This review contains spoilers.
Even without the coup of casting Janelle Monáe—an artist whose sci-fi concept albums pay richer tribute to PKD’s work than some of this series has managed to—in the role of an android, Autofac would still be one of the better Electric Dreams episodes. It’s a fast-moving action tale that pivots on a couple of good twists. Writer Travis Beacham’s changes to the PKD story either bring it up-to-date, or add new layers. And its original themes are still depressingly relevant to our time.
Set twenty years after a world war destroyed civilisation as we know it, Autofac is the story of a group of resistance fighters eking out a living just outside the encroaching wastelands. They’re resisting the titular ‘Autofac’, a fully automated factory set in motion before the war that has continued to strip the land and spew out unwanted goods in the decades since. The settlement needs the Autofac to shut down so it stops polluting the environment and filling the world with unnecessary products (“clothes, electronics, Christmas decorations…”) but the Autofac just keeps on keeping on.
Enter: Emily Zabriskie (Juno Temple), the group’s engineer or “tinkerer”. We meet her and two pals enacting a plan to get the Autofac to stop and listen. They need to disrupt its rigid workflow with a leftfield query that doesn’t rouse its self-defence weapons systems. Anyone who’s done battle with an automated customer service chatbot or a voice recognition phone line will feel their pain.
Their solution is as clever now as it was in PKD’s 1955 story. They report the merchandise (in the episode – trainers, in the story – milk) as “pizzled”, a nonsense word that’s since entered modern tech vocabulary to describe a product that’s unsatisfactory in an unspecific way. The gambit works, and the Autofac dispatches hospitality unit ‘Alice’ (Monáe).
Alice is an old-school android, a beautiful woman in a form-fitting bodysuit, all electronically sound-tracked blinks, unwavering voice and repetitive movements. Monáe is some dancer, so manages it all with real control. It isn’t as though she hasn’t had the practice. Androids are a big deal in Monáe’s music, which draws on their symbolism to explore alienation and otherness.
Alice arrives in retro sci-fi splendour, emerging backlit from the door of her flying ship as the assembled crowd of humans shrinks from the light. It’s a moment we’ve seen hundreds of times on screen, so familiar it’s almost parodic. Autofac’s nods to sci-fi cinema verge on pastiche. A synth note that plays as the ship approaches monolithic factory later in the episode, for instance, mimics the first time we see the Tyrell Corporation in Blade Runner. A reference to robots in theme parks recalls Westworld. Emily coming face to face with her clone in a tank is familiar from, ooh, just about everything.
To be kind about it, you could say the episode has done the same with existing sci-fi imagery as Emily and co. have done with the recycled and repurposed objects they’ve incorporated into their improvised tools, vehicles and living spaces. To be less kind, you’d might call it cliched.
What is not yet a cliché—though how great would it be to fast-forward to a time when it’s so widespread that it is—is Emily’s skill with engineering and coding. PKD’s stories are ahead of their time in just about every way, but fairly of-their-time when it comes to gender. The only woman in the original Autofac story is Judith, the wife of a main character, who’s nowhere near any of the action. Beacham has corrected the balance, even giving the ‘don’t go, it’s dangerous! I love you!’ role traditionally assigned to girlfriends and wives in action sci-fi to Emily’s boyfriend Avishai (Nick Eversman). It’s still a stereotype, but it’s a gender-flipped stereotype.
Unlike Judith, Emily is our hero. She’s the one shooting the drone out of the sky, hacking its “brain” and coercing Alice into cooperation with her plan to infiltrate and blow up the Autofac. She’s also the only member of this ragtag group of surviving humans to work out the truth – they’re not really human. Requiring consumers for its output, the Autofac made them (“it can make anything it has the blueprint for”) and installed perception filters so they wouldn’t work out their true nature.
The major cliché of hacker-engineer Emily appears to be her alt-90s styling, something that actually turns out to be key to the episode’s main twist. Contrasted with Alice’s sleek tech appearance, the tumbledown humans look even more organic. Those dreads and holey jumpers are the episode’s disguise for the fact that Emily and pals are actually the slickest tech around.
The nature of that tech, Emily argues, is a matter of debate. Alice calls the group “not real, just units in a product line,” but Emily, whose blueprint was the tech genius who invented the Autofac in the first place, has other ideas. She thinks they’re the humanity’s second chance. The episode ends on a note of quiet victory as she saves her people from destruction and ‘unmakes’ the Autofac by infecting it with code. Forget the warheads, she was the real bomb all along. It’s a happier ending than in PKD’s original, which takes a more cynical stance on the unavoidability of industrial production.
As an hour of sci-fi, there’s action, tension, things to look at—especially during the factory heist—and plenty to think about. Alice’s presence provides a sense of threat and unpredictability. Temple and Monáe are good leads, while other characters fade quickly from memory.
Autofac’s most satisfying element of all though might well be the irony of this particular story—an unstoppable, inhuman production line flooding the world with deliveries of stuff it doesn’t need—paid for by this particular streaming service.
Read Louisa’s review of the previous episode, The Father Thing, here.