Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Man in the High Castle

When I heard that Amazon was making a TV series based on the Phillip K Dick book The Man in the High Castle, I was pretty excited. I purposely didn't read much about it, or watch the early release episodes, so that I could watch all of the first season once it came out. Now that it has, I'm happy to say that I really enjoyed it.
I did read the book, but it was many years ago when I was a teenager. I barely remember any of it; certainly none of the specific scenes or even characters. So while I can't say I went into the TV series with no prior knowledge, it was pretty minimal.

The premise of the series is a world in which World War II ends with the Axis victorious. That much you can find just from reading the series description. The writers do a good job of establishing the premise in the first couple of episodes, so even if you didn't read that description, you'd figure it out pretty quickly. Along the way there are many references that give the viewer an idea of what the past was like, such as a "Heisenberg Device" (our atom bomb) being dropped on Washington D.C.

In this world, North America has been divided between the Greater Nazi Reich (east of the Rockies) and the Japanese Empire (west to the Pacific) with a Neutral Zone in between. The series takes place in all three areas, as well as a few scenes in Europe, in the early 1960s. I thought the different settings were well defined: better technology on the Nazi side, plenty of Japanese cultural influence in the west, a lawless run-down area in the Neutral Zone. A good part of my enjoyment in watching this show came from all the little things that made each setting unique.

The story-line is fairly complex. The main focus is on various efforts to obtain newsreel films that show the world as it might have been (including the Allies winning the war). That's not the only focus, though. Heightening tensions between the Germans and Japanese, and intrigue within the Nazi ranks, are major plot lines as well. There are several plot threads taking place at once, eventually coming together in the last few episodes. For the most part, at least...still plenty to resolve in potential future episodes.

I found all the characters to be intriguing, if not necessarily likable. None of the major characters are stereotypes, even if if might appear so at first. The ruthless Japanese and Nazi police are shown to have human sides. The underground resistance is working for freedom, but has plenty of human failings as well. Plenty of character growth occurs throughout the season, too; none of the major characters remain static.

I did find a few things that I didn't like (minor spoilers here). I thought that Joe Blake's family was handled poorly. It seems he actually cares for the woman and boy that he lives with in the short time that they appear, but then doesn't seem to give them a second thought once he's chasing after Juliana. It would have made much more sense if he'd been shown to actively give up on them at some point. I also wasn't particularly impressed with the writing for Robert Childan, the antiques dealer that is trying to cozy up to his Japanese clients. I realize he's only a minor character, but the role is so one-dimensional that it was painful to watch. It was sometimes hard to tell how quickly time was moving, also. There were a few times that it seemed several days or longer had passed because so much had happened, but then some reference was made that pointed to a much shorter time period. Minor things, nothing to get too excited about, just a bit jarring when you notice them.

The series feels unfinished, which I hope is the case, because I'd definitely watch a second season. Hopefully Amazon decides to continue it.

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