In a post-apocalyptic settlement, built after a devastating world war, settlers are provided for by a gigantic automatic factory but some of them start to realise that they need to rebuild by themselves and that the endless, disruptive and excessive supply drops, coupled with the fact that the factory is polluting the environment and hindering the settlers’ chances of growing proper food, give them just cause to try and shut the factory down. With help from resident tech wizard and tinkerer Emily (Juno Temple), the settlers manage to lure in a representative from the factory, the robotic “hospitality unit” Alice (Janelle Monáe), but when she makes it clear that the factory will never stop, Emily and the settlers (along with an essentially hostage Alice) decide to destroy the factory from the inside, where Emily soon learns some troubling secrets.
Admittedly, I wasn’t fussed on this episode on first watch, believing it to be quite throwaway and maybe even a little bland, but I felt compelled to give it another chance soon afterwards and upon rewatch, I’d say that “Autofac” is indeed a fine episode, with more to it than initially meets the eye. Adapted by Pacific Rim and Clash of the Titans‘ Travis Beachum, this episode starts off by exploring issues of consumerism and how we are at our best when building things for ourselves, not having to rely on technology and mass produced trinkets so much. Beachum has said that this is a “technological parable” and that he intended it to be something different from the tried and tested “man vs. machine” story, which this episode could have easily turned into; the episode may start off this way, misleading the audience, but it successfully manages to subvert expectations and there are some admirable twists in the tale that turn the narrative on its head. It’s quite thoughtful writing and I didn’t give it enough credit when I first watched the episode.
The small ensemble cast works very well but it’s clearly Juno Temple and Janelle Monáe who are the focus of this particular episode, their respective characters often getting to engage in an interesting battle of wills with each other throughout. As the tech whiz-kid Emily, Temple is a confident lead and her character is admirably resourceful and commanding, and Monáe certainly has her moments as the hospitality unit that is essentially half human and half robot, but this mix sometimes makes Monáe appear a little too awkward, not helped by her slightly obvious robotic walk and character design that makes her look like Birdperson from Rick and Morty!
On the design front, everything’s all in order as the production design of the war-torn settlement is low-key, yet effective (initially calling to mind the “Metalhead” episode of Black Mirror) and they don’t go overboard with it all; the episode also briefly features some “killer sentries”, which are eerily similar to the sentinels from Days of Future Past and it’s a shame that we don’t see more of them – especially considering that they were my favourite part of that particular film! And as for the music, the episode closes with some beautiful, melodic vocals that play out over the credits.
So all in all, this is a better episode than I initially gave it credit for; there may be better ones in this series but the writing is thoughtful and unhurried and the story contains some admirable twists in the tale as it goes in a different direction to what we were perhaps first expecting.
Next week: Annalise Basso, Maura Tierney and a society obsessed with security and terror prevention.