Electric Dreams: 102 “Impossible Planet” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
After last week’s troubles with telepaths in an archaic, 70s inspired world, we’re thrown into the opposite with this week’s instalment of Channel 4’s new anthology series Electric Dreams, adaptations of short stories from pioneer of science fiction Phillip K. Dick. We find ourselves in the far-flung future in Impossible Planet (no relation to the fantastic Doctor Who episode outside of similar aesthetics in sets and costumes!) which comes from PKD’s 1953 story, again shockingly titled The Impossible Planet.
Directed and written by Hanna and The Night Manager’s David Farr, Impossible Planet is a wonderfully stark reminder of how an anthology series can jump from story to story. As a contrast to The Hood Maker’s opening chaotic riot, Impossible Planet opens on pure beauty- as a group of revellers are shown an unbelievable display of a supernova, narrated by their tour guide. It’s a lie however, a digitally enchanted empty spectacle that they’ve been sold by. Just as last week’s opening perfectly landed us within its situation, so too does this weeks, with the hilarious juxtaposition of the passengers awed by what they’re seeing with booming choir songs and their tour guides commentary that is just as fake as what they’re seeing.
Impossible Planet centers on two employees named Brian Norton (Jack Reynor, everything from Detroit to the excellent Sing Street) and Ed Andrews (the ever-reliable Benedict Wong) aboard the spaceship Dreamweaver 9, ferrying passengers on an “Astral Dreams” package tour throughout the galaxy, promising punters the finest sights- except they’re usually enhanced or edited, from creating more grandiose explosions to changes in colour. While the dreams they help sell their passengers are mostly fake, their own are very real, whilst they are stuck on a grim-sounding planet named Primo 76. Both want to leave, especially Norton, who fears his girlfriend Barbara (Georgina Campbell) may leave him if he doesn’t successfully transfer to the stylish, up-market Primo Central.
The chance for those dreams to come alive may have conveniently (and literally) knocked upon their door, with the arrival of a deaf, impossibly old woman by the name of Irma Gordon (Acclaimed actress and daughter of Charlie, Geraldine Chaplin) and her half C3PO/half Bicentennial Man clunky old robot RB29 (Malik Ibheis), Irma whom desperately desires to visit her grandmother’s old home and a happy memory, namely the planet Earth’s Elk Falls in Carolina; and she has a whole load of future-cash to try and get there with. Despite Norton’s confliction on the morality of deceiving this old lady, Andrews convinces him that this is an opportunity of a lifetime, and thus they set off amongst the stars to a planet that is similar enough to Earth from orbit, as Earth has long since perished in solar fire.
Like last week, Impossible Planet is a wonderful slice of pulpy science fiction, but for myself personally I thought this was a step above The Hood Maker. The world we inhabit is a triumph of production design, a great retro-futuristic mix of sleek yet slightly worn sets and neon lighting aboard the Dreamweaver 9. Initially we’re introduced to Norton and Andrews in a setting that gives us no delusion as to the reality these characters face, a jolting difference to the lavish tourist trap that we’re treated to just moments before their introduction. Wong’s Andrews clearly resents them, claiming they’re “rats in a sewer”, and you do sympathise with his view even if he and Norton are, in Norton’s words, “con artists” (“what other type is there?” he retorts), given how ridiculously glammed up the day-trippers seem to contrast with them, all ridiculous haircuts and strange future stylings. They’re not questionable people at heart, even given Andrew’s at-times antagonistic attitude and slobbish tendencies (his opening gambit is sat at his desk watching some strange, trippy pornography). Andrews feels he’s “trash” and simply wants a nicer life, maybe even moving next to his mother, despite his contempt for Irma’s desires. Norton meanwhile, has been seemingly starved of options- with his fifth successive request to transfer to Primo Central denied and his girlfriend growing increasingly agitated, this may be his best chance to appease her and become a somebody (“you’re nothing to them” admits Andrews).
The reality of the situation however is that Norton cares little for the dream of Primo Central, and for Barbara too. His passion for life seems to have been dusted away completely during his time aboard the Dreamweaver 9, and any spark they once had, is clearly apparent that it is long gone. The arrival of Irma changes everything. For a story spanning star systems and traversing space, Impossible Planet is at heart a much smaller story, regarding love, genetic memory and the nature of dreams themselves. The four main players of Norton, Andrews, Irma and RB29 all play their parts, but the relationship between Norton and Irma forms the crux of the story.
Irma is a dreamer- even while deaf (although with her mind still sharp) and at her advanced (over 300 years!) age, she still hangs onto her passion to visit in person the dream, the story that has been passed down to her, even keeping her grandmother’s dress for the day she herself could step foot on the Earth. It’s this conflict between her constant belief in the wonder of the universe, and Norton’s exasperated life, that brings them together initially. Even though he is much, much younger, Norton seems far wearier than Irma does, and their scene as Norton helps Irma do up her dress as he explains the fire he once had (“there’s no mystery any more”) is beautiful (especially helped by the tender soundtrack, which often carries Blade Runner-esque cues elsewhere in the episode). He used to be a dreamer; she still is. While it is unconventional to see play out, especially as later elements are revealed, there’s far much more on display here than a standard romance. Irma still has her grandfather’s clothes as well as her grandmothers, and Norton has an uncanny resemblance to him- just how much of this was inevitable, for history to repeat itself? Did Irma know Norton looked exactly like him, or was she willing to enact her fantasy with anyone?
Irma is the driving force that allows Norton to finally understand that he change his own life- destiny being another key theme of the episode- he reveals his true feelings to Barbara in an affecting scene as they both admit to not dreaming of each other anymore, and soon after throwing caution to the wind to land the ship on “Earth” for Irma to finally be on its surface. Norton’s feelings for her are more than a traditional love- in her, he sees how he used to be, and by taking her outside to complete her quest, he has finally made his life his own- and discovered the unknown that he’d always dreamed of. He’s not the only one that cares for her, as her highly emotional robot RB29 loves her very deeply. It’s ironic that something traditionally stoic in a robot has initially more empathy for a dying lady’s final wish than two humans, and while Norton grows to empathise with her, RB29’s love for her is so great that he is willing to join in with the lie that Norton and Andrews have peddled to her once he discovers the truth, simply so that she can die feeling as if she has finally fulfilled her dream.
The denouement of Impossible Planet is one of pure emotion and truly moving (the score crescendo is surreal and heart-breaking), even if we will never truly know just how proceedings occurred. As Irma and Norton travel before our eyes from the toxic locale of the dead world to Irma’s dream of Carolina, elements are presented before us that ask even questions, as Irma transforms into her grandmother and Norton becomes her grandfather, passing a bike marked Dreamweaver on their way to skinny dip in the lake from her grandmother’s story. Whether this was simply a hallucination caused by toxic gases, or some timey wimey shenanigans leading to the two being there, it doesn’t really matter ether way. If Irma found her way to Carolina or if this was just a pleasant dream before death, her dream came alive, and Norton rekindled a burning passion for the impossible. After all, Irma did state that the one constant that humanity never understood or charted was our heart, and love. Maybe it was truly just transcendent destiny across the ages happening before our eyes.