Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams – “The Commuter”
Starring: Timothy Spall, Tuppence Middleton, Hayley Squires, Rebecca Manley, Anthony Boyle
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Jack Thorne
Reviewed by Sidney Morgan
This review CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS. You’ve been advised.
Up until now, the episodes in PKD’s Electric Dreams’ anthology have all had some sci-fi ‘wow’ factor, whether it was spaceships, androids or just some computer gadgets. And most were set in some future or even alternate version of earth. The Commuter, on the other hand, grounds its story in the normalcy of today, even if a bit depressive. Everything feels familiar, and it’s a nice, even welcomed change of pace. But it still manages to include some of those typical themes seen in his stories, namely alternate realities.
The Commuter stars Timothy Spall (Wormtail from the Harry Potter series) as Ed Jacobson, a train station agent whose life hasn’t turned out exactly as he’d planned. See, Ed has a son who has a condition that leads him to be violent. It’s getting worse, and talk of permanent hospitalization is on the table. This condition, which isn’t named, has taken its toll on Ed and his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) who’ve grown distant over the years. Though he smiles quite a bit, Ed struggles. Mary flat out tells him that she hates his fake smile, but he can’t help himself. He’s bored. So when a woman asking for a train ticket to a seemingly non-existent town walks by his booth, it piques his curiosity.
The episode doesn’t tackle any new idea. At its heart, it asks whether we would be willing to give up our present life for a better, or rather, easier one. After his curiosity finally gets the best of him, Ed travels to Macon Heights and finds an odd, dreamlike town, where everyone seems happy. There, he meets that mysterious woman again, Linda (Tuppence Middleton, Sense8). After spending the day, he returns home, to a welcoming and loving wife. The spark is back. The love is back. The happiness is back. Heck, even the neighbourhood where he lives is cleaner, but there’s one catch. Ed and Mary don’t have a son.
At first, Ed is happy. But quickly, an emptiness, a longing for something that is missing begins to grow, and Ed realizes he wants his old life back, regardless how miserable and painful it was. He wants Sam back. What ensues is a battle between the two realities. By his third visit to Macon Heights, Ed’s desperation to get back to his painful reality has affected the other visitors of this apparent utopia, who now find themselves revisiting their old imperfect and unhappy lives. Ultimately though, Ed gets his ‘wish’ and meets Linda, the architect behind this utopia. Whether she’s a demon or an angel doesn’t matter, but she is the key to undoing this illusion. They engage in a discussion about the merits of a happy versus a miserable life.
It’s an interesting conversation during which Linda tells Ed, with certainty, that there will only be pain and sadness in the life he wants to return to. But it doesn’t matter. Sam is just too important to him. Macon Heights isn’t a utopia where everyone is happy. In fact, it’s a place that people go to as they run away from their problems. It’s a subtle difference, but a defining one. All those ‘happy’ people carry the problems inside of them, which explains why they relive them when Ed threatens to tear apart the town’s veil of happiness. Macon Heights is not real. It’s an illusion. There is no true escaping one’s problems. If there is, it’s only temporary. Although, apparently it is possible to prolong that euphoric moment.
There’s something comforting in eating freshly baked goods. Maybe it’s due to its nostalgic effect it has when we first bite into it, bringing back memories of our childhood? Or maybe it’s simply due to some chemical effect of sugary food on the brain. We’ve seen this in Twin Peaks. Agent Cooper feels better after eating a piece of cherry pie while drinking a cup of coffee. In The Matrix, when the Oracle gives Neo a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, it makes him feel “right as rain.” In The Commuter, the waitress (Hayley Squires) gives Ed freshly baked cake, along with a cup of hot cocoa. Lo and behold, he feels better. But, for the astute watcher, it also acts as a warning that things aren’t as they seem, as all three shows address the idea of false realities to varying extent.
All of the performances in this episode are great. From Hayley Squires as the waitress and baker who wants to comfort Ed with her food, to Tuppence Middleton who wants to save Ed from a future of pain and heartache. However, Timothy Stall is the true asset of The Commuter. His physical appearance alone conveys to us that he’s led a difficult life. Add to that his facial expressions and you can’t help but want to put your arms around his shoulder to help him bear the burdens he carries.
Verdict: Watch it! The Commuter is a two-faceted story. First, there is a mystery. Who is Linda? What is Macon Heights? Was any of the happy life ‘real’? And second, there an emotional drama, in which we see the tragic effects on one man and his wife, of living a life that simply didn’t turn out the way they wanted. Focusing on either story doesn’t matter as they are both captivating.