Television showrunners are so fond of describing their settings as characters in series that it’s become something of a cliche. But in some cases, the way a television show sketches in a fictional world is just as important as the choice of lead actors or the writing staff’s faculties for pulling off nervy cliffhangers. This is particularly true in science fiction series, where the way the world works drives and circumscribes the characters’ actions. This is the case for two very different series premiering this fall. “Minority Report,” which premieres on Fox tonight, updates Steven Spielberg’s 2002 movie about people born with the ability to predict crime and explores what happens to these characters once they’re freed from their restrictive existence; it is set in a futuristic version of Washington. And “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic arriving in November, must accomplish the same goal of building a compelling world, but by rewriting the past, rather than conjuring a possible future.
“The technology, it’s available to television, for one thing,” executive producer Kevin Falls said at the Television Critics Association press tour in August of the opportunities to make the world of the television version of “Minority Report” match the original in detail and scope. “It really wasn’t available to TV, but there’s leaps and bounds in technology, which make it more exciting to do things but also more affordable under a television budget. And we exploit it, too.”
Writer Max Borenstein said he had enjoyed playing with small details about what life in a fictionalized version of Washington might be in the near future.
“The football team is now called the Washington Red Clouds. He was a very renowned Indian chief and it’s no longer the Redskins, and so we’re doing fun things like that,” he explained. “And we’re also doing larger things and talking about the effect that how the world is changing, in terms of everything from sort of technology and the way that people interact with their technology, which today compared to 30 years ago or to even 15 years ago when the film came out, is extremely advanced.” Executive producer Justin Falvey said that in terms of Washington, he had been curious to play with the physical layout of the city and the development of the Mall, including the repositioning or addition of monuments.
To help the showrunners work out details or consider aspects of the future that might not have come to mind, “Minority Report” has an actual “future consultant” from the MIT Media Lab who recorded a podcast series. Geneticist George Church appeared on one installment to share his vision of the future 50 years hence. “And we talked to people from every different sort of sphere in science and social science,” Borenstein said. “And so we’ve got all of these arrows in our quiver and it’s been a lot of fun.”
These experts have also encouraged the writers and executive producers to think about the difference between what’s cool and what’s likely or likely to be accessible.
“We talked a lot about, rather than the film has this sort of private maglev cars that individually go up to people’s houses, and we started thinking about that as, ‘Okay, that seems like something that maybe a kind of 1 percent sort of model of transportation, but what about public transportation?’ ” Borenstein explained. “And so that sort of train system you see in the beginning, that, sort of, where you can make transfers while it’s en route is actually … a system that was designed in the ’60s in France. They didn’t have the technology to build it. But now our concept is that using a modular thing like that and using self-driving vehicles, we can kind of imagine our way into, like, a cooler sort of public transit system.”
But while it’s one thing to imagine the future, it’s another task entirely to try to rewrite the past. That was the task before the executive producers of “The Man in the High Castle,” Amazon’s forthcoming adaptation of Dick’s alternate history about an America that lost World War II, and is occupied by Nazi forces on the East Coast and imperial Japan on the West Coast. (Amazon’s co-founder and chief executive, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
“Obviously, we started with an alternative history that is in the novel. And, then, honestly, the biggest challenge was finding the visual alternative history, and that was something the pilot director, David Semel, confronted, because we knew from the pilot on we were establishing the rules of this world and we needed to honor them however many years this show went forward,” executive producer Frank Spotnitz explained at the TCA press tour. “So that does come down to hairstyles, wardrobe, types of vehicles. You know, there’s a very big shot of Times Square very early in the pilot episode. Well, what would Times Square look like if we didn’t live in a corporate capitalist society? What would it look like if the Nazis had proceeded for another 17 years ruling the world? What would their values be? What would their commercial values be? Would there be cars with fins? Would you have a kind of space age optimism in the design of home appliances?”
Though Spotnitz and his colleagues were interested in the way American history and culture would have developed differently under occupation, the spirit of Dick’s novel suggests that some of the same developments might have taken place.
“We even get in arguments about, well, you could question who, or what music may have resulted during that time under the authority of the Nazis or otherwise, but even music that you may agree could exist, might well have come into fruition earlier,” producer David Zucker told me. “Should we be, well, orthodox about ‘Well, it wasn’t actually published until 1964’ [when the show refers to a piece of pop culture.] ‘Does that mean in our world, it couldn’t have been published sooner?’ So the debate sort of rages and gets quite specific. But I wouldn’t say you end up with consensus as much as you end up with a certain affirmative comfort that everyone gets to when you come to these questions. But it’s deep dives you take.”
And pop culture has a larger effect on society. If Elvis and the Beatles don’t happen, what about the rise of a rock-centric youth culture and the accompanying sexual and social changes that go along with it? Fashion and the prevailing environment play out in details as small as how the actors hold their bodies.
“The physicality in a world in this world — I mean, this is a world that never existed in the past, like, especially in San Francisco. Like, we are deferential to the Japanese. Like, how to you greet a Japanese person on the street?” actor D.J. Qualls said at the show’s panel. “Also, it’s, like, how do your arms work in a world that never existed in the past? It’s like your whole being, your physicality, changes.”
And while “The Man in the High Castle” is closely focused on the experience of a few characters, the richness of Dick’s world and the detail Spotnitz and his colleagues have added to it aid in the transition from a fairly short novel to a television show with no fixed endpoint. “This world is so enormous,” Spotnitz said of the possibilities of his alternate history. “You literally have the entire planet to tell stories.”