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The Man in the High Castle season 1 review: "The world-building is superb"

Alternate histories – especially ones involving Germany winning World War 2 – are old hat in science fiction literature. The idea’s gone from high-concept to pure pulp. TV has been slow to embrace the sub-genre, but now we may have the show that’ll define alternate history on TV, and it’s as far from pulpy as you could imagine; showrunner Frank Spotnitz has managed to produce a show even more dour than his previous hit Millennium.

It’s adapted from Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, a book set in 1962, after World War 2 was won by the Axis powers and the United States has been carved up between the Nazis and the Japanese. Not sure what the Italians ended up with – the Isle of Man? Life under fascism is hardly going to be laugh-a-minute, of course, but it’s actually about a laugh a season at the current rate.

The world-building is superb. Part of the fun of the series is seeing a ’60s America where Nazi rule means rock ’n’ roll never happened, hemlines stayed low and the teenager hasn’t been invented. Some of the Nazi-fied cityscapes are a little on-the-nose, but the depiction of life in this world is often remarkably subtle and fully-realised.

There is a sci-fi story here, but it’s pretty much confined to the season finale. The series is more of a Cold War thriller in a world that never was. With Hitler ailing, the uneasy truce between the Japanese and the Nazis is threatening to crumble into World War 3. Meanwhile, an American couple eking out an existence under the Japanese, Juliana and Frank, accidentally become involved with the resistance, who are smuggling illegal films created by a mysterious individual: the man in the high castle.

It’s impeccably acted and packed with vivid, multi-layered characters, gut-wrenching twists and dark, dark moments of human misery. The season does sag in the middle slightly, as the plot loses direction and becomes dependent on handy coincidences and Juliana and Frank repeatedly declaring their love for each other in scenes of sobbing intensity, then buggering off to pursue their own agendas. But the first three episodes and the final two are all of solid five-star quality, so you can happily forgive the mid-season padding.

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