Saturday, January 23, 2016

A take on "Man in the High Castle"

Last month, in “The Watch” podcast on “Channel 33,” part of the Bill Simmons Podcast Network, hosts Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald were promising to give their take on the Amazon drama series “The Man in the High Castle.” I’m not sure if they ever got to it.

Since I have binged through its first season, not too long after it was released, I’d like to offer a public service by giving a take on the show. The marketing and advertising for “High Castle” positioned the series as an alternative history story about what the world would be like if the Nazis and Japanese won World War II. This idea has been tackled in other incarnations before, namely the Robert Harris novel “Fatherland” and a cable movie that was made from that book.

Alternative history stories, however, are really more concerned with – or should be about – what the politics, society and characters’ lives end up being like in a reality that could have happened, but never did. “High Castle” is different than that, and as a result may end up being disappointing to alternative history fans drawn in by its premise as it was promoted. The DNA of its story comes from the sci-fi author Phillip K. Dick, whose mind-bending works have been adapted for film and TV with varying degrees of success.

“Blade Runner,” “Total Recall” and “Minority Report” are all based on Dick’s fiction and share certain similar plot developments in which certain actions can open up or lead to different outcomes in fantastic or unreal fashion. “High Castle” is really more about this kind of storytelling than about making the alternative history seem believable or rooted in a new reality.

A prominent element in trailers for “High Castle” is the existence of bootleg newsreels that show the Allies winning the war. One thinks that explaining how these newsreels came to be or what they mean would figure prominently in the series, but it ended up being almost a soap opera masquerading as a thriller or spy story, with intrigue around one character, and whether he is a double agent, or whether his sympathies lie with the Nazis or a resistance group. This goes on for the first six or seven episodes until the Phillip K. Dick sci-fi elements really start to kick in, revealing the series’ real intentions.

I’ll try to tell this part without spoiling anything. I’m not even sure I fully understood all the twists or the mechanics of the plotting, but the concern over the newsreels does re-surface in terms of another character, a Nazi officer who is going to betray his comrades and attempt to assassinate Hitler (still in power in the early 1960s, but aging and vulnerable, or so we think). Suffice to say, pre-cognition (a prominent idea in “Minority Report”) comes into play, leading to a different outcome than we expect. And, in parallel, one of the powerful Japanese characters (who control the western half of the former United States), finds himself suddenly in an alternate reality brought on by the actions of that rogue Nazi in the east.

In short, “High Castle” really should be thought of as a Phillip K. Dick mind-bending sci-fi story, with a very slight alternative history veneer lacquered on top of that.

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