Friday, January 23, 2015

First Impressions: The Man in the High Castle

As much as I am believer in the oft-quoted idea that we live in a "television golden age", it's also a strange, shifting one for which the future isn't really clear. This is especially in true in the UK, with it's super-fragmented landscape when it comes to getting access to the source of this Golden Age, the US. Sure, Sky have a lock on HBO, and generally treat their other imports pretty well, but if a show you love has the misfortune to be picked up by one of the other networks you're taking a risk getting committed. At the very least you need to be prepared to follow it all over the schedule. And then, of course, are the shows we never get at all. However, one of the bright spots in all this is that the likes of Netflix and Amazon, desperate to stay ahead in the streaming game, are now commissioning their own shows, and releasing them internationally. Amazon are even playing the "crowd-sourcing" game, releasing a series of pilots for critical review before deciding which ones to take forward. 

The one to watch this time is clearly The Man in the High Castle, based on the Phillip K Dick novel of an occupied US in a world where the Axis won World War 2. Well, actually, thats not really what it's about, because this is PKD we are talking about, so any adaptation was going to be something I wanted to watch, just to see how they were going to tackle the weird stuff. As you might expect, Amazon plays it pretty straight for it's pilot, content to focus mostly on character and world-building, albeit with some wiggle room for weird stuff to come. And you know what? it works pretty well. 

The story is split between several main characters that do not directly inter-relate much but do impact one another. Joe is a young New Yorker working for the resistance against Nazi occupation. John Smith is an SS officer in opposition to him. Over in San Francisco, Juliana comes across a package from her sister and takes her mission to deliver it, whilst Japanese diplomat Tagomi frets over the looming possibility that the two former allies will go to war as soon as the aging Adolf Hitler dies. People familiar with the book will recognise a few other characters seemingly "banked" for future use, but they don't play a major part. 

With a focus in introducing the world, the pilot does a really good on being an alternative reality show that, I think, will be pretty accessible. After all, "Nazis win WW2" is pretty much Alternative History 101 anyway, but even so there is a lot of good "show, not tell" worldbuilding just in the sets and backdrops. The best moments are the normalisation of the horrors of occupation; the police state, the casual genocide, just thrown into everyday situations makes it chilling without being heavy-handed. This is how we live now, the show says,.This is the new normal.  There is also a nice difference in tone between the Japanese and German zones, which perhaps serves to make the Japanese the more sympathetic (or at least, less overtly capital-E Evil) of the two Occupiers. 

The other big introduction of the pilot is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the subversive book within a book from PKDs original novel, now turned into a newsreel. (as an aside, the single clunkiest moment in the pilot is when a character shouts out that "these are made by the Man in the High Castle!!" whilst watching them) Its an interesting change, and my reading of it (especially as someone who has read the novel) is that they are opening the possibility of this being actual footage from a parallel universe, and we can have a bit of digression into the subjective nature of reality after all. 

Overall, I rather enjoyed this, although it spends most of its energy establishing a world, rather than telling a story. With that in mind, I really hope it gets picked up into a full run, and one I can watch at the same time as the rest of the world!