Electric Dreams Episode Three “The Commuter” review

Adam Mathew 9 October 2017

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Railroaded into a life you don't want? The third episode of Electric Dreams might have the solution to your woes.

So far, the sci-fi concepts of the Electric Dreams series haven't stretched plausibility too much. The mutated telepaths in “The Hood Maker” might become a reality thanks to a bit of gene-splicing. And the pleasure cruises across the galaxy depicted in “Impossible Planet” will totally be a thing one day (but probably only for people with the requisite Multi-Pass). Even still, the reality-bending shenanigans in this third episode, “The Commuter”, will require a lot more suspension of disbelief on your part.

When it was originally published in 1953 in Amazing Stories, The Commuter was quite similar to what we got in this TV adaption. A plodding railway station manager named Ed (Timothy Spall) encounters the eponymous anomaly that is the commuter, Linda (Tuppence Middleton). She appears one day and requests a ticket to a town called Macon Heights, a place that cannot be found on any normal map. To make things even more mysterious, Linda, despite not appearing to be an expert in ninjitsu, can vanish into thin air whenever she's closely questioned about this ephemeral destination.

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Ed is obviously shaken by these encounters, but he's got too much on his plate to attempt any meaningful investigation. His home life couldn't be worse. Ed's relationship with his wife Mary (Rebecca Manley) is strained, and a lot of the tension stems from his mentally-troubled and increasingly violent son, Sam (Anthony Boyle). Frankly, it's looking like a downward spiral that none of them will escape. Our clock-punching hero is grinning and bearing through it, though Ed's wife hates his fake smiles.

Curiosity, or perhaps just a small break in the mundane, lures Ed into doing some detective work on Macon Heights. Boarding the train that Linda swears is scheduled to stop at the town at a certain time, Ed proceeds to make small talk with a creepy-looking passenger who's headed to the same locale. Sure enough, the train stops in the middle of a country field, a bunch of people leap off, and Ed follows them into the non-existent town where further puzzling adventures ensue.

In this odd place, time appears to be more or less on a loop for its impossibly cheerful residents. A confused Ed befriends a local waitress, has some tea and cake, and all his ills are pulled out by the root. More specifically: upon returning home his son has simply ceased to exist. Alternate-reality Mary laments that they never had children, however, their union has never been stronger. Also, Ed's childless co-worker is now a stressed out family man with three kids. “Maybe this is the world as it should be,” suggests Linda, during one of her brief visits.

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Ed becomes a curious mixture of contented and horrified, though he does find out that the process isn't irreversible... yet. Subsequent trips to Macon Heights continue to shed light on the nature of its existence and the types of people who frequent the place. It seems that only people hand-selected by Linda may find their way there. For example, journalist Martine Jenkins (Anne Reid) is fully aware of Macon Heights but lacks the means to visit and expose it.

She posits that it's a place that “almost existed” due to a vote that came down to the wire. Linda is (or possibly “was”) the daughter of a developer who planned to build the town but committed suicide when his thwarted plans resulted in financial ruin. Though the means are not explained, Linda’s Almostville can rewrite the reality of the world around it, effectively “fixing” people’s lives. It's the last hope of fathers in despair, waitresses who were sexually assaulted and creepy-looking train passengers who used to be pedophiles in their former existence.

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These revelations cause Ed to recoil from the town, and his presence begins to have a destabilising effect on everybody within. Linda offers him a choice: accept his ideal reality and lose his son, or return to the reality he knows and be all but guaranteed to have a terrible life. Sam is only going to get worse. He's not only going to inflict pain on his parents, but he's going to go on to commit terrible acts on the wider world around him.

It's the toughest of decisions. The common good versus the needs of the individual. Gambling on what could be, rather than taking responsibility for what you know is. In the end, Ed resists enormous temptation and chooses the love of a parent. Come what may, he's going to do his best and stick with Sam. I think most of us can agree: it's the right track to be on.

VERDICT

Timothy Spall delivers an exceptional performance in this disturbing and affecting tale. Though it's certainly not as accessible as the other sci-fi scenarios in Electric Dreams, The Commuter is by far the most moving and emotionally satisfying episode yet.


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