Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams: “Human Is”

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In 2520, the atmosphere of Terra/Earth has become contaminated, leading to the invasion of planet Rexar IV for its resources, one of the attacking soldiers being decorated war hero Silas Herrick (Bryan Cranston) – a stern, emotionally abusive husband to the long-suffering Vera (Essie Davis). After a brutal skirmish on the alien planet, only Silas and another soldier make it back and Vera soon realises that Silas has changed considerably, being far more attentive and appreciative. She slowly begins to warm to this new figure in her life but the powers that be soon come to suspect that Silas is not all that he seems . . .

As with many of the other previous episodes in this series, this instalment is a “two-header”, one that focuses primarily on two main characters in addition to its few supporting players and surely, with a relatively limited episode runtime, that’s the wisest choice. For his big moment in the spotlight, having been executive producer of this whole shebang, Bryan Cranston plays the main male lead of Silas much as he did with Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, albeit in the opposite direction – basically, he starts off as a stern, neglectful, seemingly unfeeling brute (Heisenberg) but after his mysterious ordeal on the alien planet, he returns considerably meeker, softer spoken and more appreciative of his long-suffering partner (Walter), also having a tendency to make BREAKFAST! It’s not exactly a massive change of pace for Cranston but he successfully manages to be an utter bastard in the early scenes and afterwards, becomes a far more likeable man with whom we can sympathise and worry about, even though he also manages to be something sinister and possibly dangerous at times, using slow, deliberate eye movements, giving off an aura of mystery and doubt.

But all the limelight is actually stolen away from Cranston by the real star of the show, Essie Davis – hers is undoubtedly the central character, the one whom the plot revolves around and it is her character’s journey that forms the bedrock of this episode. At the beginning, she’s the victim of her husband’s psychological abuse, trying to hold it together by keeping a blank, aloof expression and remaining dutiful to her commanding officer but actually feeling trapped and emotionally damaged, getting to show her true despair when she’s alone, occasionally wandering off to some dark, seedy underground areas, desperate to experience some actual pleasure and excitement. When Silas is apparently killed, she successfully manages to subtly show actual relief and happiness, finally being “untethered”, and through no actual dialogue, we can plainly see that she hopes that her husband won’t come back. But when Silas eventually does come back a different man, she very gradually warms to this new presence in her life and slowly, but surely, she “comes to life” as she starts appreciating Silas’ company, showing genuine compassion and commitment at the end of the concluding trial. As I say, Essie Davis is the true standout of the episode, her character is clearly the most important, and Davis is really quite something in the role.

The bulk of the episode consists of the relationship between Silas and Vera but beyond that, there really isn’t too much other material to be found; in the first quarter, we get to know of the contamination of Earth’s atmosphere and how the higher powers have elected to invade another planet for its resources, calling to mind the likes of Avatar and possibly even Starship Troopers. And it’s all interesting enough, the central premise is certainly typical of a Philip K. Dick short story, but the episode does leave you feeling a tad short-changed as the whole invasion set up ultimately doesn’t amount to much and the whole episode surely bides its time, trying hard to fill its hour-long runtime with as much as possible, even though there’s not actually that much material to work with. As I say, it’s the Silas/Vera relationship that keeps the episode going but beyond that, the narrative could possibly have been beefed up a little bit more.

On the design front, the episode hits all the right notes as everything looks pretty nice and it’s all perfectly colourful and futuristic. It’s probably also worth mentioning that this episode really ramps up the sex factor, as only Channel 4 knows how, as there’s a particularly bold sequence set in an underground sex den as well as a later scene between the two leads. (THINKS FOR A FEW SECONDS) No, I have no follow-up to that – just thought it needed mentioning.

So all in all, this is a return to form for the series, following a couple of bumpy episodes. There’s a decent sci-fi set up (the invasion of another planet for its resources) but at its core, this episode is all about the relationship between a husband and wife and both Bryan Cranston and Essie Davis play their parts very well, delivering adept performances in a carefully thought out, well-meaning story.

B+

Next week: Nothing. It’s a mid-season break and the last four episodes will be shown early next year.

So until then, here’s my current episode ranking:

  1. Impossible Planet (A+)
  2. The Commuter (A -)
  3. Human Is (B+)
  4. The Hood Maker (B+)
  5. Real Life (B)
  6. Crazy Diamond (C)

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