This review contains spoilers.
1.9 Safe And Sound
“They always said the way to sell things was to create anxiety in people. Create a sense of insecurity.” So says the sceptical father of young Mike Foster in Philip K. Dick’s story by which this Electric Dreams episode is inspired. “They’re scaring us to keep the wheels going,” Mike’s dad yells in the same story, “they don’t want another depression.”
Foster, You’re Dead, written in 1955, is a sad, fiercely anti-consumerist story set against the backdrop of the Cold War. Forget sex, it teaches, fear is what really sells. Feed the population’s paranoia and they’ll pay handsomely for their safety – or for the illusion thereof.
In Safe And Sound, writers Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell have taken the same central theme but exploded the tight focus of PKD’s original (about a schoolboy who desperately covets a high-tech nuclear bomb shelter his family can’t afford) to build an entire future world, complete with an America that’s not only figuratively but literally divided along a ‘Rift’, and Big Tech corporations selling whizzy new gadgets.
The school attended by sixteen-year-old Foster Lee (Annalise Basso), a fresh arrival from one of the non-compliant, low-tech ‘Bubbles’ formed after ‘The Reformation’, is plausibly detailed. The students there (who dress like The Jetsons, unlike Foster and her mother’s loose, organic hair and clothes), learn from gamified, hologram-driven tech that looks and feels like the oft-discussed classroom of the future.
Thanks to that level of world-building, Safe And Sound is one of the few Electric Dreams episodes that could work as the first instalment in a continuing story. The complexity and detail put into features like the Dex (wearable tracking tech with multiple applications) grounds viewers in territory that’s perfect sci-fi: familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.
That complexity and detail, however, isn’t quite matched by Safe And Sound’s simplistic take on its subject matter – terrorism, fake news and ‘false flag’ attacks. If this were to be expanded into a continuing story, it’d be best suited to a Hunger Games-style dystopian tale of a teenage girl dismantling the insidious Big Tech machine inside which she and her generation is trapped. Don’t come here for nuance, in other words.
Lead Annalise Basso does a great job carrying most of the story and all of its emotion on her shoulders. As Foster, she’s endearingly charmed by her new life and painfully distressed as it starts to unravel. The generally terrific Maura Tierney too, does what she can with a limited rant-exposition role as Foster’s politician mother, who spends almost all of the episode raging against the machine (nice Sarah Connor sunglasses, by the way).
Fittingly, the episode starts with a Peter Gabriel song about a troubled parent-daughter relationship, and there’s plenty that rings true about Foster and her mother’s opposing approaches to life in the city. Kids from non-conformist backgrounds often want to assimilate rather than rebel against the same things as their parents. As a lonely teenager, fitting in can seem more important than holding up principles. So far, so recognisable.
The episode’s initial ideas are apposite and well-handled too: at what point does tech-driven ‘safety’ for our kids cross over into oppression? Is safety worth voluntarily giving up freedoms for? (Themes also explored by recent Black Mirror episode Arkangel) It’s only after that point, when Foster is groomed as a weapon of the state that the story’s wheels, if not fall off then at least get a little wobbly.
Safe And Sound turns complex topics (radicalisation, the reach of state-sponsored surveillance tech and reality-monopolising media) into thriller fodder. It makes for a pacey and well-directed hour of entertainment, but ultimately a shallow one. The idea of Foster being tricked so easily into believing her mother was a terrorist who planned to sacrifice her child for her political goals is just too hard a sell. Harder still is the idea of a mass conspiracy between government and big tech cooked up to make the populace happy little consumers. Having spiralled ambitiously out of the simplicity of PKD’s story, Safe And Sound ended up a little unanchored.
If the episode’s themes—school security, people and companies who profit from demonising the other and sowing seeds of paranoia—didn’t feel so depressingly relevant to our time, perhaps the superficiality of their treatment here wouldn’t feel this potentially harmful. Healthy scepticism about what we’re shown on TV or told by companies and politicians with vested interests is exactly that – healthy. But in the last few years, cries of ‘fake news!’ and a blanket-refusal to believe any corner of the media over conspiracy theories feels as though it could be playing into some dangerous hands.
Overall, Safe And Sound was a well-acted, well-directed sci-fi thriller with sadly never-more-apt themes, but perhaps lacking in the complexity their treatment deserved.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, Autofac, here.