Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams “The Commuter”: Spall Gets Woke
Speculative fiction allows us to explore answers to life’s challenges that we don’t often entertain because real life just doesn’t work that way and, sometimes, we’ve been told they are simply unacceptable to society’s sense of morality.
The sense of morality dictates that if a loved one falls ill, we stay by their side, no matter the emotional and psychological toll. Society lauds survivors who live out their lives despite terrible traumas, congratulates those who carry scars without reaching out for healing, permits the existence of those who are able to control and conceal their worst impulses.
But speculative fiction like Philip K. Dick’s can ask the eternal “what if?” and allow for an option that removes the wickedness, the vice, the abuse, and the guilt completely from one’s life. And the source of this oblivion in “The Commuter” is a little town called Macon Heights that doesn’t exist but nearly did.
Our protagonist here is Ed Jacobson (Timothy Spall, Hatton Garden) who works his days at a relatively busy train station and returns home to a strained family situation. His son, Sam (Anthony Boyle, Derry Girls) is becoming progressively more dangerous as his psychotic episodes increase while his wife, Mary (Rebecca Manley, Last Tango in Halifax) is becoming bitter and cold.
He loves his son but has to admit to Mary that Sam frightens him at times. Mary responds that Sam is her son and she could never be scared of him whereas Ed’s “fake smile” scares her and she feels like talking to Sam is more like talking to the real Ed, the one she married. It’s the most scathing example of pillow-talk I’ve ever seen and my heart broke for Ed as he turned away, accepting that he had disappointed and failed his wife somehow, unsure what’s happened to his life.
At work, a frazzled woman named Linda (Tuppence Middleton, Sense8) arrives at the ticket booth asking for a ticket to Macon Heights and he has to inform her that there is no such stop. Over consecutive days, she appears over and over again looking for a ticket and when questioned about her destination, she disappears suddenly. This isn’t just Ed hallucinating since his co-worker Bob (Rudi Dharmalingam, Hollyoaks) meets her as well, even gets her to describe exactly how long it takes her to get to Macon Heights. Twenty-eight minutes, apparently.
Eventually, curiousity proves too much for Ed and he jumps on the train to find out if this Macon Heights really exists. Twenty-eight minutes later, several train passengers open the train doors and leap out. Ed follows and joins the entourage on their pilgrimage over the rise of the field and into an idyllic little town that isn’t supposed to be there.
He spends a pretty perfect day in Macon Heights – eating free apple cake, congratulating a newly engaged couple, watching children fly kites – until Linda appears and sits with him for a while. She lets him know that he’ll need to return on the 7:20 train and hopes he enjoys his day. (It can be assumed he had a better day than Bob whom he just left alone at the station at the peak of rush hour.)
When he returns home, the house is peacefully quiet and Mary is genuinely happy to see him. After supper, he goes to the guest room and sits there in the dark. Mary finds him there and reminesces about the days when they thought they’d start a family. “I always thought,” she says softly,”that we might have had a son.” Smiling gently, she leans forward to kiss him and they make love.
The next day, as Ed carries on with his daily routines, it’s clear that Ed has returned to a changed existence and, although something feels off, he himself doesn’t consciously remember Sam in his other life. However, the mystery of Macon Heights continues to haunt him and he tracks down a reporter, Martine Jenkins (Anne Reid, Upstairs, Downstairs) who wrote about the planning of a proposed town called Macon Heights.
They discuss the fact that the town very nearly did exist but the man who had planned it mishandled his finances and he committed suicide, leaving his daughter, Linda, behind. Martine asks how many times Ed has been there and he admits he has been once. She tells him most people visit it several times before looking her up, revealing that he isn’t the first to come knocking. Interestingly enough, she’s never been able to visit. “It’s closed to me,” she tells Ed with regret.
Things continue to feel off to Ed and, when he catches a glimpse of Sam on the platform and then dreams himself into a hidden attic full of all his memories of fatherhood, he is desperate to get that life back.
He travels back to Macon Heights, determined to reset his life, and the vibe has changed. The people of the town are no longer welcoming. He starts seeing them for what they are, people filled with regret and guilt for escaping their trauma and vices. His favourite waitress (Hayley Squires, Call the Midwife) is a rape victim. The tall man (Tom Brooke, Preacher) who travels to Macon Heights daily confesses to terrible and unsavory urges.
Finding Linda, he demands his life back and although she tries to convince him that his original life will only get worse, he insists that it’s still his life to live. She shrugs regretfully and makes a rather magical exit.
Ed gets back on the train, returns home where the neighbourhood is looking more run-down again, and steps into his kitchen where Sam is having a cup of tea. Ed smiles to have his son back.
Like Ed’s discomfort at being confronted with the horrors his fellow Macon Heights visitors have come to escape, we are meant to feel conflicted at the idea of being able to simply erasing the existance of stressful people from our lives. Even knowing that Sam’s condition will most probably never improve and most likely, will destroy him, his parents, and potential victims, it’s an impossible dilemma for his father.
Ed admits to Linda that he may have dreamed of a Sam-less existence but dreaming isn’t the same as wishing for it to be true. To be clear, he never explicitly asked Linda to change his life. And taking Sam away meant ripping all the good memories out of Ed’s head as well.
This isn’t an episode about out-of-control technology or government surveillance or mind control but it does delve into the very Dickian theme of dual existances and the human struggle between truth and happiness. It makes us uncomfortable because none of us wants to have to make that choice. Ever.
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