“We’re weaving dreams.”
Episode two of Channel 4’s Philip K. Dick anthology series is titled ‘Impossible Planet’ and is based on the the 1953 short story of the same name. It stars Jack Reynor and Benedict Wong as space-faring tour guides taking an elderly woman and her robot on one last trip. Or fleecing her out of her money.
Set way off in the very distant future, we meet Andrews and Norton after one of their cheap, fake tours through the stars. They take people (and aliens) to see the sights around the galaxy, but the sights aren’t that impressive. So they spruce it up with showmanship and fancy tricks. Both are tired and not exactly enchanted with their jobs, Soon a chance of a lifetime knocks on their door, in the form of Irma Gordon; a deaf 340-something year old woman, and her robot, looking for a trip to Earth.
The problem is that Earth is lost and they can’t possibly get there, so Andrews suggests going to a similar planet and tricking the old woman. Norton, reluctantly, agrees. This part is identical to the original story, though in that Earth is a myth and people don’t even think the human race originated from there. Also the characters are (obviously) more developed in the episode. Andrews is a lot grosser and cynical in the show, and Norton has a touching connection with Irma.
The very best thing about this episode is the 50’s inspired set design. The ship and the world is dirty and looks old, the screens and knobs are chunky and retro. The posters for the tours are garish and neon coloured. It looks like the future through the eyes of someone in the 1950’s and I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it. The robot butler, RB29, isn’t a shiny futuristic robot. Visually he’s not far from where we are now. It’s these things that make it feel like an utterly unique science fiction world, which means it’s sad to leave it after an hour. But that is true of any good short story, or one-off episode.
The biggest change between the story and the episode is the romance plot between Norton and Irma. That was nonexistent in the story, but it plays a central role here. Jack Reynor (who seems to be everywhere right now) brings a big-eyed innocence to Norton, always on the cusp of admitting the con. His scenes with Irma are the best part of the episode, though it’s heartbreaking to see them lie to her about Earth. The connection between Irma and Norton hints at something bigger. Are things some kind of dream (like one poster said), or is Norton connected to Irma’s grandfather somehow? Has their love transcended time and space and put them both together again?
And those questions bring me to the ending. In the original story Irma dies on the planet and Norton and Andrews leave, but not before finding a coin on the floor that reveals it was Earth all along! Here things are a lot less black and white. A lot less. After presumably dying at the end, Irma and Norton are transported or flashback to Earth where they swim in Elk Falls. It’s a really beautiful scene, and one that leaves a whole lot up to the audience to decipher. But as I said last week, I like it when a show doesn’t answer all the questions, I want to work it out myself. I understand that this might not be the most satisfying ending for some people but I reckon it worked really well.
So the second episode of Electric Dreams was better than the first, and I really enjoyed ‘The Hood Maker’. Maybe this would have been a better episode to start with. It’s certainly not as grim, and it’s a lot more colourful. ‘Impossible Planet’ stuck very close to the original book, but fleshed it out and gave it a deeper ending. It was, for me, a near-perfect slice of science fiction.
Next week’s episode looks completely different in every way. It’s ‘The Commuter’ starring the always great Timothy Spall.
Reviewed by Jack