Electric Dreams: 109 “Safe and Sound” Review
Reviewed by Ryan Monty.
(This review continues spoilers. Read on if that doesn’t bother you!)
Today’s world is one that is depressingly filled with as much distrust as ever, as vitriol grows over important world issues. Nowhere is the bile more toxic than that spewed towards the media, where the cries of “fake news” are impossible to avoid circling almost every news story with even a hint of a lack of plausibility. A reasonable suspicion to what we’re told is healthy, but the seeds of paranoia and great fear are sown deeper almost every day- which makes this week’s instalment of Electric Dreams, Safe and Sound, a timely one.
Written for television by Kalen Egan and Travis Sentell from Phillip K. Dick’s 1955 story Foster, You’re Dead! (for once, not a direct title transfer!) Safe and Sound opens tellingly to the strains of Peter Gabriel’s Come Talk to Me, his song about a conflicted mother and daughter relationship, as sixteen-year-old Foster Lee (Captain Fantastic and Ouija: Origin of Evil’s Annalise Basso) and her mother Irene (ER and The Affair’s Maura Tierney) as they drive towards their new life in the big city.
They’ve come from the West, from one of this world’s “Bubbles”, low-tech, independent communities that live free across the “Rift” from the influence of the big cities in the East, the divide occurring after an unexplained event by the name of the “Reformation”. The kind of world that we’re to be shown is revealed as Foster and Irene come across an intimidating checkpoint blocking their way to the city, the soldiers reacting with almost comical fear and suspicion, petrified by Irene casually throwing her identification papers towards them as if they were explosives.
Safe and Sound is one of the richest Electric Dreams episodes yet, for better and for worse. The details of the world help build a well-rounded picture of the happenings within the story, yet it seems to want to tell as many different cautionary tales as it possibly can, about consumerism, terrorism, and the isolation and loss of individualism of youth. The world itself can’t be faulted, with Foster’s new school looking suspiciously close to the “classroom of tomorrow”, decorated by drones flashing patterns in the sky above (say, I wonder if they belong to Autofac?)
Foster is portrayed as your average sixteen-year-old moving to a new home, intimidated yet curious about her new surroundings and with a desire to fit in. Her mother mocks her new school and her classmates straight from their first visit, calling them “sheep”. Foster stands out like a sore thumb, mocked for her individuality immediately, forced to a different check-in point with a mix of ethnic students and outsiders (on the nose, but the parallel is clear). She’s called “mom shirt” by the uncaring attendant.
Foster’s school is proud to be a “Simi Safe Zone”, protected (or, safe and sound) from terrorism and the like with the help of the “Dex”, a tracking device and educational tool that’s essentially just a tech-wristband. That doesn’t prevent Foster from being a target for the all-present educational threats, bullies, who target her peers- and almost her, if not for fellow outsider Milena (Wish Upon’s Alice Lee)- for having a red band instead of a Dex. For this, they’re called terrorists by the bullies, who’re worried they’ll catch diseases from them.
Poor Foster never really stood a chance in this world, telegraphed most obviously as she introduces herself to her class, exclaiming that “I know I looked weird”- before panning to an unimpressed bunch of students dressed as some 50s comical version of the future- and her ostracization begins in earnest. It’s all sold quite beautifully by Basso, who catches the right balance of determined but fragile as the world warps around her, even one of the only friends she makes Kaveh (Detroit’s Algee Smith) expecting sexual favours for setting her up with a Dex.
Foster’s mother Irene is your common and garden “stick it to the man” kind of mum, overly protective and desperate to see her daughter grow to her potential (some cute similarities to recent Black Mirror episode Arkangel). Irene refuses to allow Foster a Dex, leading her to getting one illegally. There’s a fine line before “safety and comfort” cuts into the truth she exclaims, and you can understand her paranoia towards the surveillance state. Aspects of this world feel very Minority Report, like in the way the Dex tracks people’s vital signs, allowing crimes to be prevented before they even happen.
Foster herself is being suffocated by her mother, for good reason or bad. The clash between her prior sheltered life and this new outgoing society drives a wedge between her and Irene. “It’s ok to have fun here” Foster is told as she’s encouraged to have sex with Kaveh in exchange for getting her the Dex. It’s no wonder that Foster is drawn to her customer support assistant on her Dex, who quite brilliantly and unsettlingly has his voice mixed seemingly sounding closer to us than Foster’s own.
This is where the paranoia drenched drama takes full form, as the initially-harmless customer support voice becomes a controlling one in her head drawing her into full-blown conspiracy. After ordering her to follow Milena, to what turns out to be an abandoned library (from a time before books were fully digitised, here- already happening in earnest) Foster is demanded to throw up the tea Milena had given her in fear of poisoning, seemingly a bulimia analogy.
For Foster is a sick, vulnerable girl, driven to believe she has carried on her father’s mental health troubles by a manipulative society weaponizing the youth to their own political gain, and Safe and Sound completely sticks the landing despite the themes of the story continuing to be wielded and juggled messily, but nonetheless effectively, by focusing on how Foster has been used.
Irene, explains the nonsense of the situation and manipulative media, of how snowballing reports of “weapons” morphs into gangs of “insurgents” faster than lightning, and she even offers to let Foster keep her Dex as she’s too young to “give up her independence”. Far too late though, and Foster becomes a martyr wielded by the government to their own ends. Irene is arrested in her place, and Foster is the hero of the day as promised by the voice in her head, who was naturally manipulating her. All the students end up with the “hear gel” that allowed Foster and the voice to speak, now allowing further privacy encroachment- but it’ll just make them safer, after all…
Safe and Sound arrives (in the UK, at least) at an uncomfortable time, so soon after another horrific school shooting in the US. Still, the story it tells is one worth telling, one of unquestioned media and government going largely unchecked in the name of “safety”. The tale of Foster being radicalised as a puppet, manipulated for gain of the ruling class is one of the strongest and most tragic character arcs of the series, helped by terrific performances from Basso and Tierney, in which the story wouldn’t have been half as effective without. It may not be the most nuanced story of the series, but sometimes making the message an obvious one only helps to press home its urgency- needed, in troubling modern times.