This is the first of the series to use a contemporary setting. It’s another early 1950s story but it has been transposed from California to present-day Woking in Surrey in the London ‘commuter belt’. There are some odd decisions here since the London commute is so different to the kind of journey Dick envisaged in the 1950s. I was surprised that this adaptation uses the same names for the characters and for the mysterious town of ‘Macon Heights’ – an unlikely English name.
The episode is adapted by the acclaimed film, TV and stage writer Jack Thorne and directed by one of his early collaborators, Tom Harper (Scouting For Boys 2009). It also has a strong cast led by Tim Spall and Tuppence Middleton. I was especially delighted to see Hayley Squires after her breakout appearance in I, Daniel Blake earlier this year. The odd nature of The Commuter partly derives from the sense of moving between a realist presentation of Woking station and then taking a journey not towards London, but out further into the fantasy countryside. This is because a woman (Tuppence Middleton) approaches Ed (Tim Spall) at the booking office and asks for a ticket to ‘Macon Heights’. When she is told no such station exists on the line, she argues that it does and then instantly disappears. Ed goes looking for this mysterious destination and stumbles across it. His strange experience is also related to his home life with his wife and son – presented again in a social realist environment. Thorne has remained faithful to Dick’s short story material and then extended the narrative to make much more of these links between the fantastical new town and Ed’s problems at home.
This is not science fiction as much as speculative fiction or indeed fantasy. It’s quite different to the first two episodes and Tom Harper uses different techniques (more associated with art films) to explore the fantasy elements. I also noted one aspect of ‘Macon Heights’ that reminded me strongly of The Truman Show (US 1998), Peter Weir’s film written by Andrew Niccol which is my favourite ‘Dickian’ film not from a PKD story. The Macon Heights scenes were seemingly shot at Poundbury in Dorset. This new town project is built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and the eclectic mix of architectural styles is influenced by the views of Prince Charles – and subject to much criticism. It makes an intriguing setting for The Commuter – but the series producers didn’t solve the problem of the different railways systems in Surrey and Dorset. Overall though, this episode offered a different type of Dickian story, demonstrating the diversity of his ideas at the start of his writing career.