Greg Kinnear is the father in “Father Thing.”
Greg Kinnear is the father in “Father Thing.” Amazon

The episode on Amazon's sci-fi series Electric Dreams is called "The Father Thing," but the Philip K. Dick short story it's based on is called "The Father-Thing." The absence of the hyphen in the title of the Amazon show cannot be ignored. It changes the tone of the whole story. The TV episode has at its core an Oedipal twist. SPOILER ALERT. The father in the plot is not killed because the son wants to sleep with the mother, but for the opposite reason: he is leaving the mother, the marriage, the family, the nice house in a pleasant Chicago neighborhood.

The son has indeed a serious "father thing" going on. In his moral universe, the figure of the father is fixed to the family; he watches the children grow, takes them to games, and sleeps only with the mother in the master bedroom. The father can't just up and leave when he wants. This is a crime against the gods, the stars, the divine moral constellation. The son reaches the conclusion that the man about to abandon the family is actually an alien. The evidence is overwhelming. He saw a man who looks like his father shoot a bolt of electricity at a man who looks like his father. He finds the corpse of his real father in a barrel in the garage. He eventually kills the alien that killed the real father—the one who would have stayed with his mother and child forever.

In this respect, "The Father Thing" is very close to Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film about the collapse of the suburban certainties and a moral order that had the father as its center.

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Richard Dreyfuss is the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Richard Dreyfuss is the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Remove all of the extraterrestrials, the manic scenes of the man building a model of the Devils Tower, the space music, the colorful lights of the UFO, the scientists with notepads, the computers with bright buttons, the landing strip in the middle of nowhere—remove all that and what you are left with is a story about a father leaving his family.

The abandonment is so painful for the suburban children and their mother that it is experienced with galactic intensity. The father does not move to another house that has another woman but goes up to the stars. This kind imagery and structure of feeling was perfect for the late 1970s, the period that witnessed the first unraveling of a suburban order that was established after the Second World War and rapidly expanded in the 1950s.

Like the children in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the boy in "The Father Thing" sees his father's departure as something that's way out of this world. The stars are falling. It has to be an alien invasion. The computers go nuts. The city's electricity goes on and off. The aliens are taking over the bodies of loved wives and husbands. These aliens must be killed to save the world. The children want to restore the nuclear family. The boy not only kills his father but also the alien who was supposed to replace his mother.

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