The year is 1962… but not the 1962 we all know. The Man in the High Castle sets up a fascinating alternate history. Adolf Hitler, leader of the Greater Nazi Reich is in poor health and is surely about to pop his clogs. Americans stare nervously at their TV sets and wonder what this will mean for them and the world. Who will become Reichfuhrer – and will it mean possible war with Japan, the world’s other superpower?
I know what you’re thinking, I must have stumbled upon the outline for the new release in the Wolfenstein franchise. But no – you have actually been introduced to a strange parallel universe, courtesy of one of the godfathers of science fiction – Phillip K. Dick.
He of course was the genius behind plenty of sci-fi masterpieces we still recognise today, including Total Recall, Minority Report and A Scanner Darkly. It was also his book which inspired the acclaimed Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott.
So when I heard that Scott would be involved in taking another of Dick’s books and turning it into a TV pilot, I started to feel a little bit giddy. But when you add into the mix Frank Spotniz – one of the lead writers on The X Files – you have the ingredients to produce something very special indeed.
The Man in the High Castle takes us back to the 1960s but in a world where the Axis powers – Germany and Japan – had defeated the Allies and won World War II. The United States is partially conquered; the Germans absorbed the east coast – including New York – as part of their Greater Nazi Reich, whilst the Japanese installed a puppet state on the west coast, including the city of San Francisco.
We first meet Joe Blake – who appears to be a brave, young man in New York and is keen to become part of the resistance against the oppressive Nazi regime. He meets hardened war veteran Mr Warren who after checking to see if he is ready to die for the cause, sends Joe on a errand to Canon City; which is deep in the Rocky Mountain States (or the neutral zone, is beyond the reach of the Axis powers in the American mid-west).
Meanwhile in San Francisco, now part of the Japanese Pacific States, Juliana Crain’s life is turned upside down when her half-sister Trudy reappears after a long absence, uncovering a huge secret – one which costs Trudy her life at the hands of the Japanese. Inspired by Trudy’s dedication to what she has found, a curious Juliana then takes her place to meet a contact in the resistance and embarks on a quest to Canon City to explore the hidden origin of her discovery.
The secret is a film reel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy – which contains footage of the what the world would have have been like if the Allies had won the war. Both characters eventually meet and are personally aware that what they are actually doing is transporting the film reels of their own to Canon City. It is believed that this film reel was produced by a mysterious Man in the High Castle, who resides somewhere in the neutral zone.
The cast of charaters is broad and through them we get a better feel for the times. They include Frank Frink, Juliana’s artist boyfriend who works in a factory in San Francisco and fears for his life due to his Jewish ancestry; Nobusuke Tagomi, a Japanese embassy official working in the Japanese Pacific States who fears an impending war and the ruthless SS officer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell.
The world we see is visually impressive as it is equally disturbing. Both the two bustling cities of 60s New York and San Francisco are draped in Nazi and Oriental insignia with such fine detail. Even the Nazification of Times Square is simply compelling.
What I also liked was the way in which the writers spliced together the American way of life together with the more dominant, occupying culture. The remnants are subtle – like the traditional American game show, but now controlled by the Nazis – but Americana still exists in some shape in the daily grind. Albeit a dying flower under a crushing boot.
However the true horror which Dick had envisioned in the book is never far away.
As a viewer throughout the pilot there is the ever-present sense of fear, like no-one is ever truly safe in this sometimes claustrophobic drama. We see this oppression first hand particularly for Mr Warren as he is questioned by the Nazi authorities, but it’s gratuitous in its violence to convey the all-too-familiar evil of the Axis powers.
The memorable scene for me came midway through the pilot when Joe’s truck gets a puncture and he is helped by a Nazi patrol officer. Through the latter we get a glimpse of how a once fiercely passionate America succumbed to a greater force, and was bent to Germany’s will.
“A soldier so fierce he’d kill a rose… but now I can’t remember what we were even fighting for”; the officer says explaining the military tattoo on his arm.
Not to give too much away at this part, but the scene is rounded off with a parallel to the concentration camps and how the mass killing we are aware of today can be belittled into a simple weekly routine.
In all this was a dark, realistic dystopia with some historical relevance thrown in. To me, this science fiction is the real stuff of nightmares and is often the one I’m most drawn to. Scott and Spotniz have pulled a real blinder of adapting this to the screen and have also created a slick, spy thriller which is rich in depth and detail. Fans of the book will also be happy at the fact that the adaption also remain largely faithful to Dick’s text.
If you haven’t seen it yet you can view it on Amazon Instant Video as part of their pilot season. During this period the streaming service showcases possible pilots for viewer feedback before taking the best ones for commission and full season release. Therefore you like it – tell them! And we’ll have a cracking new show on our hands.
If you have seen it – what did you think? Did it live up to the book, or were you disappointed with it? Either way let us know in the comments!