Philip K. Dick has been the inspiration for many movies and TV shows. Films like Blade Runner and Total Recall were based on his stories Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. The Man in the High Castle has been updated for television on Amazon. Movies like Paycheck and Minority Report are based on Dick’s writing.
Another sci-fi veteran, Ronald D. Moore, is bringing more Philip K. Dick to television. Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams is an anthology series featuring a different Dick adaptation each episode. Moore created the 2004 Battlestar Galactica reboot and began his career on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He has continued to work in genre television – his recent work includes Helix and Outlander. This new series is very much in his wheelhouse.
Moore spoke with us about Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams ahead of the show’s January 12, 2018 premiere on Amazon.
Being as steeped in sci-fi as you have your whole career, has Phillip K. Dick always been in your life?
I think so. Primarily starting, like probably a lot of people, with Blade Runner and the movies after that that then led you to want to explore the written word. I knew a couple of the books, the novellas, but I really hadn’t read the short stories. So that was a big draw to do this project because, like I said, I didn’t know the short stories. When I heard there were well over 100 of them, I thought, “Oh yeah, you could definitely do an anthology series if you took each one of those as inspiration.” It’s a treat to be able to work on something that Dick had worked on.
Does Electric Dreams show more of the breadth of Dick’s work, since the movies have mainly focused on action?
I think that’s exactly right. There’s a huge breadth to his stories. People tend to associate Dick, I think, in a popular culture with pretty hard science fiction and dystopian futures, but the show really runs a gamut. There’s a father/son story, there’s a suburban tale, there are dystopian pieces. There’s an alternate reality one. There’s love stories. It’s really all over the place. I think one of the strengths of the show is that each one of those stories is so different.
Which episode is the most faithful to the original story?
That’s a hard one to answer. I’m not sure to be honest. Maybe “Father Thing,” but maybe not because I think each of them we told the writers, “Go off and take this as inspiration and run in a direction, whatever you want to do. Be as close or as far away from the source material as you want.” I think they all did that so I’m not entirely certain which one I would pick out as the most faithful.
So to ask which is the most adapted, are they all very updated from the originals?
Yeah, they’re all very updated. Mine, which is called “Real Life,” is based on a short story called “Exhibit Piece.” It’s very different. It took the inspiration from the story but doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the original other than in the original it was about a museum caretaker in the future who is taking care of an exhibit that is about 1950s suburban America. When the caretaker goes into his exhibit to fix it, to work on it, he finds himself in 1950s America and feels like that’s where he belongs and that’s who he really is. Then when he leaves the exhibit, it kind of falls away. I took that as inspiration to do a show about virtual reality and about two characters, each of which is thinking that they’re someone else every time they go into a virtual experience. That’s how far they can vary.
When Phillip K. Dick wrote, there was no virtual reality. Now that there is, does it harken back to We Can Remember It For You Wholesale? and Total Recall?
Yeah, in fact I used the term “it’s a vacation from your life.” That’s one of the sales pitches they mention in my episode to harken back to that.
In “Kill All Others,” did the idea that a candidate said something that nobody else acknowledges she said come from the 2016 election?
No, they were written before that. Not way before, but certainly not about the outcome of it per se. I think it was influenced by what was happening as the election was approaching its finality.
The episode was more of a general cautionary tale?
I think so. I didn’t write that one and I’m trying to reassemble in my head the chronology of when it happened. My recollection is it was underway but I don’t think the things about the Access Hollywood tape or the things he denied he ever said had quite happened yet. It was in the process so it might well have. It wasn’t why we started to do the story is what I’m trying to say. The story was selected on its own merits and seemed like an interesting cautionary tale. Then I think as the election developed, I think it influenced the outcome of the show or the way the show was shaped.
Was the idea of a uniparty system come from the Dick story?
I believe that’s in the Dick story.
With “Autofac,” did Dick foresee drones?
Not that I recall. I think that was added in.
How was that story extrapolated?
It starts with an original story about the building out there, the Autofac that’s continuing to generate consumer goods even though most of civilization is dead. Then we just adapted that into a more modern sensibility about how that would work and what would defend it. The surprise and twist of the story was baked into the original Dick story as well. That one was more about expanding the characters that were in the settlement and updating the way the factory worked and the structure to get you to the final reveal at the end.
I seem to be focusing on the cautionary tales. Is there a balance between those and stories with different sort of agendas?
Yeah, I think that “Crazy Diamond” is not necessarily a cautionary tale as much as it is a story of love and heartbreak and what does it mean to be human buried in that one. “Hood Maker,” again not really a cautionary tale either. It’s a dystopian different future, almost an alternate reality piece where people have developed telepathic abilities. How they are treated and how they are used in society, that one very much comes down to who do you trust and what is the nature of love? That kind of story. Mine, “Real Life” is a bit of a cautionary tale because it deals with virtual reality and the allures of it, the dangers of it. “Father Thing” is not really a cautionary tale at all. It’s just sort of a classic thriller/father-son story. There is a pretty wide gamut of what these shows are and what they’re about.
“The Hood Maker” has telepaths like Minority Report does. Were there common themes that keep recurring in Dick?
Some of them. Things like that, telepathic abilities, clairvoyance and so on being used in a science-fiction context, people are familiar with that in the movies. A.I. and artificial intelligence and robots that are self-aware is certainly another trope that he uses over and over again. The deeper themes that are probably present in all of his work are what does it mean to be human and what is the nature of reality? Those kind of run through almost all his stuff and all the movies as well. Those are probably embedded in each and every one of the episodes of the anthology.
Were these always developed as hour long?
We did talk about half hour versus hour at the very beginning of the project. Ultimately, we just decided that they would run best at an hour.
Was the anthology format a new challenge for you to cast individual episodes rather than a whole series?
Yeah, the whole production is much more challenging than the series because you are making a movie every single week. So you don’t have sets to reuse or costumes and there’s a whole new cast, new director, different lighting schemes and locations. It’s very complicated to do an anthology. None of us who were producing it had ever done one before, so we learned a lot. We just learned mostly how hard it is to do something like that. It was fun to learn along the way.
How did you make sure the future looked different in each episode set in the future?
Part of it was that we were shooting two different locations in London and Chicago, so that gave you a broader look to the show. We didn’t feel quite as worried about having to reuse locations because each of those cities only needed to support five episodes. You could shoot out some locations and not worry about maybe we’re going to do this again next week. Part of it, you just had to set up two basic production entities. You had a Chicago based one and a London based one and they shot simultaneously. We had executive producers that kind of went back and forth between them. We had Michael Dinner overseeing the whole production as a show runner and maintaining continuity of everything, particularly in post. But each time, you had to have a writer and a director sit down and really hash out what the story was at the beginning of each episode, go through prep together, decide on a common vision. Then it was all about budget and time, what you could accomplish in one discreet episode.
As a producer, did Bryan Cranston get his first choice of episode he wanted to be in?
Oh yeah, he got to choose and that’s the one he wanted.
What would a second season of Electric Dreams include?
Well, we have a lot of stories to choose from. There’s over 100 Dick stories that we have in the library, so we’ve already set aside a whole second pod as it were. We’ll just do the same process. We sift through those, we bring in writers, ask them which ones they’re interested in. Internally we would make some choices and go for the same basic creative selection process at the outset.
Since it’s an anthology would you encourage people to jump around in the stories?
Yeah, I think they can view them in any way they want. It’s not a show that you binge really. They’re movies.You don’t really binge movies, or at least I don’t. Each one is kind of its own self-contained universe. It’s got a beginning, middle and end to the story. You sink deep into these tales and I think you should watch them in whatever order appeals to you. You’ve heard about this episode or that one sounds great or this one has a great actor in it… It’s part of the joy of modern TV watching. On a show like this, you really can play it however you want to play it.