First, don’t you hate when a near-blogfaded bloggers apologizes for not blogging in so long? Yeah, me too. Sorry.
I can’t believe I haven’t complete binged the entire series of “Electric Dreams of Philip K. Dick” already, I still have a few episodes to go — but I’m really loving it. Well, I love the fact there’s more SF on TV right now, period! And, of course, being a huge Dick-head, I’m overjoyed that he’s getting even more screentime. Even though, I think, this show has been a mixed bag of both quality and level of honoring the original story the episode comes from, overall, I’m quite enjoying it.
But there’s one episode in particular I can’t get out of my head and I keep wandering back to in comparison to the original story and Dickian themes. The episode is “Safe and Sound” based on the story “Foster, You’re Dead!” I’ll give a spoiler-free general thought first, then I’ll get into some specifics after a warning.
I keep thinking about this one because the original “Foster” story is one of my favorites of Dick’s, and entirely because of the blatant criticisms it lays at late modern capitalism and disposable consumerism and manufactured need in order to make people endlessly consume. Dick has never been accused of being subtle, and this story he is at his bombastic best. The show episode “Safe and Sound,” however, does play into some subtlety and, actually, brings in some classic Dickian elements that the story did not contain, which was really interesting — but is actually at the core of my consternation. More on that after the jump.
But one of the things I thought the show did fantastically well was in modernizing the story while keeping the fundamental themes. The plot is different, but in ways in which make perfect sense, bringing story set in and critiquing late modern capitalism to that of our late postmodern capitalist world. Updating the threat of Cold War and Soviets and bomb shelters to invasive privacy issues, existential threats of terrorism, and identity. I suppose there’s not much more I can say without spoilers, so I’ll just say despite my problems with the episode, it’s a really fantastic one (even if I’m stymied whether I like the ending or not — and, even as I write this, I’m coming to the belief the ending is actually more in keeping with the story than what I would have liked to have seen in an episode they set up if it weren’t based on previous work).
And below be spoilers!
Okay, here’s the crux: in the original story, “Foster, You’re Dead!”, there’s not an iota of reality confusion or suspicion (another common Dickian theme). The story is beginning to end a criticism of how capitalism must sell sell sell endlessly, new products new markets, same products repackages, always selling more and more. And if the market is saturated, capitalism demands that new needs are created in order to justify new (variations on) products to keep selling those. And the best way to get people to keep buying what’s being sold is to manufacture fear and then sell a remedy for the fear. In “Foster,” the fear is the ever-looming war with Russia and the escalating arms race making it so that every year a new bomb shelter and new add-on features are needed for you to protect your family.
In “Safe and Sound,” the ever-present fear of a war (that never comes) is replaced by the ever-present fear of terrorism (that no one ever sees first hand). This fear makes people give away their privacy in exchange for presumed safety, to corporations always putting out new and better personal surveillance devices — with added features that make your life easier, of course.
This theme of manufacturing fear to sell its solution, which is constantly being replaced by a newer model, is perfectly reinvisioned in “Safe and Sound.” But the show adds an additional twist of making the central character begin to question her sanity as the support technician speaking to her through her omnipresent personal assistant device starts to induce in her intense paranoia and suspicion, ultimately convincing her to stage a (fake) terrorist attack. A rouse that, we discover, was cynically intended to justify the manufacturer of the PDA to roll out an even more personally invasive version for people to buy, all in the name of safety. The episode brings us right along with the main character, unsure if she’s sane and being led, or if, like her father we are told, is hallucinating and on the verge of a psychotic break.
This very Dickian addition to the story is effective, quite well-done, and leaves you on the edge of uncertainty right up to the denouement. And taken as its own thing, that denouement is the problem — they confirm for us in no uncertain terms that yes, she actually was entirely a naive tool being used by the corporation at every step, she was not suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. (Although, they do add a mote of indication that the experience did perhaps crack her sanity just a bit.) Watching the show isolated from knowing the inspiring story, I would have liked for there to have been some ambiguity as to what she actually heard and what was her imagination. Even ending it with the product roll-out and her slight crack during her speech, would be enough to make us wonder in both directions. Did the corporation manipulate her, or, did they jump on the opportunity her insanity created for them? Very Dickian ambiguity.
But I’m thinking as I write about this, that they do the story justice and keep in tune with it, both theme and plot, by making it very clear that it is entirely about crass capitalism and manufactured fear and marketing. And in fact, even her extreme stress and ultimate breakdown is in keeping with the story, in that, even though the Foster of the short story never questions his sanity nor do we, he moves through the tale half in panic and finally runs away in near nervous breakdown, all because… precisely because… he has been convinced so thoroughly by the omnipresent marketing, both overt, and subversive in the very culture including his school activities and lesson plans, that his family needs the latest and greatest bomb shelter or else he is dead. The panic and mental break the Foster of the show suffers is a perfect mirror of this manufactured crisis from the producers and marketers of capital.
So in my final assessment, there really is no conflict for me — the show version really is a perfectly updated version of the short story for our times, possibly more so than any of the other episodes in this series inspired by its paired story.