Is it possible for a piece of pop culture to be an imitation when it’s already being imitated?
That’s the tricky hypothetical facing Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, the latest original series from Amazon’s streaming service. Electric Dreams is an episodic sci-fi anthology that deploys a wide range of recognizable faces, both British and American, to bring each of its self-contained worlds to light. (An international coproduction, Electric Dreams aired on the U.K.’s Channel 4 last fall before making its stateside premiere last Friday.) In this respect, Electric Dreams is to Black Mirror what Amazon’s Lord of the Rings project is to Game of Thrones: an attempt to capture the spirit of another outlet’s phenomenon by following its playbook to the letter.
But Electric Dreams has something that predates Charlie Brooker’s semi-dystopian tech drama by several decades: the work of the iconic genre writer for which it’s named. Electric Dreams isn’t Amazon’s first series working from Dick’s expansive archives; that would be alternate history The Man in the High Castle, now entering its third season. In both stature and influence, Philip K. Dick belongs to an extremely rarefied class of science-fiction authors. Along with the likes of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke, he’s responsible for many of the tropes and images we associate with the field, an impact compounded by the countless adaptations of his writing. When those themes are updated and adjusted for the 2010s, as they are in Electric Dreams, a strange recursive loop begins to take shape: Much of what Electric Dreams appears indebted to is already indebted to Dick himself. The series may not always feel fresh, either in concept or execution, but it’s often difficult to discern whether the reason for that impression is the show itself or the inevitable consequence of time catching up with and moving past Dick’s vision.