It’s pilot season on Amazon and, well, it’s the usual mix of interesting, sorta interesting, and “Why did Amazon ever pay for this?” But one name stands out amid all the pilots to science fiction fans, and that’s The Man In the High Castle. And it’s a pilot you need to see.
Hmmmmm, that title sounds familiar…
It should: It’s one of the most popular novels ever written by Philip K. Dick, one of the most adapted SF authors on the planet. And if the title doesn’t ring a bell, the names Ridley Scott and Frank Spotnitz should. Scott needs no introduction; Spotnitz is best known for his work on The X-Files.
What’s it about?
Dick wondered what the world would be like if the Axis had won World War II. Spoiler alert! It blows!
Let me sum up my reaction to that in a GIF!
Yes, yes, I know. It’s a great premise on paper. But what really works is how it adapts the book.
Are you going to go on a tiresome nerd-rant about how the book was better?
No! Because the pilot actually does a really good job of making the book coherent for television without losing what makes the book so great. Part of the reason the book worked was because it was less about the concept and more about how the majority of us would live our lives under occupation. One of the nice touches in this adaptation is that everything looks like the Axis slapped a new coat of paint over it to make it theirs, and that people begrudgingly accept their masters. It’s not some two-fisted action book, it’s about how realistic most of us aren’t prepared to fight a war.
The pilot follows Julia Crain (Alexa Davalos), a woman investigating why her sister was murdered by the Japanese authorities and dating Jew-in-hiding Frank Frink (Rupert Evans); Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a resident of Nazi-occupied New York who works for the rebellion in the Rockies; and Mr. Tagomi (Cary-Higoyuki Tagawa), a Japanese diplomat discovering that the Nazi regime, held together by an ailing Hitler, is about to fall into chaos.
Wait, Hitler’s dying?
One of the reasons I loved this pilot so much is that the Nazis aren’t some impenetrable united front of evil. They’re the back-stabbing, egotistical, incompetent lot of bastards actively working against each other that history has increasingly shown us they were. They weren’t smarter or better in this plotline; they just got very, very lucky.
Cool. So what’s the title about? Is the Man In the High Castle the leader of a rebellion or something?
In the show, he’s a figure who appears to have created some newsreels about how the Allies won the war; they’re pretty vague on that point. In the book, he’s the author of a novel within a novel, about an alternate history where the Allies won WWII thanks to… Well, it’s weird. Essentially, it’s simultaneously Dick satirizing scare literature and poking fun at himself. In a really roundabout way that involves the I-Ching, the book heavily implies that we’re all fictional characters too and that we live in a false reality.
Oh. I see why they left that part out.
It’s better on the page. What they did keep, in the pilot, is the theme of whether illusion and reality really matter as a distinction. After all, the Nazis may be a bunch of incompetent clowns, which is obvious to everyone, right down to blatant lies in the Times Square newsfeed. But considering they’re the guys with the guns, do you point this out… or do you go along to get along?
So where can I watch this?
It’s streaming on Amazon Instant Video right now.