Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: “Real Life”

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In the future, policewoman Sarah (Anna Paquin) works to catch a dangerous psycopathic criminal, going through survivor’s guilt following the aftermath of a terrible massacre of which she was the sole survivor. Taking the advice of her wife Katie (Rachelle Lefevre), she decides to get away from it all by using a virtual reality device, entering a different life where she becomes modern-day technology entrepreneur George (Terrence Howard), a man trying to cope with his wife’s murder, occasionally using his own VR device that lets him become Sarah. Both Sarah and George start questioning their own realities, struggling to figure out just whose life is real and which one is just a VR creation.

Adapted for television by series executive producer Ronald D. Moore, known for his extensive writing work on Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, “Real Life” gives us an interesting enough mystery to be solved and throughout the episode, we are able to see that each reality could very well be the real one; the writing tends to get a bit expositional at times, spoonfeeding us somewhat as the “normal” characters conveniently have all the answers, intelligently explaining what’s going on, but there’s plenty of character depth and their motivations and personal histories give the episode some depth and meaning. Feeling as though she’s undeserving of such an idealised life, Sarah could very well have subconsciously created a world in which she grieves over the death of a loved one, punishing herself for her imagined sins and on the other hand, George could have created a perfect futuristic world in order to escape his own turmoil, one in which his wife is still alive, living a male fantasy of being a “lesbian supercop in the future with a flying car”. Both possibilities are equally plausible and the episode does a good job in keeping us guessing as to which is the right one.

A welcome step up from last week’s “Crazy Diamond”, there are plenty of pleasing visuals in this episode, especially in Sarah’s future world that includes those Blade Runner inspired neon advertisements and flying police spinners as well as plenty of future technology like the pivotal VR device; production design is expectedly bright and sleek and even the cityscape featured in the modern world is very nice to look at. Anna Paquin and Terrence Howard are great leads, effectively showing their characters’ uncertainty and inner turmoil, gradually doubting their own reality and struggling to make sense of it all, and Rachelle Lefevre and Lara Pulver provide plenty of strong support.

That’s really all I can say about this particular episode; it’s certainly imaginative and well designed, with a central puzzle that keeps you guessing but on the other hand, it doesn’t really go anywhere unexpected and it stays on the same level throughout. Much of it feels quite derivative, falling into the trap of channelling Blade Runner and Total Recall, as some Dick adaptations feel they have to do, and I can’t help but feel as though we’ve seen things like this before. It’s a decent episode but nothing to write home about.

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In two weeks: Emotionally abusive husband Bryan Cranston returns from war a changed man.

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