kicks off with a beautiful shot of a peaceful river, a young boy fishing with an older man and a completely out-of-place woman standing, fully dressed, knee high in water.  An effective first scene, this raises a lot of questions; Who is she? Why is she standing there? Is this going to be yet another 'start at the end' way of telling the story?

The story then jumps to the standard looking dystopian street scene where there is a protest taking place, immediately reassuring the viewer we are in Dick territory.  A palpable feeling of tension permeates the scene as the Normals are protesting against the government of the Free State using Teeps, humans with telepathic powers, to build a surveillance state and quell rebellion.


Emerging from  shadows, we see the strikingly beautiful Teep Honor (Holiday Grainger) with a disfiguring, but entrancing, scar on her face surrounded by riot police.  She starts singling out protesters based on their motivates for being there are and directs those around her on whom they should be focussing their attentions. We discover she is reading the members of the crowd and that if she lingers too long on one person they can “feel the tickle” according to her brooding companion Agent Ross (Game of Thrones' Richard Madden) wearing a suitably sinister hat at a dark and dangerous angle.

A figure in a strange hooded mask approaches the riot police and lights a Molotov cocktail throwing it at the law-keepers. Cue a standard street chase scene with Ross losing his hat, the hooded man thinking he's lost him but, alas, a knock on the back of the head and he is taken into custody.

Back at HQ, Ross meets privately with icy Senior Agent Okhile (Norma Dumezweni).  She has partnered-up Ross and Honor and, although her motives are unclear she obviously has no love for the Teeps or Honor.  Outside the meeting room other agents feel the same with Honor being treated with disgust and distrust. Honor, sitting outside the meeting room, looks just as uncomfortable with the officers as they are with her. This is clearly an uneasy alliance.  Ross and Honor are sent to interrogate the hooded suspect, showing that the Teeps can invade and violate minds to get information out of the head of a Normal with ease no matter the resistance shown in the show’s only genuinely powerful scene.


Later, we see how the hoods allow the wearer to block the assaulting Teeps and that they are being delivered all over the city - courtesy of The Hood Maker.  In the city, absolute power corrupts as Free State members go freely using their status to do as they will and escape from justice by using their knowledge as power, illustrated by Franklin (Paul Ritter) and his abuse of a Teep.

As the relationship between the two protagonists deepens Honor’s sense of peace around Ross becomes more pronounced a key scene explains, through historic recordings, how Teep children were experimented on to see how they can be used as weapons whilst Normals were being experimented on to find an effective way of controlled them. This acts as a catalyst for the two to return to Ross’ home where, after seeing a photograph which looks strangely familiar to the opening scene, Honor is given permission to read Ross and we see the fishing scene again.  They then go to bed where, afterwards, Honor uses Teep-Google to works out where the hoods are coming from. Ross tells her to stay where she is but predictably she follows as violence erupts all round them

In the final scene Ross finds the titular Hood Maker, and we discover Ross is the ultimate weapon against the Teeps - he can protect his thoughts.  As Honor discovers this she is devastated by the news and as rioting Teeps arrive Honor and Ross run to a door where Ross is locked inside the warehouse by Honor.  The Teeps destroy the Hood Maker and set the masks and warehouse on fire as Ross tells Honor her he truly cares and wants to run away with her.  Honor refuses and demands to read him where we flash back, yawn, to the scene in the HQ again and discover they have been paired together so Ross can discover all he can about the Teep rebellion and uprising so it can be crushed. As Honor breaks down Ross continues to plead we see the city in flames.

Ultimately this first episode of Electric Dreams felt a bit underwhelming. I suppose it's difficult stretch a 10-page short story to an hour long episode of television.  Matthew Graham’s teleplay felt neutered and lacked any real bite or investment in the world and those inhabiting it. The best science fiction always makes us think about our own humanity. It is never truly about the future, telepaths or hoods and in this story the real moral heart felt sadly amiss.  I didn’t believe in Ross and Honor’s relationship or the plight of the Teeps and in a story such as this that is a significant problem.

The piece is saved by the wonderful Holiday Grainger. Her vulnerability and loneliness of being reviled for something over which she has no control was always apparent and whenever she was on screen she completely shone and drew me in. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the rest of the cast. Madden didn't have much to do here and his Scottish accent was unconvincing, and that it is his own! Okhile and Ritter’s exceptional talents were woefully underused and the characters seemed pure exposition.

Perhaps with a sharper script and more rounded characters this could have been a real morality tale about the increasingly surveillance-centric world we live in. As it is I didn’t actually care as much as I should. It could have been much more interesting had the gender roles been reversed (in the original story the Teep is male) rather than relying on the “man in power manipulating a vulnerable woman” trope.

This is director Julian Jarold’s (The Crown, Becoming Jane, Kinky Boots) first foray into science fiction, which I think was pretty obvious as part of the problem was that the episode seemed unsure how to condense such a story with big themes into a short structure without losing any sense of threat or emotional investment. Perhaps a director with more experience in the genre would have wrung more out of the premise.

Having said all that, I will still be watching the next episode.  The production values were high and the there was enough good here to make me watch the next episode.  The anthological structure of the series means next week’s episode will be completely different and hopefully have more to invest in and care about.

Contributed by Graeme Thomson-Gold

                                 Electric Dreams Continues Sunday on Channel 4 at 9.00pm

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