Black Mirror, by contrast, is largely worried with how the individual might overpower the group to horrifying effect. Whereas Electric Dreams’ characters constantly struggle to retain their individuality in the face of social pressure, Black Mirror is populated with self-indulgers and sociopaths who use tech to build their own personal virtual autocracies (over digital clones via VR or over a teen via text message) and hold entire nations hostage (with hacking or hashtags). Brooker’s normal folks become supervillains, and his power dynamics are, well, more about power rather than about social difference: Victims include children, criminals, and sentient AI. When Brooker does envision fascist-seeming societies (“Nosedive,” “Fifteen Million Merits,” “White Bear”), they are policed by citizens granted a share of control—and sapped of empathy—by devices. Brief flashes of care for others are usually in service of a cruel punchline enabled by supposedly helpful machines (“Hang the DJ,” “Metalhead”).
Black Mirror’s concerns make sense in an era of incessant personal branding and lone-wolf mass shootings. But we’re now also in an era when anti-democratic tendencies have regained a foothold in Western politics, and when collective-identity anxiety—other-ism of all sorts—is more explicit again. Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel, aptly refurbished a previous period’s conformist nightmare for today’s, and the best episodes of the patchy Electric Dreams try something similar. “Safe and Sound” amplifies the post-9/11 security state with personal gadgetry for a disturbing twist on high-school social climbing. “The Hood Maker” ditches the digital for a steampunk tableau in which telepaths create a loose parable for present-day privacy wars. “K.A.O.” amusingly stages a near-future satire in which the doping of the masses is utterly compatible with micro-targeted capitalism.
Such stories are more attentive than Black Mirror is to the notion that people can be manipulated by institutions—an old but newly potent concern when one group of Americans wonders if a foreign state has hijacked democracy and the other wonders if the deep state has. Reassuringly (if a bit banally), Electric Dreams also insist that individual acts of bravery and compassion make a difference in the face of conspiracies and numbing tech. Old-fashioned ideals and follies, Electric Dreams tries to say, can still inform relevant sci-fi.
It’s a shame that argument, with its implication of revolutionary can-do, will be undercut by simple problems of quality. Electric Dreams has the unmistakable feel of TV for TV’s sake, hemmed by budgetary and formal constraints. Its space voyages and machine labs are of the flimsy and hokey sort, never inspiring the awe or cool stylishness that Black Mirror so effectively borrowed from movies. The dialogue, too, is often high-minded but clunky. “If sacrifice, kindness, and love is not the ultimate test of what makes somewhat human, then what is?” announces one character in “Human Is,” an episode of Electric Dreams set on a militarized, ice-age version of Earth in the year 2520. It’s a lovely thought suggesting that even a bleak future can involve moral progress—but it’d be more convincing if the show around it felt like the entertainment of the present.