Based on the 1955 story of the same name, ‘Autofac’ takes the original story and runs with it. By the end of the episode, there’s barely anything left resembling the original. But that’s ok! Writer Travis Beacham uses the original story to deliver a different but equally sci-fi message.
One thing that has stayed the same is the setting. The world has been ravaged by war and there are these vast automated factories making endless amounts of supplies, who haven’t got the memo that the war is over. The survivors who remain from the war need the factories to shut down, stop making needless products, and thus stop polluting what’s left of the planet. Enter our heroes – Emily the ‘tinkerer’ (Juno Temple) and gruff Conrad (David Lyons). Sick of destroying the autofac drones, their new plan is to get a message to the factory to confuse it. They do this with the word “pizzled” – a word coined by PKD in the original story. Thoroughly confused by it, the factory sends out a robot to communicate with its unhappy consumers.
Things begin to differ from the book here. Firstly, the main character of Emily. Philip K. Dick was ahead of his time, but women don’t make too many prominent appearances in his short stories. In the short story that this is based on, the only female character is the protagonist’s wife. So it’s a nice update. Also, the robot the factory sends is completely different, she’s a character in her own right. In the story, the robot is just a standard android that gets torn to pieces by the townsfolk. Here she is named Alice and is played by Janelle Monáe, and she might just be the most convincing android ever. She’s not quite humanoid, she’s still far from being a convincing person. Alice moves with repetitive motions, there’s a whirring when she blinks. It’s eerie.
It’s when Alice appears that things get really interesting, where the story surpasses the original perhaps. The gang uses Alice to enter the factory. There’s a real Blade Runner feel to the episode as they approach the monolithic factory, evoking the same grandeur and fear as when Deckard approached the Tyrell building. But it’s the twist that sets it apart. They’ve all been androids all along, and Emily knew it. She manages to take down the factory and the episode ends on a hopeful note. It’s a brave twist that could have very easily gone wrong. But it works! And it not only works, it feels like something Philip K. Dick might have written himself.
The story did not end so happily. The characters find that they did not, in fact, blow up the factory, that it will just continue to self-replicate for all of time. That really doubled down on the horrors of unstoppable consumerism and was a real downer ending. And a sad ending is fine, but I do like to see something more hopeful now and then – especially in a setting and story that begins as bleak as this.
Overall, I think it’s a really strong episode. It starts off a little too familiar perhaps but when Alice arrives it steps up a gear. The performances are strong and there are nice visuals – but the key thing is that it adapts the original in a unique way. I’m reading all of the stories at the same time, so I’m really glad that the episodes feel like companion pieces to the originals, not straight-up adaptations.
Reviewed by Jack