Like so many great creative projects, Channel 4’s new ten-part sci-fi anthology series came about thanks to a degree of good luck. It began when production company Anonymous Content, and Philip K. Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett, approached a producer, Michael Dinner, with an idea. “They explained that [Dick] had written 120-plus short stories, and asked me to start reading them so that we could pick one and make a series out of it,” recalls Dinner. “So I started reading them and I called them up and I said “Okay, how about if I told you I want them all?”
Dinner’s inspiration was in part the stories themselves, of course, but also a childhood memory. “When I was a kid, my parents didn’t want me to watch The Twilight Zone and I’d watch it anyway and what I loved was that every week it was a little movie, and you would buckle up and go along for the ride.” What if each episode of the series told a different story, with a completely different cast?
It was a captivating idea, but not necessarily an easy one, according to Hackett. “It was conceived of… when anthology was a dirty word, there wasn’t the appetite or opportunities in streaming and it wasn’t the golden age of television.” But while the idea was far from straightforward, she and Dinner set about pursuing their vision with gusto. They recruited Bryan Cranston, who happened to be moving into an office below Dinner’s, and Ronald D Moore, one of the industry’s sci-fi titans. Both were excited to come on board, thanks in no small part to their enthusiasm for Dick’s short stories.
It was a theme that became even more pronounced as they began to look for creative talent to bring their project to life. “What we were greatly surprised by was the level of talent that were already fans of Philip K. Dick’s work – and that really was our lure… We had people coming to us right and left,” says Cranston. Moore agrees: “Everyone from the writers, directors, cast as soon as you call them and say you’re doing a Philip K Dick anthology series everybody jumps up and says, “I want to be part of that.”
Finding the perfect story to suit each writer was simply a matter of sending a bunch of stories to each one. “Almost always they’d come back with one that they really loved, and they’d take that one on,” recounts Cranston. “In some cases, they liked several, and we’d have to discuss which one was the most appropriate. Very rarely, a writer would come back and say “I like him, but none of these connected with me,” so we’d send three more. And eventually, we’d find the one.”
The authors were encouraged to pursue their own vision, and bring their own version of the story to the screen. It was an approach that Hackett, as custodian of Dick’s work, was keen to emphasise. “You’ve got to have trust in the people you partner with; at least that’s my approach. It doesn’t happen often that I have to say that’s betraying the story or a core value. As far as I’m concerned my job is to support and encourage and occasionally redirect, but not typically, and that would be the strongest word I would use.”
During casting, once again, the quality of the material meant that finding actors to get involved was not difficult. Hackett says: “It’s remarkable and has exceeded my expectations in terms of who we might attract to the project. It’s humbling, it amazes me. Every time I see a piece of press about it and read the line up again its mind blowing.”
It was just as well that finding talent was not a problem, as it was a project beset with complications, as Moore reveals. “Because it’s an anthology there’s no standing sets or locations or cast which means you’re literally doing 10 little movies and that’s very complex on a TV production schedule and budget… With something like this you’re starting over every single episode from zero, new location, new cast, new art director, new director and it’s just on and on and on.” “To make it even more complicated,” says Dinner, “we shot on two continents – we shot half of them in London and half in Chicago, so it’s been a pretty massive undertaking.” Bryan Cranston concurs: “It was one of the most difficult things that I have been involved with in my career.”
What is it about Dick’s work that has endured, that has seen so many adaptations for screens large and small in the decades since his death? According to Dinner, his work is timeless, encompassing as it does “the great genre themes: What does it mean to be a human being, what does it mean to be an individual faced with authoritarianism or technology, and what’s the nature of reality.”
Those themes do not date, allowing the programme makers to give them a contemporary slant. “We worked hard to present some really compelling storytelling that resonates with today’s life, so it’s not just about cautionary tales or dystopian societies in the future,” explains Cranston. “Everything has something to do with how we do things in our modern society.”
Although billed as science fiction, the series, and indeed Dick’s work, is too broad and varied to be so easily pigeonholed, as Hackett is keen to emphasise. “I’m excited to broaden the horizon as to what people think about when they think about science fiction because a lot of this is not hard sci-fi it’s just really about the human condition and there truly is something for everybody in the shows, it’s really great.”
Moore agrees that there is something here for everyone. “It encompasses a broad range of material, different visions of the future, different ideas even of the present, alternate realities, some are variations of current worlds, some are more fantastical, some are hard sci-fi so it’s a really broad scope.”
Whatever genre it fits into, Cranston is keen that it should provoke a response from the viewer. “We want the end of each programme to be the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it. We want to make people want to talk about it. That will make me very, very happy, because that’s what art should do. It should get people involved.” Ultimately, though, he admits that he’ll be happy if the series offers a spot of escapism. “Pure entertainment is valuable, and if it can ease someone’s troubles for that hour, then it’s a worthwhile endeavour.”
With such stellar creative talent behind it, that much, at least, seems to be assured.
Electric Dreams arrives soon on Channel 4