An author of prolific but variable output, it seems as though the work of Philip Kindred Dick has become almost a film genre in its own right, though with over forty published novels and over a hundred and twenty short stories to his name before his death in 1982 aged fifty three, only three months before the release of the most famous adaptation of his work, Blade Runner (originally Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), there is certainly sufficient source material.
Since then, the list of films of his work has included but is not limited to Total Recall (We Can Remember it for you Wholesale), Screamers (Second Variety), Impostor, (The) Minority Report, Paycheck, A Scanner Darkly, Next (The Golden Man), The Adjustment Bureau (Adjustment Team) and a remake of Total Recall, a tally which puts the Hollywood representation of the other major names of science fiction literature in near total eclipse, yet one of Dick’s best regarded novels, the winner of the 1963 Hugo award for best novel, has remained unfilmed for over half a century, though it has been slowly moving towards production since 2010 when it was optioned by the BBC for a collaborative effort which included Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner.
Where much of Dick’s work focused on crises of identity or the unreliable perceptions of the narrator, The Man in the High Castle was a departure, shifting the whole world into an alternative history timeline, one where the 1934 assassination of President Franklin D Roosevelt led to a weak government within the United States of America which failed to offer support in the war against the Nazi regime and was unprepared for the commencement of hostilities by the Japanese in 1941.
By 1947, under attack from two fronts, the United States surrendered and was dissolved, the west coast now part of the Japanese Pacific States and the east part of the Greater Nazi Reich, the rocky mountains acting as a buffer between the territories of the only two remaining world superpowers, the USSR having been similarly conquered and most of its people exterminated.
Finally brought to the small screen with ambitious vision scripted by The X-Files’ Frank Spotnitz who also serves as executive producer alongside Scott and Dick’s daughter Isa Dick Hackett amongst others, like the recently launched Agent Carter it is a meticulously crafted period piece, but unlike that recreation of 1940’s New York here that same city is depicted as it never was, under the Nazi occupation of 1962.
Opening with a cinema newsreel, the blatant propaganda a swift means of establishing sweeping background exposition, Joe Blake (Bones and Pretty Little Liars’s Luke Kleintank) is given a contact which leads him to a job, no questions asked, no names given. He will drive a truck allegedly containing coffee makers into the neutral zone, but in truth he serves the resistance.
“I want my country back,” he states when asked why he wishes to become involved, but at twenty seven it never was his country, born into the occupation, Brownshirts on the streets and zeppelins in the sky all he knows, and his contact’s fear that the resistance has been compromised is borne out when as Joe prepares the leave the depot comes under armed attack, and he is the only one to escape.
On the far coast in San Francisco, Juliana Crain (Angel and Chronicles of Riddick’s Alexa Davelos) practices aikido, her master commenting that it is a skill of turning the opponent’s strength against them, a lesson those living under oppression must learn to survive. Even under the more benevolent Japanese occupation there is no safety: her boyfriend Frank Frink (Fleming’s Rupert Evans) hides that his grandfather was Jewish, and Juliana’s half-sister Trudy is gunned down on the street moments after handing her a reel of film labelled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy.
Watching the reel in the basement flat she shares with Frank, he is appalled to discover it contains subversive material showing fictional celebrations in Times Square, a western victory which never occurred. Supposedly created by the mythical figure known as the Man in the High Castle, Juliana is entranced by the images but Frank dismisses the film and tells her that it is treason to be in possession of it. Ignoring his warning, Juliana takes Trudy’s coach ticket to Colorado to find who she was going to meet and pass the film reel onto in the neutral zone.
Atypically, while the principal cast is largely male the show seems to be female led in the shape of the ever welcome Alexa Davelos; while Juliana is shown to have a boyfriend and a family these relationships do not define her, and she faces her journey alone without any support. With her reaction to the death of Trudy indicating that it is a commonplace tragedy, it is a climate of fear they all exist within, and Joe’s cross-border journey uncovers similar everyday horrors.
Showing his transit papers to a police patrolman, ash begins to rain down on them from the local hospital; “Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill. They’re a drag on the state.” While the broad strokes of the political situation are the main thrust, there are hints at as many other quiet revolutions which never took place, gender equality, race equality and gay liberation caught under the heavy heel of the occupying forces.
Other than the opening propaganda newsreel and the Nazi flavoured neon of Times Square there is barely any colour in the whole hour, the show’s palette muted and hushed as though fearful of drawing unwanted attention, but that should not be taken as an indication that it is anything other than exquisitely conceived, designed, executed and presented, through costumes, props, sets and digital backdrops.
The episode is not flawless; Jack’s transit through Times Square is obviously green-screened, and during Juliana and Frank’s first scene a microphone momentarily enters frame, a
reminder of the production values of a bygone era when there were no second takes, but the atmosphere and performances are more than sufficient to overlook any such trivial compromises, and it is refreshing to have an hour of television last a full hour, not forty two minutes.
Beyond the immediate sphere of the lead characters, groundwork is already being laid for the greater conflicts of Dick’s source novel; already there are indications that the health of the Führer, now in his seventies, is failing rapidly; should Hitler die, there will be a power struggle between Goebbels and Himmler which could lead to violence, even war, and in possession of nuclear bombs, any escalation of conflict within the Reich will have global consequences.
So far there has only been brief reference to I ching and Frank’s art and the factory in which he works which produces artifacts for the Americana market; technology has advanced with the Swastika emblazoned Concorde analogue in service almost a decade ahead of its real world counterpart, though no reference has yet been made to the Reich’s colonisation of Mars.
Inevitably there are minor changes necessitated by the translation to a visual medium, and fittingly the film reels of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy present the proposition of that novel within a novel very differently than Dick’s original work. There it was a work of fiction of an alternative universe where the Axis powers had lost World War Two to the Allies, but here actual newsreel footage is shown of the Allied victory; how can this be? Most interesting is a brief visual reference to Blade Runner, though whether the origami unicorn is simple homage or an indicator of internal significance yet to be seen is for now unknown.
The answers can only lie in a future which is at this writing uncertain, as so far only this pilot episode has been filmed as part of the Amazon Instant Video programme whereby various pilots are made available to audiences to choose which should be granted full season status. Unlike some pilots which are consciously shaped to be broadcast as television movies in the absence of a full series commitment, this cannot be anything other than the opening episode of at minimum a full season, and that is the very least it deserves.