I wrote on Christmas Day about the coincidence of me tuning in to a tv programme on my PC (something I’d never done) and my son buying me the very same book on which it was based. I figured this was some sort of really, really clever marketing trick by Amazon – and it worked because I bought one of their Fire TV Sticks so I could watch the whole series from the comfort of my sofa, rather than my computer chair.
The Man in the High Castle is the Hugo Award winning novel by Philip K Dick published in 1962 depicting an alternative world in which the Allies lost the Second World War and an America under totalitarian control by Germany and Japan. There have been a number of attempts to bring the story to the screen, but it took Amazon and multi-broadcasting to achieve this in 2015.
The series follows Dick’s original premise that Franklin D Roosevelt was assassinated in 1933. As a result, the US is left in a weakened state politically, economically and militarily and so is unwilling and unable to support the Allied cause when war breaks out. Germany conquers Europe and Russia and the war ends in 1947 when the US capitulates after the Nazis obliterate Washington with a hydrogen bomb.
The story brings us to 1962 with the US divided into three parts – the Greater German Reich in the east, the Japanese Pacific States in the west and a neutral buffer zone in the middle. Germany has developed its technology that we see in the Concorde-type passenger aircraft and mass-transit system, but the hidden threat is the H-bomb which still eludes Japan.
Both book and series reflect events of the time, in this case a Cold War, but between Germany and Japan. Some of those in power in Berlin are willing to make a pre-emptive strike against their former ally and are only held in check by an ageing Adolf Hitler and his support for Japan. Other factions in Germany want to pass on the secrets of the bomb to the Japanese in the hope that a nuclear stalemate will prevent a further war.
The third protagonist between the superpowers is the resistance organisation found on both sides of the continent, not to mention other groups with their own agenda, such as the Yakuza.
All this is the background against which the series is set. The story really centres on the pursuit of newsreel films that show other alternative realities apparently produced by the mysterious Man in the High Castle. So we see characters in an alternative reality watching alternative realities, some of which are our actual reality. Very confusing! For the resistance, they offer the hope of freedom, while Germany and Japan see them as a threat to their world order.
The main character is Juliana Crain played by the gorgeous Alexa Davalos, left. She lives in occupied San Francisco and is drawn into events by her sister, a member of the resistance who is killed by the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police) while trying to carry one of the newsreels to the neutral zone. Juliana takes her place, carrying the film to neutral Canon City.
This in turn draws in her boyfriend, Frank Frink, played by English actor, Rupert Evans. Brutally questioned by the Kempeitai, he refuses to give up information which results in the murder of his sister and her children.
Meanwhile, on the east coast, SS Obergruppenführer John Smith has lined up a double-agent, Joe Blake, to join the resistance to locate and kill the Man in the High Castle. His first mission is to courier one of the films to the neutral zone to use as bait to lead him to his prey and it is there that he meets and falls for Juliana.
I won’t spoil the storyline any more because the series is really worth watching. It is beautifully filmed, as you would expect from a Ridley Scott production, and creates a truly believable alternative United States in the 1960s.
The intertwining plot centres on people dealing with a complicated world and doing the right thing, or at least as they see it, and then with the unintended consequences of their actions. You even begin to have some sympathy with the ‘villains’ of the piece, despite their ruthless motives.
If I have a criticism, it is the occasional lull when you’d rather get on with the action. This seems to be a common feature of American tv blockbusters, either to give the characters more depth and backstory, or more likely to get the most out of a cash-cow, stretching what should be six or eight episodes into ten. (Homeland springs to mind) But this is a minor niggle as far as The Man is concerned, although I’m not entirely sure why John Smith’s son has to have a serious congenital illness other than to illustrate his humanity and/or the inhumanity of the Nazi regime.
My other worry was that it would have an unsatisfactory open ending with the producers having an eye on season two, three etc. In a way it did except for one final twist that I won’t spoil here, other than to say that it brings to plot to a satisfactory conclusion.
So that’s a double thumbs up from me and if there is to be a further series, I for one can’t wait.