The Commuter

The hour-long television adaptation of ‘The Commuter’ was the third episode of the anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams shown yesterday in the UK on Channel 4.

Ed Jacobson (a thinner than usual looking Timothy Spall), who works at a railway station in a contemporary version of the UK, meets the mysterious Linda (played by Sense8‘s Tuppence Middleton) and finds out that people are taking the train to a town called Macon Heights that doesn’t exist.

He discovers an alternate reality that forces him to confront his troubled relationship with his mentally ill son Sam (Anthony Boyle). A fellow commuter to the impossible town is the distinctive looking Tom Brooke most recently seen by me playing a fallen angel in Preacher on Amazon.

Linda tells Ed how long it takes to get to Macon Heights and so, with the help of a timer on his mobile phone, he knows when to get off the slowing train. It’s pretty obvious because Brooke’s character and others also jump off and walk across the fields toward the mysteriously mist-enshrouded perfect town.

The problem (of course there has to be a problem or we have zero drama) is that when Ed returns home his son no longer exists. Ed is later told by Linda that he has a choice to make – keep visiting the ideal town and enjoy his easier son-less life or get his son back – does he love his son enough to go back to his previous reality despite the knowledge that the situation will get worse? How Linda knows all this and indeed how she has created this town (or stabilised a pocket of an alternate reality in this one) is left unexplained.

The TV show has some great effects which do a good job of making visual the essence of PKD at his most surreal. I enjoyed it much more than grungy episode one and a little more than episode two with it’s ‘hard’ sci-fi trappings. It was very atmospheric and seemed like a more assured and slicker production than the first two adaptations.

The written version of ‘The Commuter’ by Philip K Dick can be found in Gollallacz’s Second Variety: Volume Two of the Collected Short Stories alongside the likes of ‘The Hoodmaker‘ and ‘The Impossible Planet’ and spans around ten and half pages.

In the written version it is a little old man who asks Ed for a book of tickets to the seemingly non-existent town and disappears a couple of times. As you’d expect, Ed works in a US train station in a large city and Macon Heights is a picture perfect quintessential American town full of drug stores, coffee shops and a supermarket.

Like Linda in the TV show, the old man works at Bradshaw Insurance and the trip to Macon Heights takes around twice as long in the book as it does in the TV show. These changes are rather inconsequential. Rather more different is the fact that Ed only visits Macon Heights once in the written version and gets someone else to do his research into the history of the town’s (non-) development for him.

After his one and only visit Ed worries about the changes that he thinks are bleeding into the city – like shops and houses he can’t remember being there before. He rushes to get home and everything seems okay until he hears the cry of his baby son who he somehow forgot he had. The baby scowls at him from his cot – and maybe this inspired the screenwriter into creating a teenage version of the child in the TV version and making him angry.

So the big changes in the TV adaptation are the pre-existence of Ed’s son and the idea that Linda has somehow brought the town in existence as a sanctuary for damaged people. In the TV show, Ed has to make a choice after having seen a possible alternate life mapped out for him rather like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol or Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day.

Some things in Macron Heights of the TV show stay the same – the happy engaged couple – and some change – the type of cake the cafe woman has cooked. In the written version the reader isn’t given the opportunity to find out how the day-to-day continuum in the town plays out.

The TV adaptation builds on the idea of this impossible town rising out of the mist with a much better back story and narrative arc for Ed. None of the changes mentioned seem shoe-horned in and rather add some flesh onto the bones of a rather skeletal short story. Bravo!

Photo at Kings Cross, London by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

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