The Hanging Stranger / K.A.O.

‘K.A.O.’ was the last episode of the anthology series Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams recently shown in the UK on Channel 4 and was an adaptation of Dick’s 1953 short story ‘The Hanging Stranger’ which spans 14 pages of Gollancz’s The Father-Thing: Volume Three of the Collected Short Stories. The collection also features the stories ‘The Father-thing‘, ‘Sales Pitch,‘ ‘Exhibit Piece’ and ‘Foster, You’re Dead‘ which were also adapted as part of the show.

‘The Hanging Stranger’ features Ed Loyce a shop owner who has been digging in the basement of his house in preparation of laying new concrete foundations. He goes down to his store and while looking for a parking space notices a dead man hanging from a lamppost. What worries Loyce even more is that no-one else in town seems that bothered.

Some policemen appear but Loyce susses out that they are not real policemen and dives from their moving car. He escapes and hides in an alley. While he’s hiding he sees dark winged insectoid shapes coming down a funnel in the sky into the town hall. Men are then appearing from out of the town hall obviously possessed by the creatures.

He gets home a tries to get his wife and two sons to come with him, to escape the town by a disused back road he figures the alien invaders won’t know about. However it seems at least one of them has already been possessed and so Loyce leaves alone and on foot. He eventually gets to the next town where he explains to the police what has happened. Unfortunately for Loyce he becomes the hanging stranger in this town to act as bait to identify who has not been converted.

Perhaps a reflection of the McCarthyism that was rife at the time of writing, this story is comparable in some ways to Dick’s ‘The Father-thing’ published a year later.

‘K.A.O.’ a.k.a. ‘Kill All Others’ is unsurprisingly a more up to date tale for the modern television audience. I say unsurprising because most the other episodes have been updated versions of the stories rather than direct transfers to another medium. I realise that I would have much preferred the latter. Not that this episode was as lame as some of the others have been.

The episode starts nicely with some holographic advertising for a shaving product pissing off our overweight and balding hero Philbert Noyce, and we also see that his equally tubby wife has taken a shine to the coffee advert holo. This is typical PKD territory and was a nice touch.

Noyce (Mel Rodriguez) works in a robotic production line in 2054 doing quality control with just three other men and one overseer. He rides the train to work through a futuristic city and watches a show extolling the virtues of the uniparty system for their North American ‘great mega nation’ with just the one candidate played by a pristine looking Vera Famiga (most recently in Bates Motel).  ‘Yes Us Can’ is the chanted slogan of the campaign – if you can call it that given she is the only candidate.

At home that evening, Noyce spots the candidate say ‘kill all others’ with flashing words on the screen while his wife is in another room. No one else he talks to the next day is bothered by the message. On the train he sees a discussion on the vid screen about the odd message, the train comes to a brief halt and he sees a flashing sign outside saying kill all others and pulls the emergency cable causing an accident.

He is then psych evaluated and banned from using the train but gets a new automated car out of the deal. The next morning he witnesses a woman being chased and attacked and tries to intervene. This leads to another psych evaluation. This is obviously par for the course in this future society.

He is identified as an outlier and maybe – gasp! – an ‘other’. Like we couldn’t see that coming. At work, he’s given a health monitor by his overseer and told to layoff the political talk. At lunch he sees a new billboard saying Kill All Others with a dummy (or is it a real body?) hanging off it.

That evening he tries to call in to an interview with the candidate and gets accused of being an other on national television. The next day at work his co workers ignore him. Driving home he spots men at his house so he parks a way away and walks home and climbs in (in true Beatles style) through the bathroom window.

He wants to escape the situation with his wife. She tries to calm him down but he flips out and runs off on foot. He’s chased by a helicopter and climbs the billboard to see if the body is real. Great going for a fat guy to run the distance of his railway commute all the way to work, eh?

The authorities try to drug him by using his health monitor but he whips it off his wrist and proceeds to try and pull the body down to prove it’s real and not a dummy. What this is actually going to prove to anyone is not clear and this is where the writing is at its fuzziest. Perhaps made dizzy by the illogical situation he finds himself in he falls off the billboard.

The footage is used that night for propaganda purposes by the candidate waffling on about how they’re going to build the country by getting rid of the ‘others’. If it doesn’t strike a chord with old folks who remember the war or anyone who has learnt anything about dictatorships it might strike a chord with anyone who followed the Brexit debate or the US election.

Unsurprisingly, Noyce ends up being the one strung up from the billboard. It wasn’t the worst episode thanks to some great acting and a more PKD-style distopian future, but I am kind of glad it’s all over…

Image adapted from a photo by Mac Glassford on Unsplash.

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