WHAT IT’S ABOUT These 10 stand-alone episodes of “Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams” with an all-star cast are based on a handful of the 120-plus short stories by the science fiction writer. They include: “The Commuter,” with Timothy Spall as a train station employee who goes to a happier place; “Real Life,” with Anna Paquin as a policewoman in the future who finds her brain connected to a game designer (Terrence Howard) who lives in the present; “Autofac,” with Juno Temple and Janelle Monáe, in a story about a factory that keeps churning out junk even after most of humanity (and most consumers) has been obliterated; “Safe and Sound,” with Maura Tierney, who lives in a society obsessed with security; and “Father Thing,” with Greg Kinnear and Mireille Enos, about a dad who is taken over by an alien.
MY SAY What is human? Go look in the mirror. There’s your answer. (Right?)
But Philip Kindred Dick, who died in 1982 at the age of 53, apparently had no use for mirrors or anything else that reaffirmed what we think we know about ourselves. He was a Jungian who saw the human persona as a collection of masks — or shards of that shattered mirror, each one reflecting a different person and different reality. We’re all bundles of false assumptions that prop us up in a false world.
So go forth, brave viewer, into these alternate worlds full of unreliable narrators, trick endings and alien doubles. But don’t assume that any will yield their secrets — or pleasures — readily. They don’t, which is part of their appeal and frustration.
Comparisons with Netflix’s “Black Mirror” are unavoidable and also unfortunate, because they’re different anthologies built on entirely different premises. Moreover, “Mirror” is user-friendly while “Dreams” is often chilly and austere. “Mirror” is sometimes funny while “Dreams” finds nothing amusing about the existential rat trap the human race is caught in.
“Dreams” is brainier, too. That stands to reason because “Mirror” — like so much subsequent science fiction — was deeply influenced by Dick (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and its movie adaptation, “Blade Runner”). But some of these hours can feel flat, or static, as if they’re stories in service to some Dickian obsession about human authenticity, or totalitarian mind control. They make you think. They just don’t always make you feel.
There are exceptions, certainly. Steve Buscemi stars in “Crazy Diamond,” which opens to the strains of Syd Barrett’s “Octopus,” and soon leads viewers into a Byzantine plot where a mysterious woman (Sidse Babett Knudsen) attempts to steal a vial of “quantum consciousness.” An episode starring Bryan Cranston (also an executive producer of the series), “Human Is,” is classic Dick, about a lousy husband who, after an intergalactic battle with apparently evil aliens, returns to his wife (Essie Davis) a reformed man, leading some to wonder whether he’s been mind-melded with an alien.
“Is he human?” asks his wife. “If sacrifice, kindness and love is not the ultimate test of what makes someone human, then what is?”
A wonderful line, and the funniest of the series — and maybe the only funny one — but keep these words in mind as you watch. What is human? These 10 hours make a pitch for reordering our understanding of the answer. They certainly deepen it.
BOTTOM LINE Like all anthologies, some hours are better than others (but most of these are good), and what “Dreams” lacks in razzle-dazzle, it makes up for in brains.