Electric Dreams: 107 “The Father Thing” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Four months on from our last instalment, Phillip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams returns to UK telly boxes for the final four episodes of its first season, which the US has already seen, the lucky so-and-sos…The first of the last handful of stories the UK gets to see is The Father-Thing, adapted from the 1954 PKD story of the same name, and one which acts as a nice segue and companion piece to the last Electric Dreams we saw in 2017.
Deep in the Americana of a Chicago suburb, 11 year old Charlie (Billions and Ferdinand’s Jack Gore) lives with his loving father (the brilliant Little Miss Sunshine and As Good As It Gets’ Greg Kinnear) and mother (World War Z and The Killing’s Mireille Enos) who, despite loving Charlie seem to have fallen out of love with each other, dad offering to live in the garage just so he can still be around and not telling him about their looming divorce yet. Humdrum daily life is disturbed by the appearance of strange meteors crashing to Earth while Charlie and his dad are on a camping trip. Suddenly, people around town start acting a little…strangely.
Stop me if this all sounding a bit familiar- because it very much is. The original Father-Thing story was written the same year as The Body Snatchers, the work most people are likely to recognise given the classic film adapted from it Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and stories of similar ilk have been popping up in various media possessing (no pun intended) various allegories for real-world issues such as consumerism and the loss of individuality since they started appearing. The Father Thing holds much we’ve already seen before, yet mostly zeroes in on the resolute but tender bond between a father and son, sprinkling in a bit of the kids vs the world flavouring that’s back in vogue in films and TV.
The relationship between Charlie and his father is a sweet one, filled with baseball chat and buying him all the treats his mother won’t usually allow. Greg Kinnear and Jack Gore have a tight chemistry together, the relationship between father and son nicely lain out before father becomes father-thing. An intense early encounter with one of the alien invaders who arrived in the meteors, in the form of a deer hunter, is our early cue that something is terribly wrong, with the hunter’s dead-eyed piercing stare evocative of the Body Snatchers film.
The story of father and son isn’t the only one running through The Father Thing, as one rather jarring tonal cut to Charlie on his bike later following the second appearance of the meteors and we’ve landed with Charlie’s high-school buddies, including best friend Dylan (Jack Lewis). There’s plenty of the expected Stranger Things and IT. DNA present, even if Charlie’s friends and Dylan’s older brother Henry (Zakk Paradise) who ends up joining them aren’t particularly fleshed out beyond broad strokes.
The school does help paint a neat picture of the ongoing situation though- Charlie’s teacher Mr Dick (Phillip K.?) gives a foreshadowing lesson on Vikings, and the battle of Stamford Bridge where they made their final stand against the English- before they themselves fell weeks later. I did think that Mr Dick was one of the invaders at first, given his thousand-yard stare in his initial appearance, so props for the reverse happening (and the police trying to bring him down from the ledge where his life ends being part of the invading force also!)
Much of the strength that The Father Thing has is in the performance of Jack Gore, a resourceful and intelligent Charlie. A scene with his mum shows great emotional maturity in his understanding that lots of parents split up. Kids aren’t stupid, and Charlie is true to life. The Father Thing shines most in the scenes when Charlie and his dad are together, Greg Kinnear pulling off the character flip from loving dad to alien pretending to be one. What would be an otherwise innocent scene of a dad playing baseball with his son becomes uncomfortable as Charlie’s dad reveals his new nature and where he comes from. You aren’t quite sure what he’ll do, and a late moment of Charlie’s dad with his mum as Charlie watches on is similarly tense.
Even if some of the dialogue is wooden, director and writer of The Father Thing Michael Dinner (The Wonder Years and the criminally under-seen Justified) makes the most of the chemistry between Gore and Kinnear to make the loss of Charlie’s father to the alien impact. Charlie is so unsettled by his “new” dad that places and activities once seen comforting, from the family dinner to his own room, are infiltrated by danger. It’s a nice inverse of the relationship in the last Electric Dreams we saw, Human Is, except this time the original human person is far, far more preferred.
While The Father Thing is a well-made episode, like many this season, with a score by Shrek and Prometheus composer Harry Gregson-Williams (who also scored The Commuter this season) that captures slice of life suburbia mixed with foreboding eeriness, it just doesn’t shake the feeling of familiarity to be anything memorable. As it reaches its’ conclusion there’s plenty of striking and unsettling imagery, including the sight of a dump full of human skins and the floaty other-worldliness of the replacement pods, however the story itself isn’t involving enough to stand out.
As Charlie and friends burn the pods and Charlie sends out the “#RESIST” hashtag (which feels like a parallel to real-world events involving the current president) to rally the troops against the rest of the invaders, it should be a true punch the air moment that wraps the story up or makes us want to see a continuation- it feels like more of a shrug. I was expecting at least a couple more swerves to throw us off the scent. Ultimately the entire last act is telegraphed as soon as Charlie shows Dylan and Henry the bodies, with the change of heart from Henry being clumsily handled. The Father Thing would’ve been a better piece for me if it had played up more of the paranoia between Charlie and his dad, which is where the story reaches its heights, instead of trying to show us too much of the invasion and others taken over.
The Father Thing is a story that has been told countless times and in countless forms, so it’s naturally hard to put any especially inventive spin on it, particularly when the original story traces back to the fifties. Still though, I was hoping as it progressed that I’d be really taken back by something that occurred, or given true pause to thought, which the better episodes of this show have done. Unfortunately, it feels rather standard and paint-by-numbers for a lot of its runtime, and, while it’s watchable, Electric Dreams has shown that it can do better. “The future ain’t what it used to be” Charlie tells his dad on their camping trip, and while it has appropriate foresight for Charlie and his world, I hope that also rings true for our last three instalments this season, and we get more episodes that can stand with the best we’ve already seen.