This new pilot from Amazon Studios does a fine job in setting out its stall in the opening few minutes; in a title sequence reminiscent of the very fast history lesson adopted for the Star Trek: Enterprise mirror universe two-parter, we gather that the Second World War didn’t go the way we remember, and that the United States is divided between the Nazis on the East Coast, and the Japanese on the West, with a neutral zone around Carson City in the middle. Further useful pieces of history are dropped with varying degrees of subtlety (“VA Day” is an interesting one that’s not fully explained, for example) and the rigours of life beneath the different new rulers become abundantly clear as the episode progresses.
It’s a long time since I read the Philip K. Dick book on which this is based, but one difference is very obvious in Frank Spotnitz’s storyline – the novel within a novel of the original has been replaced by movie reels showing a version of history much closer to our own (in fact, at first glance, it would seem that it is our own). Many of the other facets of the book are present, such as the use of the I Ching, the power struggle in Berlin (although this has, probably for reasons of clarity, been changed to an argument over the succession on Hitler’s death), the desire to create beauty despite the Japanese regime’s dislike thereof, and layers of deceit and reality.
The world-building is excellent with plenty of small details really selling the setting (the discussion of a smell from the local hospital; the sort of music playing on the radio; a game show contestant talking about what he learned during his time in the Hitler Youth), and each of the three central plots – two people’s journeys from opposite sides of the continent to the neutral zone, and a covert alliance between East and West – grabs the attention sufficiently to make you want to know more. The casting is similarly strong: Luke Kleintank, Alexa Davalos, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Rupert Evans in particular stand out, and those playing Nazis don’t fall into the trap of over-exaggerating the evil, instead allowing their actions to speak for themselves.
Verdict: A definite success – let’s hope it gets a quick green light. 8/10
The pilot can be watched free on Amazon.