Alibi V.24 No.4 • Jan 22-28, 2015 

Idiot Box

Nazi TV

“The Man in the High Castle” on Amazon

Amazon’s streaming video service is in the middle of another pilot season—which means they’ve posted a number of TV pilots and are seeking viewer input to decide which should be developed into full series. This time around they’re offering at least one must-see—an ambitious adaptation of author Philip K. Dick’s alternate history sci-fi The Man in the High Castle.

As written and produced by “The X-Files” writer-producer Frank Spotnitz, “The Man in the High Castle” deviates heavily from Dick’s original. That’s hardly a sin. His stuff is pretty trippy and hard to translate into the visual medium. Like Blade Runner and Total Recall and a few others, however, Dick’s basic concept remains. In this world Japan and Germany won World War II. They divided up America, with Germany taking the East Coast and Japan getting the West Coast. The year is now 1962, and Hitler is on the verge of dying. Gossip on the street is that this might set off a new war between the Axis powers.

We see this totalitarian world in bits and pieces through a number of divergent characters. Several protagonists/antagonists from the book have been squashed together or removed entirely. Our main character is Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos, Clash of the Titans), a young woman studying Aikido in San Francisco. Her estranged sister shows up one evening out of the blue and gives her a reel of film. Immediately afterward, her sister is executed by Japanese soldiers. Evidently, Juliana’s sister was involved in the resistance, and this film reel is somehow terribly important to them. Determined to make her sister’s sacrifice worthwhile, Juliana ditches her (secretly Jewish) boyfriend (Rupert Evans, Hellboy) and heads to the Neutral Zone of Colorado to deliver the mysterious package. Meanwhile, on the other end of the continent, we’ve got Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank, “Bones”), a young man who meets up with members of the rebellion and offers to drive a truck full of “coffee makers” to Colorado.

A lot of Dick’s book, oddly enough, deals with the antique business and an underground industry which fakes pieces of Americana (from Civil War pistols to Mickey Mouse watches) in order to sell them to culture-hungry Japanese collectors. This ties heavily into the novel’s theme of what is and is not reality. That’s carried into the character of Hawthorne Abendsen, a reclusive science fiction author (and blatant stand-in for Dick himself) who has written a novel titled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. The novel posits an alternate reality in which the Allied forces triumphed in World War II. In other words, the fake novel-within-a-novel is actually reality. The TV series replaces Abendsen’s novel with the film reel Juliana is smuggling (and Joe as well, as it turns out). It’s a loop of newsreel footage that shows Americans winning the war. Though this MacGuffin serves more or less the same purpose (and in a much more visual way), the TV series doesn’t yet have the same existential vibe.

For now the 1-hour pilot does an impressive job of world-building. Amazon Studios has clearly dumped a lot of time and money into this project, and it looks slick as hell. It’s more than enough to whet a lot of appetites for what happens next—which is anyone’s guess, since the pilot plows through a chunk of the book’s slim narrative.

“The Man in the High Castle” pilot is available for viewing now on Amazon Instant Video.