Electric Dreams

Anna Paquin stars in an episode of Amazon Prime's new anthology series, "Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams."


During his lifetime, Philip K. Dick wrote a lot of books and short stories for little pay. He died in 1982 at only 54, just before the first movie adaptation of one of his books was released.

But that movie was “Blade Runner,” based on Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and it changed the course of science fiction. Today Dick’s fingerprints are all over science fiction, whether in direct adaptations of his 44 books and 121 short stories (including Amazon Prime’s “Man in the High Castle” and Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly”), or spiritual descendants like Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”

While space operas like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” looked outward at brave new worlds and alien races, Dick looked inward, asking unsettling questions about humanity. Who would humans be in a world run by technology? How would we be able to know what “human” or “real” even was?

Which leads us to “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams,” a new Amazon Prime anthology series premiering Friday. Created by Michael Dinner ("Justified"), the ambitious first season features 10 episodes, each adapting a different Dick short story. Like any anthology series, some episodes connect better than others. But the star-studded cast excels at capturing what make Dick’s fiction so distinctive and thought-provoking.

In the opening episode, “Real Life,” Anna Paquin plays a Chicago cop haunted by survivor’s guilt after living through a massacre that killed many of her friends on the force. Her wife offers her a new device which offers a virtual reality “vacation,” allowing her to live somebody else’s life. But in virtual reality, she’s a tech executive (Terrence Howard) haunted by the death of his wife. As we go back and forth between the different realities, we start to wonder if maybe Howard is the real person, and Paquin is the virtual reality construct.

In “Human Is,” Bryan Cranston plays a colonel fighting an intergalactic war against unseen aliens who can take over human bodies. He’s also a total jerk to his wife (Essie Davis). The colonel goes off to war and returns a new man, kind and thoughtful to his wife. She immediately suspects he’s been taken over by the aliens. But will she give up a chance at a happy marriage just because her loving husband may be the first wave of an alien invasion?

My favorite of three episodes I’ve seen is “Autofac,” set in a future when humans have all but been wiped out by nuclear war. Left standing are automated, sentient factories that chew up the world’s remaining resources and make goods for customers who no longer exist. Pretty bold of Amazon, of all companies, to envision this future.

A hacker (Juno Temple) in one of the remaining human colonies lures one of the factories’ robot customer-service representatives (a terrific Janelle Monae of “Hidden Figures), as part of a plan to shut down the factory. But the robot has a few surprises for her human captor, in an episode that cleverly questions the effect of growing consumerism.

Unlike “Black Mirror,” which can often be scolding in its view of how humanity and technology collide, “Electric Dreams” puts the emphasis squarely on human emotions like regret, guilt and fear, and how technology might affect how we perceive ourselves. “Black Mirror” delivers verdicts, while “Electric Dreams” asks questions.

And the good news is that, with so many more Dick short stories waiting to be adapted, there are a lot more questions for future seasons to ask.

Also on streaming: David Letterman primarily used his retirement from television to grow that majestic beard. Now that his facial hair is in full flower, Letterman is back with a new interview show on Netflix. “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction” premieres Friday with former President Barack Obama. Although, given the tradition established by Letterman’s other talk shows, shouldn’t Bill Murray be the inaugural guest?

The third and final season of “The Detectorists” premieres Monday on Acorn.TV. The charming comedy series is created by and stars Mackenzie Crook (“The Office”) along with Toby Jones as two small-town Englishmen who search the beaches for treasure with their metal detectors.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.