Review: The Man In The High Castle 1×1 (US/UK: Amazon Instant Video)

The Man In the High Castle

In the US: Free to stream on Amazon Instant Video
In the UK: Free to stream on Amazon Instant Video

Packing more great, mind-warping ideas into even one short story than many authors achieve in their lifetime, Philip K Dick is (rightly) considered one of the best science-fiction authors who has ever lived. However, his stories can be hard to adapt. Even some of his easier, longer novels, such as Through A Scanner Darkly, which could be taken more or less straight off the page, still needed some imaginative thinking to depict faithfully and the end result, with its massively downbeat ending, still wasn’t the most accessible of works.

Most of his stories, however, are shorter and involve small people in the midst of big ideas, making them much harder to adapt. Much of Blade Runner’s source, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, actually revolves around the protagonist’s efforts to please his wife by purchasing a real, rather than synthetic sheep as a pet – and the problems of having children in a radioactive environment, thus necessitating his lead codpiece. Total Recall, based on We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, involves a man discovering that he’d inadvertently saved the world from alien hamsters, while Minority Report is more an intellectual exercise about how predicting the future can affect that future – as well as future predictions.

Dick’s Hugo Award-winning The Man In The High Castle is as similarly reality- and identity-wiping as the rest of his work, detailing an alternative reality in which the Nazis and the Japanese win the Second World War and take over the world. The two empires partition the US, and the book details the alternative history and examines how Americans, as well as their rulers, live in this reality. ‘The Man In the High Castle’ is an author who suggests that this is an alternative reality and that history is actually something completely different – although in true Dick fashion, reality turns out to be more fluid and unreliable under both the characters and readers’ feet. Similarly to Dick’s other stories, there’s little plot per se and much of the focus is on smaller characters with small concerns, such as how to run their business to appeal to the new Japanese rulers and how marriages are affected.

Nevertheless, for the past few years, attempts have been made to turn The Man In The High Castle into a TV series. The first efforts started in 2010, backed by the BBC and Blade Runner’s director Ridley Scott. When that fell through, Scott turned to the Syfy channel in 2013, bringing on board X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz. And when that never happened, Scott went to Amazon where finally he got some traction.

There were three big questions at this point, of course. The first was how to turn such a plot-free and inconclusive but much-revered and also potentially inflammatory source into a multiple-episode TV series. The second was whether Spotnitz, who’s been producing hackneyed action scripts for shows such as Strike Back, Hunted and Transporter: The Series for years now, was someone who still had the skills to adapt it. And the third was whether Amazon, very much the also-ran in online programming compared to Netflix, could produce something genuinely good (Transparent apart).

While we don’t quite have the answer, Amazon so far only giving us a pilot episode, it’s fair to say that Frank has shown us the way and given us potentially Amazon’s first genuine series to match House of Cards. Here’s a clip:

Based on Philip K. Dick’s Hugo Award-winning 1962 alternative history, The Man in the High Castle considers the question of what would have happened if the Allied Powers had lost World War II. Some 20 years after that loss, the United States and much of the world has now been split between Japan and Germany, the major hegemonic states. But the tension between these two powers is mounting, and this stress is playing out in the western U.S. Through a collection of characters in various states of posing (spies, sellers of falsified goods, others with secret identities), The Man in the High Castle provides an intriguing tale about life and history as it relates to authentic and manufactured reality.

The hour-long dramatic pilot stars Alexa Davalos (Mob City) as Juliana Crain, Luke Kleintank (Pretty Little Liars) as Joe Blake, Rupert Evans (The Village) as Frank Frink, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat Legacy) as Tagomi, Joel De La Fuente (Hemlock Grove) as Inspector Kido, Rufus Sewell (Eleventh Hour) as John Smith and DJ Qualls (Z Nation) as Ed McCarthy.

The pilot is directed by David Semel (Madam Secretary, Heroes) and written by Frank Spotnitz (The X-Files), both serving as Executive Producers. Also executive producing are Ridley Scott and David W. Zucker, with co-executive producer Jordan Sheehan of Scott Free Productions (The Good Wife, The Andromeda Strain), and Executive Producers Stewart Mackinnon and Christian Baute of Headline Pictures (The Invisible Woman). In addition, Isa Dick Hackett will executive produce and Kalen Egan will co-executive produce on behalf of Electric Shepherd (The Adjustment Bureau). Christopher Tricarico (May in the Summer) is also Executive Producer.

Is it any good?
While it still bares a few traits of the low budget cable drama, it’s a very commendable effort that takes the basics of the book and spins them out to make a TV series that’s slightly more conventional but dramatically more interesting.

The three main characters of the book remain virtually the same, although unlike the book, they’re the focus from the beginning: JudoAikido instructor Juliana Frink (Alexa Davos from Clash of the Titans), who lives in the western, Japanese side of the US and who’s set on a course of resistance following the death of her sister; Japanese diplomat Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa from Rising Sun), who isn’t quite all he seems; and Juliana’s secretly Jewish artist husband Frank (Rupert Evans from The Village, Fleming, et al). Added to that list are a new resistance recruit Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank from Pretty Little Liars), who’s on a secret mission; and SS Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell from Eleventh Hour, Zen, Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel & Laurence) who wants to stamp out the resistance. Of these, Tagawa and Sewell are easily the best, but there’s no one who’s actually bad among the cast.

The pilot sets up these characters’ lives and what they’re like in the 1962 of this alternative future, using rather a lot of unconvincing CGI at times. Nevertheless, it’s a brave attempt, with a trilingual San Francisco, a New York covered in Hitler hoardings, and the TV packed with game shows featuring Nazis in uniform. Part of the episode’s impact is its relocation of Nazi Germany’s most sickening horrors onto American life, ranging from torture and constant paper-checking through to the weekly incineration by hospitals of the physically disabled and sick. Even a simple game show question can be terrifying in its own way: “Is this a skill you learnt in the Hitler Youth?” All of this Spotnitz does matter of factly, rather than trying to ram it down your throat.

On top of that, we get the book’s intrigues and power struggles, with the nuclear-equipped Third Reich contemplating bombing the Japanese – once Herr Hitler is dead of course (another change from the book) – and various different factions trying to prevent that happening. Its twisting of reality doesn’t quite turn out the same, with Spotnitz opting for a simpler “our reality is the real one” demonstrated through movie reels rather than authorial musings, but further twists may be down the line. And his stints on action shows might even have done him some good, judging by the twist at the end.

It has to be admitted that in common with the book, the pacing is a little off with this episode. The producers keep their cards quite close to their chests, in case they do get a series out of this and need to spread their secrets widely between episodes, meaning that by the end of the episode, there’s not much indication of where the story is going for either its characters or overall. It’s still faster than the book, though, and thankfully, some of the book’s weirder aspects, such as the colonisation of Venus and Mars by the Germans, and the racist Robert Childan character have also been lost between book and screen.

The show has also lost some subtlety, however, with none of the Americophilia of the book’s Japanese and the more gradual weakening of the US thanks to the assassination of FDR and its subsequent isolationism has been replaced by the fact the Germans got the bomb first. And while the show casts multiple Japanese speakers and is happy for Japanese to be spoken, even by non-Japanese such as Davos, no one speaks German, not even the Germans, only one of whom is played by an actual German. It’s the kind of thing you’d get on Syfy, but not HBO, if you know what I mean.

All in all, while it’s not perfect, this would certainly be a creditable, smart show that any quality TV channel would be happy to have, although a little lower budget than it needs to be and would be on HBO. If Amazon doesn’t green light a series from this, I hope someone else does instead.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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