With doubts over Amazon’s ability to compete in the world of online streaming finally put to bed following last week’s Golden Globes win for poignant original comedy Transparent, it seems viewers are finally ready to sit up and take note of what the online retail giant has to offer.
How fortuitous, then, that the latest run of Amazon’s “pilot season”, which invites Amazon Prime subscriber’s to watch and rate potential new shows, has recently opened, with the best rated shows being turned into full series.
The new offerings range from high-quality documentaries and half-baked comedies to promising American remakes, but by far the best of the new bunch is The Man in the High Castle, a thrilling and gorgeously shot adaptation of Philip K Dick’s novel of the same name.
The series also boasts Blade Runner-director Ridley Scott as executive producer and X-Files’s Frank Spotniz on script duty, ensuring the project is in the safest of hands as its tricky premise and complex themes make the fraught transition from novel to (laptop) screen.
Set in a dystopian alternate history in which Nazi Germany triumphs in World War Two, with the help of Japan, the story picks up seventeen years later to find the US has been carved up between the two new superpowers; Germany taking the East Coast, Japan owning the West, and a lawless neutral zone being established in the Rocky Mountains to keep them apart.
The first thing to say about High Castle is that the set design is unashamedly glorious, its divided-US setting enabling director David Semel to compose some striking contrasts between the grubby, neon industrialism of Nazi-occupied New York and the Japanese-infused storybook vistas of San Fransisco. And it’s all shot with a slick, wispy noir tone that surprisingly compliments the charm and beauty of its period setting.
Aside from the obvious references to Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica and other sci-fi greats, from the pilot it seems like the show has been heavily influenced by The Americans. This is evident in a plot that is essentially an absorbing espionage thriller in which seemingly everyday people undertake the covert work of opposing countries on the brink of war.
The narrative thread that draws these various opposing sides together involves the creation of anti-fascist newsreels (a clever update on Dick’s book within a book device) by the mythologised man in the high castle, but this transpires to be nothing more than a high-concept MacGuffin that allows Spotniz to explore the effect losing a war has on the people left behind.
In the new world no one can be trusted to be who they claim, with the remaining pockets of resistance being infiltrated by Nazi spies and enemy operatives keeping their cards close to their chests. This idea of soldiers hiding in plain sight reflects the attitude of surviving Americans, many of whom appear outwardly supportive of the new regime while bitterly opposing it behind closed doors. Each person reacts differently to their changing circumstances, with some resigned to defeat and clinging to old hatred while others are determined to regain their freedom.
As if that’s not enough to recommend it, High Castle also has an intriguing game of political brinkmanship playing out between the two superpowers as Japan tries to determine if its territory is safe in the event of an ailing Hitler’s death.
Admittedly, there are some pacing issues during the third quarter, but the rest is as intense, compelling and inspired as anything you’re likely to see on the traditional gogglebox. It’s also brilliantly performed, Alexa Davalos especially doing great work in a role that is unique to the sci-fi genre in that her character, Juliana, is a strong woman who isn’t defined by her sexuality. Rufus Swell, too, impresses by making his ruthless SS Investigator convincingly menacing without veering into slippery caricature.
The series has already received a scorching approval rating from viewers, making it a near certainty that it will get the green light. And if the pilot is anything to go by – and considering Amazon’s rising reputation – The Man in the High Castle has all the potential of being sci-fi’s next big TV hit.
Click here to watch a clip from The Man in the High Castle