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TV Review: Electric Dreams (Season 1, Episode 8)


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Set twenty years after a world war destroyed human civilisation as we know it, ‘Autofac’ is the story of a resistance group fighting for survival outside the wastelands.

The Autofac is a fully automated and self-sufficient factory that was set in motion before the war broke out and has since continued unstopped, expanding, and stripping the land, producing unwanted and unnecessary goods ever since. 

Electric Dreams (2017)

The settlement needs to shut the Autofac down in order to stop it polluting the water, the land, and encroaching on their small pocket of the earth. This episode of Electric Dreams is stylistically beautiful, drawing upon old-school science fiction images such as a beautiful female android, 90s styling of the survivors, the unknown ‘alien’ backlit as she steps off a flying ship, towering monolithic architecture, and technological wastelands.

The score marries magnificently with the cinematography, but that’s not in the least to say that this episode was another style-over-substance instalment (looking at you, The Father Thing). It’s science fiction cinema pastiche, hailing back to the genre’s golden age; what it is not, is a cliché. It’s a dynamic tale that pivots upon good plot twists, and Travis Beacham’s interpretation of the PKD story brings new layers to the original short, whilst keeping the same themes.

One of the best ways in which the episode has been updated is a lovely bit of gender bending. The entire story relies on the protagonist Emily’s skills with engineering and coding, or as she describes it, ‘tinkering’. PKD’s stories might have been ahead of their time in many ways, but when it comes to gender they are very much of-their-time; in the original short story, the only woman is the wife of the main character, and she is kept out mostly out of the primary narrative.

Electric Dreams corrects this, even giving the traditional role of wives and female love interests being left behind by their male counterparts to Emily’s boyfriend, Avishai. It might still be gender stereotyped, but at least it’s gender-flipped.

The casting is truly one of the episode’s strongest assets, with Juno Temple as Emily and Janelle Monáe as Alice, the PR android sent from the Autofac to speak to the men and women fighting for their survival. Casting Monáe was a tour-de-force; her Afrofuturist concept albums already pay tribute to the science fiction genre, and android portrayals were already something she had experience with in her music, drawing upon their symbolism to explore otherness and alienation. She was simply magnificent in the role.

Where ‘Autofac’ falters is in its approach to reveal-based storytelling. It puts off addressing strange moments until the big twist reveal at the end, rather than constructing an initial story that by itself makes total sense, only until the twist reveals the truth: humans died out during the war, and those pockets of civilisation are just the last components of the assembly line, consumers created by the Autofac itself, droids themselves but unaware of it (double twist, Emily did know and was waiting for her moment to download a virus into the Autofac’s code).   

Electric Dreams (2017)

It’s an effective and impactful commentary on the dangers of a consumerist society, which values convenience over anything, and which innovates for the sake of innovation. Of course, like most of PKD’s work, it’s also about what defines humanity and self-consciousness, but it’s also about what society values in an age of mass consumerism, and it’s a commentary that still resonates in our time of climate change. 

The greatest thing about ‘Autofac’ is that it avoids being another take on apocalypse porn. The fantasy of the apocalypse isn’t that humanity is doomed, it’s the idea that even then, humanity would survive being taken to the brink. ‘Autofac’ has the courage not only to accept complicity in the end of civilisation, it also turns around and announces that humans as a species have indeed, become extinct at their own hands.

Electric Dreams’ latest episode is a great exploration of the dangers of convenience automation and blind consumerism, an hour that is beautifully stylistic, that is both an homage to classic science fiction and its own story. It’s full of thoughtful writing and effectively subverts expectations, successfully forcing audiences to re-evaluate what they thought to be fact.

Electric Dreams airs on Mondays at 9pm on Channel 4.

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