A metropolitan dystopia, post-computer, post-internet. It looks a bit like Camden market; at other times like the dark ages; or the 70s, a concrete jungle through which agents speed in Cortinas and Granadas. Today, it looks like Charlottesville; the people – normals – are marching, protesting against teeps; mutant telepaths who can access their thoughts (think CSA meets Google meets Minority Report’s precogs). The teeps may be misusing their power and plotting to take over, but right now they are more like slaves (or immigrant workers perhaps). In these times of heightened tension and unrest, agents are utilising the Anti Immunity bill (think anti-terror legislation) and are using teeps to read the minds of the normals, who unsurprisingly aren’t best pleased about having the sanctity of their thoughts invaded. Someone has developed a hood that prevents it happening. Like a firewall, but way lower tech – these hoods are made of waxed linen.
This is the world of Electric Dreams: The Hood Maker (Channel 4, Sunday), the first of 10 parables based on Philip K Dick stories on the channel that has become the home of the dystopian future. Craftily and artfully adapted by Matthew Graham, The Hood Maker asks questions not just about state surveillance, prejudice, civil liberties and human rights, but also about technology, power and knowledge, trust, democracy, even evolution. It’s a bleak, suffocating vision that left me not only worried, but craving light and air, simplicity, nature and the past. The lovely clear tree-lined trout stream perhaps, where Ross used to go as a boy with his father.
Now agent Ross only fly fishes in dreams and flashbacks. He’s director of an operation known as Clearance which aims to stifle and quash the unrest and protest. And working with him, not just watching the people, but reading them and their darkest secrets, too, is Honor the teep. Partners, then, though this is no buddy cop relationship, but one that is steeped in doubt and mistrust (even if they do cop off). I don’t even know who to trust or like, or where my sympathies lie.
Captivating performances, from Richard Madden from Game of Thrones, and from Holliday Grainger, who’s actually clashing with herself over on BBC1, though she’s hardly recognisable as Robin, the well-groomed, wholesome PA/wannabe PI in Strike. Here she looks more like someone you’d bump into in the stranger fields on the fringes of Glastonbury.
That’s what’s right with Electric Dreams, the first episode, at least. Are there any problems? Two, the seriousness of which I’m not sure. First, it’s not Black Mirror. To which you might say: so what, who says it’s trying to be? But when you have two ambitious sci-fi anthology series about who we are and where we’re going, comparison is inevitable, especially since the new one now occupies the old home of the other. It’s like when you’re going out with someone, and then they leave you (for someone with more money), and you get a new someone, and they’re great, but you can’t help thinking about the old one, missing them…
Actually, it’s not really like that, unless you are Channel 4 I imagine. The rest of us can obviously just spend £5.99 on Netflix to get the old one back. But if you could just have one, then you’d obviously pick the old one. Because while ED may resonate, BM hits an actual nerve, and hurts. Not so much about an imagined future, it’s about now, or no more than five minutes from now. It’s sci-fi for the non-sci-fi fan. And it’s more human, more moving, and wittier. Better, in short. And that brings us to the second – and I think more serious – issue with Electric Dreams. Which has to do with quality and consistency. The Hood Maker is terrific, thoughtful, thought-provoking and compelling. I’ve seen a couple more episodes, though, and without going into detail or giving anything away, they’re simply less engaging.
Briefly to the Borgen slot then, and The Black Lake (BBC4, Saturday) from Sweden. But if you were expecting Scandi noir – you know, mood, metaphor and morality, authenticity, characters you grow to feel you actually know – then you’ll be disappointed. If, on the other hand, you’re OK with a fright – a buildup of tension and things that go bump in the night, in an abandoned ski resort – then it is fabulous. Schlock horror, or a smörgåsbord of cheese and chill.