NOTE: ‘The Father Thing’ is listed as episode 10 in some locations however Channel 4 have aired it as the 7th episode of season 1’s Electric Dreams
Electric Dreams really needs to help itself. When I started reviewing the show, back in the heady days of 2017 before it vanished for months, I tried to stay away from comparisons to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. The Father Thing isn’t anything like a Black Mirror episode, thankfully, but the show’s long break in the UK meant that there has been a whole new series of Black Mirror to steal its thunder and make pretender comments all but inevitable.
In one case the four-month break has helped Electric Dreams. If The Father Thing premiered the week after Human Is, a similar, more hopeful, and much better story of alien possession, then Electric Dreams might have lost viewers due to the repetitiveness of what is supposed to be a varied anthology. Instead, the workmanlike The Father Thing can be taken on its own merits thanks to the time gap.
Written and directed by Michael Dinner, who has some form in family dramas from the kid’s perspective thanks to his work on The Wonder Years, The Father Thing plays out two very familiar ideas in some interesting ways. The first is the invisible invasion story that is so common thanks to Jack Finney’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. For any serious sci-fi artist, it must be a pleasure to put their own take on this story, but that doesn’t stop it from being overdone. From metaphors for communism, consumerism, and many other isms, this type of story needs to be put on ice for a while to make it fresh again. The second well-trodden idea is the one in which The Father Thing has much more to say about: the parent that turns against the child.
Greg Kinnear plays the father of Charlie Cotrell (an impressive Jack Gore), and the two have a great relationship. The episode begins with a father-son camping trip that consists of the two playing guessing games about their shared passion, baseball. I’m Scottish so the baseball stuff mostly went over my head, I’ve been told it’s like cricket but faster (which is really no help at all) but it helps as a short-hand for Charlie and his father’s strong bond. While camping the two witness a meteor shower that looks quite beautiful but spells danger to any savvy science fiction fan.
Even before the aliens enter Charlie’s life all is not well with mum and dad. Turns out that divorce is on the horizon as dad fails to tell Charlie that he’s planning on moving out. Still, Charlie got a place on the baseball team (I want to say little league, but that might be my movie knowledge failing me) and when he runs out to tell dad, what do you know, he’s getting melted by an alien who takes his place.
As tired as the inciting incident is, I’m still a fan of stories in which a loving parent suddenly becomes dangerous. The Shining is the obvious example of this being done well, and Essie Davis deserves another shout out for the thematically similar The Babadook, and The Father Thing is at its best when focusing on Charlie’s reaction to the thing that basically killed his dad. Invasion stories like this have a tendency of having a wider scope: focusing on the effect on say a major city, or the world, but this episode keeps things contained to the threat inside the house.
The similarities to The Shining don’t stop there, in fact there is something almost Stranger Things-like about this episode. It’s told entirely from Charlie’s point of view, complete with a motley crew of foul-mouthed friends and their bully of a big brother. Seeing the effects of this invasion from the point of view of the children raise the stakes in such a specific way. The authority figures in most children’s lives are corrupted: the dad is killed and replaced by an alien and the history teacher leaps of the school roof because his wife has become one of them. If you’re a fan of sly nods it may interest you to know that the teacher is called Philip Dick and he is played by Terry Kinney: who has also appeared in Abel Ferrara’s Bodysnatchers.
The specific plan of the aliens is fairly predictable but there is some fun to be had in the way Charlie eventually overcomes his unwanted visitor. Thanks in part to the bully, Charlie defeats the interloper and burns the pods that were being readied for himself and his mother. After supposedly breaking the news that dad was killed and then replaced by an alien, which Charlie also had a hand in killing, to his mother (an unforgivably underused Mireille Enos) Charlie starts a resistance through the oh-so-modern means of a Twitter hashtag. It’s a weird ending to a story that could have used a lot more of Philip K Dick’s signature weirdness.
6/10 – Despite the cliched plot, The Father Thing is saved from complete ruin by an unnerving performance from Greg Kinnear, the guile of it’s child star, and some arresting images. On the list of things I didn’t know would disturb me deeply, a junk yard full of human skin is now firmly on top. Electric Dreams is back, and let’s hope it’s more like Human Is than The Father Thing.