This is the second pilot I’ve watched this weekend that totally surprised me by not being train wrecks right out of the gate. First, 12 Monkeys was actually kind of good (look out for a review of this later in the week), and then the adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic novel The Man in the High Castle was one of the best pilots I’ve watched in years. Which makes some sense given how long it’s been gestating. Back in 2010, the BBC announced a four-part TV adaptation with Ridley Scott on-board as executive producer, but that eventually fell by the wayside. Scott then took the project to Syfy, who also announced that it would be producing as a four-part adaptation, however that was not to be. So when, in October 2014, Amazon.com reported that filming had actually begun (with Scott still involved as producer) on the pilot episode, set to air via Amazon streaming — no word on whether or not it’s being bumped up from its original four-part structure — there had been enough eyes on it to work out just how to make it work on-screen. And work, it does. The Man in the High Castle takes place in a world where the Axis Powers won WWII, but the alternative history actually begins a bit further back than that. In this world, President Roosevelt was assassinated in 1934, which led to a series of weak leaders who undermined American military capabilities, and resulted in the destruction of the entire American Navy fleet in an attack on Pearl Harbor. By that point, though, the Nazis had already conquered the USSR and by 1947, the Allies had lost the war entirely. In the aftermath, the continental United States was split up between the puppet Japanese Pacific States of America on the west coast and the Nazi puppet U.S. on the east coast (in the style of Vichy France). The book then follows the everyday lives of a number of characters living on the east coast and in the “neutral” buffer zone of the Rocky Mountain states, the Great Plains, and Soutwest. Plus a number of characters (as well as Dick, himself, while writing) consult(ed) the I-Ching for guidance for difficult decisions and to ultimately help reveal the true nature of reality — that their world is a false reality and the Allies really did win the war; a belief put forth in a banned “alternative history” novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by the titular man in the high castle, Hawthorn Abendsen. The Man in the High Castle is filled with a fluid narrative that subtly shifts perspectives as different characters weave in and out of the story, providing us with interpretations of the world from a number of different viewpoints, each with its own prejudices, anxieties, and personalities. It’s a narrative approach that, on its surface, makes the novel seem like it would be difficult to adapt. But writers Frank Spotnitz and Howard Brenton have figured it out. And director David Semel, with the invaluable help of cinematographer James Hawkinson, art director Linda A. King, and production designer Drew Boughton have accomplished an impressive piece of world-building that feels authentic and lived-in from opening shot to close. The pilot shifts the main focus from Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) to his estranged girlfriend Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos), who stumbles into possession of a set of newsreel footage that shows the U.S. winning WWII, tagged as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Juliana shares almost equal story time with young radical truck driver with a grudge, Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), who is responsible for driving a truck cross-country for the Underground on a mission so secret, he doesn’t even know what he’s hauling. We are also introduced to a frighteningly skeletal Rufus Sewell as an evil Nazi commander on one coast, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Carsten Norgaard as Nobusuke Tagomi and Victore Baynes / Rudolph Wegener who are dealing with their own secret mission-of-sorts on the east coast. All-in-all, each of the various plots are laid out smoothly and without any noticeable rush or short-changing of characters or themes. There’s a lot going on here, but everything and everybody gets enough time to establish their characters, personalities, motivations, and then get shifted around the board into extremely interesting and enticing new positions from which to launch the rest of the series. The changes made from the novel’s original characters and situations aren’t so extreme that the story is unrecognizable, and actually work extremely well in this format. The end result may not be as sublimely textured and complex in its themes as the novel, but as far as television shows go, I’d watch this one religiously for as long as they want to run it. The Man in the High Castle is just one of thirteen new pilots available to stream and watch for free at Amazon.com. Here’s the direct link. Be sure to check it out and take the survey to help ensure that it gets a full season order. This is the sort of science fiction that we need on TV. It’s smart, high-quality entertainment that actually has a little something to say about the nature of life and reality. I cannot recommend it any higher. See larger image The Man in the High Castle New From: $7.48 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related 4 Responses Paul Brian McCoy January 19, 2015 Testing Disqus commenting. Log in to Reply George January 29, 2015 Testing Disqus replying… I was really pleasantly surprised by this pilot. They’ve set the seeds of things – such as the I-Ching aspect – without getting bogged down too early. What’s going to be interesting is: Will they go for the book ending? It might be a little tricky to do, since its cleverness is that it’s a bit “meta” and involves the reader’s reality also. Log in to Reply Paul Brian McCoy January 31, 2015 I just hope enough people vote for it that we actually get a series. Even if it’s only a single short one. It’s nice to see a PKD adaptation that doesn’t feel like it has to drastically change everything. I mean, there are changes here, but nothing too terribly dramatic. George January 31, 2015 The changes so far seem reasonable (showing the Nazi occupied area; the book becomes a newsreel) given the transfer to a visual medium and the (sensible) choice to avoid voice-over narration and excess exposition (just a lot of swastica action). It would be better if it was a mini-series length that ended properly, rather than an ongoing, rollover series. 8-10 episodes, done. Tell the story properly, in a planned way, tightly. Then next year: Do Flow My Tears or Ubik – unless Michel Gondry actually gets his movie version together. Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.