The alt-history premise of The Man in the High Castle, 10 binge-ready episodes of which load Friday, November 20, on Amazon Prime, is a huge hook: The Axis powers won World War II. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan control the east and west coasts of America, respectively, with a Rocky Mountains neutral zone separating the cold-warring coastal occupiers. A fledgling resistance movement is at work, and mysterious glimpses circulate of another World War II outcome, one more familiar to the history viewers know.
Based on the 1962 Hugo Award-winning novel of the same title by Philip K. Dick, the series emerged from Amazon’s Darwinian pilot program, by which the streaming service posts a premiere episode then counts the virtual house before a full season is green-lit. Like Netflix, Amazon doesn’t share viewership numbers, but the show’s pilot, posted since January, is reportedly Amazon’s best-performing test episode so far.
Credit the provocative hook for the show’s metric achievements so far. Based on the half-dozen preview episodes made available to critics, the full season some Amazon Prime subscribers will burn through this weekend is surprisingly patient and circumspect in telling that larger tale, concentrating instead on character development during many long, dark, quiet scenes between members of principal cast, which includes Alexa Davalos (Clash of the Titans), Rupert Evans (The Village), Luke Kleintank (Bones), Rufus Sewell (Hercules) and DJ Qualls (Z Nation).
Credit Frank Spotnitz, executive producer and writer, with that pacing decision. Spotnitz, who grew up in Phoenix before heading on to college (UCLA) and film school (the American Film Institute), helped oversee the deliberate-unto-pokey “mythology” story arc through eight of the nine seasons The X-Files aired on Fox. (A writer and eventually executive producer on the series and its two feature-film spinoffs, Spotnitz isn’t affiliated with Fox’s upcoming X-Files mini-revival, due in January.)
Spotnitz read and loved Dick’s novel – “a science-fiction classic,” he says – years ago, but realized when he re-read it before starting on the series, which had development homes at the BBC and Syfy before landing at Amazon, that “it didn’t have a TV-series narrative.”
While preserving the book’s core concept, Spotnitz “augmented” its story and added characters “to fill out the world in a way that I hoped was consistent with what Philip K. Dick’s intentions were or themes were,” he says. “The ideas in the book are so mind-bending, you have to go slow. It’s very hard to get your mind around the really profound ideas in the book. A television series is really a wonderful thing for subject matter like this, because you can take your time and make sure you don’t lose people.
“I do think the fact that this is streaming, and that people can watch it in one day, that does affect the way you think about telling a story.”
Dick’s daughter, Isa Dick Hackett, as well as Ridley Scott (director of 1982’s Blade Runner, adapted from Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) are among the project’s other executive producers.
Hackett’s involvement “makes it very personal and very real,” Spotnitz says. “This is her father we’re talking about. She’s super-smart and super-diligent. I think we have been true to his vision and given it even more space and more scope than he had in the book.”
The series’ first season launches in 1962 in a world in which many familiar pop-culture touchstones don’t exist. That tattered fabric overlays subtle reveals of the imagined history that precedes its story, with just a few hints of key battles and attacks on American soil, and continuing Nazi atrocities.
“All Jewish composers are gone,” Spotnitz says. “African-American musicians are gone. There is no Leiber and Stoller. It’s the loss of the culture you never would’ve known. It’s very sad and moving, actually.”
Spotnitz joined The X-Files after he and creator Chris Carter met as members of the same Los Angeles book club. Since then, his TV credits include Millennium, Harsh Realm, Strike Back, and ABC’s attempted Night Stalker reboot, among others. His London-based Big Light Productions is currently filming the miniseries Medici : Masters of Florence, which he co-created, in Italy (domestic distribution TBD). Its stars are Dustin Hoffman and “Game of Thrones” star Richard Madden.
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“The Man in the High Castle,” Spotnitz says, “feels differently to me than other things I’ve done. It’s make-believe and science fiction, but it’s still going to feel very powerful and real to people.
“The science fiction part is the least interesting part of the show to me, actually. The more interesting thing to me is what life would be like, and what you would do if you were really there, and making it feel like you really are there.
“What's interesting to me is, when would you step out of line? When would you risk your life to change things? We all like to think we'd be in the resistance, and most of us wouldn't. We’d just get along, we’d protect our family, we’d protect our children.
“What would it really take? Why would you? Unless you had to, why would you? What would the trigger be?”