Matthew Kresal checks out the recent BBC Radio adaptation of Philip K. Dick's cult sci-fi novel.
Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? is a novel that is perhaps best known for being the inspiration behind Ridley Scott's now classic film Blade Runner, which famously built itself on top of the concepts Dick created, taking character names and a few situations before largely running off and doing its own thing to some extent. Dick's novel is thus a different beast from the film it inspired, something that makes the two part BBC radio adaptation from 2014 that has recently been re-broadcast on Radio 4 Extra all the more intriguing.
Adapted by the playwright Jonathan Holloway, this radio play (which retains the novel's title) is more faithful than its feature film counterpart. It keeps the original setting of 1992 San Francisco in the aftermath of a nuclear war and also keeps many of the character details and names that were changed for the film. There are sequences from the novel which are quite faithfully reproduced here, including the first meeting between bounty hunter Deckard and Rachel alongside the billionaire Rosen (changed to Tyrell in Blade Runner) or a sequence where Deckard is made to question his sanity by being dragged to a police headquarters he doesn't recognize. Quite a few of the auxiliary details from the novel make it into this adaptation as well, which help rather nicely to fill out the world it takes places in. As someone who is a fan of both the novel and the film, it's nice to hear those scenes brought to life at last.
Yet in a way, it's also just as lose an adaptation of Dick's novel as Blade Runner was. While some sequences from the novel are featured here, there are times when Holloway makes some interesting changes. Perhaps taking a cue from some of the myriad versions of the film, the adaptation makes strong use of Deckard as narrator which gives the entire thing an air of noir. Elsewhere characters are merged or entirely deleted, such as Deckard's wife, though her absence is explained with a few lines of dialogue. Also gone from the novel is Mercerism, something akin to a religion which along with drugs and a box connected to something akin to virtual reality, focuses on empathy which is a major theme of the novel which Holloway ejects completely here. Some other details are swapped around for that matter, especially with the last 10-15 minutes which is an ending that combines elements of the novel and Blade Runner along with a new twist of its own. The result is that in some ways this is more faithful to Dick's novel than Blade Runner was while also being quite different from both novel and film.
For all of its changes, it's a solid production. The performances are particularly good with James Purefoy being particularly well cast in the role of Deckard with the right amount of world-weary gruffness and yet vulnerability to bring the role off. The big surprise of this is Jessica Raine in the role of Rachel, as those familiar with her from Call The Midwife, the Doctor Who episode Hide or her role as producer Verity Lambet in An Adventure In Time And Space will be in for a surprise. Not only does Raine pull off a pretty solid American accent but the part of Rachel gives her a chance to show off a range of her acting talents not seen in earlier roles, as the multi-faceted woman who gets to play such a large role in Deckard's life. There's a strong supporting cast too, ranging from the ever reliable Anton Lesser as the rich android builder Eldon Rosen, Nicky Henson as Deckard's boss, with Danny Sapani and Heather Craney in notable android roles.
The production is also notable for its sound design. There's a strong use of rock music in the soundtrack, being the last music produced before the nuclear war that took place in 1970. This serves as interesting backing music and counterpoint to many sequences in the production, and it is something else which helps to distinguish this production from Blade Runner. The soundscape beyond the music is interesting as well with a lot of background detail and layering that further helps to sell the post-apocalyptic and dystopian setting of it.
In the end this BBC radio take on Dick's novel is an interesting piece of work in its own right. In a way it's a more faithful adaptation of the novel than the cinema gave us three decades ago, yet Holloway's adaptation also deviates and creates a work at times quite different from its source material. With solid performances and an interesting soundscape bringing to life Holloway's script, it's a different take on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? then any you have probably encountered before. For that reason alone, it's well worth a listen.
Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? can be streamed worldwide through the BBC's webpage with episode one streaming through the 24th of October.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.