The Impossible Planet

The written version of ‘The Impossible Planet’ by Philip K Dick was first published towards the end of 1953 in Imagination magazine and can be found in Gollallacz’s Second Variety: Volume Two of the Collected Short Stories alongside the likes of ‘The Hoodmaker‘ and ‘Adjustment Team’.

It is the story of a rich old lady who wants to visit the planet Earth before she dies. An opportunistic captain, who likes the colour of her money, agrees to take her there in his ship, even though, much like in Battlestar Galactica, the existence of Earth has fallen into fable.

The captain searches his navigation computer for a planet which is the best match to Earth and takes her there instead. Of course the question is then, have they stumbled across the real Earth? It’s a barren poisonous world ravaged by war and intensive mining, but could it be humankind’s ancestral home? An old coin is found which proves the identity of the planet but it is tossed uncaringly into the garbage disposal on the spaceship.

The hour-long television adaptation ‘Impossible Planet’ was the second episode of the eagerly anticipated series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams shown on Channel 4 in the UK, and soon to be available on Amazon Video in the USA.

The main actors are Jack Reynor (the boyfriend in the odd age-gap relationship in Transformers: Age of Extinction) who plays Norton; Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange) who plays Norton’s work partner Andrews; and Charlie Chaplin’s daughter Geraldine Chaplin who plays old lady Irma. There is also a guy in a robot suit. The suit design reminded me of Bicentennial Man and was rather excellent.

In the written story the Earth is described as ‘MYTH LEGEND NEVER EXISTED’ and in the TV version it is recorded as having been decimated by a catastrophic solar event. There is also no mention of the moon in the TV show whereas in the written version it is a key requirement for the substitute planet to have such a moon as well as being the third planet in a solar system of nine.

In both versions the old woman has her wish to walk upon the planet’s surface granted. There’s a conveniently place ad break in the TV show to hide how Norton persuades Andrews to land the spaceship. In the written version the planet’s weather systems are far less hostile and landing is even aided by an anchoring device left by miners.

In the written version Irma goes out to the edge of an ocean and collapses, her ‘robant’ companion runs to her and also meets his demise. The TV show is more complex. Norton appears as the old lady’s grandfather in a photograph she has with her implying to the viewer that some kind of time dilation event will happen when they get outside the vessel.

However, what actually happens seems to imply oxygen deprivation induced hallucination, death and transfer into an alternate reality in which Norton is indeed the lover of a transformed younger version of Irma. The name of the spacecraft and on the old-fashioned pedal bike are suggestive of dreams. It’s all a bit of a mess to be honest and probably left many viewers scratching their heads at such an inconclusive ending. Is the transformational reality heaven? Is that what’s ‘impossible’ about the planet in the TV show?

A major ‘groan!’ was sounded when Irma revealed that she had kept her grandfather’s clothes for Norton to wear (under his space suit) when they disembarked the vessel. She could have washed them at least. She also dons an old dress which Norton helps her button up. There’s some chemistry between the two (another odd relationship) and she intimates that she has been dreaming about him.

Irma in the written version is very frail and has to helped everywhere by the robant. Both characters are two-dimensional in the 8 page written version – there’s none of the spunk of Chaplin’s character or the cleverness of the robant. Chaplin’s portrayal is captivating and she gives the impression that a young woman with needs is trapped inside her decaying body. In both versions the fact that she is deaf is rather inconsequential to the story.

The TV version is a story of love and death between a man and woman seeking something that transcends the normal boundaries of time and space. In this respect the story of the sad demise of the planet Earth is elevated from the page and transformed into something else entirely.

I enjoyed this episode rather more than the first, but I’m hoping that the next episodes can get beyond the man-meets-woman-sci-fi-happens format. While PKD was very good at exploring what it means to be human, his science fiction revolves around various big and small ideas which haven’t been particularly well serviced by the TV show yet. I have yet to have my mind blown as it has so many times by his writing.

Photo adapted from one by NASA on Unsplash.

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