A man who almost wasn’t finds the town that almost was.
In the third story of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, Timothy Spall plays station worker Ed Jacobson. After encountering a vanishing commuter looking for a fictional station, Ed embarks on the search for Macon Heights.
Philip K. Dick submitted ‘The Commuter’ to Amazing Stories for publication in 1953. This TV reimagining comes from screenwriter and lauded playwright Jack Thorne. Among his varied credits, Thorne may be best known for writing the ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ play script. Next year he’ll adapt Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ for BBC One. So adapting other people’s work, especially those named Philip, seems to be one of his talents. Thorne also created the BBC Three series ‘The Fades‘ in 2011 and has written for shows like Skins, Shameless and This Is England.
In the original story, Ed steps off the train at Macon Heights with the others and seemingly into mid-air. Macon Heights station then materialises around him as though through a fog. While the TV story does away with the station, it keeps the fog imagery for the town itself. Though it removes something I thought was important to the story, the sight of people hopping casually into a heap on the grass verge is funny enough to set up the weirdness of the place. The direction also sells the contrast between Ed’s realities and the idyllic Macon Heights very well. But Tom Harper’s work as director comes into its own during the final act. Especially that shot of Ed ascending the ladder and the way Macon Heights is filmed later on.
Another invention of Thorne’s is the environment of Macon Heights. In the original, Ed only visits the town once and only speaks to the waitress (Hayley Squires). This was probably a length limitation on Dick’s part. Thorne uses the extra time to really establish what Macon Heights is like on a more personal level. The weird, otherworldly way that people speak and behave. In particular, Linda (Tuppence Middleton) and Martine (Anne Reid) serve as really interesting spirit guides for Ed. Meanwhile, Tom Brooke’s role as a seemingly-affable fellow passenger is effective at keeping the audience just slightly ill-at-ease.
There was joy
The storyline of Ed’s relationship with his son expands greatly on the ending of the original. The themes of finding the good in a bleak reality is nicely foreshadowed by the scenes immediately after the first trip to Macon Heights. Timothy Spall sells Ed’s emotional journey with an incredible sensitivity. There’s no hint at any reservation that he wants Sam back, even in the face of Linda’s warnings. Whereas he may have hesitated early on, his journey is complete and Spall puts that across beautifully. This is as pure a character arc as you could hope to see and it all comes across in the performances.
It’s probably fitting that the story relying less on sci-fi elements has the strongest emotional core. Spall turns in a moving performance that stands as the highlight of the series so far. The script is inventive with the source material and the director gives it the visual style that this story deserved.